Column by Paul Hein.
Exclusive to STR
By coincidence, I recently watched two television programs in the same evening that, upon reflection, said a great deal about society. One was a documentary about the President’s airplane, “On Board Air Force One.” I had seen it before, but it seemed worth a second look.
The other was “Downton Abbey,” a sort of revival of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” about an aristocratic family just prior to World War I. The sets and costumes are gorgeous, the acting superb, and the story, if a bit turgid with momentous events, is well-written and believable. The Lord and Lady, and their three daughters, are kind and considerate to their staff of servants, but there is never any doubt that a gulf existed between the servants and the masters. Indeed, the gulf existed between the aristocrats and almost everyone else, evidenced by the shocked response to the idea that the eldest daughter might consider marrying a very fine young man whose only social drawback was that he worked for a living. The dowager Duchess, his Lordship’s mother, was aghast. “He may be a very fine young man indeed, but he isn’t one of us!”
This social arrangement was accepted by nearly everyone as quite proper and normal. But, in reality, it was peculiar indeed. The aristocrats, although educated, refined, gentle and kind, were, to put it bluntly, useless. Their servants helped them dress, prepared their bath, laid out their clothes, cooked their food, picked up after them, drove them where they wanted to go, brought them their mail on a silver salver, saddled a horse if they wanted to ride, and dealt with tradesmen. The servants could do these things. They had the know-how and/or the willingness to do what their employers couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Watching the program, I was struck by the comparison. Could the family have survived without their servants? Probably, but the idea of such a thing would no doubt have been rejected as preposterous. Could the servants survive without the family? They would have had to find other work, but work was something they were familiar with, and willing to do. In short, we had the non-productive living--and living very well indeed--off the productive activities of others. It was an accepted arrangement, and, being voluntary, not unjust, but definitely odd, if you give it any thought. By an accident of birth, and in the absence of any evidence, certain people were accepted as superior and above such mundane chores as working for a living, while living off the labor of others. Of course, there have always been people living off the labor of others, but in the case of the aristocracy, that situation didn’t result from work, but from the fact that they were born into a family which so lived, and had, in most cases, for generations. They “deserved” their position simply by living!
There was a similar theme in the documentary about Air Force One. The show, produced during the Bush years (I suspect Obama has made even more use of that fleet than his predecessor) took us into the preparation for a presidential flight to Africa. Whereas the aristocratic family had, perhaps, a dozen servants, the president has hundreds! When he wishes to go somewhere by air, he doesn’t just call the airport and say, “Get the plane ready.” Preparations begin months in advance. There are, for example, two identical planes, based upon the Boeing 747. The one carrying the president is Air Force One; the duplicate always accompanies it in case it should be needed, and perhaps as a decoy as well. The president arrives at Andrews Air Force base, where the planes are kept, by helicopter, but in one of three identical helicopters, with the other two making the flight, also as decoys. Several dozen other aircraft are required as well: the three copters must be disassembled and transported by air to the destination, there to be re-assembled and made ready, should the president need them. The presidential limo, armor-plated and virtually bomb-proof, is also shipped ahead, along with several other limos for the entourage. Food for the presidential party is also brought along; no food is purchased in the destination country, and the food is purchased in D.C. by inconspicuous shoppers who give no indication that they are shopping for the president—again, for safety’s sake. At the destination, fuel for the return flight is also brought in by air, is carefully guarded day and night, and tested for purity, just in case.
Inside Air Force One, the level of luxury is extraordinary. Two kitchens provide gourmet meals. Every manner of communication equipment is available. The president has his own private office and desk, as though being out of touch with his Washington staff, and not “on the job” were unthinkable, even for a few days. And, of course, classified defensive tools are built into the plane. It’s an odd mixture of aggrandizement and paranoia. The imperial passenger is simultaneously the most important person in the free world, and scared to death.
It’s incredible! If the president were to disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow, the lives of 99.99% of us would continue without a blip. Yet no emperor ever was treated with such servility, such deference. Watching the incredible lengths to which his staff goes to make him safe and comfortable, one cannot help but wonder, “Who does this man think he is?” The answer has to be that he thinks he is the man his staff regards with such deference, respect, and servility that he must be SOMEBODY!
How can a man being held in such exaggerated esteem, whether at Downton Abbey, or Air Force One, possibly not succumb to the notion that he must be pretty special? Why, it must be that he is made to rule, and be obeyed, and honored! And if His Lordship, or the president, comes to so regard himself, those surrounding him must regard him the same way. The esteemed leader, and his sycophants, feed upon one another.
In recent decades, our presidents have been men who seemed to come from nowhere, relative unknowns outside of their own bailiwick. A few years prior to entering the White House, they waited in line for a table at the local restaurant like everyone else. Then, suddenly, it all changed! Now, when they enter a banquet hall, all rise, and the band plays “Hail to the Chief.” How can that NOT go to your head!
And if an impeccably dressed, well spoken and slightly haughty individual appeared at Downton Abbey and informed the butler that he was the Earl of Huffinpuff, he would likely be most respectfully treated, even if he were just an impoverished actor playing a role--a la Eliza Doolittle. It’s all psychology! People who wouldn’t merit a second thought were it not for their position are groveled to and flattered.
Of the two, I prefer His Lordship at Downton Abbey. For one thing, he is born to his situation and less impressed with his own importance than if it had suddenly been thrust upon him. And his influence, while great, is limited to a relatively small circle. Those who object to him can walk away. A president, on the other hand, may exhibit all the unsavory characteristics of the nouveau riche, and his influence, sadly, is worldwide, which can only enhance his feelings of self-importance. And disobey him at your peril! If he believes that you owe him allegiance, and you think that you owe him allegiance, what does it matter if he is in no way your superior, and, in fact, may be an unscrupulous scoundrel? Some might say that it is not the man that deserves respect, but the office. But without the man, there is no office. Besides, it’s difficult to defer to a mental concept.
Suppose that the president were stripped of his nifty fleet of airplanes, of the White House, with its kowtowing staff, of the limousines, his office, and the other trappings of office. Would anyone pay any attention to him? Would people stand when he came into the room? Would the band play “Hail to the Chief”?
I am reminded, once again, of the Emperor’s New Clothes. What people accept as true may play a bigger role in their lives than what is real, and could be plainly seen if only they opened their eyes.
So the question: Why do we pay attention to these people? Granted, Lord Crawley is compassionate, kindly, and gentle, but the same may be true of the servants who consider him and his family their “betters.” His class, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist when people no longer found it relevant. Political rulers, though, are ruthless when it suits them, uncaring--except for their supporters--and infinitely more powerful, with that power backed by guns. So that, I guess, is why we pay attention to them! There seems to be, however, a growing awareness that our “leaders” do not lead at all--they rule. And the threat of force is always in the background, increasingly obvious. Perhaps the political rulers will cease to exist when people realize that they not only do not need them, but would be vastly better off without them. They, also, are irrelevant.