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.

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.


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