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

Henry Ford -- my late mother referred to him as a vile anti-Semite -- sent 160 spies around the neighborhoods of his immigrant car factory workers to check on behavior; "whiskey breath and dirty underwear" meant no wage increase. Dirty, immoral immigrants were sent to the Ford English School and were evaluated by his "sociological department." He did not approve of immigrants but if they completed the English course they were sent to a baseball game carrying little American flags. Schama seems to ooze contempt for this ritual, referring to it as a "papier-mâché melting pot." Ford was a bigot but the ritual, Simon, was one that meant everything to tearful immigrants like my own antecedents.

As I hold a special affection for the state of Nebraska, it was good to hear Schama saying something nice about America in the context of the work of Grace Abbott, a Nebraskan who established the Immigrant Protection League to shield girls from exploitation. In 1917 she wrote The Immigrant and the Community, a screed offering a sympathetic view of immigration: "We are many nationalities -- we should not be ashamed of this; if all races can live together we can meet the true American opportunity." I include this Abbott quote because Schama seems determined to paint a protracted exposition of a nation steeped in racism, bigotry, and oppression. There is no doubt prejudice still permeates American society; my father had to change his name from Gold to Gould to achieve anything in the Jew-less naval architectural world. What I would like to know is if tribal Europe was making such eloquent statements as was Grace Abbott in 1917. Whenever Schama pontificates about bigoted America as if examining a plague-ridden corpse, I do want to remind him that America also produced Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King.

To his credit Schama makes the important point that the Jews have experienced unprecedented freedom and opportunity in America since the 1658 arrival of the first seventeenth-century settlers of their faith. He is right; unlike Great Britain, the U.S. has never had Jew riots, an expulsion that lasted 350 years, or a York, Norwich, or Lincoln Blood Libel. (In a previous television series Dr. Jonathan Miller said he had attended University College London because Jeremy Bentham had envisaged it as a place in which nineteenth-century Jews could feel welcome.) As Schama explains, the earliest American Jews "had the vote and held office -- something not possible anywhere else in the world."

In the episode taken up with an overview of faith, Schama seems disgusted by the "primitive Baptists in Virginia with their droning song" and is "taken back centuries." He also tells us that the University of Virginia has no chapel and no college of divinity because its founder, Thomas Jefferson, was a man of enlightenment. He talks at length about the evolution of the black church -- born out of the slavery struggle after the flogging of the Rev. Andrew Bryan in Savannah, Georgia, resulted in his owner giving him land for a church in the early 1800s. Schama's portrayal of the disgrace of slavery is accurate but I never cease to be annoyed with British critics, whose wrath I incurred at a church function in London in late Obama-era November: a young couple reminded me that "every American has black blood on their hands." I reminded them that millions of immigrant Americans arrived post-emancipation. Schama interviews a black activist preacher, Rev. Raphael Warnock of the late Dr. King's Ebenezer Baptist Church, who reminds us that American blacks are "still very angry." I wish we could all, black and white, bury the hatchet.

It is to the credit of the great sweep of American history that Rev. Charles Finlay of the evangelical movement established Oberlin College in 1833, where blacks and women flourished. He said that slavery would bring the destruction of the whole nation. Schama moves from this to the fundamentalist right, bringing in the likes of Billy Sunday, Jerry Falwell, and the anti-abortion, Moral Majority extremes of the movement. This is a mistake made by Europeans: they do not grasp that Americans can be enthusiastic churchgoers without being fundamentalists. Secular Europe, with its knife culture, football violence, and racism, could benefit from a society that renews its faith. Lest we forget that millions of churchgoing whites voted for Barack Obama.

Schama says that the American heroine of his youth was the charismatic Fanny Lou Hamer, a black activist from Mississippi who fought to have her delegation seated at the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City. He says her speech at the credentials committee changed America. (Despite the magic of her legacy many other things did, too, including the tireless work of millions of Americans like my parents who risked life and limb campaigning for civil rights.) One of twenty children who worked in the cotton fields, her tombstone says, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired," and Schama says she changed American minds with "the unbeatable force of faith." He wheels out angry activist Mark Anthony Green, who insists many Americans think Barack Obama is less than human. Yes, true in redneck country, but with crowds of English louts taunting black footballer Sol Campbell and Spaniards baiting Lewis Hamilton, Europe still has a long way to go, too.

Schama looks at military power: Thomas Jefferson said Europe was the "nursery of tyrants"; Schama is granted a rare look inside West Point, established to support the civilians in control of defense and to "strangle dictators at birth." What is striking is the presence of so many ethnic minorities. Europe does not yet boast this mix in its armed forces. Britain's brave Gurkhas have only just been allowed to settle in Britain. Whatever shortcomings Schama chooses to reveal about America's blundering military bloodbaths, his moving visit with a proud Latino war veteran, 82nd Airborne paratrooper Salazar, is a tribute to the triumph of the Great Experiment.

Like all liberals Simon Schama feels that an Obama victory means the world "can begin to believe in the American future again," but this mantra drives me to distraction: America always had a future even in the darkest days of the Depression, Hooverville, Joe McCarthy, Watergate, and Hurricane Katrina. I do believe you have to have been born there to feel this faith in your bones. To his credit Schama says, "Faith is what created America -- it is what gave it its freedom. Acts of faith are the great moments in American history." Amen.