The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has carved out an impressive career excavating, chronicling, mourning, and celebrating the great currents of American history, all with a kind of studied, non-partisan neutrality that avoids the axe-grinding and advocacy that is so common to the documentary form.
With his youthful good looks and tender, redemptive approach to the challenges and foibles of our people and their stories, Burns has largely managed to stay above the partisan political fray, forsaking the trenches of temporal combat in favor of personal narratives and anecdote that reveal ultimately larger truths of our shared humanity.
But that was then—before June 12, 2016, and his address to the Stanford University graduating class, which I was privileged to attend this morning in celebration of my goddaughter.
This morning, Ken Burns took the gloves off and did his damndest, most urgent best to deliver a devastating smackdown of a presidential candidate he considers a mortal threat to everything he holds dear.
Slyly, he never mentioned this candidate by name in the 800 or so words he devoted to the subject through a nearly 3,000-word speech. But he didn’t have to:
“There comes a time when I—and you—can no longer remain neutral, silent. We must speak up…and speak out. For 216 years, our elections, though bitterly contested, have featured the philosophies and character of candidates who were clearly qualified. That is not the case this year. One is glaringly not qualified. So before you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process, divided our house, to fight against, no matter your political persuasion, the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much maligned but subtle art of governance; who is against lots of things, but doesn’t seem to be for anything, offering only bombastic and contradictory promises, and terrifying Orwellian statements; a person who easily lies, creating an environment where the truth doesn’t seem to matter; who has never demonstrated any interest in anyone or anything but himself and his own enrichment…”
Burns goes on in that vein with rising intensity, hearkening back to Lincoln’s desperate quest to save the union, the “house divided against itself,” which Burns clearly sees reflected and exacerbated by the often inflammatory, divisive rhetoric of the Candidate Who Will Not Be Named.
It was riveting theater, seeming to raise eyebrows and elicit forward leans in seats all through the stadium. “Is he really going to…?”
Yes, he was, and he did.
As Burns barreled on, perhaps a bit longer than was strictly necessary after he had made his points with an almost desperate rising urgency, some boos arose from the audience, then a few more. But as those boos rose slightly in volume, the rest of the audience suddenly erupted in a loud countervailing roar.
“We’ve got your back, Ken,” the roar said, wordlessly.
Obviously, Burns made a decision, one that his aversion to overt advocacy made difficult for him. But here he was, at one of the great educational institutions of the world, with a stadium audience in the many thousands and news and social media exposure that could quickly explode to millions, scared for the future of the country he holds dear.
And given that fear, should it suffice to fill his speech with anecdotes from his creative work, sweet aphorisms weaving together the past and future, and lovely reflections on the life of the mind?
Not this year.
Last year, at the Washington University commencement in St. Louis, Burns focused most of his address on race, drawing historical lines from Lincoln and the Civil War to Huck Finn, Michael Brown and the Black Lives Matter movement. But he did so in gentle terms, exhortational, reflective, calling on our and the graduates’ better angels to “set us right.” But that was nothing like this.
(Though it should also be noted that many latter parts of the 2015 address were identical, word for word, to this year’s. Memo to Mr. Burns: Don’t do that!)
Clearly, the thought of Donald Trump as president terrifies Burns, compelling him to risk his widespread popularity, his cred as an even-handed, compassionate historian. It has not allowed him to go gently into the dark night he foresees for his country if the previously unthinkable and joke-worthy become the all-too-real and sober.
“We no longer have the luxury of neutrality or ‘balance,’ or even of bemused disdain. Many of our media institutions have largely failed to expose this charlatan, torn between a nagging responsibility to good journalism and the big ratings a media circus always delivers. In fact, they have given him the abundant airtime he so desperately craves, so much so that it has actually worn down our natural human revulsion to this kind of behavior. Hey, he’s rich; he must be doing something right. He is not.”
Strong words. Desperate, even incendiary words. Like an Old Testament prophet, Ken Burns has decided to tell it as he sees it, no longer a neutral observer and contextualizer, but now, or at least for this moment, through this election cycle, a fully engaged activist, being the good, involved citizen he has always sought to encourage in his audiences, but this time sounding an uncommon alarm of danger ahead.
We’ll see if enough people have heeded the signs come November.
The incendiary clip…followed by a link to the entire written transcript.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Rock mortarboard photo by John Fowler, Placitas, New Mexico, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/snowpeak/
Photo of Burns at work by Craig Duffy, Orange, California, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pinkcowphotography/
Wow! excellent synopsis of the Ken Burns Stanford graduation speech.
Since trump has decimated his opponents in a single word at a time: (crooked, little, lazy, ugly) why won’t anyone call him what he is: a full blown narcissist. This is a serious personality disorder which is defined as: a condition of constant need for aggrandizement and knee jerk obsession to punish those who who are perceived as not giving enough aggrandizement to the narcissist.
I keep looking for someone to stand up and publicly acknowledge this personality disorder which is in the 2015 DSM Iv manual of mental illnesses.
Thanks for giving a platform for us!
Mary, if you Google “Trump narcissist,” I think you will be relieved to find what you’re looking for! Here’s the first listing, which landed in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/the-mind-of-donald-trump/480771/
Quite a salvo, and from as cleanly American an institution as Burns, it carries some weight. Of course he knows and alludes that stopping Trump this time is just staunching the bleeding for now. A troubling swath of American society feels disenfranchised enough to be willing to look the other way at the manifest flaws and outright lies of Trump and say “yeah, he’s got issues, but we need someone to come in and clean up this mess. I don’t want to know how he does it.” Too many seem to have developed a taste for authoritarian rule as the last chance to Make America Great Again. On the other hand is the insurgency of the Bernie campaign. To me, it’s not so much Bernie (he’s got issues too), but what he represents that is at polar opposite to the exclusionary and fear mongering rhetoric of the Trump side. It seems an equal and opposite reaction, which gained a good bit of steam despite the paltry media attention it received compared to Trump. That his anti-Big Money and socially inclusive ideas have done so well against a Democratic Party Machine that has done everything in its power to marginalize him, gives one heart. Both Trump and Sanders have shouted, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.” Though their messages are quite different, it indicates a good deal of Americans are ready to cast off Business As Usual in politics. That is heartening to me. And I still want to believe that even if Trump were elected, the American Experiment is still big-hearted enough to survive the shock. Still, I hope we don’t get to test the idea out.
Great stuff Dennis, thank you. It’s true that the Trump and Bernie phenomena and their supporters share some basic characteristics, but then to sum them up as two sides of the same coin is, in a word, ridiculous. They reflect quite opposite hopes for the kind of society and political discourse we will have.
I would only say this about your allusion to our seeming openness to authoritarianism: I don’t think that’s so much an American or contemporary phenomenon as it is a universal and timeless one. The freedom-security pendulum swings back and forth in human history, and every time we feel threatened we begin to willingly trade off the former for the latter. At a basic level, that’s what we do in submitting to bodyscans and all the other indignities we face just to get on a plane at the airport. That all translates easily to the notion that we just need some strong father figure to get our troubled house in order—however oppressive he may well turn out to be.
I agree entirely that Trump/Bernie are not two sides of the same coin. Rather I think a case could be made the forces that propelled them on this election cycle have much to do with a general dissatisfaction with a system they see as broken and hopelessly stuck in two party partisan gridlock. They are not entirely wrong in this belief. Those who swing Trump see the strong man solution. Someone who can point out the ‘other’ to focus their anger. And they harken back to those illusory days when ‘America was great.’ On the Bernie side we have social liberals for whom his message of inclusion and casting off Big Money in politics is the resonant theme. There is a profound difference as to the problem and how to fix it, but they both share the belief that the current system is badly broken. Both have a bit of revolutionary fervor.
And of course the swing toward authoritarianism has plenty of historic precedent around the world. A lot more than democracy I would think. What I find frightening with this election cycle is the degree of success Trump has had with a message of overt racism, tribalism, xenophobia, bullying tactics, and bald faced lies. Perhaps I am wrong, not being a well studied student of political history, but I don’t know of another American candidate for president who has gotten this far with that kind of message.
Absolutely right, Dennis. I’m looking back at my reply now and realizing it may have implied you seeing Trump/Bernie as two sides of the same coin, but I knew you were not making that case, so I’m sorry about my muddled language there. I was speaking to those voices in this wide-ranging discussion who have made that argument in one way or other. And in terms of Trump/Bernie supporters harboring and expressing a similar sense of disaffection with the status quo and a bent toward “revolutionary fervor,” oh yes, couldn’t agree more. I raised pretty much the same point in a previous post here—http://andrewhidas.com/five-things-ive-come-to-understand-about-the-trump-phenomenon/.
I think the most inscrutable group for me are those Bernistas who claim that if he goes down, a seemingly foregone conclusion at this point, they will either vote for Trump or sit out the election, so that the whole thing can blow up and we can begin again. No mention of the collateral damage in the meantime, however…
Not only an excellent synopsis, but two insightful responses (thanks Mary & Dennis) – one of my favorite lines from the speech is,”… “Vichy Republicans” who have endorsed him to please, please reconsider. We must remain committed to the kindness and community that are the hallmarks of civilization and reject the troubling, unfiltered Tourettes of his tribalism.'” – not only the two great phrases but the larger issues that Dennis so accurately delineates – the Network moment of “mad as hell…” – but devolving into tribalism in which so many “Vichy Repubs” like Bob Dole basically say it could be Jack the Ripper and if he’s our party’s nominee so be it (party before country? no problem) – makes former presidents Bush look pretty good by comparison… I am reading the book Hamilton (great read by the way, hope to see the musical one of these decades) in which I was reminded how the founders were so skeptical of political parties… this election cycle sure gives one pause in that regard, what a civics lesson – who really knew how F-ed up our nominating process actually is… democratic??
Thanks for bringing this to my attention (my son went to Stanford, by the way). I am a huge admirer of Ken Burns work, and as you may recall I spent an amazing hour + with him in a one-on-one interview which I link to below. That said, I must challenge your statements that he has always been scrupulously non-partisan and non-political. He was a prominent supporter and contributor to the Obama campaigns, and I’ve seen right-wing criticism of his documentaries for tilting his narratives toward “liberal” causes like women’s rights, civil rights, labor rights, etc. vs. extolling the free enterprise system. I say, guilty as charged, and God bless him for standing up for those causes. So, here’s the link in case you haven’t seen it before – http://m.mlb.com/news/article/95156112/filmmaker-ken-burns-reflects-on-impact-of-baseball-after-20-years
Hi David, I remember that piece and enjoyed reading it again, on the far less partisan subject of baseball, on which even Burns and the likes of George Will agree! I actually used the word “studied,” meaning “(of a quality or result) achieved or maintained by careful and deliberate effort” to describe Burns’s general stance of documentarian’s neutrality. I wouldn’t at all say that he is “scrupulously” so. I had a paragraph in the original, deleted for space considerations, noting that his political leanings are no secret; indeed, they can be gleaned not only from endorsement and donation records but also from the general tone of his work. But to my knowledge, he had always been fairly restrained in those expressions, nowhere near as fierce as he was yesterday, which he seemed to implicitly acknowledge in his commentary leading up to his Trump take-down. This had a different, much more forceful and explicit quality to it than anything we had ever heard before from him, it seemed to me.
Great piece Andrew, and I am so glad you got to be there. I read his speech last night and was very impressed.
Mary–give credit to Ted Cruz who last month, in a press conference, called Trump: “A narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen.” Of course what put Cruz over the edge was Trump saying Cruz’ dad was involved in the assassination of JFK…
Boo! A graduation is no place to bring up politics on either side.
Well, Lisa, you had some support for your view in that audience. (Although one can’t be sure those booing wouldn’t have been just fine if Burns had been lambasting Hillary!) I think you raise a valid and defensible point, with its own logic. I’m not sure I agree with it, given how politics permeates virtually every aspect of our lives. Nevertheless, commencement speakers have a long tradition of offering thoughtful and uplifting speeches without going all partisan, and Burns himself has done so.
I think in this case, he figured that the historical situation called for an extraordinary response from him. That this isn’t politics as usual with Kerry vs. Bush or Obama vs. Romney—that the things Trump seems to stand for are somehow dangerous and so far out of the mainstream that they pose an existential threat to our country. Not just a matter of policy differences, but differences in the whole concept of governing. And that Burns feels he would be remiss if he didn’t speak out in every possible venue. He may not be right about all that, but I think it’s his moral justification for doing so. Thanks for piping up for the opposing view; it deserves an airing.
Thanks and I agree opposing views deserve an airing, because just as many people feel the same way about Hillary and her danger to this country. Since politics was brought up at this graduation then both sides of this story should have been voiced to all that attended. Being fair & open minded & educated = hearing opposing views, what better lesson to teach the graduating seniors rather than Ken’s one-sided opinion.
Thanks, Lisa. We don’t quite see eye to eye on these matters, but I promise not to call you a dunce or a pig or worse for holding an opposing view. (The modeling has to start somewhere, Lord knows!) :-)
Two points from here: While it sounds good and equitable in theory to share both sides of a given argument or partisan divide as a way of teaching respect and open-mindedness to graduates, I don’t see the purpose of a graduation speech being to serve as a final classroom lesson. Rather, it is to invite a notable person who has something to say, some inspiring, provocative, unique take on life, work and posterity, etc. Burns, given his resume, obviously fit the bill, and the fact that he veered into politics is somewhat beside the point. The key is you invite someone whom you’re confident has something of value to say, and then you give them the freedom to say it. Sometimes, the speaker may go places you’d rather not have them go, but that’s the nature of free speech and academic freedom. What you don’t say to the person is, “Oh, you’re going to be critical of Trump? Then you’ve either got to go off on Hillary as well, or we’ll bring someone in to present that side.” That even-handedness is the job and function of the poli sci professor in class, it seems to me, not the graduation speaker. Presumably, the graduating class has the intellectual chops to do and interpret what they will from the commencement speaker, without the necessity of balancing him or her with an opposing view.
Second, the assertion that just as many people find Hillary as dangerous as Trump is problematic on a number of fronts, I think. However much one agrees or not with her on a policy level, she still swims in the historical currents of political discourse, has held multiple positions of grave responsibility in our political culture, has a proven record of working through channels of give-and-take to get things done—and also of failing to get things done!—but all of it within the confines and traditions of our system. Unlike Trump, she does not frighten and elicit a desperate sense of “anyone but…” even within her own party, nor almost uniformly around the world with allies.
In contrast, Trump regularly sounds and acts unhinged and inflammatory, makes a habit and game of insulting adversaries in the most vile and sophomoric terms, advocates for clearly unconstitutional bans of entire religious traditions, attacks the judiciary in a fashion that even Paul Ryan and others deemed racist, and has now banned some dozen or so media outlets from covering his campaign. All of it adds up to a major authoritarian strain that resembles an oligarchy rather than democracy. So I just can’t see where there is an equivalence between him and Hillary on being “dangerous,” nor in suitability and the temperament required to be the most powerful person in the world (next to Janet Yellen, that is…).
This would be a very different conversation if probably any of 13 other Republican candidates had won the nomination, all of whom at least seem to have a healthy respect for our institutions and the complexity and responsibility of governance as a world power. I regarded Carson, Cruz, and Fiorina as equally unqualified and as dangerous as Trump in their own way, though not quite as combustible. As for the others, none of them are in my ideological wheelhouse, but I would not fear for the future of our nation with them as I do with Trump. I think it was the same fear that animated Burns and convinced him he had a moral responsibility to speak out in every venue available to him. For my tastes, he could have been done with it quicker and more surgically, but I appreciated his sense of urgency in addressing the threat that so many people see with the specter of Trump in the oval office.
Andrew, excellent response above to the false equivalency of Hillary posing a similar existential threat to the very foundations of our civil democracy as the potential of a Trump dictatorship. I’ve lived 65 years, through Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson, etc., and I have never before feared that this might be the last chapter of the great American experiment in self-government and a civil society where people of all races, religions and national origins live together in relative peace and harmony. Hillary may be a bad President, but the threat to the republic of mobs descending on mosques in Orlando and lighting them on fire chanting “Trump! Trump! Trump!” is far more frightening than her cozying up to Wall Street or lying about her emails. We are in a war for the very soul of America, and I applaud Burns for making an exception to the rule of keeping politics out of commencement speeches.
David, I am really confused here. It is the Trump supporters trying to leave a peaceful rally that are being attacked by mobs. Notice that is not happening at either Bernie or Hillary rallies. To say that mobs of Trump supporters would think of burning down mosques is really unfair. I stick to my original statement, “a graduation is no place to bring up politics on either side.”
Well, Lisa, I think we’ll have to agree that we see the world, and the current state of politics differently.
I have seen reports from a few west coast locations where radical leftists harassed and were on several occasions violent toward Trump supporters coming out of rallies. Shame on them, and I support prosecuting them to full extent of the law. I read a lot of news from a variety of sources, including conservative sites, and overall I’ve found the leftist bigotry and violence to be far less than the anti-immigrant and racist remarks and behavior of Trump supporters.
Okay, let’s put racism off the table. For purpose of this discussion I’ll accept that his supporters never express racist sentiments or act violently toward peaceful protestors. Let’s just look at the words of the candidate who would be President.
Does name calling (“Lying Ted” and “Little Marco”), jokes about toilets and genitals, and ugly comments toward women (“Fat, ugly, piece of ass, etc.”) really make America great again? How can a school teacher discipline a child for bullying behavior that is modeled by the President of the United States? To me, this is the real danger of a President Trump – the coarsening of our society and the legitimization of bullying and mean-spiritedness toward our fellow man.
I repeat that Donald Trump represents an existential threat to our civilized, multi-cultural nation, and to our democratic republic in a way that Hillary, flawed as she is, does not.
If you vote for Donald Trump you have made a very ugly and dangerous bed. Lie in it at your own risk.
And no “risk” at all voting for someone that keeps highly confidential e mails on an unsecure server, putting our whole country in danger. No “risk” at all for those who died in Benghazi waiting for her help. No “risk” at all for her many actions and lies that are criminal. Just my final 2 cents worth.