Simon Schama: Why Americans Have Fallen for Snobby "Downton Abbey"
Simon Schama is a professor of history and art history at Columbia University. He has been an essayist and critic for The New Yorker since 1994, his art criticism winning the National Magazine Award in 1996.
There are many things wrong with the Republic in 2012, but when historians come to write its chronicle they will notice that the country was gripped by the clammy delirium of nostalgia. Tea Partiers ache for what they imagine to have been a tricorny country, all innocent of the Monster Government. Politicians and radio ranters sell the credulous on an American paradise before “socialism,” in the wicked shape of Social Security and Medicare, ever came to be. And folks who might have better ways to pass their time have been falling like grouse to the gun before the mighty edifice of Downton Abbey. Deprived of a wallow in the dry-martini and bullet-bra world of Mad Men? Not to worry, Downton serves up a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery. It’s a servile soap opera that an American public desperate for something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present seems only too happy to down in great, grateful gulps.
...[T]his unassuageable American craving for the British country house is bound to get on my nerves, having grown up in the 1950s and ’60s with a Jacobinical rage against the moth-eaten haughtiness of the toffs. They still knew how to put One in One’s Place. I’d barely crossed the threshold of one such establishment before its Carson had delicately knocked at the door of my room wondering when he could collect my trousers. He had not asked of course but assumed I’d want them Properly Pressed. I still remember the look on his face as he carried them off between thumb and forefinger as if removing a mysterious object in an advanced form of contaminated decay. Before “retiring,” I was asked by another servant whether I would prefer to be woken with tea or coffee. “Ah,” I said, “how nice. Tea if that’s all right.” “Milk or lemon?” he pressed on. “Oh, gosh, thanks, milk.” “The Jersey or the Guernsey herd, sir?”...
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