John Stifler: Just who is entitled to be lord of the manners?
NORTHAMPTON — My neighbor Jay Fleitman is a delightful conversationalist, a good friend and a warm presence on our street. I’ve never met John Sheirer, but I did read his guest column about “Downton Abbey” Jan. 31, as well as Jay’s response to it last week. Like a lot of people, I’m enthralled by this TV series from England. At the same time, like most readers of the Gazette, I think it’s time someone tried to settle this debate about what anyone’s liking this show says about that person’s view of national political and economic issues.
John says liberals love the Gratham family because they observe noblesse oblige, devoting their efforts to providing jobs for the working class. Jay says Lord Grantham is a stuck-in-the-mud elitist who doesn’t want to discuss anything resembling responsible business practices, whereas his son-in-law Matthew understands the need for intelligent, dedicated hardworking people to make businesses run right for the sake of the larger community.
I say there’s one overwhelming reason why I like “Downtown Abbey.” Her name is Maggie Smith.
The rest of the cast is pretty good, too. But the point is, this show has devoted viewers because, more than anything else, it puts one superb actor after another onto our TV screens. The plot is beginning to drag, but the acting is brilliant. (Of course, the show is partly supported by public funds — a fact that seems to bother no one.) These actors could be playing Gilded Age robber barons or corrupt politicians or members of the Mafia in New Jersey, and I’d still love the show. And that guy who played the ruthless London newspaper tycoon is a much better actor than either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama.
Jay Fleitman is partly right about how, without imaginative management by business leaders, companies in America have lost countless jobs to overseas manufacturing. I say this as the son and grandson of corporate executives who voted Republican and most certainly believed in hard work and job creation while hating Franklin Roosevelt and labor unions. Those relatives of mine were all quite human, by the way, despite what Mr. Sheirer wrote, or what Dr. Fleitman wrote about Mr. Sheirer, or — well, you get the idea.
In the global shift of manufacturing, however, few American executives have suffered any material losses themselves. If anything, they are better off than Lord Grantham and his family were going to be if they had to sell Downton Abbey and move to their 38-room “cottage.” It’s the workers who are out of luck.
And speaking of Franklin Roosevelt, neither FDR nor his Republican cousin Theodore nor Lord Grantham got rich by virtue of hard work. These guys were all born loaded, thanks to generations before them who cornered the real estate market early, collected rent from the people who were doing all the work and left it to their children. They weren’t corporate capitalists; they were old-money aristocrats, of which we could probably use a few more in America now.
I think the real problem, in the teapot argument about “Downton Abbey,” is some writers’ reliance on black-and-white distinctions and unwarranted absolute statements, such as “liberals believe that conservatives are heartless monsters.” OK, I think Dick Cheney is a heartless monster, but I also think Barack Obama is insane to keep us in Afghanistan. You’ll be hard-pressed to prove that all liberals think one way, all conservatives another. “Conservatives believe liberals are wrong,” Jay wrote. The assumption in this comparison, of course, is that conservatives are sensible, liberals hysterical and irrational. Not a good basis for informed debate.
Mostly, though, I just hope Bates gets out of jail.
John Stifler lives in Florence.