Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mankind's Hubris

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe

Any show that claims to speak for the entirety of mankind sets itself up for a fall worthy of Adam. 

First let me make clear that I am not a History Channel hater.  I spent a year happily writing and editing entries for “This Day in the American Revolution” on their website.  I have complete confidence that more people have read my prose in that forum than all my appearances in peer-reviewed journals combined.

My son’s teacher let the kids forgo their nightly reading if they watched the History Channel’s Mankind series’ treatment of the “Age of Empire.”  He warned it might be gory and asked that a parent watch with each child.  Thus I found myself forced to suffer through some of the worst history and worst television I have ever endured.

Thanks to clunky editing, I learned that the Pilgrims fled the Tulip bubble in the Netherlands.  Salem drew the “era of fear and superstition” to a welcome close so the “wilderness” could be “tamed” from Siberia to North America by rugged, male, entrepreneurial pioneers desirous of fur.  As “superstition is giving way to science,” Captain James Cook, “mankind’s greatest explorer . . . opened up a new continent,” inhabited by “animals and plants unknown to science.”  Benjamin Franklin, “innovator and entrepreneur,” brought the scientific revolution to “America.” And the march of progress goes on.

Half-hearted attempts at political correctness made the Euro-centric, Whiggish—if not Panglossian—perspective all the more evident.  Token treatment of a central African “princess” who escaped the Portuguese cannot compensate for the failure to mention Spanish slaves suffering in silver mines.  Momentary mention of the Australian Aborigines’ cultural sophistication fails to forgive the depiction of Mughal India in the tried and true stereotypes of the materialist and merciless “Orient.”

The treatment of 1576 to 1776 proclaimed that this was an age of the opening of the wilderness, mapping of the planet, and resultant prosperity.  The series, which promises “a story of triumph and overcoming, of survival on a harsh and brutal planet,” requires single causal links.  In the first episode of the evening, “Treasure,” silver drove the “Age of Empire.”  No wars of religion blight this streamlined story of superstition’s fall to entrepreneurial science.  In the second episode, dubbed “Pioneers,” superstition dies a final death at the end of a rifle and clears the path for the “Revolutions” to come.  The felled forests of New Hampshire are happy motivators for colonists ready to claim their rights from the crown—no concern for the natives who once lived in that “wilderness” nor for the ecosystem the trees sustained.  Captain Cook’s noble desire to save scientific samples forgives his utter disdain for the Aborigines from whom he stole them.

As the episode closed, I followed my sons upstairs to bed rather than stay and watch as the “Age of Industrialization” demonstrated that “an age of new knowledge sparks a struggle for freedom” and ”the spirit of rebellion is about to transform the future of mankind” embodied in the Declaration of Independence edited by “scientist turned politician” Benjamin Franklin. 

My poor son had to suffer through my running rant at the screen.  The teacher feared the unnecessary visual violence; I found the vapid analysis far more detrimental to young minds.

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe earned graduate degrees in European History from Cambridge University as a Marshall Scholar followed by a doctorate in American History from Princeton University.  She teaches History at Northwestern University, where she is Associate Director of the Office of Fellowships, and writes monthly for the Inside Higher Ed blog series on women and international higher education, “University of Venus.”


Lisa Clark Diller said...

I have isolated myself from the History Channel mostly (and am therefore blissfully unaware of what is going on), but so many of my students and loved ones look on it as the holy grail of information. It is very important not to abandon it to the entertainers. What ideas do people have for how we can help shape the ways in which U.S. Americans learn about the past? It sounds like you've done some of your own due diligence--what connections and relationships did you have to form in order to get involved in that sort of forum?

Randall said...

Enjoyed this post. Lisa: I hear you about students and what people generally think about the Hist Channel. Has the official imprint for most.

Reminds me of this Conan O'Brien spoof:

Eric B. Schultz said...

Nice post. I live dangerously close to Salem and can tell you emphatically, at least in the week before Halloween, that the wilderness is nowhere close to being tamed.

EJLP said...

Lisa, I don't think what I have done counts a due diligence. I will say that their strength is stringent fact checking. Their weakness is their inability to understand selection among facts shapes narrative as much as the accuracy of the facts presented. I was shocked that Nell Painter and Henry Louis Gates were willing to appear in the episodes I watched. They cannot have previewed the other segments. Something I would advise any academic to do before they allow their own interviews to appear.

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