I will start this post with a confession. A few years ago I watched an entire season of the History Channel series Ice Road Truckers. I don’t remember much about it now, and I don’t think I have watched an episode since then, but I was entertained by the show.
Over at We’re History, Boston College graduate student Michael McLean connects “blue-collar programming” such as Ice Road Truckers and Swamp People with longstanding American ideas about exceptionalism and the frontier.
After explaining Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” McClean writes:
While this theme fell into disrepute among scholars in the twentieth century, the programs of the History Channel show how the idea lives on in popular culture. Surely, the shows suggest, America continues to have a frontier, and the nation must therefore still have a unique national character. Modern life, in which more than 80% of Americans live in urban areas, cannot have emasculated America if we still have brave, hardworking men. This is a powerful idea in part because it is true. People living outside modern comforts display a different kind of grit than most Americans today. But their strength represents only one perspective about American life, just as the narratives of Parkman, Turner, and Roosevelt represented just one perspective on American history. That perspective does not account for the wild variety of other stories that created the great American narrative. It overwrites the voices and struggles of African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, and labor organizers, among many others. It ignores the profound importance of science, transportation, medicine, and education to American progress.
If there is anything truly exceptional about America, it is that we have one of the world’s most fascinating, contentious histories. Surely there is heroism in resistance to slavery, in the labor movement, or in the discovery of penicillin to rival the heroism of individual men in their fight against nature.
Read McLean’s entire piece here.