British TV's Nasty Spin on the U.S. (Part 1)

Since November 2008 British television has been broadcasting a wealth of new programs about the United States. Three of these series have already started rerunning at the end of January.

The three BBC series have been Professor Simon Schama's The American Future, Stephen Fry in America, and Louis Theroux's Law and Disorder in Philadelphia. A single documentary by Channel Four's Jon Snow has completed the national broadcasters' orgy of scrutiny of the violent, racist, and thoroughly disorderly U.S.

Briton Schama has lived in America for many years and can be regarded as an admirer of the U.S., but chose some extraordinarily obscure episodes of history to accentuate its warts. He used the acquisition of Texas as an example of the racism that so many Britons still feel is endemic to the American psyche. Schama describes the attitude of Sam Houston's fighters of 1836: "No inferior race was going to stand in their way." Interviewing a modern-day Texan nationalist named Reva Rohe, we hear her proclaim the dangers of Mexicans: "Diseases, raping, killing, stealing -- ruining our country." Schama explains that the concept of Manifest Destiny is inexorably tied in with the belief that racial superiority gave the Americans the right to expand.

Schama quotes the writings of ordinary soldiers of the period after the Mexican War: "Thought I could shoot Mexicans as well as Indians, deer, or turkey"; "It is an outrage for Mexicans to own such a country"; and "They are too lazy and make few improvements to civilization." We are told that the acquisition of New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona after the war completed a cycle that would see the perpetual degradation of Spanish-speaking peoples.

No doubt soldiers of the mid-nineteenth century were bigoted, but does Schama think Italian, Prussian, or Spanish men in uniform were any less racist? Simon Schama was not born in the United States and is a product of the European liberal movement; what he does not seem to grasp is that despite its ugly moments the United States is still a beacon of courage to those of us born into its imperfect bosom.

He goes on to cherry-pick history with a long and drawn-out tale of another culture humiliated by whites: the Chinese. Observing that becoming an American could be a process tinged with tragedy, Schama, voice trembling, says, "no one knows that better than the Chinese," who first came to the United States in the 1850s and were regarded as "clownish subhumans." They went to California in search of gold but were spurned, ending up building the transcontinental railroad, begun in 1866 under the cudgel of brutish Irish foremen; they were dubbed "feminine" because of their lack of body hair. Schama reminds us that they worked through forty-foot snowdrifts and blasted tunnels with nitroglycerin only to be ignored by "the hell of history." White workers were commemorated with plaques but not the Chinese. He asserts that Americans regarded the Chinese subhuman and in San Francisco of the 1860s lynchings and deadly firestorms ensued.

Schama refers to the "evil dripping from an obscure provincial paper," whose Scottish-born proprietor Charles McGlashan described Asians as "evil, lustful, and opium-smoking"; eventually the town of Truckee (I assume he means California, not Utah) expunged itself of the Chinese in a nine-week pogrom that he says "turns my stomach." Schama observes that the race-hatred spewing out in the country of the Statue of Liberty proves his theory that whites have always felt that Asiatics could never be real Americans. He notes that in 1886 the Statue of Liberty was installed, its lofty lyrics by Emma Lazarus extolling the virtues of immigrants, "as long as they weren't Chinese."

To dramatize the relentless racism of early twentieth-century America, Schama reminds us of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Thousands of Asians were sent back but not before being incarcerated on Angel Island, California, where they were subjected to humiliating and intimate body examinations. Poetry on the walls of the detention centers expressed their despair at the brutality and injustice of what they had envisaged as a bastion of liberty and opportunity.

I will pause here. Before my colleagues at Pajamas Media and Encounter Books start to believe I have become a Chomsky-esque leftie, I must reassure them that I am trying to objectively report on a long few months of being educated about the U.S. by a string of distinguished British historians. Of course, the empires of Europe never showed a tad of racism or brutality and their long history is a cornucopia of justice for all, peaceable coexistence, and racial equality.