Downton Abbey fans are in mourning at the end of Season 3, an indication of the degree to which we identify with the characters in this upstairs-downstairs style drama of English aristocracy (circa 1920). Meanwhile the American Experience series, set on the other side of the ocean, has offered powerful stories about first Henry Ford and then the Rockefeller dynasty. Both of these fine features take incisive looks into the pathos and greed of the subjects as well as their impacts for the rest of us.
As we soak up these historic images of a gilded age, we have an opportunity to move beyond the temptation to idolize the privilege, to recognize the tragic costs of these disparities, and begin to take stock of the world in which we find ourselves today. Still unknown, however, is whether our identification will seed a revolution or inspire a selfish reach for the brass ring.
Throughout my lifetime the disparity between wealth and poverty has shifted dramatically. As I child I read Dickens’ novels in the shadow of the War on Poverty and had a mistaken sense of relief that we had evolved into a more compassionate people. As a young adult working with men, women and children who were living in Phoenix’s Central Arizona Shelter System (CASS), I realized that the poor houses of yesteryear were making a resurgence. Right before my eyes, the number of children in poverty was growing as our nation actually increased its wealth. The purchasing power of a minimum wage salary stagnated and then fell.
During those misty-eyed years of Reaganomics, we determined to grow the fiscal pie and agreed to take a smaller slice, allowing the economically advantaged to take an even larger slice of a growing pie. For decades now, we have been in the business of producing billionaires and scorching poverty with shrinking middle ground.
As I consider the landscape today, I wonder if we know the names of the men whose stories will be told a hundred years from now. We know the names of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as we enjoy daily use of the tools that they brought into our homes. But do we know that the names of those who own the banks and finance the elections? What do we know of the Koch brothers or the Walton family? But lest we become mired in human interest stories, a more pressing invitation beckons.
Our intrigue with history could well provide fodder for meaningful redirection of our national priorities. Certainly in his second inaugural speech, President Obama attempted to prepare both our hearts and minds for this kind of shift.
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.
Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to insure competition and fair play.
Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.
For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.
Yet as I watched Downton Abbey wind through this third season, I am struck by the increasingly prominent role of Sybil’s widower, Tom Branson, and his subsequent shift in aspirations. Once the Irish rebel schooled in the promise of Marx, he has become a (albeit lesser) Lord of the Manor complete with proper attire and manners. In the season’s finale, a downstairs maid attempted to coax him into relationship and invite him to remember his roots; but cooler heads prevailed and he closed the season upstairs where he now belongs. The message hints at a promise of class mobility and the stage is set for the unfolding of the new era.
But in this promise we find our curse. In the promise that we can rise with the barons, we unwittingly accept the plight of the chamber maid. To be sure there are random success stories like Henry Ford’s and Bill Gate’s. But lest we paint history too cleanly, both of these successful entrepeneurs began their careers with some measure of privilege as educated white men in country where these demographics have purchasing power. Yet even if we limit our sights on the class mobility of white men, an honest appraisal notes that every Bill Gates there are millions of footmen. My mother warned that the lottery is a “tax on people with poor math skills”, embracing unbridled capitalism in hopes of wealth is similarly misguided. Yet just as the lottery counters fill when the jackpot rises, we gather in anticipation at the feet of the uber-wealthy believing that just this once, it might be us (or our children).
Curious is the role of the church in these stories. In Downton Abbey (fiction) the church functions as the imprimatur of the status quo, presiding at the key transitions but pointedly absent in discussions of morality and conscience. For the first generations of Rockefellers, the church played a much more primary, if curious, role. The church was the motivator both to amass great wealth and subsequently to demonstrate great charity. Perhaps too the church in this story can be credited with moving those early Rockefeller’s to a deeper understanding of the power of philanthropy, moving beyond hospitals to fund research and build schools. For Ford, the church had less influence save to provide the foundation for his unconscionable anti-Semitic writings. Far from being the agent of salvation, the church functions in these stories predominantly as mirror of the people who attend them; there is no ninth hour savior emanating from the institution.
Finally the choice about our future and our children’s rests with each of us who gather in fascination at history’s window. Our fascination may be the seed of revolution and thereby gold; but if we mistake the glitter for our own and reach, we’ll find ourselves holding fool’s gold.