A&E, Academic Historians, Academicians, American Heroes Channel, David Mallott, Discovery Communications, Documentaries, Eurocentric Perspective, Fake History, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, H2, Historical Documentaries, History, History as Entertainment, Insomnia, Kenneth Branagh, Military History, Peter Coyote, Sleep Aids, Sleeping Pills, Thomas R. Martin, Thomas S. Burns, TV Series, TV Shows
For many of you, this will sound like a “been-there, done-that” kind of a post, but I’m posting anyway. It’s fairly evident Discovery Communications and A&E’s collection of history-related channels are meant for an older crowd of mostly White males with a hankering for military history, for big wars and powerful European (and occasionally Asian/Middle Eastern) men in history. H-History, H2 (soon to be Vice Channel), American Heroes Channel, and Military History are basically a collection of old and new-yet-rehashed documentaries on history that middle-aged and elderly White men can keep up with without ever feeling challenged by facts or different views on such facts. Especially when it comes to anything beyond the actual battlefields of World War II.
I can only criticize the TV networks and their owners but so much, though. The fact is, the only reason I watch these channels is to fall asleep faster, after a long day, getting my hyper eleven-year-old son to bed, and after some prayer or finishing up some work. Because History and H2 now dip their toes into reality TV and dramatic TV series with Pawn Stars, Ancient Aliens, Vikings, and Texas Rising, I can’t use these useless shows to cure insomnia. In the past year, American Heroes Channel’s gotten into the act, with How We Got Here and America’s Most Badass, a regular portrayal of great White men (and occasionally, women) and their self-made, rugged individualism building a modern America with their bare hands and teeth.
The result is that I can’t fall asleep to these channels anymore. But for the past seven months, I’ve discovered a treasure chest of older or fairly recent documentaries on either Netflix or YouTube to watch, or rather, to watch me as I fall asleep. I listen for soothing narrators, like actors Peter Coyote, Avery Brooks, Keith David or Martin Sheen, or at least, British voices like Robert Powell or Kenneth Branagh.
I look for histories that I know all too well, boring enough to fall asleep to, but not so boring that it leaves me thinking about how poorly the producers did in putting together their documentary. So World War II in Colour, World War I in Colour, Barbarians, Barbarians II, Ancients Behaving Badly, Rome: Power and Glory, Engineering An Empire, Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire, The Story of India, Islam: Empire of Faith, and The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance have been my go-to sleeping pills since last Thanksgiving (I also fall asleep to Wild China, Lions in Battle, Aerial America, The Universe, How The Universe Works, Cosmos, the BBC Planet Earth series, and other, less problematic shows and documentaries). Other documentaries, like We Shall Remain (on the plight of Native Americans since 1607) or The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, would cause too much pain, anger or interest, blowing an opportunity for six-and-a-half hours of sleep or more for that night.
So I tend to tolerate — but definitely do not accept — the ideas that the creators of these documentaries push. Like Rome being “the greatest empire the world has ever known” (the Mongols, the Hellenistic Greeks, the Arabs of the Dar al-Islam days, T’ang Dynasty China, Achaemenid Persia, even the British would all beg to differ) or Archimedes as the “greatest genius of the ancient world” (Imhotep’s probably saying, “Really now?!?”). That’s bullshit, of course, typical White and European navel-gazing. This is exactly why there’s no need for a White History Month or a college major in White Male Studies. As I often have that thought, I usually fall asleep, secure in the fact that this mythology would never make it into any class I teach.
Lately, though, I’ve noticed that some of the so-called academic historians that help move the story along in some of these documentaries. Some, like Thomas S. Burns (Emory University), Thomas R. Martin (College of the Holy Cross), and Robocop (1988) actor/historian Peter Weller (Syracuse University), all tell the story of ancient Rome’s rise and fall, or the medieval spread of smallpox and bubonic plague as if they actually lived through it. The assumptions they make about the people of 1,500 or 2,000 years ago are just staggering. It’s as if Rome and Western Europe had a monopoly on civilization, and that when Rome fell, a black cloud full of lightning bolts descended on the subcontinent like Hell itself, drowning it in invasion and sickness for half a millennium. Except that Spain (especially under the Moors), parts of Italy, southern France and Byzantine Europe weren’t exactly crying for a return to the glory days of 20,000 rich Roman families and 16 million slaves.
Others, like David B. Mallott, associate professor and associate dean at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, have applied modern-day thinking of social science — in his case, psychiatry — to their alleged analysis in these overly scripted documentaries. Describing someone like Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great as “bloodthirsty” isn’t exactly in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, is it, Dr. Mallott? And, given the historical context — a time without the UN Declaration of Human Rights or the Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians or prisoners of war — would borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia with violent paranoid delusions really apply to Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte? Ugh!
If you’re going to entertain me, Discovery Communications or A&E, can you please do it without using the pretense of academic expertise as support for your grandiose mythologizing of historical events and the powerful Eurasian men involved? At least when the BBC and PBS do documentaries, they don’t just turn it over to geeks in the fifties and sixties to act out their preteen imaginations of what Rome must’ve been like two millennia ago. How can I continue to fall asleep to your shows and documentaries if you continue to exaggerate and lie and have academically trained hacks-for-historians and social scientists do the same, all in the name of entertainment?