You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap! Simon Schama and Dolly Parton

What do Simon Schama and Dolly Parton have in common?

For us, the greatest value of popular histories like Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews is the impossible positions they take. Responsible history can’t be light entertainment because the two have mutually exclusive requirements. Not only do they have contradictory technical needs (substantial footnotes vs. quick take-homes that really can be summarized in a soundbite or image) but they are mutually antagonistic genres. There is something in the very form of entertainment that must feel existentially insulting to responsible historians. Responsible history, then, takes as a requirement that it stay buried. Part of the game when you cross the two is to take heat and inspire reflection.

In this way Schama’s position reminds me of nothing so much as Dolly Parton playing Knoxville, TN. Her range includes raunchy, burlesque-like sex and glam numbers as well as heartfelt gospel and she has a huge gay following. She jokes about this apparent conflict between personae all the time–though not so much about the conflict between the audiences themselves. But last week, playing for family and friends as well as a more conservative hometown audience, she came down very firmly on one side. She damn well knew her audience and goals, and her self-presentation was dominated by churchy sincerity, with a few trashy, glammy winks and nods.

And so asking Schama to do a truly incisive and critical history show free of apologetic translation and positioning might be a tad like asking Dolly to play full-blast glam in Knoxville.

Sometimes, success at navigating truly conflicting audiences requires that the performer not acknowledge the very fact that they have them. Dolly Parton would probably not see the point in saying “I especially want to thank all my out of town queer fans who drove for miles into what might look like hostile territory.” And it is probably no accident that Schama minimizes how he’s hamming it up to “humanize” the Jews, and instead make it look like he’s “telling it like it is” as a scholar. In an uneasy time in the history of Jewish people in Europe, his strategy helps the ham (as it were) go down easier.

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