"The Story of Us"? Hardly

"Dr. Stern recently completed his Ph.D. in early American history at Princeton University. He is currently co-authoring a review of state U.S. history standards for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and is also working on a book about Jane Franklin Mecom, building from his article "Jane Franklin Mecom: A Boston Woman in Revolutionary Times" (Early American Studies, Spring 2006)."

History, formerly known as The History Channel, has aggressively advertised its new series – “America: The Story of Us” – as a landmark. They have also pushed it as a vital classroom resource, offering free DVD copies to every public, private or home school in America, together with lavish teachers’ and activity guides. The series opens with a greeting from President Obama, discussing the efforts and determination of ordinary Americans throughout our shared history. The cachet of the presidential seal and the president’s own dignified gravitas lend the program an almost official imprimatur, seeming to mark it out as an event, a definitive historical saga far more significant than ordinary television fare.

Yet one suspects that the president, a constitutional scholar in his own right, hasn’t actually seen the program.

It was originally my intention, as a specialist in early America, to review the series through the Civil War. Once I saw the opening episode, my plans changed: the shoddy coverage of the period through 1776 proved more than enough to expose the show’s egregious shortcomings. If you get the very roots of America wrong, after all, nothing that follows can ever really be right.

History’s much-touted event is, in reality, a shallow and fragmentary jumble. Isolated dramatic moments are ripped from any larger historical context or explanation in a welter of reenactments and frenzied CGI animation, while celebrity talking-heads (few of whom have even the slightest relevant expertise) spout feel-good banalities and populist clichés. It seems a depressing proof of Tevya the milkman’s observation in Fiddler on the Roof: “If you’re rich, they think you really know.” Being famous doesn’t hurt either.

In addition to a crippling lack of depth or focus, there is also a pervasive problem of tone. “Triumphalism” is not a word I readily invoke – far too often, it is used by the educational left to denounce any positive discussion of our past. But in this instance, the word fits. History’s filmmakers and advisors have clearly reacted against the harshly negative, politically correct take on U.S. history so prevalent in recent decades. Unfortunately, instead of aiming for balance or nuance, the program leans towards the unquestioningly laudatory and simplistic patriotism that prevailed until the 1960s. And, all too often, the series reduces even that one-dimensional narrative to a celebration of economic opportunity, innovation and success.

The program opens with a reference to the first colonists as shiploads of “businessmen” (a grossly anachronistic description for early seventeenth century merchant adventurers and wealth-seekers) and “true believers.” The narration – given undeserved weight by Liev Schreiber’s elegant tones – harps on North America as “the ultimate land of opportunity,” “a continent of vast untapped wealth,” its trackless forests and wild plains offering “the most valuable resource of all: land.” You would hardly guess from this that there were already people living on that land. All too often, nowadays, European settlers are assailed in presentistic moral and political terms for “stealing” native lands – a concept largely alien to the early colonists and their time. But historical understanding will not be fostered, either, by returning to archaic images of an empty, virgin land – a view that ignores or suppresses the very existence of the native peoples.

The program jumps straight to John Rolfe’s 1610 arrival in Jamestown. A brief recap of the colony’s precarious existence allows for dramatic shots of decimation and privation. But no attempt is made to discuss the background to colonization, the competing imperial powers – indeed, any history at all. Even John Smith, the moving force behind the Jamestown colony, is never named. The local Powhatan people are mentioned in passing – we are told the first settlers were on Powhatan lands, and that the two groups soon became “enemies”; Pocahontas is also mentioned as Rolfe’s wife and showpiece. And that’s it.

Of course, most of colonial history is likewise missing in action. Before you know it, Virginia is a thriving tobacco colony – with, of course, ample CGI montages of crops bursting into growth (The native peoples vanish from the story as if they never existed). Donald Trump, that noted historical authority, pops up to hail the glories of entrepreneurial success. Henry Louis Gates, one of the few talking heads with genuine historical credentials, is given a few seconds to discuss the first Africans in Virginia, noting that they were not slaves and that some achieved success and prosperity. The actual introduction of slavery in the seventeenth century is, however, never discussed. Instead we jump to the Mayflower and the Plymouth colony in 1620 (as actor Michael Douglas comments on the need to seize opportunity). Here the local Indians are at least mentioned, but in the program’s typically fragmentary and episodic fashion, we hear only about the initial alliance between the settlers and a local tribe against that tribe’s enemies. We are told such alliances were rare, but there is no wider discussion or explanation: the show, as always, is more interested in dramatic and decontextualized vignettes (Rudy Giuliani also appears to hail the virtues of business, religion and opportunity).

An appallingly brief narration (over another busy CGI montage of burgeoning crops and spreading settlement) purports to cover the next century and a half. We are told that America became “the place for everyone from everywhere.” In mere seconds, the narrator touches on ethnically diverse backcountry settlement, the Dutch in New York, and so forth. There is not a word about the rise of representative government in the colonies, one the most important themes in our history. Neither is anything said about the Atlantic slave trade, or the deeply contradictory entrenchment of slavery in a land of expanding freedom. There is, indeed, no meaningful detail about anything… just vague references to Americans being prosperous, paying fewer taxes than the English and moving ever-further from a British identity. In fact, many colonies bore a heavy local tax burden, and Americans were arguably becoming more self-consciously British in the decades before the Revolution. Nowhere, we are told, was more independent than Boston…

… which takes us straight to the May 1768 customs raid on John Hancock’s sloop Liberty. Setting aside that the narration conflates the May raid and the June riot, the program never so much as mentions the previous events in the evolving Revolutionary crisis. The French and Indian War, which pushed Britain to seek a new American revenue, is ignored. So are the 1765 Stamp Act and 1767 Townshend Acts. We are simply told that America was prospering, and that Britain wanted “a bigger piece of the action.” The Liberty riot, just one of a string of colonial crises that followed the Townshend duties, is made out as the key turning point of the period – and it is treated as if it were caused by a general, long-standing unwillingness to pay taxes. The critical concept of taxation as a free gift from the people for the support of government, and thus the insistence on taxation solely by consent, is never explained. Instead Aaron Sorkin (a screenwriter whose credits include The West Wing and Charlie Wilson’s War) pontificates on Americans’ “natural resentment toward government, which was how we were born” – a grossly simplistic distortion of America’s founding principles (the issue was not government per se, but government without consent and proper limits).

The military occupation of Boston follows (posited as the direct result of the Liberty riot; the facts are, of course, far more complex – but the program never seems to notice the existence of ideas, institutions and individuals that were, in reality, driving the growing crisis). The occupation’s impact is presented in almost wholly economic terms; its effect on “the thirteen colonies” (the existence of other colonies, such as Canada and the West Indies, is barely hinted) is presented wholly in terms of Boston’s commercial centrality. It is a bad sign that a long advertisement from sponsor Bank of America, hailing money and banking as the roots of America, is barely distinguishable from the show – save that the commercial gives more air-time to actual historians! Only now is slavery finally, and briefly, mentioned (it crops up in discussion of colonial trading networks, since rum was famously exchanged in Africa for slaves).

The program jumps straight to the Boston Massacre, described vaguely, briefly and not wholly accurately – far more effort has been put into dramatic camera angles and incongruous electric guitar scoring. The Massacre is, of course, then presented as the key to the Revolutionary era, especially through Paul Revere’s famous engraving (the filmmakers are presumably unaware that Revere largely plagiarized the image from fellow-artist Henry Pelham, managing to get his copy into print before the original). Mayor Michael Bloomberg is trotted out to comment on the power of images; Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales hails the free exchange of information.

The partial repeal of the Townshend Acts (in March 1770, before word of the Massacre reached England) is jumbled together with the 1773 “Tea Party”; we are simply told that Britain’s retreat – repeal of all duties save that on tea – was “not enough.” The 1773 Tea Act is never mentioned, nor are the other myriad political crises that brought Boston and other colonial centers to the edge of rebellion. The 1774 closure of Boston Harbor and its economic impact are harped on; the total subversion of representative government by the accompanying Massachusetts Government Act is completely ignored (instead, Tom Brokaw is brought in to hail America’s fighting feistiness). Tensions beyond Boston are largely reduced to a few seconds on Americans’ expansionist chafing at Britain’s prohibition of settlement in protected Indian lands – bold Americans, the program seems to say, will never accept such limits.

All of this culminates in one of the most revealingly dismal moments of all: 1774’s first Continental Congress is called, in a rushed introduction, “the first step on the road to American democracy.” This lays bare the empty absurdity of the program’s narrative, which has skipped the entire history of colonial political development – the true underpinning of the Revolutionary era, the Continental Congress, and the whole subsequent course of American democracy.

As the war of independence ramps up, the program seems more at ease: it can settle comfortably into a patchy series of dramatic fragments. Much time is spent on Concord’s militia preparation, as the narration hails the virtues of an armed patriot populace (Commentary by a Marine Corps sergeant bolsters the point). The events of April 19 offer further scope for theatrical drama – and again reflect too little research. Revere is shown, as per legend, warning that “the British are coming!” He didn’t: the colonists still called themselves “British Americans,” and Revere warned that the “regulars” were coming out. But the filmmakers seem, in any case, far more interested in the slow-motion CGI close-up of the first bullet fired at Lexington, a sequence endlessly repeated in History promos. NBC News anchor Brian Williams hails American audacity. A few seconds are given to African American militia members – while the larger background and importance of slavery are still ignored. There is, as always, no sense of the wider political or military situation: Lexington-Concord, stripped of its proper place in a larger sequence of events, is presented as the colonists’ great and unique stand for the “prosperity and freedom” their ancestors sought. Economic prosperity is much emphasized in the episode, if inadequately explained; but concepts of political freedom have barely put in an appearance.

We soon hop along to the battle for New York (more CGI of ominous battle fleets cutting the waves) and the second Continental Congress – the latter, shorn of substance or circumstances, is hailed as “the birth of American democracy,” though the actual debates over independence are hopelessly glossed over. Jefferson’s principal authorship of the Declaration goes unmentioned – yet Newt Gingrich is featured, hailing the Declaration’s premise that all rights derive from God. This is a particularly disturbing moment: Gingrich routinely uses this very line to bolster historically dubious claims that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation. By failing to mention Jefferson, the filmmakers allow Gingrich to peddle political propaganda… without his having to confront the actual Deistic, non-sectarian god that Jefferson had in mind.

As the film moves back into the Revolutionary War, it slides further off into isolated dramatic incidents and colorful tales – at the expense even of the larger military picture. The talking heads continue to expose their unsuitability. Rudy Giuliani describes pre-1776 New York as a “pretty quiet city,” focused on “business.” He is evidently unaware of New York’s endlessly contentious politics and unruly urban setting – or of such specific events as the 1735 Zenger trial, the 1741 “slave conspiracy” hysteria, the long-standing tension between royal troops and citizens that culminated in 1770’s Battle of Golden Hill, etc.

Absurdly, this commercialized ‘history lite’ is touted as an invaluable educational resource. The elaborate teachers’ and activity guides, unsurprisingly, add no substantive explanation, while maintaining an uncritical tone of near-worshipful historical celebration. Suggested exercises (as in too many state social studies frameworks) focus on vacuous ahistorical ‘themes,’ randomly scattered ‘examples’ and students’ ‘personal engagement.’ Yet teachers are told that the series “offers educators and students an extraordinary opportunity to connect with the American past, learning about fascinating individual stories while envisioning a broad view of U.S. history.” Indeed, it is called a “roadmap for learning about U.S. history, with stories along the way that are engaging touchstones for students to delve deeper into their own studies of our nation’s past. Rather than flat characters and actions on a page, people and events spring into action, showing students how the tough and thrilling adventure of American history transpired.”

In reality, this series does no justice to America’s many stories. It presents, indeed, no coherent story at all: instead there are random highlights, poorly explained and stripped of context or meaning. Substance is rejected in favor of visual spectacle. Vapid triumphalism stands in for historical narrative. Serious analysis is rejected in favor of trite celebrity platitudes.

A series so empty hardly deserves to be called a documentary. One might as well try to reconstruct a chicken by staring at bits of eggshell.

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stephen frederick knott - 5/24/2010


A thoughtful review. Nice job.

It is disappointing to see how often the History Channel falls short....

Jacquelyn M Kennedy - 5/24/2010

When The History Channel made its debut, I had such high hopes for the quality and content that would be shown. I am in complete agreement that "The Story of Us' falls woefully short of filling any kind of realistic accuracy and yet, History keeps churning out this mindless blather. What a shame and what an enormous waste of time, money and opportunity!

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