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The American Future: A History

(PBS; US DVD: 20 Jan 2009)

As much as they pride themselves on their history, Americans are also known for their short historical memory. The American Future: A History not only reminds Americans of how intricately connected modern-day America is to its roots, but paints this picture boldly through juxtaposition of past and present, promise and pessimism, possibility and reality. Historian Simon Schama, inspired by the “historical” 2008 election and anticipating Barack Obama’s victory, reminds us that the future is still in the making but cannot be created without connecting with the past that brought us here.


Aired on PBS in January 2009 to coincide with the inauguration of President Barack Obama, this four-part series examines America’s past while considering what is at stake for its future. The two-DVD set includes an introduction by Schama (one of two DVD extras) that was filmed on 5 November 2008, the day after Obama was elected to the office of president.


Sandwiched between the inspirational words and images of Obama, Schama argues that one of America’s greatest attributes is its “power of reinvention”, and that this is one of those moments when history has been “vindicated” (by the election of the first African American president) and the process of “remaking America as a national community” has, thus, begun. This remaking matters, Schama argues, not just for the United States, but for the whole world.


And just when it seems Schama might be swept away by the fervor of hope currently overwhelming the nation, he asks Americans to consider where they have come from. The American Future: A History asks, and, for the most part, answers this question by examining four key aspects of the past and present: “war, moral fervor, immigration and the increasingly difficult relationship between expectations of prosperity and the reality of economic and environmental limits”.


The first program on the DVD, “American Prosperity”, seems the least connected to the historic election that inspired Schama, at least in its initial framing. But in some ways, this piece sets the stage for the realities that limit the optimism of the American future, even as these limits have been challenged in the past. This program also establishes the nature of Schama’s inquiries including a “long look” at history, juxtaposing between images and ideas from the past and present, with interviews with individuals most affected by the issues at hand, and a piecing together of a long, complicated history with clarity and vision.


More than being about “American prosperity” this program is about water—its importance to American prosperity, its contentious past, the big dreams that created the conditions of drought and scarcity, and the connected threats faced by the United States in the present and future.
Schama reminds us of Andrew Jackson and his “ethnic cleansing” of the American frontier.  He also reminds us of John Wesley Powell, among the first to navigate the Colorado River and realize the limits of American water dreams.


He takes us from the building of the Hoover Dam to the irrigation of the Imperial Valley of Southern California and from the mass production and mass consumption of Las Vegas to the city’s water conservation efforts. But most compelling about this installment is the reminder of the 1980 presidential election when Jimmy Carter’s predictions of water scarcity and calls for a reality check were whisked away by Ronald Reagan’s shiny promises.


This brings Schama back to the moment that inspired his look at America’s future via its past and the “new era” that this “moment of truth election” will usher in. “American resourcefulness”, Schama argues, is “one well that won’t run dry”.


Like “American Plenty”, the second program, “American War”, begins with the moment of crisis: when there is a heightened distrust of government and when people’s votes are their way of saying “help us to believe”. Schama argues that there is a “haunting of the present by its past” and that we must consider this past “to understand what’s at stake right now”.


In “American War” Schama helps us understand by visiting Arlington cemetery and reminding us how and why it was created and by standing on the bones of the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where “history grabs you by the jugular”.  This is where Montgomery Meigs realized that the civil war was not going to “civil” at all but would, rather, be bloody and brutal and not at all a “war of last resort”.


Schama takes us back to Jefferson’s creation of West Point and the desire to create an army controlled by civilians, a school of democratic citizenship, as well as Hamilton’s opposite view—a debate that rages on today in light of the threats of terrorism. Schama also reminds us of debates between Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain and the role the “flag-waving media” played in these debates and in the censorship of Twain. But Schama also reminds us that Twain began another great American tradition through his critiques of war and that this tradition lives on even in America’s veterans as he visits “military city”, San Antonio, and talks with veterans of “just” and “unjust” wars.


In the third piece of this series, “American Fervor”, Schama examines the role that religion has played not simply in the establishment of the United States, as we might expect, but also in many “great historical moments [that] have always been acts of faith”.  Because he is building from the moment of the 2008 election, this look at “fervor” takes on several interesting dimensions, from the early radical moments when Jews were given religious freedom and full rights in America to the early radicalism of evangelical Christianity to the more conservative incarnations rooted in the dispossessed whites of Appalachia to the “mega church” movements of today.


But at the moment of the 2008 elections, Schama’s presentation of “American Fervor” examines the way in which religious fervor has shifted from the typical Republican incarnations seen in Presidents Ronald Regan and George W. Bush to those rooted in the tradition of the black church in the US. Thus, this piece examines the historical development of the black church and its role in abolition and civil rights, specifically, and community-building and social justice, generally.  Naturally this mentions Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. but it also highlights the lesser-known civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer.


“American Fervor” points to Obama’s faith and the role his faith has in inspiring hope through “passion of belief” and “zeal for freedom”. More than the first two installments of this series, “American Fervor” is framed by the election and Obama is placed in the context of both the African American traditions of the black church as well as the American traditions of transformation through religious ideals.


Finally, this series concludes with the question, and title, “What Is an American?” A question that, Schama argues, the country has struggled with from its inception. This piece begins with the historical moment when someone from “Kenya, Kansas, and Hawaii” who “represents all the colors of America” is running for office and then goes on to consider immigration and labor, focusing on the stories of Hispanics past and present and the Chinese in the late 1800s.


Schama interviews members of an anti-immigration group in Texas with picket signs like “nail ‘em and jail ‘em”, and Hispanic day laborers defending their right to work before revealing the true history behind Texas: “When Texas became America, invasion was the other way around.” He also reveals the ironies of the labor that built America, like the Chinese building the transcontinental railroad, whose involvement in this vital infrastructural development has been virtually forgotten. In many of his investigations, we see Schama perusing local archives, reading quotes at some points, including the anti-Chinese “race hatred” printed in California newspapers in 1886.


Most notably, like his focus on Fannie Lou Hamer in “American Fervor”, in “What is an American?” Schama also features one of the “great unsung heroines” of American history, Grace Abbot, whose book The Immigrant and the Community was the first sympathetic look at immigration and argued that immigrants enrich and strengthen the nation and that they should retain their unique cultures not shed them for the American “melting pot”. Also notable are the links that Schama makes between labor and immigration, reveling Henry Ford’s experiments in “social engineering” through spies from his Ford Sociological Department and his compulsory Ford English School, both related to incentives for higher wages for “model Americans”.


The American Future: A History is an important DVD collection that asks the United States and its citizens to consider not only where they’re going, but where they’ve been. Schama takes us through this examination of history evenly and with little of the “bias” that might turn off more conservative viewers, though at one moment in “American War” it is difficult to mask his reaction—the reaction of a history professor—to Vice President, Dick Cheney’s oft-heard words (this time at his 2007 Veteran’s Day speech at Arlington Cemetery): “we are a peaceful nation”.


This series contextualizes some of the well-know, as well as the lesser-known, facts of American history and applies these ideas, debates, and struggles at a time when hope is once-again sweeping the nation. But the hope in The American Future: A History is that the sweeping will be done slowly, with purpose, rather than with the kind of fervor that has created the need for change in the first place. At the end of “Who Is an American?” Schama returns to post 9/11 paranoia and reminds us that he is also an immigrant and says, “without starry eyes I do believe in the American future”.

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