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Sunday, 12 October 2008

The American Future: A History by Simon Schama, BBC2



Did we like it?
Interesting, enlightening and absorbing, yet we never felt as though we were plunging into virgin territory, with Simon Schama perfunctorily plugging gaps in our knowledge of America’s history with his own biased narrative rather than leading us on an objective odyssey of originality.

What was good about it?
• Schama coloured in the gaps in such areas as the importance of the Colorado River to the farming area that feed off its tributaries through irrigation of crops.
• This he did by championing the adventures of John Wesley Powell, who ventured into the unexplored wilds of the American West with the idea of using the Colorado Basin to supply a series of small towns and farms. However, he was usurped by more conniving industrialists who wanted to use the natural resources to support huge cities, being booed off stage when he presented his theories to a committee.
• The sad consequence was that ultimately the farming land became over-tilled and the topsoil was ruined, a problem exacerbated by the drought of the 30s that converted the once-fertile land into the Great American Dustbowl causing a mass migration to California.
• While often derisive of American policies, Schama applauded the ingenuity of the Hoover Dam, and that many of its workers were employment orphans of the Depression. He was less complimentary about the safety on the site that saw a fair number killed – in a former life Jeremy Clarkson, curse his black soul, might have liked a job as a foreman so he could work in the kind of environment he advocates for workers today.
• Dispossessed and trundling to California on carts strapped together by sheep entrails and pulled by lame horses, the families fleeing the choking Dustbowl were still able to correctly spell the upbeat labels painted on their vehicles. Perhaps to ram home the point, Schama stood in front of a store sign bearing the legend: ‘Wheelz fer sayel’.

What was bad about it?
• The lack of revelation can best be summed up in Schama’s disclosure of how Las Vegas is coping with a nine-year drought. This had been seeded from the introduction, and so we imagined there would be some startling, innovative scheme to preserve the scarce supplies,
• Perhaps special tarmac that soaks in the water and directs it to an underground reservoir, or aeroplanes with special nets that can squeeze all the moisture from passing clouds as Schama often heralded America’s “resourcefulness” when resources were dwindling. Sadly it was nothing so fantastical: a bloke simply drove around streets laden with picket-fenced opulence and gave a ticking off to homeowners whose water features were a little bit too grandiose – apparently it works, but was undeserving of such a fanfare.
• We aren’t sure of Schama’s own political affiliations but would hazard a guess he isn’t a lifelong fan of the Republican Party. In what should be a neutral history full of acute but impartial observations, Schama’s scorn for the avarice of right-wing politics sometimes bleeds through into his learned oratory. And this is a danger as it’s often much easier to believe the lectures of an intelligent person, especially one responsible for the brilliant A History of Britain – even if he is keen on personal rather than definitive chronicles – and the authoritarian voice of the BBC.
• This was initially apparent when he introduced a pioneer of American expansion to the West, when he bundled up President Andrew Jackson’s urges to his people to make new lives there with the fact that many Native Americans were “ethnically cleansed” – another powerful, evocative phrase.
• Schama also sneered at the technological monstrosities capitalists were showing off in Chicago, which would be used to extract the newly-discovered oil from the ground.
• And he portrayed the 1980 US Presidential Election as a face-off between the good, pragmatic Jimmy Carter – who was pleading with Americans for a more judicious and prudent use of resources – and the one-man evil empire Ronald Reagan, who charged to the White House on the back of a rallying call for the population to act with reckless decadence.
• We would wager that the election was slightly more complex than this scenario, which is akin to in 50 years’ time presenting the forthcoming UK election as being solely decided on people voting on David Cameron’s inevitable pledge to restore foxhunting.

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