The Weekend's TV: Abraham Lincoln: Saint or Sinner? Sun, BBC4
Toughest Place to Be a Midwife, Sun, BBC2
A spot of character assassination
Monday 28 February 2011
Sometimes you wonder what television would do without received opinions, so fond is it of the idea that it can heroically overturn them.
There were two instances last night – a revisionary history of Abraham Lincoln, which set out to revise a history nobody above the third grade would take seriously anyway, and a more personal exercise in illusion-shattering in Toughest Place to Be a Midwife, in which a guileless young woman called Suzanne travelled all the way to Liberia in the hope that one of the poorest countries on Earth would have some grounded wisdom to impart about more natural forms of childbirth. In the first case, the makers of the programme were self-consciously setting themselves up as the bearers of a hard truth. In the second, it naturally emerged from the collision between Suzanne's idealism and the appallingly basic maternity care available in Monrovia. But in both cases, the friction between what we'd like to think and what is actually true generated all the energy.
I shouldn't grumble too much about Abraham Lincoln: Saint or Sinner. I missed it on its first transmission and was glad to see that it got a swift repeat. The only problem was that its decision to tackle the hagiographic understanding of him as the Great Emancipator suffered a little from lack of argumentative stability. Like a tricycle with one wheel missing, the producers had to lean wildly to one side to keep the thing upright at all, since Lincoln's admirers in the programme (though realistic about his flaws) greatly outnumbered his detractors. What's more the detractors – with the exception of an elderly black man whose animus against Lincoln remained a little opaque – were conspicuously flakey, consisting mostly of a steamingly embittered group of Confederate Civil War enthusiasts, one of whom attempted to persuade us that Lincoln was America's equivalent of Milosevic or Stalin.
I suppose it may have come as news to some viewers that Lincoln wasn't perfect. It would certainly have surprised the primary school children whose lisping accounts of Lincoln's virtues were used to underwrite the suggestion that he was a plaster god. But anyone who's read even a popular biography of him would have been aware of the evolution of Lincoln's thought, from the time when he believed that the preservation of the Union was a far higher priority than the abolition of slavery, to the moment when he realised that only abolition could preserve the union. And, yes, Lincoln was "responsible" for the harshness of Union tactics against the South, because he was the commander in chief, though a more nuanced account of history might allow for the fact that even the greatest men share the responsibility for their actions with the cultures in which they live. Scratch from Lincoln's life the oratory, the wit, the intellect and the remarkable political ability to turn opponents into disciples and you would still be left with the spectacle of a politician prepared to change his mind, and who changed it with extraordinary consistency in the right direction. Saint or sinner? Neither, of course, but unquestionably closer to the former than the latter.
I would have thought that the toughest place to be a midwife right now was Benghazi or Tripoli. But for the purposes of BBC2's exercise in educational tourism it was a country where the violent chaos is in the recent past – Liberia. Per capita income is about a dollar a day and the capital city, Monrovia, has little running water and erratic electricity. These conditions are not famously compatible with excellent health care but Suzanne – an NHS midwife – harboured the hope that she might discover new things about traditional forms of childbirth. She got a shock when she turned up at Monrovia's Redemption Hospital, where patient-centred care is a luxury they can't afford. Indeed, they're so short of space that a mother recovering from a stillbirth may find herself feet away from one patient successfully delivering a child and another one undergoing an abortion.
Everywhere Suzanne turned she saw evidence that, far from being more authentically connected to the processes of birth, the local midwives were still employing methods that would be regarded here as insensitive at best, dangerous at worst. This wasn't a criticism of the midwives she encountered – dedicated women who worked for a pittance – but just the reality of a country that in totality could only boast around 100 doctors. And if Suzanne suspected that Liberia's metropolitan centre might have lost touch with an ancient tribal wisdom, which still survived in the rural areas, she found out different when she went out on an education visit to the traditional midwives in the villages. To prevent bleeding, they eagerly told her, you just have to get the patient to bite on a bit of coal, and if you want to delay childbirth for a while tie a rock on a string round the expectant mother's waist. Suzanne nodded politely, though she couldn't contain her feelings as easily when a young girl arrived at the hospital, dangerously ill after employing another of Liberia's "natural" remedies – a herbal abortifacient that eventually killed her.
Suzanne returned rightly impressed by the courage and the kindness of the women she'd worked with, but although they'd given her a model for matriarchal resilience and determination, the traffic of helpful information about childbirth was almost entirely one way.
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