The Two Faces of America

from the VPRO (television) guide, of 3 Nov, ’08.

British historian, Simon Schama wrote, The American Future: A History, and later presented the BBC series of the same name.

Chris Kijne interviewed Schama for TEGENLICHT, a blog of the VPRO.

Introduced by Ulrik Unger.

Ulrik Unger: What brought you to talk with Simon Schama?

Chris Kijne: I admired his book about American history. Before he did the BBC series he traveled through America, holding in his mind the four great themes he felt ran through the entire history of that land. He saw how the four themes had worked out and how they played in the last election. That seemed a valid approach to understanding America that fits well in a program like Tegenlight that also tries to see deeper than the superficial popular view of the day.

UU: So, what are these “themes?”

CK: Schama explains to Europeans that their view of America is not realistic, that America is more complex than they think. He organizes his work in themes.

The first one he names American Wars. The way that an army and making wars are thought of. Schama explains that from the time of the Founding Fathers two, different, ideas have co-existed about the Army and waging wars. Thomas Jefferson considered soldiers above all civilians who took up arms only if necessary to defend the nation — the fight for independence was fought by millers and welders (the plumbers and carpenters of the 18th century). On the other hand there is the old European idea of a standing army, always ready to protect the interests of the nation wherever needed in the world. Schama mentions that the Jefferson concept is the most “American,” but both have always existed; sometimes the one, other times the other, have had the upper hand.

UU: That describes the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against.

CK: Exactly. But Schama reminds us that it is a military man, Eisenhower, who warned us about the military-industrial complex. In other words, even in the army one can find people who do not think an emphasis on army and war is desirable. America is not so black and white as many Europeans think.

UU: There are three other themes.

CK: The next one is religion. Europeans are tempted to think of America as deeply religious and therefore conservative. Schama reminds us that there was a religious revival in the early 19th century, The Great Awakening, that was responsible for the abolition of slavery. So, religion is not necessarily a force for regression. He makes clear that the Church for almost a century was the core of the social and political life of the black community. But, at the same time, the Ku Klux Klan also was founded in religion. Again, that points to the complex streams deep in American reality.

UU: And the third theme…

CK. Immigration. When we think America we see the Statue of Liberty, but Schama tells us that Benjamin Franklin– whom he calls The Founding Father of Paranoia– already expressed great reservation about the immigration of Germans in the 18th century. They had a different culture, Franklin said. His view was that America should be another Great Britain across the Atlantic, white and Anglo-Saxon.

Every wave of immigrants since then has often led to a hysterical reaction. Schama writes about veritable pogroms on a scale I had never read about before. This theme too has two faces.

U.U. Paradoxical, evidently.

CK: The last theme is called American Plenty. Many Americans think there are no limits. At first there was always the (supposedly empty) west. Unlimited space today has become unlimited riches, and unlimited resources. The idea that everyone has the right to own a car and a house, Schama says, has now resulted in the credit crisis.

But then he adds, we think we see America’s collapse but don’t underestimate the American ability to renew itself and to find solutions Europeans have never imagined.

One of the last questions I asked Schama was whether for such a renewal it was necessary for Obama to win. He said, Yes.

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