Cable TV, Popular History, and Aristotle
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.