Monday, October 27, 2008

TV viewing diary - The American Future

The first part of Schama's book-accompanying BBC series was full of promise; unfortunately parts 2 and 3 have disappointed.

Schama's method here is to use a number of second tier historical events and personages in order to make some restrained points about the counter-currents behind America's historical momentum...before cordially hinting at their relevance to the 2008 election. This he says is "the moment of truth election" which makes it so fascinating to watch.

The series kicked off with the story of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed old soldier who set about exploring the Colorado River in 1869, an experience which taught him that American expansionism would have to have limits. Weaning Americans off their sense of entitlement to near endless resources has proved immensely difficult, but Schama found signs of hope in the aggressive water management policies of Las Vegas (Lake Mead is at 50% capacity after 9 years of drought) and in the fact that neither Obama nor McCain pretend to keep things going along as blindly as they have been. 

In American War (part 2) Schama again set up an underlying intellectual conflict in American history: the contrasting views of Hamilton and Jefferson on the proper role of the military in their new kind of democratic state. Another binary opposition cropped up at the end of the nineteenth century when Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain clashed over the rather Iraq-like insurgency situation which arose after the American 'liberation' of the Philippines. 

Twain had originally thought it an immensely good idea to fight for 'another man's freedom', believing his nation's role in the Spanish-American War to be setting an admirable new precedent, but he quickly became disillusioned with the not-so-closet-imperialism that Roosevelt was soon openly endorsing. 

This story led to some rather weak conclusions about America's perennial examination of conscience every time its military is deployed in the name of protecting freedom in the outside world. It was however interesting to see a speech made by General Ricardo Sanchez (V Corps Commander of Coalition forces 2003-4) at a veterans reunion. Schama said he was expecting a call to arms, but instead what he heard was a call to vote - ultimately "more American". (And by implication a call to vote for Obama.) 

An unwillingness to get down and dirty with yet another of America's 'dirty' historical issues characterised part 3 - American Fervour. Schama promised he'd examine why evangelicals had gone from being champions of social egalitarianism into the most socially-conservative force in the country...but then didn't, at least not to any satisfactory extent. 

He drew some equivocal parallels between Americans' faith and their love of freedom, even finding a black Baptist pastor who professed a belief that Justice was an essentially theological issue. This time, he said, it's the Democrats who are making the "fervent call" to save America.

I've seen other programmes which suggest that there's something rather expedient about Barack Obama's religiosity, but Schama was clearly very keen to preserve the Democratic candidate's status in this narrative as the latest and greatest political exponent of Black church fervour in America.

All in all it's become a rather superficial historical contextualising of this particular "moment of truth" and one that is being undermined by its author's determination to remain polite (or at least only indirectly rude) at all times. 

And with the amount of footage devoted to the peripatetic historian doing - well,  not very much really -  it's hard to escape the conclusion that the whole series is something of a vanity piece. 

Schama and Stephen Fry might have swapped itineraries before setting off, as both have put in stops at Appalachian mining towns and at Arlington National Cemetery which, we learned, was deliberately carved out of the estate of Robert E. Lee. 

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