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Will a refrigerator kill 'Downton Abbey'?

 

Stephen L. Carter
(c) 2014, Bloomberg News


We all of us have secret reactionary corners of our minds. In the way that a child will love a broken toy and wail when it's thrown out, or a politician will love an interest group and rail against the smallest change that might harm its interests. So we all of us have little things that we wish would stay the same forever, or that we're sure were better in the old days.

Sunday night's episode of "Downton Abbey" mainly revolved around the soap opera with its familiar macho twist — will Mr. Bates track and kill his wife's rapist? — but in the background, change and resistance were everywhere. Two stories in particular are worth mention. The tale that was played for laughs involved the instinctual resistance of Mrs. Patmore, the head cook, to the installation of a refrigerator. The continuing narrative that is doubtless intended to convey a heavy message involved the instinctual resistance of Lord Grantham to the plan of the rising generation to push tenant farmers off the land, enabling the estate to work the land itself, and use the profit to become self-sustaining.

A brief word about each.

Lady Grantham, in extolling the virtues of refrigeration, explains to Mrs. Patmore that there will no longer be any need for ice to be delivered. An appalled Mrs. Patmore demands to know whether groceries and newspapers will also stop coming to the house. Lady Grantham zings her: "Is there any aspect of the present day that you can accept without resistance?"

Lord Grantham has consistently opposed the plan of his daughter Mary and his son-in-law Thomas to move the tenant farmers off the land. Sunday night, after a long-time tenant named Drew dies while deeply in debt to the Granthams, his son pleads for a chance to hold onto the farm. Young Mr. Drew proclaims himself a Yorkshireman who belongs on his land, and reminds His Lordship that his family and the Granthams have been working in partnership since the Napoleonic Wars.

The point is that we're plainly meant to see Mrs. Patmore's opposition as foolish and short-sighted, and Lord Grantham's as noble. But why? The estate does have to become self-sufficient, and the only way the younger Drew can pay the overdue rent is for Lord Grantham to loan it to him. We're given no reason to believe that the young man will work the land more profitably than his father.

As for technology, it is hardly an unadorned good. The refrigerators of the era now and then leaked toxic chemicals, at least until the invention of freon, which happened a few years later. If large-scale farming will put the Drews of the world out of business, widespread use of refrigeration — dominated at the time by Kelvinator — destroyed an entire industry devoted to cutting, transporting, storing and delivering ice. (Already on "Downton Abbey," we've lost the coachmen; and the sewing machine — which also showed up last night — will reduce the need for seamstresses.)

Don't get me wrong. I love technology. I'm just not sure we should be quick to mock its opponents. The best and worst aspects of capitalism are precisely the same: the tendency to destroy the existing economic and social order. It seems perfectly reasonable for the writers to want us to weep for the tenant farmers who are to be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency. But those who lose their livelihood because of the efficiency of technology are no less entitled to our sympathy.


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Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University.
 

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