GRACE v. merit: the theological resonance was there from the start, popping up again and again. BBC4’s ungracious spoiler on Independence Day was perhaps the most religious programme of the week.
Rich Hall’s Working for the American Dream (Wednesday of last week) pulled apart the great myth, and yet demonstrated how necessary it has been to enable the Republic to function without revolution. In fact, the American Dream has, over the centuries, had quite distinct iterations, and has been projected back to a time when no one would have used such a term.
But the self-understanding of the Pilgrim Fathers — that they were divinely predestined to go to a new land to create a place of redemption — has within it the seeds of the later concept: a mixture of free grace and merit. If you only apply yourself, then there is no slave that you cannot buy and sell and work to exhaustion — and all with God’s blessing.
With caustic wit he traced this through the frontier years of expansion, and the commercial and industrial explosion of wealth and power. The problem, of course, is that those who do not achieve success must have brought their poverty on themselves, and be culpable for their failure.
Hall demonstrated how many losers the States has always contained, how many wage-slaves and dispossessed have supported all the million- and billionaires, and how this perversion of work-ethic Protestantism judges and condemns. Considering themselves to be world’s great bulwark of democracy, this is in fact a nation of unique manipulation of the weak by the strong.
The third series of Humans (Channel 4, Thursdays) ended last week. Its virtues and weaknesses have equally multiplied in this sci-fi drama, imagining a parallel UK where humanoid robots, called Synths, make life more comfortable.
It plays with serious themes: to what extent can Synths develop independent moral agency? Do they feel emotion rather than programmed obedience? What are human obligations to them? Are they machines or at least potentially sentient beings? These conundrums are much superior to the far-fetched plotlines and the sub-Lord of the Rings’ religiosity, with laughably gnomic utterances emanating from the Synth Who Sleeps.
To convince yourself of human superiority, I recommend Stath Lets Flats, Channel 4’s new sitcom (Wednesdays) about a Greek Cypriot London flat-letting agency. Jamie Demetriou has created a splendid comic monster, an estate agent of cosmic incompetence, his invincible self-esteem utterly unaware of the appalling impression that he makes on prospective clients. Beneath the slapstick lies real tragedy: the grim reality of housing today, and Stath’s deep frustration and aggression.