The central idea in this series -- as in his book, which I actually read first -- is that if you want to gain insight into America's future, look at its past.
We today are struggling with division on religious matters, on racial issues, on the notion of what it means to be an American, on the use of our national resources, and when and why we go to war as a nation. On each of these matters, Schama examines our past, sees that we have struggles with these things before, and suggests the national resources that we've employed to deal with them in the past.
Schama shows how we have deeply ingrained national suspicions of other races, not merely blacks and Hispanics, but the Chinese and others. He also shows our amazing resilience in assimilating new ethnic and racial groups, and how this has perpetually enriched us and empowered us as a nation.
Schama examines the roles that religion has played in American life both as a liberalizing and reactionary force. I was especially happy about this, because as a religious person who is also very liberal in my politics, I'm proud of the way that evangelical religion has historically been at the forefront of progressive, liberal causes, only moving to the right in the past generation. Religion played a major role in denouncing and eliminating slavery, and later in promoting civil rights and racial equality. (Schama could have likewise have explored the role of religion in the furthering of public health, women's rights, public education, and ethnic tolerance.)
The role of the military and the militarization of national policy has been one of the most disturbing changes in American life since WW II and it remains the one area of American culture that I remain most concerned about. The truth is that if we were able to reduce the size of the military and the amount of military spending to a level that reflects our actual national needs, we would have enough money in the national budget to take care of a complete reformation of our national health programs, fix social security funding (which is not in fact in all that much trouble), and even establish a greatly needed national pension system (needed primarily because most corporations no longer offer pensions), all while reducing federal spending and dramatically lowering the national debt. That we don't take this necessary step is a result of the role that Eisenhower's military-industrial complex has come to play in American life. In the book version of this series, Schama shows how this vision of America as a martial society was very much that of Hamilton, and was one of the major sources of contention between him and Jefferson. I hope that America can rediscover its nonmilitaristic roots. While I'm optimistic that we will be able to deal with many of our other major national problems, such as immigration, natural resources, and the role of religion in our nation, I'm not so optimistic about our immense need to reduce the role of military solutions in national policy.
OK, book versus DVD series. Which do I prefer? The book, definitely. There are two reasons for this. First, the book covers far more issues than the show can even remotely hope to. There is just more stuff in the book. Second, the show has a perplexing number of shots of Simon Schama for no apparent reason. Schama driving his car, Schama standing and listening to a speaker, Schama filling his car at a gas station, Schama gazing about at a memorial of one sort or another. I saw no real reason for this. But perhaps someone doesn't want to read a book. In that case, I don't discourage someone from watching the show. Neither do I discourage someone from watching the TV series as well. But the book is in my opinion the better of the two forms THE AMERICAN FUTURE takes.