The two faces of class

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas
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Tensions between the classes are at an all-time high, or so declares this article from Time magazine. The piece is based on a recent Pew study in which 66 percent of respondents said that they “believe there is ‘strong conflict’ between rich and poor — a huge jump from 47% who felt that way in 2009.” It’s a similar story in The New York Times. There, we’re told that these class tensions are due to “underlying shifts in the distribution of wealth in American society.” To The Times, “Traditionally, class has been less a part of the American political debate than it has been in Europe. Still, the concept has long existed for ordinary Americans.”

You need to look no further than Occupy Wall Street and its language of the “99 percent” to realize that. Even The Wall Street Journal, the erstwhile voice of the much-maligned 1 percent, can’t shake the language of class warfare. This weekend, the paper profiled Rick Santorum in a feature-length piece titled, “‘Supply sider’ for the working man.” And last week, there was an op-ed that argued the “Conservative case for the wealth tax” (as the piece was called).

This negative idea of class — as something that we engage in “warfare” over — is embedding itself into today’s public conversation about politics and the economy like a deer tick. Politically, there’s this sense that the 99 percenters resent very rich Americans for their wealth and the caricatured trappings of their wealth, like their extravagant corporate jets, their excessive bonuses, and even their lavish jewelry tabs. Here, wealth and class are synonymous.

The headlines say it all: “Starbucks spends lavishly on corporate jet for CEO while cutting back on worker benefits and hours.” And: “Bank profits soar and corporate bonuses swell as broader economy stagnates.” And: “Newt Gingrich: the Tiffany’s candidate” (recall that the presidential candidate racked up a $500,000 bill with the high-end jewelry company). It goes without saying that in this time of economic malaise and even austerity, displays of extravagant wealth might not sit well with Americans. It’s gauche, excessive, and gaudy.

But culturally, there is a different reality — a different picture of class. In the popular culture — where we turn to escape from our grim economic, political, and personal realities — we are not only intrigued with, but admire those that just happen to be these very same one percenters whom we otherwise envy. Well, not quite the same one percenters. Our infatuation with class in the popular culture takes on a decidedly British air, in our obsession with the miniseries “Downton Abbey and our adoration of the royal celebrity Kate Middleton. The defining feature of each is class. “Downton Abbey is an award-winning period drama about an aristocratic family living during the reign of King George V. And Middleton is now a member of the royal family. It doesn’t get higher-class than that.

In the story of Kate Middleton, we see the virtues of class expressed in an American way. Middleton was a commoner, a member of the middle class. Her mother was a flight attendant. Now, Kate is the queen-in-waiting — a duchess, but one who does her own grocery shopping. She is a “blessedly normal” woman who can walk the halls of Buckingham Palace and command the attention of the world with her elegance, poise, and grace — not to mention her much-beloved fashion sense. Her famous blue London Issa dress, which she wore with Prince William at her side, sold out immediately after they announced they were engaged. She has become the embodiment of classy to a world of young women looking for precisely such a role model in a pop culture otherwise inundated with crass and aggressive female personae (see: Chelsea Handler). With Middleton, we see that class does not have so much to do with wealth, as with how you carry yourself while others are looking.

Part of the allure must be the British element. What we don’t tolerate from our own corporate aristocracy, we may tolerate from the aristocracy of another nation, closely related to ours, but with a distinctive lilt in the voice. Excessive displays of wealth seem like bad form on this side of the Atlantic, where the flat edge of the democratic spirit wants to level hierarchic distinctions, rather than sharpen them. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, such displays of wealth are celebrated. According to some estimates, the royal wedding cost billions of dollars to pull off. Nobody was crying class warfare back in April, though. Instead, they were mesmerized by the spectacle of a televised ceremony. Over 20 million Americans tuned in, and millions more watched worldwide.

Over at Newsweek, Simon Schama thinks that Americans are hypocrites when it comes to class. Writing about “Downton Abbey,” he asks, “Why have Americans fallen for a show that serves up snobbery by the bucketful?” He thinks the show is nothing more than “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.”

Yet even in good times, Americans have enjoyed looking into the lives of the upper crust. Just think about the stories of Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Wharton, and Henry James. Their allure, and the allure of a series like “Downton Abbey,” is not the escapist element per se. Yes, the series is entertaining. Yes, its heroes, villains, romances, sub-plots, drama, and gossip are engrossing. Yes, the show does tell a good story. But so do all good television dramas.

What makes “Downton Abbey” stand out — what makes it subject of office chatter, newspaper columns, tweets, Facebook posts, and more — is that it has those elements against a visually lush and lavish backdrop. The setting is what sets it apart. The series begins with the sinking of the Titanic. Now, there’s the hardship of the Great War to grapple with. Questions of matrimony, money, and inheritance rise and fall. The scenes take place in and out of a manor inhabited by tony aristocrats. Its appeal is aesthetic. As an art history professor, Schama should know this.

The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston made this connection when he wrote of the series, “It’s beautifully made — handsome, artfully crafted and acted. [Maggie] Smith, who plays the formidable and disdainful Dowager Countess, has a lovely way of delivering words, always spaced to perfection. This is going to be a treat if you like a lavish period drama of a Sunday evening.” Vogue magazine also emphasized the artistic intrigue of “Downton Abbey” when, following the series’ second season premiere, it highlighted the ornate dresses of the show’s women.

Similarly, when we roll our eyes at the corporate jets of the 1 percent, we are making an aesthetic judgment: wealth, pictured in that way, is distasteful. It’s the opposite of what its critics say it is. It doesn’t symbolize class — it symbolizes the lack of class. Money can buy an ostentatious array of Tiffany’s jewelry, but as the Brits know, it can’t buy you class.

Emily Esfahani Smith is the managing editor of the Hoover journal Defining Ideas and associate editor of The New Criterion. She writes about pop culture at acculturated.com.