History on History

Everyone knows that immigrants are the most patriotic Americans of all (well, almost everyone) and over the last couple of months there has been no finer outbreak of foreign-born Americanism than on a whimsical little TV show called Join or Die, airing on the History Channel every Thursday night at 11 o’clock.

The program is emceed by Craig Ferguson, the Scottish actor and comedian who, between 2005 and 2014, spent five nights a week transforming CBS’s Late Late Show into one of the most self-consciously idiosyncratic talk shows in television history—irresistible to fan boys like me, indecipherable to everyone else.

It was in the midst of that hosting stint—February 2008, to be exact—that Ferguson became a naturalized U.S. citizen, following a lengthy and arduous application process that he chronicled in real time.  (When it was done, he duly noted that he is now eligible to vote:  “General election and American Idol!”)

To mark the occasion (so to speak), Ferguson hightailed it to a tattoo parlor and got an iconic cartoon by Benjamin Franklin emblazoned on his right forearm:  An image of a snake representing the 13 American colonies with the words “Join or Die” hovering ominously underneath.

Hence the title of this new History Channel venture.  The conceit is admirably straightforward:  Every week, Ferguson and three guests—typically a mixture of celebrities and academics—spend half an hour discussing a single historical or cultural question.  There are six possible answers under consideration, which the panel gradually narrows down to two, at which point the live studio audience is tasked with voting for the “winner.”

Now what, dare I ask, could be more American than that?

Apart from anything else, Join or Die epitomizes the joy and combat of open intellectual debate—the free exchange of ideas that have been part of this country’s creed from the moment of its conception (if not earlier, as Franklin’s cartoon would suggest).

In both planning and execution, the program is an expression of democratic republicanism in its purest (read: messiest) form.  Like a presidential election, Join or Die begins with a large and slightly unwieldy group of possible solutions to a given problem, leading to a disorganized and occasionally contentious tussle between warring factions (read: voters) who, through passion, reason and compromise, ultimately settle on a single outcome.

Also like an election—and, more broadly, like any concentrated airing of opinions—Join or Die does not often end in agreement or, indeed, the confidence of anyone involved that the official “winner” is objectively the best choice.  But that’s okay:  The means are more important than the ends.  When the polls close, the point isn’t whether the issue has been “resolved”; rather, it’s that the process of arguing has helped to clarify the nature of the issue itself.  (Admittedly, the results of an election have actual, tangible consequences; happily, Ferguson’s program does not.)

The pleasure and wit of Join or Die is how it strikes a balance (however tenuous) between the serious and the absurd.  Of the eight episodes that have aired thus far, some have tackled issues that would be at home in a poli-sci class—for instance, “Who was history’s worst tyrant?” or “What was history’s biggest political blunder?”  Others, meanwhile, are the sorts of thought experiments a group of poli-sci students might discuss after hours, such as, “What was history’s worst medical advice?” or “What is the greatest invention since 1950?”  Still others have had a whiff of the sensational—“What was history’s most doomed presidential campaign?” or “What was history’s craziest cult?”—while others have been just plain goofy—“Who were history’s greatest frenemies?”

Underpinning all of these propositions, however, is a much-needed frontal challenge to the viewer’s personal value system.  As we watch and play along with Ferguson’s rambunctious panel, we are compelled to think a little harder about how we react to the world around us and why we value one thing over another.

“History’s greatest invention since 1950” was an especially keen illustration of this.  Given a reasonably diverse assortment of candidates that included the personal computer, Velcro, the microwave oven and (really?) Viagra, the championship round saw a faceoff between the jet airliner and the Internet.

Ask yourself:  In a clash between Boeing and Google, which world-altering innovation could you not possibly live without?  Humanity certainly managed to live without both for more than 99 percent of its existence, yet we now take air travel and the web as utterly indispensible components of daily life, on both a micro and macro scale.  Can we really say that one technological revolution was “greater” than the other?  And how would we go about doing so, anyway?

Certain issues of public import—nearly all of them, actually—will never be settled once and for all—however hard we try—because they are so dependent upon personal taste and/or personal experience.  Sure, some of the questions Join or Die has posed could conceivably be assessed objectively—the matter of history’s worst dictator, for instance, could be determined by comparative body counts of said dictators’ reigns—except that even those sorts of debates are prone to biases that the debaters might not even realize they have.  (To wit:  There is hardly a cut-and-dry method for ascertaining exactly how many people a tyrant has killed.)

As if Ferguson and company hadn’t already hammered this point home, the most recent installment concerned that most touchy cultural query, “What was history’s most influential band?”  Throughout the 30-minute talk, not only did the panel flail about in circles with regards to which of the six nominated acts were most critical to the classic music canon—is the Ramones’ contribution to punk greater than Run-D.M.C.’s contribution to hip hop?—but they could scarcely bring themselves to accept the candidates about which they were arguing.  (Ferguson, for his part, decried the omission of the Sex Pistols, who are—by an amazing coincidence—his all-time favorite band.)

To the show’s credit, Ferguson wraps up every episode with the opportunity for his fellow panelists to shoehorn third-party candidates into the mix, thereby broadening the scope beyond the taste of the program’s own producers.  (On the “greatest recent invention” show, inventor and TV star Lori Grenier suggested dropping Viagra and replacing it with the birth control pill.)

Ideally, Join or Die would eliminate preselected shortlists altogether—or at least allow participants to substitute their own preferences much earlier in the proceedings—so that the conversation could assume a more freewheeling and democratic shape.  Admittedly, a half-hour cable show is not quite equivalent to the all-night bull sessions that doubtless inspired Join or Die into existence; with such a limited time frame, certain parameters must be drawn.

As it stands, Join or Die reminds us of both the importance and the vitality of spirited public discourse on issues large and small, significant and slightly-less-significant.  Considering how presidential election years tend to yield maximal heat while producing minimal light (a cliché I never thought I’d use), a cheeky, engaging and—dare I say—educational program like this could not have come along at a more fortuitous time—and certainly not from a more amiable host.

I say:  Join!

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