I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an addict of Downton Abbey. Why do we adore a celebration of the British pecking order? Because, Theodore Dalrymple answers, social class is as American as apple pie. He writes:
At heart we are all snobs—whether we acknowledge it or not, however egalitarian we may be in theory and however nervous we might be about our own position in society. Everyone needs (and almost everyone finds) someone to look down on.
But why should Americans, whose republic is founded upon the proposition that all men are created equal, be so fascinated by “Downton Abbey,” a soap opera (now in its second season on PBS) about the English landed aristocracy during the Edwardian era, in which all men are definitely not created equal?
The Earl of Grantham, the owner of Downton Abbey, is deferential to the Duke of Crowborough merely because the latter was born higher in the aristocratic scale. The earl’s mother, the dowager countess, treats everyone other than her son as a lower species. The large staff of domestic servants has its own rigid hierarchy, presided over by Mr. Carson, the butler who finds honor in the refinement of his own servility.
“Downton Abbey” portrays a fairy-tale way of life in which butlers and footmen appear far better dressed than today’s billionaires—many of whom, after making their fortune, seem to want to be sartorially indistinguishable from the most sloppily dressed adolescent rebel. The series thus satisfies a secret or vicarious longing for elegance without imposing the hard work that’s necessary to achieve it in reality.
For many Americans, watching “Downton Abbey” must be like indulging in a guilty passion. Indeed, the series is almost a pornography of class and hierarchy. The voyeurs see in it a system that, in the England of the time, certainly dared to speak its name. In that system there was some flexibility—you could rise in class or, of course, fall—but where you were born on the social scale had a strong influence on where you would end up on it.
Americans like to think that they live in a classless society, which seems to accord better with the egalitarian promises of the Declaration of Independence. But this is nonsense: The Declaration promises people the right to the pursuit of happiness, not to happiness itself, much less to equal happiness.
The problem, however, is that marks of distinction and the fruits of effort tend to be hereditary, passed on from one generation to the next. Indeed, one of the reasons that people try to distinguish themselves in the first place is that they want to ease or improve the lives of those who come after them, particularly their own descendants.
So Americans uneasily both accept and reject the hereditary principle, a contradiction that’s uncomfortable for them but very productive.