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Mediocre History, 24 November 2012

History that in no way challenges any of the accepted conceits of 2012. Which really is a shame. Decent popular history should show us that those ideas we always took for granted as to how and why thing happened in the past are very likely quite wrong. And what if the conventional wisdom is correct? Well, it really never is- conventional wisdom is the result of popular misconceptions and other filters, real history is always more nuanced and complicated than even well written history, let alone popular convention.

Good popular history challenges our preconceptions. Instead, in the case of "The Men who Built America" we get a one dimensional reality; The story of the men who, while helping to build the country, created a series of evil empires that were finally brought down once and for all, and for the good of the common man, by the efforts of certain politicians. Fair enough. A good start. But when you are given a couple hours for each of five American icons, it would be better if the producers could have shown us how much of the reality went against the narrative presented here.

Instead of presenting the public opprobrium against Standard Oil as springing solely from Rockefeller's sins against the working people, it would have been more accurate to show that the victims were seen as the small, independent businessman, not the worker who was treated as badly under them as under Rockefeller. In fact, I may have missed it, but how can one show the story of Rockefeller without a mention of Ida Tarbell?

The story of Morgan seemed to be more than a bit off in the attempt by the writers to neatly shoehorn JP Morgan into the rest of the narrative. I am sure that his life was intertwined with the industrialists in many ways, but I think that Morgan and his ilk stood somewhat apart from the industrialists, keeping his people on their boards only to safeguard the investments that were made. Morgan and how he made money, was nearly entirely separate from the industrialists and is interesting in its own right.

All in all, its a pretty fair show, given the typical History channel fare. At least its not Ancient Aliens. And accurate enough, I guess, except for the section on Morgan which I think badly distorted how he really was important to our history. But in giving us the most bland, vanilla version of the events it was another wasted opportunity by the History Channel.