To The Victor Belongs The Past

It’s been a busy several weeks, centering around my brother’s wedding last Saturday in North Carolina. Before it, I was busy doing my part and traveling, and after it, I’ve been catching up on work. Less importantly, I’ve been catching up on TV shows I recorded on MythTV while I was there, including a series that looked fascinating: 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America.

A few of their choices for those ten days weren’t surprising, such as the battle of Antietam during the Civil War, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the Gold Rush. Some were a little strange, like Shay’s Rebellion and the assassination of President McKinley. And some were, to put it mildly, weird: the appearance of Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show, for example. This was a large part of the appeal of the series. Speculating on the importance of Antietam wasn’t nearly as interesting to me as satisfying my curiosity about how Elvis was so earth-shaking.

Now, I’ve watched four of the shows (the Gold Rush, the Homestead strike, Elvis, and the Scopes evolution trial). They’re well-done, and I haven’t seen any evidence so far that the shows were seriously inaccurate. But at least some of them are disappointing: three of the four so far, to be exact.

Let’s take the show about the Scopes trial as our first example. The popular view is that Scopes, and his celebrated lawyer Clarence Darrow, lost the trial but won the publicity war, and that celebrated prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, broken in spirit from his loss, died a short time later. Admirably, the show casts doubt on the received wisdom, noting Bryan’s ambitious plans for the future and the suppression of the teaching of evolution that spread after the trial. But throughout the show, the trial was portrayed as a battle between faith and reason. Or, to show my take on the show’s bias, between superstition and progress.

This is a hot button for me. Perhaps that’s a topic for another post; for now, I’ll just point out that science’s successes within the physical sphere have been nearly matched by its failures everywhere else. Science, religion, history, and other disciplines have their places in the realm of rationality. It is currently fashionable to crow about the folly of allowing religion to trespass into science’s territory, but pointing out the reverse is not nearly so popular. This was a huge part of Bryan’s message, and the show does not do it justice, portraying it as a reaction to progress instead of as a warning the modern world might have done well to heed.

The same kind of bias was also evident in the show about the Homestead strike. I don’t think the terms “Left” and “Right” mean much regarding political discourse, but to the extent they do, the Homestead strike show was quite leftist. The strike was not just a famous labor dispute, supposedly, but a referendum on what the show called “corporatism” versus the rights of workers, one that supposedly echoes today in the crimes of Tyco and Enron (both of whose corporate headquarters made an appearance in the show). The workers, in resorting to violence, were merely defending their way of life against men (Frick and Carnegie) who sought to profit from their destruction. The workers’ treatment of the Pinkerton army was merely an expression of their fears, whatever the Pinkertons thought they were promised in the cease-fire.

In saying this, I don’t mean to downplay the abuses of the robber baron age. But the acts of the union at Homestead were every bit as shameful, and the show seemed to minimize this, portraying them as merely controversial. To tie acts like this to the supposed corporatism of today, without recognizing the efforts (and successes) of later union leaders to help their workers without resorting to violence, is deceptive. Not to mention that for every Enron, we can find a Total-Fina-Elf, a NestlĂ©, or a Cotecna, all in the part of the world considered most sympathetic to workers’ rights.

So what was going on? I don’t think those shows were some kind of intentional whitewash; they were more of an inability to transcend one’s biases. Which brings me to Elvis.

The Elvis show was fun, no doubt, but it seemed quite pretentious. Most of the history was correct, but the small errors were telling: for example, the idea that Elvis was the first pop megastar ever (and not Frank Sinatra), or that this was the first time sexual mores were being questioned (Roaring ’20s, anyone?), or that this was the first time black music was being accepted by whites (again, the jazz of the ’20s). Too much effort was made to link Elvis to the rebellious, liberal Sixties.

Every era tends to see its own time and its own causes as the center of history. But this is a tendency to be recognized and avoided, not embraced as transparently as these shows seem to. Certainly, I could name perhaps a half-dozen events with far more historical impact on America than the Ed Sullivan show ever had: the Dred Scott decision, the failure of the League of Nations in the U. S. Senate, the impeachment of President Nixon, and September 11 come to mind without even thinking. Why were they excluded, and Elvis included? Perhaps the Homestead strike marked a strong shift in labor relations, but why link it to Enron, over one hundred years later, in an attempt to give it relevance? And why link the evolution debate to an overhyped trial in Tennessee, instead of to the Supreme Court decisions reversing the anti-evolution laws and generally strengthening the wall between public schools and religion?

I suppose I’m being too sensitive. The shows are really not that bad; I learned something from them. (By the way, they’re all showing again tomorrow on the History Channel.) But I get tired of seeing history tied to the yoke of the current media barons and their prejudices.

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