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Simon Schama on America

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Simon Schama, British art and literary critic who since 1990 has written and presented more than 30 documentaries as well as such best-sellers as THE POWER OF ART and the three-volume A HISTORY OF BRITAIN, spoke to Bill Moyers tonight on Bill Moyers Journal regarding American race relations and the promise of America.

Remarking on the historic election of Barack Obama and race in America, Schama said,

Benjamin Franklin, 1750, is terrified about the Germans in Pennsylvania. For Franklin, this was going to be an empire of the free but only if you’re maybe Scots, maybe Irish or English. He wrote, of course actually, he was aware of German journalism and so on. But he fought bitterly against the possibility that the Germans would overrun Pennsylvania. The notion is: there’s always the next wave. They’re not going to be ready or right or, in some peculiar biological way, compatible with democracy. The Irish weren’t going to be compatible. The Italians weren’t going to, but time takes its own. We were talking earlier about the amazing power of education. And, you know, that has the capacity somehow magically over the generations to make all these people just fine as Americans.

The jump which we’re seeing now, however, is what Chuck Alaman in Dearborn, Michigan, says at the end of that film, talks about with great pride, says, “I’m not an Arab American. I’m an American who happens to be a Muslim. I’m as American as apple pie.” And we are seeing, if Obama’s elected, the coloring of America. And you gave me an article to read in the “Atlantic Monthly” which was sort of about how white America is ending. And I thought, yes. But am I missing something here? But what exactly is the problem?

[…]

The race problem will not go away, not least because when times are tough actually those who are, in any case, economically disadvantaged, who have less schooling, are likely to be those who are most, alas, disposable in terms of the possibility of unemployment. So we’re going to expect I think trouble in the cities. Not I think trouble like 1960s.

But you asked, of course, the historical question. That is profound. America begins with an act – and you know, I’m deeply sentimental in my enthusiasm about the beginning of the American experiment. But it begins with an act of profound bad faith. Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence in which liberty and equality are offered as the defining principles that make you American, while he is himself a slave owner. And then the Constitution is made at the moment in which African Americans are defined as three-fifths of a human in order to give the South enough clout to perpetuate slavery.

And, you know, Lincoln’s conversion coming up to the Civil War and then during the Civil War, from someone who found it morally loathsome but pragmatically had to be kept that way, to someone who, for whatever reasons, to win the war or not, was responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation, was an enormous change.

Lincoln, simply in the end, found it unbearable to hold up his head as an American and keep that act of bad faith going. But then we had a hundred years of Jim Crow and we had the civil rights movement. So this moment, it does seem to me to finally wipe clean that original sin, that profoundly repellent act of bad faith at the very beginning.

Bill Moyers continued with:

BILL MOYERS: But one reviewer says, “I was left feeling rather chilled by Schama’s take on the U.S. and its prospects. This may be the end of an empire as we knew it. And one can only wonder what it will mean for someone like Obama to preside,” and here’s where your historical convergence arrives on the scene, “to preside over its dismantling or its transformation.”

SIMON SCHAMA: That’s the challenge. That’s typically dark European view. But it’s the challenge. You can either be – it’s an extraordinary thing, this convergence of catastrophe and euphoria. Euphoria at the president we have and the heap of trouble we’re in. Either the heap of trouble will do him in and there’ll be a terrible dark backlash of disappointed expectations, or he’ll flip it. It won’t be easy. The flipping won’t happen overnight. But he can actually turn it to an extraordinary vindication of the American experiment. I rather hope he will.

BILL MOYERS: Have you learned something about the American character that surprised you, that enables you to project where we are going as a people, the soul of America?

SIMON SCHAMA: There are moments in our history, some of the ordeals of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, that Americans were called on to sacrifice, during the New Deal and during the Second World War. We are indeed going to go through a kind of test of that order. But in each occasion really America has emerged with an essential characteristics altered, but intact.

BILL MOYERS: And that is?

SIMON SCHAMA: I think freedom, ingenuity, and justice.

BILL MOYERS: Those you think are the bedrock of American character?

SIMON SCHAMA: I do. I do. And as I say, I think actually equality and justice were a dark joke so long as racism remained embedded in the institutional fabric of the United States. That’s changed.

Shama’s interview with Bill Moyers is a prelude to a television series premiering on BBC America next week, during the inauguration, and this upcoming book, THE AMERICAN FUTURE: A HISTORY.

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Written by Valerie Curl

January 17, 2009 at 2:14 PM

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