TV review: Travels In Trumpland With Ed Balls, and Mechanical Monsters

17 August 2018

BBC/Expectation Entertainment Ltd/Olly Lambert

Ed Balls (left) with Pastor Mark Burns, in Travels In Trumpland With Ed Balls (BBC2, Sunday)

Ed Balls (left) with Pastor Mark Burns, in Travels In Trumpland With Ed Balls (BBC2, Sunday)

IT IS always good to hear public figures recall their time in Sunday school. Unfortunately, of all our Lord’s teachings, the example quoted, for the benefit of Pastor Burns, by the hero of Travels In Trumpland With Ed Balls (BBC2, Sunday) was the parable of the Talents. Its superficial endorsement of the principle of making the biggest profit possible with the capital at your disposal is not exactly the radical socialist critique of President Trump’s policies that we might have expected from a former Labour Shadow Chancellor.

Balls set out with an admirable purpose: to immerse himself briefly in the heartland of Trump support, one year into his presidency, to see if the voters had changed their minds.

Any hopes of a volte-face are quickly dissipated. The President is doing wonderfully, is fulfilling his election promises, making America great again. Pastor Burns, a black Pentecostal televangelist, loudly proclaims the essential Christianity of this new order. President Trump’s posts on Twitter are the most reliable source of information: all other sources are tainted by the liberal political elite who would gladly destroy the US’s essential virtues.

I would have liked more analysis from Balls of how exactly the new tax regime has worked the miracle all his interlocutors claim: is manufacturing really booming, and are the rich getting richer, and blue-collar workers receiving an extra $100 in the monthly pay packet, all at once?

His hosts’ underlying motivation was fear: a sense of shared victimhood, of right-wing Republicans’ banding together after years of attack and ridicule from Washington and the media, even in their current ascendancy defensive against the foes whom they see on every side.

It is always good to hear a TV programme set out to explore theological questions. This was one of the avowed aims of Mechanical Monsters (BBC4, Wednesday of last week), in which Professor Simon Schaffer celebrated some of the technological marvels of the 19th century and the challenges that they posed to religious faith.

Professor Schaffer showed how the unprecedented scale and power unleashed by industry made it possible, for the first time, for humankind to wonder who was really in charge: eternal God or, now, themselves?

Charles Babbage’s calculating engine greatly improved on the accuracy of human computation; astronomy raised acute questions about the origin of stars and planets — there appeared to be neither place nor necessity for divine intervention.

If human reason is God’s greatest gift in creation, have we usurped his place when we build machines that reason better and perform actions faster and with greater precision than we can; or have the machines even usurped our place — questions not, of course, limited to the 19th century?

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