Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The world turns

Post-election, pre-holiday, and, oh yeah, there's been fighting in the Middle East.

The world turns. The dirty world.

My son, home from college and taking it easy this week, was watching a show on the History Channel last night: Mankind The Story of All of Us. Episode two: I came in as the Jews were inventing monotheism; I changed the channel shortly after the baptism of Constantine, as the Romans were spending oodles of money on silk from China.

I didn't pay close attention to the narration (I was working on the computer), but I was surprised to see Henry Louis Gates, whose field is African American history and culture, among those talking about early Christianity. Another talking head stated that persecuted Christians were faced with the choice of dying in the Coliseum or burning in hell for eternity for denying their faith. Was that really how early Christians framed it?

"Mankind" comes with a dark and menacing musical score and piled-on visual images of fear, violence, and chaos. It uses staged recreations of history--tight shots of individuals looking fearful, mobs grabbing at silk, and plenty of fake blood. There did not seem to be any effort to present life as it was lived from day to day, nor a sense of non-visceral ways that people and rulers dealt with the perplexities of life and one another and time.

Very different from Ken Burns' PBS series on the Dust Bowl, which had plenty of black and white photos of mile-high clouds of dirt and dust, but also had ordinary people recalling their childhood lived under this menace. They got by. They endured. Some of their elders grew bitter. Others graciously accepted their place in a wondrous universe.

One does not have to look far to find violence and chaos in our own time: Gaza, Syria, the wind, water and fire from Hurricane Sandy. These images make for good television--if you define good as images it's hard to look away from, short of finding the remote and changing the channel.

Last night I sought refuge from the intensity of history by switching the channel to HGTV. I watched a young couple, smiling and arguing for the camera, buy a very ordinary three-bedroom house in the country for something less than $200,000. I switched to a Daily Show rerun when "Million Dollar Rooms" came on HGTV. Twenty-one granite pillars, each valued at $35,000, in a giant living room with a $35,000 chandelier.

It was too much for me--too much like the excess of greed and violence in "Mankind."

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