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Ken Burns Just Ruined my Childhood
Why do politics have to spoil everything I love?
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Housekeeping note: I transcribed the quotes below from an audio interview, so while I did my best to document everything verbatim, there may be some slight errors. However, I am certain I properly captured the essence of everything.
They say you should judge the art independently of the artist, and I have tried to make a good-faith effort at doing that, but in cases where the artist infuses their art with the very things you dislike about them as a person, that becomes an impossibility.
Such is the case with documentarian Ken Burns.
I credit Burns as one of the driving forces behind my lifelong love of history and literature. His oeuvre includes some of the most beloved documentaries in history, such as The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War, and many others.
The Civil War was released when I was 12, and Baseball when I was 16. I remember sitting in Ms. Simpson’s sixth-grade class, waiting for the school bell to ring so I could go home and get ready to watch The Civil War, even though it would be on for another four or five hours (surprisingly, I didn’t have many friends). Later, after the release of Baseball, my High School friends and I would recount the previous night’s episode the following day (you guessed it, still not that many friends).
It’s no small accomplishment to get a bunch of 16-year-olds excited to watch a nine-part, nearly 20-hour documentary, but Burns did it. I owe a debt of gratitude to Burns for these masterpieces that undoubtedly had an immense impact on my life, so it pains me to write this following sentence:
Ken Burns is a giant, self-righteous asshole.
I never thought I would have to (and certainly didn’t want to) write those words, but there they are.
My first inkling of this was after his Vietnam War documentary, which premiered in 2017. Something seemed a bit off about it, and after doing a bit of research, I found many Vietnam experts had issues with his framing of many critical parts of the story, such as in Mark Moyar’s article in Providence Magazine in 2018, entitled, What Ken Burns Omits From The Vietnam War.
Not a big deal because, as someone who doesn’t believe in the concept of objectivity, I should have been more skeptical of any documentary, even one put out by the man whose name is fundamentally synonymous with the art form.
Then came, The US and the Holocaust and his recent interview with Bari Weiss, and sadly, I will never look at Burns the same again. He is clearly a man, so self-absorbed, so assured in his infallible political opinions, so concerned about being a part of the societal “in-group” that he is blinded to basic good sense.
There are two essential themes in the documentary. First, while the US government knew about the systematic murder of Jews in Europe, they refused to take additional Jewish refugees from Europe because of the national mood at the time (widespread antisemitism and the eugenics movement, as examples). Second is how Hitler modeled his race-oriented laws (such as the Nuremberg Laws) after Southern US Jim Crow laws.
Unquestionably this is a valuable topic to explore; however, as with everything else in life, intentions only take you so far.
I will limit the scope of this piece to the Weiss interview because it provides an insightful look into Burns’s myopic mindset, and there are other people better situated to factually review the film itself.
I also want to commend Bari for conducting a solid interview. As I will get into, Burns made some comments during the interview which would have ejected me out of my seat, but Bari managed it like a pro and in a manner that prevented it from devolving into a pissing contest.
With that out of the way, let’s jump into Burns’s demented view of the world.
While listening to this interview, I was reminded of the David Foster Wallace 2005 Kenyon College commencement address when he relates this parable:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually, one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
To give him the benefit of the doubt, Burns is the young fish in this analogy in that he is so immersed in his political ideology that he doesn’t realize it exists.
A common theme throughout the interview is that Burns insists, insists I tell you, that nothing in the film is infused with politics. He’s above it all, and I’d say there is a 50/50 chance he believes that. I suspect that he views this as superseding the political realm and, through a sort of illusory grandiosity, that he is saving the world. Back here on earth, we see a man who doesn’t have a thought in his head surrounding this topic which isn’t consumed with political intention.
To begin with, he, oh so, incisively compares Post WWI Germany to current Republican immigration policy.
Comparing the Treaty of Versailles, which was so extraordinarily punitive to Germany that it destroyed the country for a generation (an excellent book for the view of the average German citizen on this topic is They Thought They Were Free, by Milton Meyer), and in turn created a populace in the 1920s/30s that was so desperate for hope that they would latch on to anything, to GOP immigration policy in a moderately lousy economy of our own making in 2023 is beyond laughable.
It also doesn’t explain why the GOP has held the same policy prescriptions for immigration going back decades, during good and bad economies, why die-hard Neocons like <check notes> Bernie Sanders have said open borders are “a Koch brothers proposal,” and why most Hispanics themselves, have reservations about the current US immigration policies and enforcements. I tend to doubt that the Jews in 1930s Germany were particularly conflicted about the Nazi immigration plans.
He then goes on to explain how The Great Replacement Theory has taken hold at Fox News and how it is:
…a direct steal from the time. You’ve got antisemites like Henry Ford, who are behind the Dearborn Independent and reprinting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, it’s got the second largest circulation of any newspaper in the country, and this is a Russian fake, a Russian hoax which is just as vile and antisemitic as you can imagine. He thinks Jews are responsible for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln… [emphasis added]
I must hand it to Burns. Maybe I am out of the loop, but this is the first time I have heard someone connect the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the utterly debunked Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy. Bravo. Beautiful work, sir. The difficulty of pulling this off is the equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield pulling off the Triple Lindy in Back to School. No one thought it was possible, but here he is, putting on a show and making us all look dumb.
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Later Burns ably pulls off the “genocide = Donald Trump” logic
Mark Twain is absolutely right, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes, and so no event has happened twice, and the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes, said, “what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun,” which suggest that human nature doesn’t change, and so what we see repeating is that human nature reacting to the random chaos of events, and we see patterns, and we see themes, and we hear rhymes, every film I’ve made has rhymes, and this one, which was begun in 2015 in a very different kind of America suddenly as we begun editing began to rhyme more, and more, and more, and I accelerated much to Sarah and Lynn’s consternation, it was supposed to have come out comfortably this fall, but I wanted to come out last fall, to remind people that we are in a struggle. I sort of borrowed unfairly, I think, from Deborah Lipstadt, the great scholar and now ambassador against antisemitism, ambassador-level position at the state department, who said, “the time to stop a genocide, is before it happens,” to which I added, the time to save a democracy is before it’s lost, and so I think for us we begun to realize that the rhymes had begun to go so uncomfortably frequent…” [emphasis added]”
Once again, a masterful performance by the once-great filmmaker turned narcissistic propagandist. He ably connects Trump to genocide through the “democracy is in danger” theme, and additionally, ably connects himself as the attempted savior of said “genocide to loss of democracy” crisis.
During this ongoing self-delusion of his, I kept asking myself if Burns, in all of his historical research, has come across what party happened to be in power to institute and maintain the horrific slavery and Jim Crow regimes (it was the Dixie-crats), which party voted in large numbers for the Civil Rights Act of 1965 (Republicans), what event led to Southern secession (the election of Lincoln, a Republican), why the Republican party was founded in the first place (to rid the US of slavery and bigamy).
It’s almost like the history of the political parties in the US is the polar opposite of what Burns believes them to be.
I want to think he has never considered any of the above, but then again, for a man with this resume, I also can’t believe that’s true, so I am at a total loss.
Burns also commits himself to all varieties of contortions to give FDR a pass in this whole thing. Even though Roosevelt was President and, as such, did not have ultimate control over immigration policy (Congress has that power), he had huge majorities in the 75th, 76th, and 77th Congresses, spanning from 1937-1943; he was not shy about wielding his influence among the Democrat caucus and certainly could have influenced immigration policy if he so chose to do so. However, Burns gives him a complete pass, saying that he had other things to be worried about, and instead firmly places the blame on the American public because of their antisemitism (he gives the press a pass, utilizing the same logic).
Arguing that Roosevelt had other concerns is more than fair, but to assign no blame to him for the policy is sheer lunacy. This is like saying a car crash wasn’t caused by the driver but rather by the passengers because they wanted him to crash, so, golly, what else could he do but go over the embankment?
I have to assume Burns took this tact because Roosevelt is THE Liberal icon, and he can’t bring himself to make a fair assessment of the man (I’d love to ask him about Japanese Internment).
At another point in the interview, he called the Nazis “right-wing.” I’ve never heard of a right-wing atheistic socialist, but then again, I’m not the historian (and yes, the Nazis were socialists).
But the coup de grace comes in the final third of the interview when they discuss the closing three-minute montage that wraps up the documentary. The montage includes, in order: imagery of Dylann Roof (the white supremacist who perpetrated the mass murder of black worshipers in Charleston, SC, in 2015), audio of Trump saying, “my first hour in office, those people are gone,” Ann Coulter on Fox News, Charlottesville, the Tree of Life massacre (where a gunman shot 17 Jews, killing 11, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA) and imagery from the January 6th Capitol Hill riots.
Interesting way to wrap up a non-political, non-agenda-driven Holocaust documentary.
Weiss asks, in a roundabout way, if it was political.
To explain that away Burns tells us that he wanted to end with LBJ signing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, but…
“…we couldn’t do that just because of what was happening in our country, and we had to sort of see, not a throughline, there’s no throughline, we just near [sic] out of six and a half hours, there’s a three-minute montage that takes us from that time, so George Lincoln Rockwell, the American Nazi Party, to others, to all sorts of things, and then ending out of the Camp Auschwitz shirt that one of the January 6th insurrectionists was wearing, and that’s the last image of the film”
First, to give the “gee, shucks” routine, as if this three-minute montage concluding a six-hour documentary is no more impactful than any other montage in the series is laughable, and he knows it. Second, of course, we all agree that Dylann Roof and the Tree of Life killer are pieces of shit and but to equate them with Trump and Ann Coulter, regardless of what you think of them, proves your delusions.
But because of Burns’s “what is water” mentality, I don’t think he sees how sick equating those things are.
Also, he easily could have included video footage from the dozens, if not hundreds, of attacks on Jews in New York over the past few years. As opposed to mass murders, these are everyday assaults that are essentially ignored by the media. If he wanted to stick to mass murders, why didn’t he include the antisemitic-inspired shooting at a Jewish Deli in Jersey City, NJ, in 2019, where six people were murdered? My guess is that since minorities primarily carry out these attacks, he didn’t want to touch those with a ten-foot pole. And, after all, they likely aren’t Trump voters, so why muddy the waters?
As a follow-up to that gobbledygook diatribe, Weiss says point blank that she gets a distinctly political message from the montage, to which Burns inconceivably answers:
Yeah, it’s not political, it’s just us saying, this stuff, this stuff that we watch the authoritarian playbook is being practiced in lots of different places, you know? When someone disagrees with you and you fire them, if you’re an employee of the state of Florida, and you just don’t agree with your Governor, and you’re fired, that’s out of the authoritarian playbook. People who are not authoritarians say oh you disagree with me; let’s have a discussion.
And there it is…shame on me for not knowing that Ron DeSantis was getting pulled into this somehow. Also, if one of you out there could please put together a memo to inform all bosses that if you fire someone, you are literally Hitler, that would be great.
It’s exhausting that it’s 2023, and I still need to defend Trump, a guy I generally can’t stand, but as long people keep lying about him for political gain, I’ll have to keep setting the record straight.
I would argue it’s virtually indisputable that Trump is not only not antisemitic but is, virtually without question, the most philosemitic President in US history, other than maybe Harry Truman (if for no other reason, his recognition of Israel at the time of its establishment). To review his record, Trump moved the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israel’s claim on the Golan Heights, pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal, named David Friedman as the US Ambassador to Israel (who was such an adamant supporter of Israel, he wrote that left-wing J-Streeters were worse than Capos in German concentration camps), and of course, completed the Abraham Accords, the most significant step towards Middle East peace in modern history.
Whether you like the above items or not is irrelevant. What is relevant to this discussion is that no other president has a record that comes close to those actions beneficial to Israel. This makes Burns’s case all the more ignorant.
They say you should never meet your heroes; well, I guess you shouldn’t listen to their interviews either.
P.S. – this is a petty point, but I don’t care; I’ve come this far, might as well go a bit further.
I had to include this as another example of how complete the narcissistic takeover of Burns’s brain is. At one point during the interview, he is talking about the Naugatuck River, and informs us, “which anyone who knows New England, knows, flows through Waterbury, Connecticut.” Oh really? As a lifelong New Englander, I had no idea and decided to ask eight of my other lifelong New Englander friends about this (no one from Connecticut). Only two had heard of it at all; one guessed it was in Connecticut because he knew there is a town with that name, and none could name any city it flowed through (aside from the one guy who knew the town) without purely guessing. The only reason I bring this up is that it exemplifies Burns’s psychopathy that he is the idealized representation of all the things he wants to be, and if you don’t know all the things he knows, then you are lesser than he.
Thanks for ruining my childhood Ken. You suck.