Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Colonial House

I haven't been a fan of those PBS "reality" shows that take modern day people and put them into historically correct situations: Frontier House, Edwardian House, etc. But somehow I got caught up in the latesst installment, Colonial House, which ended tonight.

The folks of CH were taken to some empty acreage in Maine where a quartet of cabins were built for them. They then had to live the life of American colonists working for a European venture company in 1628. The program ended up showing just how much we have changed culturally and sociologically as people

Not only were the "colonists" expected to live in historically correct clothes and homes, use tools of the time and perform the tasks that colonists of the era had to do, but the producers and designers of the simulation expected them to behave like the Europeans of the time. It led to some fascinating tensions and contradictions.

The biggest sticking point was that the 21st century women basically refused to accept the restrictions and submissions of 17th century morality. The wife of the second governor of the colony sat on the edges of Council meetings (which were men-only affairs). Even though she had no real business there, she refused to be left out. Another woman refused to attend church, even though in that era it would have meant severe physical and psychological punishment, up to death! At one point, the women tried to force through a "schedule change" to get the men to do some kitchen work (which is an all day affair.) so that they could have a day off. That failed.

What it showed was the profound differences in Americans pre- and post-American Revolution. The American Experiment has fundamentally altered the fabrics and bonds by which we used to keep society together, and Americans, at least, are loathe to go back, even for pretend. The role of 21st women, the opportunities they have available, is so different from the severely restricted life of the 17th century. It was abhorrent to the women of CH to even play the game.

I'll also admit that some of the people amused me. The orignal governor of the colony was a family man from a conservative Southern Baptist community, your basic modern Christian. He was a good man and a pretty good administrator, but he took seriously the role of religion in his 17th century community. That clashed pretty strongly with the laid-back and casual colonists. He tried to enforce rules on profanity, obscenity, blasphemy and church attendance, only to find stiff resistance and gentle mocking. He ended up giving up and not forcing the issue.

It was instructive to watch how modern Americans simply refused to accept even the mildest of church and state fusions. Seventeenth century American colonial life was a theocratic affair of the sternest order. They largely worked for companies that got their charters from a King who enforced the laws about religion harshly and without mercy. No escaping them.

But the television colonists chafed and struggled against that, even in pretend. It was an amazing revelation.

The first governor had a family crisis and his whole family had to leave the colony. The pastor was given the governorship. This guy is a university professor of religion, married to a university professor. They were both socially and politically liberal. Both of them were more than a little self-satisfied and morally superior. In the wrap-up, they admitted to sabotaging the first governor to some degree and being resistant to him, in large part because of their political differences! When the pastor's wife became the Governess, she also became more privileged in her attitudes to the rest, more "I'm your superior and my husband's equal." More than a few colonists joked about her. When the pastor became governor, for a time the colony was in chaos because he was such a weak leader.

Eventually, the company sent in an "auditor," the era's equivalent to the new company CEO or turnaround manager. The pastor and his wife were so passive-aggressive, so condescending and insulting, that the man basically left them alone as much as possible. But he did manage to make the colonists work much harder and smarter, and got them to thinking about paying off their company debts.

Then there was the man who felt the need to "come out." I'm still not sure what that was about, but he stood up at one Sunday meeting and announced himself. Of course, had he done that in colonial America, he'd have been stoned to death immediately! It was beyond unthinkable for the era. He never was able to explain why he did it, but he was a much happier man afterward, and it carried over to his "real" life beyond the colony project, where he's now much stronger in his sexuality and a happier man to boot.

The starkness of living life literally day by day, with only your own hands and backs to keep you alive, affected all the colonists. Some commented that it changed their perception of modern American life, with all its many options, choices and temptations. Also, the fact that they only had such a small group of people to live with, and whom they utterly depended on (and all were aware of how much others depended on them!) made some of them realise the triviality of their modern lives in the city.

It was a fun program, and illuminating. The most fun was watching modern Americans have so much difficulty trying (or refusing!) to live in such a different culture. It really made clear to me just what effect the great American Experiment has had down through history.

It made me proud.

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