Filmmaker Ken Burns has spent his career documenting American history, and he always considered three major crises in the nation’s past: The Civil War, the Depression and World War II.
Then came the unprecedented “perfect storm” of 2020 — and Burns thinks we may be living through America’s fourth great crisis, and perhaps the worst one yet.
“We’re beset by three viruses, are we not?” he explains. There’s “a year-old COVID-19 virus, but also a 402-year-old virus of white supremacy, of racial injustice. … And we’ve got an age-old human virus of misinformation, of paranoia, of conspiracies …”
Burns has no intention of making a documentary about the Trump years, but he says history can help us navigate the years ahead. After the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by rioting Trump supporters, Burns wrote an essay for Politico trying to bring a historical view to this political moment. He looked through his massive archive of interviews to identify some ideas that might provide some perspective. He shares a few with us below.
(And if you’re worried it’ll be all doom and gloom – don’t fear: History can be a “litany of dark and complicated and challenging moments,” Burns says, but it also “makes one, paradoxically, an optimist.”)
On FDR, standing before an in-progress Mount Rushmore in 1936, saying that he believed America would still exist in 10,000 years
Here’s a guy who gets infantile paralysis, an ambitious, patrician guy, pampered only-son … of a wealthy age-old American family who suddenly, through his own personal suffering, understands and develops an empathy for the suffering of others. … Joe Biden’s biography from the very moment he was elected to the Senate as one of the youngest senators … to this moment where he will be inaugurated as the oldest president in American history, it has been defined by loss and suffering, but [with] 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.
On writer James Baldwin saying that the Statue of Liberty was “a very bitter joke” to Black Americans
He recited the second sentence of the Declaration [of Independence] … “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” … He said …. “That’s not meant for me.” … [He] said, you know, for black Americans, the Statue of Liberty is a “bitter joke, meaning nothing to us.” A reminder that this statue, open to the sea welcoming immigrants — which is itself under siege from the very beginning — had its back to America. And he wanted to remind us — at a time when we weren’t talking about race — to think about that and … this original sin of us both the U.S. — capital U.S. — and the two-letter, lowercase, plural pronoun us.
On historian Barbara J. Fields’ statement from 30 years ago that the Civil War is ongoing; “It’s still to be fought, and regrettably it can still be lost.”
William Faulkner … said history is not was but is, which has been a kind of guiding principle for all of the ways that we’ve tried to tell our complex and contradictory and sometimes confounding stories. …
The Civil War didn’t solve a lot of things, but it changed the nature of who we were before the United States. We said the United States are — plural, grammatically correct. And after the war, we say, as we do today, and ungrammatically, the United States is. In some way, the war, with all of its passions, with all of its death and destruction, with all of its unresolved work, it made us an is. And that’s why I think in moments like this, where everything is so fraught … you have the possibility to redefine and re-agree to cohere. … Fields’ words remain as a kind of cautionary thing that are as relevant today as they were when she spoke them.
On the fragility and endurance of American institutions
The fragility is a constant thing. … But at the same time, in the midst of that fragility, in the midst of unprecedented assault on those institutions that should provide a bulwark against the insurrections, both literal and figurative … there is no option but to go forward, but to put your face up. … There’s no other option but to endure. …
Obviously, lies hurt the liar … hate corrodes the vessel that it’s carried in. But lies also hurt the people who hear them. And we are now in a toxic moment that needs a kind of discipline. … None of us are on the same page. I don’t wish to suggest that we all think alike in lockstep; we should not. The beauty of our system is disagreement, but we don’t get our information from the same place the way we used to. And that has had a poisonous effect on our democracy. … We need to see this moment as one of promise and investment in education in rural as well as urban poverty, climate change … sustainability, infrastructure, and obviously at the very heart, health care and vaccination. … We cannot leave anybody behind. We cannot fly over any human being anymore.
On reasons for optimism
We’re beginning to have a racial reckoning. More people voted than ever before. … Poll workers defied the coronavirus, voters defied the coronavirus and held the safest and most accurate vote in our history. Courts upheld every challenge to that. We have a woman as a vice president — we have a woman of color as a vice president — this is a time not for rejoicing, but to remember that in order to gather strength to deal with these dark moments, we have to actually remember to let in the light that is right in front of us.
Barry Gordemer and Simone Popperl produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.