August 28, 2012You're reading this column as the Republicans, in Tampa, launch the fall campaign. But I'm writing it in the week before, when things are relatively calm. In fact, I'm spending leisurely evenings with the DVD player, catching up on last winter's hit movies and television shows. I'm pondering the question: how come it's OK with Americans for the Crawleys to have servants, but not the Holbrooks?
The Crawleys are the aristocratic family in "Downton Abbey." The Holbrooks are one of several families in "The Help." These productions are similar in many ways. Both are prestige historical dramas, popular with audiences, critics and awards committees. Both have ensemble casts brimming with talent. Both make their eras look handsome.
"Downton" is set in England circa 1912, one of history's most photogenic eras, and ball gowns, tailcoats and elaborate coiffures abound. But "Help" does pretty well by the Jackson, Miss., of the Kennedy Administration. In gold-toned cinematography, the columned mansions, finned Cadillacs and colorful summer frocks make a fine show.
But when we focus on the central concern of both dramas, master-servant relations, how different they are. A common incident, a servant theft, points up the contrast.
In "Downton," one of his lordship's snuffboxes disappears. The incident grows into an intricate subplot running for several episodes and involving everyone in the household. Nobody cares about the snuffbox itself; what matters is the breach of trust. After much debate and intrigue, the snuffbox is restored, all the servants keep their jobs, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
In "Help," the incident gets brusque, almost wordless, treatment. A maid cleaning behind a sofa finds a ring and slips it into her apron pocket. A few scenes later, the police club her, cuff her and take her away, while her employers watch, with satisfied smiles, from a nearby squad car. No debate is necessary. Though the maid did steal, the movie-makers leave us in no doubt that the employers are the truly guilty ones.
So how come domestic service is a cozy arrangement in one drama, brutal exploitation in the other? The answer seems obvious. In "Help," the employers are white, the servants black. Big problem. In "Downton," everybody's white, so no problem. But that only raises the question, why is there no problem? The maids in "Help" at least get to return to their own houses at night. The servants in "Downton" live in a bleak upstairs barracks where most of them don't even have a room to themselves. But they don't mind, because they're part of the family: his lordship is worried sick about the valet's well-being; her ladyship asks the maid's opinion about whom she should marry.
"Downton" is a brilliantly written, produced and acted entertainment, but it's a fantasy, and I have to wonder why Americans are so eager to buy into the fantasy. (Why Brits love the show is a question I'll be happy to leave to their columnists.)
The simultaneous success of "Downton" and "Help" suggests to me something about American attitudes. When whites exploit blacks, we get it right away. But when the rich exploit the poor, we're very slow on the uptake. We're tuned in to racial conflict, tone-deaf to class conflict. We've made demonstrable progress in racial justice (as "Help" shows), but we're moving steadily backwards in income distribution. Today the top 1 percent of the population controls 42 percent of the wealth. That appalling statistic is widely quoted, but somehow it does not inspire the indignation it should.
In a much discussed Gallup poll from last winter, only 25 percent of respondents thought big business was "the biggest threat to the country." Sixty-four percent thought it was big government. That's an amazing response to the subprime mortgage crisis of just four years ago, when the reckless lending of big banks brought our entire financial system to the brink of collapse, and only government action saved it.
This American complaisance toward the rich is baffling to me, but it certainly is good news for the Republicans. They have more money than the Democrats, and they're spending freely to win elections. If you've watched any television this summer, you probably won't be surprised to learn that Republican PACs have already bought more than $13 million worth of ads attacking Claire McCaskill.
I can't predict what you'll be hearing at the convention from multimillionaire Mitt and his tax-cutting sidekick (as I write, they're still adjusting their positions on Social Security and Medicare), but I feel confident in saying that podium speakers will repeatedly denounce Obama and Biden as "divisive," and warn us not to let them start "class warfare" in America.
Don't believe it, fellow members of the middle class. Class warfare has been going on for a long time, and we're losing. The inauguration of President Romney in January would be another defeat, and not even the return of "Downton Abbey" the same month could console me.