Downton Abbey, the New York Review, and Jumping the Shark

When mighty intellectuals get into pop crit, things can get weird, and James Fenton’s entertaining discussion of “Downton Abbey” in The New York Review of Books is a case in point. Fenton is an English poet, critic, editor, scholar, commenter on U.S. politics, etc. — Oxford-educated at “Maudlin” college and all that — and I’ve read him a lot, with admiration, but I don’t get the feeling, when reading him on “Downton Abbey,” that he’s really the guy to be determining whether the “broad strokes of the brush” the series indulges in are dramaturgically OK or not, and especially whether the series “jumps the shark.”

He says it has and does, and that it’s OK. I think he’s confusing a soap, which DA is, and which by definition (mine) can’t jump the shark, having no rules, with a dramaturgically ruled show, which can jump the shark by breaking its own rules and becoming a soap.

But before getting into that I should note that my response to Fenton on DA isn’t mere Anglophobia. I had a similar response, though more acutely, when Lorrie Moore, to me one of the most adept short-fiction writers of my generation, and as far as I know a U.S. citizen, weighed in, also in NYRB, on “The Wire.” Moore advised us at length and in detail, and I think some time after “The Wire” was over — no sordid news cycle at NYRB! — that the show was really very, very good.

Wow. Thanks for the newsflash, teach. There’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.
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Socialist Pilgrims? (The War on Thanksgiving)

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Now that the Thanksgiving holiday is over, and the MSM no longer even remembers it, I will comment — I actually feel forced to comment! — on the flap about the Pilgrims as socialists that I was drawn into over the past week. The trip began when I was quoted in an interesting Sunday Times “Week in Review” piece, which lays out the controversy.

(Briefly here: For years, Rush Limbaugh and some publications of the Austrian School of economics beloved by American libertarians, and more recently Glenn Beck, have been saying that the story of the Pilgrims is a story of socialism failed — that the Pilgrims began by holding property in common in a socialist-utopian way and starved because of it, then switched to private property and thrived enough to thank God for the bounty of the harvest: the first Thanksgiving. Thus America began in a lesson about the evils of socialism and glory of property. This year, thanks to the Tea Party, the story has received new mainstream attention.)

The Times quoted me near the end of the piece, not on that subject but on the problem that I think arises when people across the political spectrum seize on some historical event and force it to serve an overdetermined purpose for a current position. Bad history, bad politics. As I told the reporter, history is always slanted. How and why it’s slanted, in particular cases, is something we should be keenly aware of. … blah blah blah.

But thanks to that one, general quote, which came with a reference to my MIT Press book Inventing American History (where I write about distortions in public history), and thanks also to my seemingly endless eagerness to promote myself, I went on both Michael Smerconish’s syndicated radio show and ABC News “Good Morning, America” (do they observe that comma?), to weigh in not on my subject, which is the way everybody across the spectrum, each of us, distorts history, but on the current controversy: whether the Pilgrims began as socialists and then learned the error of their ways.

In the interviews I tried both to wrangle with the immediate question about the Pilgrims and to discuss what is, to me, the great, non-seasonal theme, political tension in public history. I also suggested that now and then we might want to lighten up a bit on the whole “lessons of history” thing. It was fun. Smerconish gave me ten minutes, and we had what I thought was an interesting conversation (and I like his unique effort to bring talk-radio intensity to centrism). “Good Morning America,” with its very specific needs, managed to shoehorn three seconds (literally!) of a twenty-minute interview into a piece on the controversy. Not surprising, but startling to watch: my name flashed on the screen so briefly that all I can do is hope that subliminal advertising actually works.

So now that I’m a media-certified expert: Were the Pilgrims socialists?
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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? Continue reading

The story of “U.S.”?

I’ve put this more obnoxiously elsewhere (Twitter doesn’t allow for much nuance), and inaccurately too, since I ascribed the problem, knee-jerk, to my old favorite target PBS (nervous newbie Twittering inspiring rush to judgment on my part) …

But still! I really am bugged to learn that the upcoming twelve-hour History Channel documentary “America: the Story of Us,” a sweeping history of just what its title implies, moves from the founding of Plymouth Colony to Lexington and Concord in ninety seconds.  Same old story, taken here to nearly grotesque extremes: the colonial period as mere prologue to the “real” thing. But there’s no chance of even beginning to get any realistic feeling for our history without a dive into the first 150 years of European expansion into North America. And with twelve hours…! At least give us Bacon’s Rebellion, the revised New England charter, the Anglo-Iroquois empire!

The producers’ dispiriting decision in this case suggests a tired, foregone AP American History mood to the whole thing. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’m trying to “tweet” more slowly. Or at least less heatedly.