The Downton Effect

Over at the National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg was wondering of late why liberal viewers should be so engrossed by the BBC's Downton Abbey.  In his words: "The popular shockingly conservative in many respects.  The aristocrats are decent, compassionate people, and the staff is, if anything, more happily class-conscious than the blue bloods. And yet, as far as I can tell, liberals love it."

I'm not quite sure why he is so surprised.  Of course liberals (including most of my friends) love Downton.  Sure, it may seem from the current political conversation that the last thing liberals (a.k.a. progressives) would like is to see aristocrats (a.k.a. the hereditary rich--"You didn't earn that") compassionately portrayed, but this is to miss the point of what it means to be a hereditary lord.  Lords are not just the ones who collect rents from their tenants and live off the earnings.  Rather, they are precisely the ones upon whom the tenants depend for support.

Some etymology is helpful here.  As every student of Old English knows, the modern English word lord comes from the OE hláford, once hláfweard, itself a compound of hláf (bread) and weard (keeper).  Thus, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, a hláford was "the head of a household in his relation to the servants and dependents who ‘eat his bread.’"  Lords feed people.  Likewise ladies: hlǣfdige comes from hláf +*dīge, or "bread-kneader." Ladies are the ones who make the bread that the lords serve.  Interestingly, according to the OED, neither OE word has formal parallels in other Germanic languages; the development of the modern sense was "largely influenced by the adoption of the word as the customary rendering of Latin dominus," best known as one of the titles for God. 

This, it seems to me, is the easy answer why the lords and ladies of Downton are so appealing to liberals.  No, I am not suggesting that liberals want to play God (although one wonders sometimes).  What they do want to play (and I wholly understand the impulse) is lords.  Who wouldn't?  See, I think we have the wrong idea about why people seek power and, yes, lordship.  Power is not just the ability to coerce people to do what you want them to do (like, say, pay rent or taxes).  It is also the ability to be generous to them.  Conservatives have made a great deal of the way in which President Obama has campaigned on the vilification of the 1% whom he is simply asking to "pay a little more."  After all, in his words: "At a certain point, you've made enough money," and should, by this logic, start giving some of it away.  Which is fine--but to whom?  

The rich, in fact, like giving their money away.  Some of it they give to people who make expensive things for them (like golf courses and watches), but some of it they give to, well, people like me, via foundations (e.g. the Guggenheim or the Mellon, both of which have funded my research) and other charitable organizations.  I understand that they get tax breaks for making such contributions, but I also rather suspect they get a great deal of pleasure out of being the ones who are able to share their bread.  I would.  I would love to be rich enough to give money to all of the homeless people I see on our streets, to all of my students who are working on projects in medieval history, to the artists whose work I enjoy, to children so that they could go to school, to the sick so that they could get medical care, to our astronauts and soldiers and construction workers and clergy so that they could do their jobs.  But what if I'm not rich enough to give money to all these people?  Am I to be denied the pleasure of being a patron?  

This is what I think is actually at stake in all the talk of late of the politics of envy: it is not that those who want to raise taxes on the rich hate the rich for their money (or greed) so much as that they are envious of the opportunities for generosity that great wealth commands.  They (our liberal politicians) want to be the ones giving out bread, bestowing largess on their tenants, taking care of their servants, and, therefore, being loved.  Can't you see that in Downton Abbey?  The good servants are all deeply loyal to the family, and in return, the family takes care of them.  Mrs. Crawley is irritating (come on, you know she is) because she keeps trying to act like a lady when she's not.  She wants to be in charge of the hospital, taking care of the patients; she wants to be the one rescuing the servants who fall on bad times.  But it is the Count and Countess who are the real lord and lady, opening up their home to the soldiers returning from the war and worrying about whether they will be able to afford to continue to employ their staff.

It is galling not to be able to help others whom we see in need.  It is galling not to have the resources to change the world in the way that we would like.  But it is even more galling not to be able to be as generous as we would like to be.  The question is why.*

*Hint: I think it has to do with the rush we all get from being able to give gifts and with the feelings we get when others express their gratitude.  Not that these are bad things, but they are worth examining when we grouse about how those who can give such gifts are being "greedy" with their wealth. 


  1. Interesting insight, FB. You ought to share it more might be a good venue.


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