Bringin' Down the House

Twenty-six grimy people in buckle shoes and corsets, four colonial cabins, six months of back-breaking labor and puritanical laws: Welcome to another slice of "experiential history" as crafted by the creators of PBS' latest reality show, Colonial House (May 17-18 and May 24-25, check local listings).

The eight-episode series is the network's latest foray into hurling modern Americans into uncomfortable historical settings. Past versions have included Manor House and Frontier House, where families squirmed under the yoke of upstairs-downstairs, master-servant relations or struggled to build homesteads in "19th-century" Montana.

With Colonial House, the time machine is set to the earliest year to date -- the participants are going back to the "roots of our nation." And this time, they're bringing back lessons about forging an ideal society, about the pitfalls and problems of building a "City upon a Hill" that have remarkable parallels to our nation-building efforts in the Middle East.

PBS has an unusual approach to its reality programming, highlighting cooperative efforts over the usual competitive fare of Survivor, The Apprentice, The Bachelor, and The Swan. By taking a cultural form that usually reveals the ugliness of American's cult of Me -- my fame and money, my man, my new self-esteem in the form of breast implants -- and using it to talk about communal dynamics, PBS has hit upon a perfect way to examine the tension between the ideal of individual liberties and that of societal cohesion.

Colonial House still has the obligatory reality-TV gross-and-sex factor. The participants shriek at disobedient goats, play midwives to a pig, and hunch in the cornfields and over the chamber pots in their 1628-era houses. In between retching at the sight of maggoty meat and lamenting the lack of privacy for sex, they work to make a profit for the English "company" that sent them to this harsh coastal area of Maine. Their "governor," however, has goals that transcend the bodily and economic realms: He dreams of creating a community that reflects the glory of God.

Historically, building that "City upon a Hill" was a humbling slog from the get-go. Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop borrowed the phrase from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14) while trying to inspire his villagers toward realizing their colony as a beacon of Christian values in 1630. (He would give up years later, writing that "sin abounded" in his colony.)

These days, we've made it even harder to be the light of the world. We've expanded the mandate of the "City upon a Hill" phrase -- no longer content with the near-impossible task of embodying moral perfection, we're actively attempting to remake other countries in our high-wattage image.

It has backfired, of course. Our methods of transforming Iraq into a model democracy, into President Bush's "source of hope ... an example of progress and prosperity in a region that needs both," have dimmed our own reputation; we now sit in the dark with besmirched hands, staring at pictures of the barbarous means we've used to accomplish our enlightened end.

Colonial House's Governor Jeff Wyres' dilemma is not as dire as the one that faces Bush. But his struggle to shape a model city reflects the president's predicament in small-screen proportions and shows how a utopian drive can descend too quickly into chaos.

In real life, Wyers is a Baptist preacher from Waco, Texas. Each person on the show is given a role by the producers -- preacher, freeman, servant, widow -- and Wyers was appointed governor. Wyers starts off with an optimist's belief in his fellow humans. "I came here under the belief that everyone would follow all the laws," he says. But when he's confronted with lazy villagers who loll in bed and use unholy language, he has to grapple with the conundrum that faces every revolutionary and utopist: What does a good leader do when his people don't do what is good for them?

"It's in me to father people, whether they like it or not," Wyers says, with some self-deprecation (and an endearing lack of awareness of his double entendre). The laws of 1628 provide a nice fit with his paternalistic impulses: He bars women and servants from meetings where decisions are made, and he and his council cronies start talking about the authority that "resides in this chair," this "chain of command." It's the language of state apparatus, all synecdoche, no humanity.

The governor's children begin to rebel against the leviathan of Wyres' state. His culture-war crusade -- profanity laws, idleness laws, modesty laws -- is met with a guerilla onslaught of swearing, lazing, and floozying. After the outspoken Michelle Rossi-Voorhees and her husband skip the obligatory church meeting to go skinny-dipping, Wyres ups the ante and starts handing out scarlet letters -- "P" for profanity, "M" for modesty. Rossi-Voorhees finds herself leashed to a stake like a dog outside CVS. Productivity drops because so many villagers are sulking in solitary isolation, red letters pinned to their coats in a Foucauldian spectacle of punishment. But it doesn't seem to be working. "I got a 'P' for saying crap," says one villager. "Which is crap."

Wyres grows wan after a few months. "Without law there can be no society, there can be only anarchy," he says, exhausted. He's fallen far from creating, in his paraphrase of Winthrop, a "city on a hill -- a community so perfect that all others would look on in awe ... that others might look as God reflects, see something bigger and grander, worth seeking."

It's a crisis point. As Albert Camus would argue, "Every revolutionary ends by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic." The governor tried becoming a mini-autocrat, and in a stunning decision, he suddenly chooses heresy. He declares the punishment for skipping the Sabbath unenforceable, abandons the ideals that he has tried to impose on his villagers, regardless of their wants or needs.

Wyres' reversal has little to do with notions of individual human rights and democracy; rather, it's rooted in his deep Protestant faith. Punishing people for a lack of faith and eliminating their free will to choose God "works against the spirit of the Gospel," he says -- and that was something he had struggled with even as he had tried to coerce his colonists into good behavior. Although his decision to abandon harsh colonial rules is based on a universalist belief in God's ultimate goodness, Wyres' decision reasserts his belief in his villagers' individual freedoms, even if that means they choose to burn in hell.

When sweet-faced "indentured servant" Jonathon Allen announces in church that he's gay, Wyres sits with a face of stony condemnation in the front pew. "All men have sin," the governor says later. "One step toward repenting is confession." Although a real 17th-century governor would have executed Allen for his admission, the clearly disapproving Wyres chooses not to enact any punishment at all. Allen's fate, Wyres implies, is between Allen and his maker.

At the same church gathering, Carolyn Heinz, an anthropology professor in real life, says that she decided to take part in Colonial House because she is "genuinely distressed at the direction our country is taking over the past three years. What was this nation intended to be from its earliest founding commitments, and where have we got to in 2003? Are we satisfied?"

Compelling questions, these -- and never more so than now, whether at home or abroad. The endless talk of ethnic tribes, religious divisions, Shias and Sunnis and Kurds: Forging a righteous body politic in Iraq has less and less to do with individuals by the day. So it's a shocking -- but not altogether unexpected -- surprise to learn that we've trampled the rights of individuals in Abu Ghraib, enacted private, visceral violence on their bodies in the name of an amorphous public good.

No matter how much some Americans may revile the French and their fried potatoes these days, one has to admit they have the goods on the perils of revolution. Camus' version of the Prometheus myth is instructive: Prometheus seeks to free his beloved humans from the oppressive rule of Zeus by bringing fire to humankind, but they fear it. In the name of humans' own good, he tries to lead them -- cajoling, commanding, and finally threatening them with unspeakable punishments. In so doing, he becomes a hated god himself, enduring the tortures he inflicts on his cherished charges.

The governor suffers a similar fate, growing physically thin in his crisis of leadership, smashing the very bedrock of his faith, his belief in free will. "I feel better than the governor," says one of the disobedient villagers, recognizing Wyres' dilemma. "That's the irony of the whole thing." But unlike Prometheus, Wyres ultimately steps back from his authoritarian course, and the previews for the next week's episodes hint at a final act of heresy. "Next Monday: regime change on Colonial House," says the PBS narrator, over scenes of Wyres leaving the colony. If he abandons the dream of the city of God, it could be a visionary's failure, but perhaps a man's redemption.

In the end, the governor is a haunting figure -- a good, devout man whose struggles carry a warning for another man of faith who's trying to build models of democracy thousands of miles away. When we go to light the beacon in the city on the hill, Wyers' story tells us, we should take care not to burn in our own righteous flame.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.

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