TV UK, 11 June

Niall Ferguson is a geopolitical Jeremy Clarkson, out to wind up bienpensant viewers.

Dolan Cummings

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There was a funny sketch in that old Canadian comedy show The Kids in the Hall, featuring a blood-spattered Bad Doctor who marvels at how successful he has become with so little talent. ‘How far can you cruise on charm?’ he had asked himself. ‘Pretty far!’

It is often said that in valuing style over substance, contemporary celebrity culture rewards charisma rather than ability, but one truly objectionable aspect of reality TV is that it even disparages charm, in favour of a crasser version of entertainment value.

The positively anti-meritocratic aspect of reality TV was expressed perfectly in Hell’s Kitchen (ITV1) last week, when comedian Al Murray, who actually showed some talent for cooking, was voted out of the kitchen by viewers, plainly on the grounds that he was getting too big for his boots. While the eventual winner was little and blonde as well as being the best remaining cook, however, the survival of the others could hardly be put down to charm in any conventional sense.

Edwina Currie, anyone? Or that insufferable pseudo-Zen has-been out of Bros? The sole function of these people was to irritate and embarrass. Those are really the core values in reality TV. This is TV for people whose idea of fun is cringing and giggling childishly through parted fingers, and Big Brother is of course still the apotheosis of the genre. What is more disturbing, though, is that traces of the same approach are detectable in more serious programmes.

Channel 4 advertised last weekend’s film by Niall Ferguson, American Colossus, as a provocation. Ferguson popped up in countless trailers to announce his shock-horror belief that the ‘American Empire’ could be a force for good. Of course, this idea is implicit in much liberal as well as neoconservative thinking, but such an unambiguous statement is offensive to all sides. Even the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for ‘defending Western values’/‘humanitarian intervention’ are embarrassed by the idea of the White Man’s Burden.

Alan Bennett, whose current play The History Boys is concerned in part with the superficiality of academic success, has suggested that ‘some of the flashier historians, particularly on television, are just grown-up versions of the wised-up schoolboys who generally got the scholarships’ (1). Ferguson certainly has eye-catching exam technique. Tellingly, he didn’t argue that the USA should have nuked Chinese cities during the Korean War, for example, just that it should have threatened to. It is a moral fudge that captures perfectly the difference between a flashy TV historian and a seriously engaged intellectual.

Ferguson’s insistence that if the USA could build successful democratic societies in Germany and Japan after the Second World War, it can do it again in Iraq today, suggests that he believes that the all-mouth-and-trousers approach can be as successful in world politics as it is in the history game, as if the postwar boom had been the result of nothing more than American resolve.

But Ferguson’s trumpeting of American power doesn’t feel like a serious attempt to engage with the world; certainly he can’t explain satisfactorily why America insists on disavowing its power, or how that power coexists with mainstream anti-Americanism in the West itself. Indeed, his argument feels more like a ruse to annoy Channel 4 viewers. He is setting himself up as a geopolitical Jeremy Clarkson, out to wind up bienpensant viewers with his daring views.

How far can you cruise on smarm? Pretty far.

Read on:

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(1) The History Boy, by Alan Bennett, London Review of Books, 3 June 2004

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