Blogs > Cliopatria > Cable TV, Popular History, and Aristotle

Feb 26, 2004 4:36 pm

Cable TV, Popular History, and Aristotle

Thomas Reeves put up a fine rant on the History Channel at his Blog the other day. He begins with the LBJ-killed-Kennedy garbage and moves on to a more general savaging of the vast wasteland.

When reading this, it occurred to me that the problems with the History Channel doing good history sheds light on some of the debate on the public and history that Ralph Luker and Tim Burke have encouraged.

What follows is a slightly polished version of the response I put on Reeve’s Blog.

The problem of having a decent history cable channel may shed light on the problems of popular history (and making good history popular). Here are some observations based upon what the History Channel puts out.

1. More people like the celebration of heritage than like their history straight. Therefore the classic topics of American heritage dominate. Many of the better documentaries succeed by exploring heritage topics honestly, but it helps if the documentary partially confirms the “heritage interpretation.”

2. The worse documentaries pander to heritage. This is most clear in the sub-genre of Biblical History. Many of these slide in and out of assuming Biblical inerrancy with an awe-inspiring casualness. The result provides an aura of scholarship to Cecil B. DeMille influenced faith. Unfortunately, there are whole generations so influenced.

3. Some of the better documentaries make it by pretending to pander. (If you think about it, that’s really depressing.) The opening and conclusion are sensationalist as are the segues to commercials, while the good stuff is packed in between. I think this may relate to the current vogue in history subtitles. ("How the Irish saved Western Civilization";"How the Greeks guarded us from being idiots." That sort of thing)

4. Lots of people think"wars are neat." They will watch anything that shares that vision. Some of these same people dress up in period garb and hold demonstrations in which they reenact ancient fighting prowess. When these people are combined with the heritage people (some of whom know that wars aren't neat but see them as central to their heritage), one gets a steady audience for war documentaries in general and ones related to our history in particular.

The re-enactors also provide cheap extras for the battle scenes. That helps to keep costs down.

5. Conspiracies are good theater. They play like Aristotelian tragedies, providing both terror and pity.

The Kennedy assassination is the current high water mark of this confluence of history and theater. We watch the Zapruder film like the Greeks watched Agamemnon going inside to bathe.

Here, the History Channel and others are dabbling in myth when they run Kennedy conspiracy programs. In an odd way we may be watching how different versions of myths emerged, clustered ever more distantly around a core of truth.

Thinking about it, that's historical.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 3/2/2004

The LBJ idea struck me as particularly questionable. People have been wanting to stick this to Johnson ever since some hack wrote "MacBird" in the mid 1960s. I have never seen anything to suggest that Johnson would do that.

My reaction to the day-long History Channel run stemmed from the advertising the History Channel used (and the lack of a documentary pushing the Warren/lone gun theory).

it just all shrieked "prolefood" "prolefood" at me.

Now maybe one or more of those were examples of good scholarship sold in a pandering manner (as per my comment above). If that is so, please tell me which ones you thought were strong. I really would like to know.

Four thoughts of mine about the Kennedy assassination.

1. I've never found anything involving Vietnam plausible, because I've never been convinced that Kennedy was going to withdraw, even after the 1964 election.

2. Dealey Plaza is a weird place (or at least was then). It has particularly odd acoustics. So I take all testimony about what was heard--or even recorded--with more than a grain of salt.

3. Oswald was involved.

4. If there was a conpiracy involving government--domestic or foreign--I would look at Cuba. There was motive in Kennedy attempts to kill Castro, a possible connection with Oswald via Soviet intelligence, and a tangential possibility of a mob connection that could have brought Jack Ruby in.

But I have evidence for none of this.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 3/2/2004

I didn't see every day of the History Channel's week of 40th anniversary JFK assassination programming, but what I did see seemed reasonable and didn't differ much from what I've been reading from a number of different books about the JFK assassination for decades.

Have there been programs on other subjects on the HC that you thought advanced improbable historical conspiracy theories?

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 3/2/2004

Ralph, why should historians be particularly skeptical of historical theories involving conspiracy? If the evidence is strongest for particular interpretations of history, for instance that Turkish genocide against the Armenians did occur, that the anti-Jewish Holocaust did occur, that John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln as part of a conspiracy, or that Germany's Reichstag was burned down by a Nazi arson squad rather than a half-blind, retarded ex-communist who was framed, why should these most likely historical scenarios be especially suspected of being wrong just because they involve malicious conspiracies?

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/28/2004


Perhaps I do the History Channel an injustice, but as best as I can tell, they run conspiracy theory docs regardless of the likelihood of the theory.

I have no problem with serious investigations of conspiracies, but some of this stuff is out of "alien autopsy land." If anything this makes a good investigation harder, by scaring away resarchers.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/28/2004

Josh, I've seen no requirement to that effect. Most historians do know enough to a) know that conspiracies do occur; and b) be skeptical of all conspiracy theories. The burden of proof is on the theorist and theorists are often short on evidence.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 2/28/2004

"Here, the History Channel and others are dabbling in myth when they run Kennedy conspiracy programs."

Sorry Oscar, but the biggest myth of the JFK assassination is that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy and that there was no conspiracy.

I'd REALLY like to know: is it necessary that a person support the "lone nut" thesis in order to be allowed to write articles for HNN, or blog on it? Just asking....

Van L. Hayhow - 2/27/2004

Professor Luker:
Sorry, I didn't mean to sound dsmissive of the academic books. I live within an hour drive of three cities each with a large number of colleges and universities. I visit their bookstores from time to time and buy academic books and usually enjoy them. But to my taste many of them, while excellant on research and analysis, or short on writing skills. I saw a panel of historians on C-Span II's weekend show on books. The panel was on writing vivid history. The panelists seem to agree that to write vivid history it was safer to have tenure (and never try it in your theses). I think that's a shame. My main point was that to attract attention in the broad public, telling a story and telling it well are important. The John Adams book of a couple of years ago is a good example. I loved it as did the public at large.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/26/2004

Van, I agree with you and Barzun that story is the primary form of history. Your reference to Barzun led me to dig his _From Dawn to Decadence_ from the stack of books at my bedside and to look at its end references. They show that his narrative is enriched by nuggets of information which were dug up by dozens, hundreds, of other historians who published them originally in those "typical academic pieces" which your comparison tends to dismiss. Barzun would be one of those historians who attempts the sort of grand narrative which Burke and Schama call for -- however much they might have qualms about Barzun's particular construing of the grand narrative.

Van L. Hayhow - 2/26/2004

I always thought WWII material was so popular because (1) there is a lot of it available cheap and (2) so many of us are still affected by it. Both of my parents served in the Army is WWII. Further, I think that popular history is popular, in part, because it is generally well written (not always, of course, but usually better written than the typical academic piece)and it tells a story. From the time we are babies we are exposed to stories. Wasn't it Jacque Barzun who said that the first obligation of an historian is to tell a story? And that all else could follow?

Ralph E. Luker - 2/26/2004

Well, well, well. This is a breakthrough for Cliopatria. A distinguished historian gives up his lurking anonymity to make a cogent point in discussion. Welcome to Clio ..., J. D. Your point is well taken and it extends to much of the best known documentary film and book making even beyond the History Channel. Still, one wonders, beyond the abundance of visual sources on war, if or why "there is also a boys-and-men thing running through popular history," particularly as the ascendence of social history runs so strongly in the other direction.

J. Dittmar - 2/26/2004

There is a great stock of military footage; and it provides easy pickings. But the popular taste in history books also tilts towards the martial. In a Barnes and Noble, there may be almost as much shelf space devoted to military history as to European history. World War II can outpace Asian and Latin American history combined. There is no shelf for economic or cultural history.

The images of combat on the history channel cultivate this taste. But it strikes me that there is also a boys-and-men thing running through popular history.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/26/2004

Yes, visuals! It wasn't until I became involved in producing a video for television that I fully understood the visual media's gawping appetite for -- well -- for the visual. You can only pan across a photograph or even a painting so many times and then the camera demands more, more.

Timothy James Burke - 2/26/2004

At one point in its past, the History Channel was showing so much WWII vintage film in so many ways that I joked to my students that it had become the 24-Hour WWII Channel, All Nazis All the Time.

But that points out what gets on it, in a way that I'm not necessarily happy about but sympathetic to: what gets on it, often, is conditioned by the visuals that are available cheaply. There's not a lot of preexisting film footage on agricultural practices in 18th Century France, but there's a boatload of stuff on warfare.

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