The Fog Of History: Mickey Mouse, Historian Redux

The inspiration for this post title comes from a classic 1999 essay by Gore Vidal, Mickey Mouse, Historian. It describes what happened when a series of programs about the American Presidency that Vidal made for British teevee were televised by the History Channel, which, both then and now, is 50% owned by Disney. History was shocked, shocked that Vidal had a heretical, left-wing take on the Oval Ones. Obviously, the network suits had never read any of his work. They added some commentators to rip Vidal's work apart and spout the conventional right wing wisdom espoused to this day by the History mice. The essay was published in the Nation in 1999 and was collected in The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000. It is not available online but it's classic Vidalian snark. End of epic digressive opening paragraph.

The History Channel, just History now that they show more reality shows and less history, is up to their old tricks. Their latest "documentary," The World Wars is terribly inaccurate as well as unintentionally funny unless you're a neo-con. 

The World Wars combines recreated scenes, documentary footage, and talking heads to tell the "story." Essentially, it's the great man theory of history run amuck. They focus on, Patton, MacArthur, FDR, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Churchill. It turns out that Patton and MacArthur won both world wars singlehandedly since the names Pershing, Marshall, Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery, or Nimitz are never mentioned. That would break the neo-con infused narrative, y'all. I think they took a poll and found out who Americans have heard of and focused the "documentary" on them. I think Ike was omitted because the Birchers claimed he was a commie sympathizer or com-simp. They were the real simps.

The talking heads are an odd assortment as well; some historians  and military men who know something but also a whole bunch of politicians, many of whom are associated with the Iraq War: John McCain, Holy Joe Lieberman, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and the man I call Vice President Duce, Richard Bruce Cheney. That's right Dick Fucking Cheney is a born again expert on World War II. Every time he mentioned FDR, I wanted to run over him with a borrowed wheel chair.

Back to the format. It mixes the real and the reel a bit too much for my taste. I can deal with some of the Hollywood-ish methods they employ: having Hitler and Chamberlain sit in a room while their interpreters translate would be boring. I have a bigger problem with having some of the "characters" speak English with a German, Italian, or Russian accent. It's a cross between Hogan's Heroes and Boris and Natasha on the old Bullwinkle Show, only Schultz was funny and Natasha was sexy in a cartoony way, dahlink.

I also understand when events are simplified and condensed to drive a narrative BUT the producers of The World Wars also made a lot of shit up out of whole cloth. To complete the analogy: shit stained cloth should be flushed instead of put on tevee. I spent some time pausing the show and googling what I didn't know off the top of my head. I was appalled that they made a "documentary" that is less accurate than the average Hollywood bio-pic or war movie. I am not making this up, that's what they did.

There are too many lowlights to recount here but all they had to do was to use Mr. Google, Yahoo Serious, or even Der Bingle if they wanted this program to be accurate. A very big if indeed. Since I'm an Anglophile who avidly follows British politics, I'll focus on the egregious and manifold errors they made about Winston Churchill. I'll put their assertions in bold face, Mad Men recap style. Yeah, I'm still having withdrawal symptoms…

Churchill was from one of the richest families in England. He was from one of the *noblest* families but like most of the nobs they were land rich and cash poor. Plus, Churchill's father Randolph didn't inherit the family title or fortune for reasons that anyone who has seen Downtown Abbey will get. Churchill had to earn a living with his pen, which is why he continued to write even while Prime Minister.

Churchill was shown being fired by an admiral after the disaster at Gallipoli. First Lord of the Admiralty is a *political* post, which was answerable to Prime Minister Asquith and the cabinet. Churchill was actually forced out of the job when the LIberals formed a national unity government with the Conservatives after the Gallipoli catastrophe. The Tories insisted on Churchill's ouster as a condition of forming a coalition with the Liberal party. Why? Churchill had left the Tory party and joined the Liberals in 1904. In short, they did not trust him. Within a few years, he would rejoin the Conservatives after the Liberals split between supporters of Asquith and Lloyd George. His party switches don't bolster History's image of Churchill as a man of principle and steadfast convictions. Ironically, he's the most highly regarded Conservative PM now, even among Thatcherites and Americans who know nothing about British history like the producers of this dreadful "documentary."

The producers claim that Churchill was "in the wilderness," and not listened to after Gallipoli until 1939. This is the nuttiest assertion by far. Churchill was only out of the cabinet for 2 years. He served in a series of senior positions during the 1920's. From 1924-1929, he was Stanley Baldwin's Chancellor of the Exchequer, which is the second most powerful political position in the British government. His years spent wandering in the political wilderness were the result of failed economic policies including putting the U.K. back on the gold standard. Are you listening, Ron Paul?

Another reason for Churchill's extended exile from power was his support for King Edward VIII during the Wallis Simpson scandal. He urged the King to fight it out, which was an incorrect and very unpopular position. The weird thing about this is that the man we know best as the Duke of Windsor was pro-German and thought Hitler was a misunderstood chap. Winston clearly did not. Perhaps the whole Mrs. Simpson as dominatrix thing enthralled him. The world was lucky that Colin Firth replaced Guy Pearce as King…

Churchill returned to the cabinet before the declaration of war. Once again, they got a key detail wrong. Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty again on September 3, 1939, which was-you guessed it-the day war was declared on Nazi Germany. The producers show Churchill meeting with Chamberlain in the Prime Minister's office at Number 10 Downing Street. Churchill looks around and says, "This is the first time I've been in this office since the Great War."

As you may have gathered that was preposterous. The cabinet meets at Number 10 and the Chancellor lives next door to the Prime Minister on Downing Street. That's right; they made their hero Churchill into a liar. Oy, such malakatude on a grand scale.

I felt sorry for two of the British talking heads enlisted by the producers: former Tory Prime Minister John Major and former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband. I'm certain they had no idea that ALMOST EVERYTHING the producers asserted about Churchill WAS WRONG.

I knew most of the Churchill stuff off the top of my head but I consulted with his Wikipedia entry for the details. It was that simple, y'all.

There are too many other howlers for me to go into detail since I'm writing this for free. I would, however, like to spend a few minutes on their treatment of George Patton. First, Patton was a mere field commander in the Great War, not an epic figure. He was a much bigger deal during World War II.

Second, they made it sound as if Patton was as important a historical figure as FDR, Hitler, Churchill et. al. He manifestly was not even as important as General/President Eisenhower whose name was never mentioned in the program.

Third, President Roosevelt did not personally deal with General Patton, and was not intimately involved with the latter's demotion after the soldier slapping incident. He left such matters to Generals Marshall, Eisenhower, and Bradley none of whom were mentioned. Guess it would have interfered with the producers reimagining Patton as a Randian uber mensch. Patton made the cut because there was a good bio-pic made about him in 1970, which was more accurate than this so-called documentary. George C Scott weeps.

Am I surprised that they made such a mess of this so-called documentary? Absolutely not. I expected them to simplify and dumb things down for a mass audience. But I didn't expect the vast number of ridiculous factual errors that were sold as "history." While I would rather hot glue plastic beads to my nipples than watch Swamp People again, I quite like American Pickers and Pawn Stars. The History Channel should stick to their reality programming rather than produce a factually impaired "documentary" that is written at level that's too stupid even for Chumlee.

4 thoughts on “The Fog Of History: Mickey Mouse, Historian Redux

  1. MichaelF says:

    Had trouble watching much more after Dick Vader’s head began to talk.
    Otherwise…I guess this was sort of an extended version of the Pearl Harbor movie that came out a few years back, the one with Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, et al. Didn’t watch it in the movie theater, but caught part of it on cable TV a few weeks ago. Meh.

  2. mellowjohn says:

    the history channel is to history as the learning channel is to learning.

  3. maplestreet says:

    Just came from my eye doctor. In the waiting room a kid had the remote and kept switching the channel but hit Animal Planet a lot (in the room waiting for my eyes to dilate, they had Faux and no remote – UGH!)
    The Animal Planet centered on 2 guys in Florida who did Alligator wrestling and citizens called them to remove an alligator from a roadside canal. Problem was that in both cases these were 5 or 6 foot gators. Don’t know about Florida, but in several states it can’t be called a nuisance till it reaches 12 or 13 feet). Of course they were really piling it on about the heroism and danger of dealing with such a dangerous beast (even though the video clearly showed it was trying to get away from them and would have run away if it didn’t have a loop around it.)
    All to say, Animal Planet apparently fits these other channels as being nothing about animals.

  4. Gazella says:

    I found the Gore Vidal essay here:
    http://slackers.net/~kanji/2xspeak/msg00423.html

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