Profit takers reimagined as nation makers

men built america

The recent four-part History Channel series, The Men Who Built America, was constructed upon the premise that a handful of wealthy, powerful men determined the course of the nation at the turn of the last century, making lasting contributions as well as strengthening the nation while filling their pockets. Over the course of the series we watch the expansion of capitalism in the US from the civil war through to the early 20th century, and we are served dramatized sketches of famous captains of industry. This is certainly a period worthy of time and interest, and the men profiled (Cornelius Vanderbilt. John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford) are without doubt both important and interesting, but the program is seriously flawed and riddled with injustice to both truth and perspective.

One can easily imagine why such a premise for a documentary series seems worthwhile at this point in time. We seem on a trajectory away from being the most powerful economic power on the planet, so retracing the path would seem at the very least instructive. We also find ourselves challenged by growing income inequality that by all rights should belong in the past of any society moving forward, so again some historical insight seems prudent. But what we find in this production is shallow hagiography. This is unavoidable given the approach the producers took: they regard these few as innovators rather than opportunists, and benefactors rather than exploiters. One doesn't necessarily need to have an opinion one way or another about any of these men to recognize that there's little depth to this effort. The production is more docudrama than documentary. We are treated to handsome actors and lots of CGI in narrated live action sequences in place of sober narration and actual images from the era. This approach is common to History Channel material, and it's neither substantial nor rewarding. There's a reason people laud Ken Burns and his thorough and earnest approach, while the folks who create this sort of softer, more entertainment-oriented material remain unknown. The staging tends to favor creating little vignettes of melodrama rather than offering insight.

Of course, the on-screen commentary proves even more of a problem. There's a large number of present-day business icons- from Alan Greenspan and Jack Welch to Russel Simmons, Donny Deutsch and even Donald Trump (!) This means there's much hot air generated, and amusingly these potentates spend as much time talking about themselves as about the historical figures we're supposedly learning about. There are a few biographers and historians featured, but nothing fresh or even particularly interesting surfaces. Instead we get observations like "Morgan was steely-eyed and knew how to get what he wanted." No, no real revelations here.

The trouble really is obvious just in reading the title: do the producers really think these few men built America? Even during the time in which they were prominent, weren't their successes derived from the many who did the real work, who toiled for meager wages while this handful amassed obscene power and wealth? Placing these men within the context of the cost they exacted would make more sense of their true legacy. Indeed, workers are featured sparingly, and though both the Homestead Massacre and the Johnstown flood are worked in, these are done in service to the part they play in Andrew Carnegie's narrative, so the emphasis is rather at cross purposes to any real understanding. Each of these industrialists were important in many ways, chiefly as instigators of mass movements of money, resources and effort, but they are inseparable from the many who they relied upon to realize profit. There's also a lack of regard for the true dimensions of what they achieved. There's no recognition of the fact that all that's shown followed the industrial revolution that was centered in Great Britain, nor is there mention that America only reached its potential as a world power and solid economy in the century that followed, as capitalism moved towards becoming a bureaucracy that wiped out the sorts of figures that these men were, replacing them with specialized management.

As the series reaches home plate the ideology at work is even more evident: the claim is made that safer workplaces and better wages miraculously follow as capitalists become more wise and resourceful, with Henry Ford, of all people, a force of beneficence. It seems that regard for workers was handed down as a gift, even from the very titans who once hired private armies to kill. This is a plain lie that ignores the very real battles working men and women (and children) fought in demand of fairness. It's another reason this series fails. The attempt seems to be a portrait of naked capitalism, but it ends up as airbrushed nudity, with the many blemishes and scars rendered invisible. Having digested the series as a whole I'm curious as to its origin and purpose. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine that this series might have been conceived as provident of the election of a business icon to high office. Could this have been wrought as a celebration of a President Romney? If so, it is another failed campaign to define this country as the product of capitalism. Making history is harder than making money.

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