Ken Burns Says U.S. Has 3 Viruses: COVID-19, White Supremacy And Misinformation
Documentarian Ken Burns believed there were three major crises in the nation's past: The Civil War, the Depression and World War II. Now, he says, we are living through the fourth.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Ken Burns has spent his career documenting U.S. history. But the catastrophes of the Trump era, from the pandemic to the economic collapse, have him reaching back into his archives to look at how the country might move forward.
KEN BURNS: In 1947, the city of New York vaccinated in less than one month the entire population - 6 million inoculations against smallpox. You can do that in 1947 because people were on the same page.
KING: He wrote about this in an essay for Politico. But he told our co-host, Rachel, that rallying Americans for a common good won't be as easy these days.
BURNS: I used to think that there were three great crises - the Civil War, the Depression and the Second World War - in American life. I would add this, and maybe this is the very, very worst.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You sat down and started thinking through your own archive of documentaries and about the hundreds, hundreds - thousands of interviews you've done over your long career and tried to identify some that would bring wisdom to bear right now. Where did your mind settle?
BURNS: Well, you know, I think that history, despite being a kind of litany of dark and complicated and challenging moments, also makes one paradoxically an optimist. And so I wanted to include a phenomenal moment when FDR, in the middle of his first term, goes out to the Dakotas and goes to a in-progress Mount Rushmore, in which only the heads of Washington and now Jefferson have emerged from the rocks. And he says this remarkable thing. He says that 10,000 years from now - and he said, I think there will be America in 10,000 years. And you think 10,000 years before that moment, human beings were living in caves. That 10,000 years from now - that they would look back and say that we had done our best.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: We can wonder whether our descendants - because I think they'll still be here - what they will think about us if they will believe that we have honestly striven to preserve for our descendants a decent land to live in and a decent form of government to operate under.
BURNS: A phenomenal moment. Here's a guy - FDR - pampered, only son in a sense of a wealthy age-old American family who suddenly, through his own personal suffering, understands and develops an empathy for the suffering of others. And in some ways, I've described part of Joe Biden's biography, and it has been defined by loss and suffering but the positive power to say, what are you going to do? You can't curl up in a ball. So let's put one foot in front of the other, and we'll see what we can do. This was part of FDR's essential greatness, and that optimism is at the heart of it. You can hear echoes of it in Joe Biden.
MARTIN: You also wanted to include an interview that you did with famed writer James Baldwin when he was talking about what he saw in the Statue of Liberty, what it meant to him and other Black Americans.
BURNS: Yeah. I had a - it was a remarkable moment, Rachel. I was - this is the third or fourth film I'd ever made. It was on the history of the Statue of Liberty. But I also wanted to deal with the idea of liberty. And so we were speaking to immigrants like the writer Jerzy Kosinski and Milos Forman and others who could appreciate it. And I interviewed James Baldwin, and he recited the second sentence of the declaration. And he said, obviously, that was not intended for me when he got halfway - not even halfway through. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. He said - he stopped - that was not intended for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE STATUE OF LIBERTY")
JAMES BALDWIN: For a Black American, for a Black inhabitant of this country, the Statue of Liberty is simply a very bitter joke meaning nothing to us.
BURNS: And he wanted to remind us at a time when we weren't talking about race to think about that; a reminder that this statue opened to the sea welcoming immigrants had its back to America.
MARTIN: It was also so striking to hear this quote from historian Barbara Fields. Fields is a Black woman, a Black historian. She's talking about America's Civil War. And she makes plain that the war is not stuck in the past. It is...
MARTIN: It's a living, breathing thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BARBARA FIELDS: William Faulkner said once that history is not was; it's is. The Civil War is still going on. It's still to be fought. And regrettably, it can still be lost.
BURNS: So let me rewind a little bit. The - Barbara spoke at the last moments of the history of the American Civil War that we published, if you will, in the fall of 1990. And so Barbara Fields' words remain as a kind of cautionary thing that are as relevant today as they were when she spoke them in an interview I'm guessing we did in '87 or '88, perhaps. And that's a long time ago.
MARTIN: As a student of American democracy yourself, after the past four or five years, do you come out of this seeing our fragility exposed as a country or do you see the institutions have maintained, our ability to endure has actually been strengthened?
BURNS: I don't feel that our ability to endure has been strengthened. I am constantly reminded that fragility is a constant thing in the history of us. But at the same time, we just keep going forward. There is no other option but to endure.
And we are now in a toxic moment. We don't get our information from the same place the way we used to, and that has had poisonous effect on our democracy. And we have to find a way to convince tens of millions of people that this election was actually the best we've ever had in terms of the fraud that they are certain happened. And the only reason they believe that fraud is that it's become, you know, repeated so, so many times within their echo chambers that they don't even have the possibility of thinking of an alternative universe. And it is incumbent upon us to address the questions that are happening here. I mean, we've got work to do.
KING: Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRAY FOR SOUND'S "SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.