G.E. Theater?

I remain troubled by President Obama’s decision to introduce, and thus to endorse and sell, the History Channel’s “America: the Story of Us,” whose first two of twelve hours aired on Sunday night. The President’s remarks were banal — descriptions of our country’s strength as resting with its people, etc. — and ended simply with his encouraging us to “enjoy the show.”  Nevertheless, the intro brought an unusual mix of excitement and gravitas to the proceedings. The President’s being part of the show made the venture seem a momentous, public-spirited event.

Obama thus lent himself — more importantly to me, lent his office — to a commercial production with a deeply interested narrative on the most elemental national matters, a production whose ends are not necessarily in any way in keeping with the purposes of that office. Just by showing up, and even more so by being fulsome, he gives a TV show an aura of national importance. Why do that?

From a tactical point of view, the move might make plenty of sense. The show attracted a record-breaking audience, and it’s about nothing but raving up America, so why wouldn’t Obama want to hitch his wagon to that star?  But his decision might be especially problematic if it were motivated by clever-clever politics, and not by some mere tacky impulse.

“America: the Story of Us” is a history of the country that Obama serves as chief executive. History always involves interpretation. Interpretation always involves agendas, points of view, ideology, politics. Precisely to the extent that it breaks viewing records, the show — along with making vast sums for GE, Hearst, and other owners of the History Channel — will be influential. In keeping with the mood of import the President’s intro has given it (carried through by pretentious Bank of America advertising and the self-congratulatory tone of the show in general), the series is apparently to be “made available to schools.” (Which in video marketing terms usually means “score!”)

To begin with, then, the President apparently thinks watching stuff like this on TV is a good thing to do in schools. Fair enough, if he really thinks so, but suppose a student or teacher snaps out of the blue-glow daze long enough to question any of the show’s underlying assumptions — that is, to engage in the kind of critical thinking that the President might agree should really be going on in schools. Does he think his blanket, presidential thumbs-up makes questioning the show’s hegemony easier, or harder?  Does this thing encourage students — or any other citizen — to think at all?  Shouldn’t it, to be considered important?

Obama’s people must have vetted the show for the appropriateness of his involvement. The show’s relentless triumphalism and exceptionalism are nothing if not predictable, and I’ve written elsewhere about the ironies involved in Obama’s habitually yoking himself to the least nuanced kinds of history narratives. Specifically, then, regarding Sunday night’s episiode: did his vetters even notice how the show positions the colonists’ 1765-75 protests, speciously, as anti-tax and anti-regulation? Do they approve its ceaseless hymning of development, growth, and wealth-building unfettered by government intrusion? Did they nod during talking-head Newt Gingrich’s comment that the important thing about the Declaration is that it said for the first time that our rights originate with God? (Rights may originate there, for all I — or Gingrich — know, but the Declaration wasn’t the first time anyone said so, and there’s an overwhelming political bias in presenting the Declaration’s chief significance to U.S. history that way.)

And if the vetters did notice things like that, and if they think it’s just cagey politics to associate themselves with the anti-regulation mood, they may be too clever by half.

Agendas that are out in the open about being partial are always more honest, so more fair. That kind of openness actually can inspire critical thinking. But unlike a “Bill Moyers’ Journal” (or even an “O’Reilly Factor”), “America: the Story of Us” wants — commercially, it needs — to be liked by as many people as possible. It therefore exploits and deliberately confuses multiple agendas. It edits the Gingrich comment on the Declaration mentioned above, for example, to slide right into Annette Gordon-Reed’s claiming the Declaration for, among other things, gay rights. The show pervasively conjures a mood of happy consensus by pretending to represent a spectrum of voices, whose utterances get sliced into meaninglessness.

The historian Garry Wills recently called Obama’s political strategy “omnidirectional placation.” Many have deemed that unfair, and maybe they’re right. But the President’s product-pitch for “America: the Story of Us” makes him appear intellectually vacuous, and possibly even pandering and sly, much like the show itself. I fear that in this case, Obama is lending support to Wills’s criticism.

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