Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Meet the New History, Same as the Old History

So, which is worse, bad tv shows or good tv shows?

Bad tv shows, which are 90%+ of what is on, are a reflection of our own failed aspirations, a sign of the crumbling ediface of society, yada, yada, yada... but at least we can be satisfied in our refusal to watch them. We can actually use our time productively.

Good tv shows, which are rare, show us real achievements in communication, education, and acting. They allow us to be proud of sitting on the sofa. But they can also suck away inordinate amounts of time, especially if they are running in a marathon.

The reason I bring this up is the near-constant lineup of top-quality historical documentaries that have been on television here lately. First, there was the World At War series on about a month ago. Produced from 1969 to 1973, this is a 26 hour long documentary about World War 2 comprised entirely of primary-source video footage and interviews. There were no computer animations, no poorly executed gauzy dramatizations, and no gloating narration (these are the hallmarks of the modern war documentary.) World at War is sober and powerful. The interviews are from civilians of many nations, holocaust survivors, soldiers and officers from all sides, even lords and generals from both Allied and Axis nations. The footage shows the mass graves, the flies, the bloated corpses that lie in the road. It's as sad and as unnecessary as hell, but that is the point. War is sad; war is unnecessary; most of all, war is hell. Truth this raw is rarely in our living rooms.

Now there is a weeklong-plus marathon of documentaries about ancient Rome that started yesterday. Don't you people know I have work to do?! While not as profound as The World at War, so far it is still very well done. They are presented as a series of historical dramas about particular individuals. The acting is reasonable, the stories are not sensationalized, it does not give in to popular villianization, and when the historical record runs thin, this is acknowledged. They do not give in to the myths of popular history - they acknowledge that Nero was in Antium during during the Great Fire of Rome (at least, according to Tacitus) and therefore could not be fiddling while Rome burned (never mind that the fiddle would not be invented for another 1000 years... but I digress). The series is by no means what I would call scholarly, but for something that is aimed at a general audience, it is fetching both in terms of education and entertainment.

While history is wonderful in its own right, there is a reason I mention these shows. Let me explain...

Last week, the BBC presented an edition of This World titled Mystery Flights. It is a rather frightening look at how "terrorism suspects" have been rendered from the US to secret Eastern European facilities to be tortured. This is not conspiracy-theory stuff: they have interviews with the people who were tortured; they have pictures of the facilities; they even have an interview with the former CIA chief in Europe who resigned over the torture that was occuring. By the way, if you are wondering why this is a big deal (I hope you're not!) it is because it violates, oh, a couple of hundred laws, both national and international, in the US and the EU, and the people who authorized it are, according to all parties' national laws at least, guilty of war crimes. For the next few days, you can watch the entire show, but only for a few more days (non-UK viewers may not be able to access it).

Learning history makes one realize just how little humans change. Our present world leaders are little different from the world leaders in the 1940s, the Iron Age 40s, or any other decade you would like to choose. Our surroundings may change, and that may make people seem like they are different, but is only an environmental effect. The essential human never changes. Like a steady candle flame, humans are billions of points of energy, colliding violently, always moving, consuming and combusting, yet through the chaos, they maintain the exact same shape of the flame.

History is the flip-side of lab-based psychology. Although under-appreciated as a duo, they complement each other very well. I highly recommend both.

Update: So far the Roman shows have been pretty good - it seems like the marketers got a little too hyped, the show on the Colliseum being called "Arena of Death," but in the actual show they mention that death in the colliseum was actually very rare.

But what I found most interesting is that in the docudrama about Hannibal, Hannibal is played by Alexander Siddig (his birth name is Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi.) He is probably best known as playing Dr. Bashir in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Very strange to see the good (but awkward) Doctor lead the forces of Carthage against the Roman legions at Cannae.

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