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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Deep appreciation to the photographers!
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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/