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Simon Schama's the American Future - A History
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Simon Schama's The American Future - A History (DbL DVD)
The election of Barack Obama serves as both touchstone and framework for The American Future: A History, a four-hour, four-part documentary hosted by historian Simon Schama. In fact, title notwithstanding, Schama actually doesn’t say a lot about the our nation’s future, other than the obvious (noting that water shortages will increasingly be an issue, particularly in the western states, is hardly stop-the-presses stuff); his main point here is that Obama represents the country’s best chance to regain its stature in the world and reverse what he calls "the nationwide loss of faith in government" that festered throughout the George W. Bush years. Not a very original thesis, but what Schama, a Brit who has lived half his life in the States, has in spades is a flair for providing information in a manner that’s engaging and entertaining but rarely pedantic or excessively scholarly. Each of the program’s four segments--entitled "American Plenty," which addresses the water issue in the context of the history of Western expansion; "American War"; "American Fervour" (sic), in which Schama discusses on the nature of religious freedom; and "What is an American?", which deals with race and immigration--provides not only a great deal of history but a revealing focus on individuals, both celebrated and otherwise. Thus we learn about the deeds of Montgomery Meigs, an engineer and Union Army officer who was a Civil War hero, or about the opposite stances taken by the pacifist Mark Twain and the gung-ho Theodore Roosevelt at the time of the Spanish-American War. We all know about Martin Luther King, Jr., but who has even heard of Fannie Lou Hamer, a cotton picker and folk singer who became a mid-'60s civil rights leader? And while the black mark of slavery informs so much of our country’s history, how many know about the plight of the Chinese workers who helped build the first transcontinental railroad in the 1800s? Schama’s ability to find the small, personal components of the big picture helps make The American Future both worthwhile and compelling. Bonus material includes an intro recorded by Schama on November 5, 2008, and a photo gallery. --Sam Graham
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His view of the American past - especially its treatment of its Asian, African and Latino minorities - is clear-eyed and often heartbreaking with its carefully researched and simply elucidated tales of cruelty, abuse and neglect. But with every new sorrow he balances his sadness with tales of brilliance, courage, honesty and truth from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Montgomery Meigs (Quartermaster General under Lincoln) and John Wesley Powell, the geologist-explorer of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. It is through these tales of moral courage and intellectual honesty that the true greatness of the unfinished American experiment reveals itself and in which its future hopes reside. Schama examines the difficult immigrant experience and as an immigrant himself he embodies all of its poignant dreams for a better future. But it is a future challenged by our ever-increasing panoply of problems. This unique moment in history, symbolized by the election of Barack Obama as President, is a profound shift in the American landscape. For Schama it is an example of the transformative possibilities that are inherent in the framework of liberty as constructed by Jefferson as early as 1779 in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. It is in the genius of its construction that all of Schama's hopes for the American future reside. This documentary is brilliant in its presentation of a complex story and Mr. Schama is equally brilliant in its presentation. Strongly recommended.
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.
The four episodes are a bit uneven, with the stronger episodes being the last. Where the show may falter a bit is in the attempt to pull together what is an extensive and multi-faceted history of a large country into a short episode of only about an hour. This is essentially an impossible task, and when the series attempts to do so in one of the earlier episodes, anyone familiar with some of the details of American history will immediately see the issues in attempting to do so. But as in most of all Schama's works, the strength of the episodes lies in Schama's approach of taking a theme and then working the narrative around the theme to draw out both large and also more nuanced conclusions, leaving the observer to ponder some of the unanswered questions surrounding the theme.
If you are a Schama fan, there is the added benefit of watching a British man who has invested so much of his life in (and about America) coming to the conclusion that, in spite of the difficulties, America's future does indeed look bright, and perhaps can be even brighter with the right amount of effort and a correct approach towards moving forward. There are moments when it is truly touching to see Schama's feelings show forth on this most interesting of experiments, America.
Here's some Schama works not to be missed:
Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution
Landscape And Memory
Simon Schama's Power of Art
A History of Britain - The Complete Collection
The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age
Landscape And Memory