ken burns

With its usual promotional hype, PBS re-broadcasted its 1990 program The Civil War. This 25-year-old program, along with Jazz and Baseball constitutes Ken Burns’ trilogy on racial relations. Wanting to make the Civil War “comprehensible to a contemporary audience”, Burns chose to present a “social history”, one that was heavily influenced by contemporary socio/political sentiments. Burns publicly admitted that he was a filmmaker and not a historian, so he had to use actual historians to speak about military matters, battles, and troop movements. These historians were able to lend credence to the integrity of his film, and building on the veracity the historians provided, Burns used The Civil War to subtly proselytize about racism, as he did in Jazz, and Baseball.

Lacking a solid understanding of the Civil War as well as the events preceding and following it, few viewers in 1990 questioned Burns’ version. Although today’s viewers might appreciate Ken Burns’ filming techniques, they are not as naive about racism as they were 25 years ago. But even at that time, few viewers were willing to accept Burns’ manipulative histories of Jazz and Baseball, so it is unlikely that either of these two programs will be resurrected.   It appears that PBS and Ken Burns both believe that the current population will overlook the mob violence occurring in our cities and once again fall for old worn-out racism accusations.

The civil rights movement spawned programs like Burns’ racial relations trilogy. The compelling moral thrust of this movement wrought radical changes in societal arrangements, revising education, entertainment, and actual interpretations of history. As these extreme alterations to American society were well underway long before the majority of today’s citizens were born, these generations have simply accepted them. After all, it was the society into which they were born. But the long decades of the civil rights movement have been so all encompassing and persuasive that there is a reluctance to move on to other issues or even to allow other critical problems a share of media limelight. There is also a refusal to acknowledge the detrimental side effects caused by unbridled efforts to redress racism.

The dramatic phase of the civil rights movement, demonstrations, marches, and legislation, lasted roughly 14 years – 1954 to 1968. Again, most of the U.S. population, including journalists, was not alive when the actual events took place, so their beliefs about that era derive from subsequent entertainment and media interpretations. In the five decades following those events, media’s ceaseless and embellished rehashing of that 14-year period has turned those episodes into the stuff of legends – legends that must not be questioned. Annual remembrances of those events are de rigueur and have become almost reverential.

Indeed, the subject of race permeates many of Ken Burns’ videos, so much so, that he has emerged as one of today’s elite “pop-culture celebrities,” a media personality who lectures the public about culture and history, although lacking adequate credentials to do so. In addition to Burns, we now have film actor Leonardo DiCaprio haranguing us about global warming, and TV host Oprah Winfrey preaching a version of new age spirituality to replace Christianity. Those who are enthralled by media personalities accept their opinions on subjects far beyond their expertise.

Currently, media “experts” are questioning the historical veracity of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone With the Wind, primarily because of her depiction of the close relationship between house slaves and their masters. The historical veracity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is deemed sacrosanct, even though Harriet Beecher Stowe also portrays a close relationship between the slave Tom and his owners, the Shelby and St. Clare families.  Mrs. Stowe gets a pass because her book accommodates contemporary socio/political agendas whereas Mitchell’s does not.

However, relationships between slaves and masters cannot be lumped together into a single characterization; some were harsh and some were affable. But it has now become obligatory to depict all masters as treating slaves cruelly, and all slaves as being resentful and rebellious.

The Lincoln administration made the mistake of anticipating massive revolts when Southern slaves learned of the Emancipation Proclamation. That didn’t happen. Later, when Union forces occupied the defeated South and slaves were being freed, no widespread reactions against former masters occurred. In fact, a great many slaves concealed their owner’s valuables from marauding Union troops, and surreptitiously brought food and supplies to owners who were in hiding. These episodes are historical facts although they don’t fit the Ken Burns, PBS stereotype.

Ken Burns is not the only filmmaker guilty of making “specious” historical films based on equivocal interpretations. Hollywood’s fictional Abraham Lincoln has no resemblance to the real man. This fictional Lincoln largely went unquestioned until the Internet began allowing alternative web sites to present news and history. John Ford’s 1939 film, Young Mr. Lincoln was almost pure fiction. Indeed, Henry Fonda, the actor who played Lincoln, told an interviewer: “I felt as if I were portraying Christ himself on film.” Unfortunately, in 1939, a substantial segment of movie audiences believed that Henry Fonda’s Lincoln accurately depicted the real Lincoln.

We wonder if TV viewers in 2015 will blithely accept Ken Burns’ “bumper-sticker” interpretation of the Civil War: that the war was fought over a single issue – moral opposition to slavery.

As Edward Ayers and other historians have made clear, wars are not fought for moral reasons, nor are they fought over a single issue. Before a conflict between two sides becomes irreconcilable, it is preceded by years of festering complex issues that might have been resolved peacefully, but were ineptly handled. Television programs designed for mass audiences do not delve deeply into complex issues. Also, because historians write about wars long after they have taken place, their histories mirror the current generation’s socio/political trends.

Like all social movements, the civil rights movement has also gone through stages, and is now in decline. Its original goal of equal treatment for minorities soon evolved into preferential treatment and, somewhere along the way, removing reminders of Southern heritage became one of its goals. Unflinching media support has sustained the declining movement until it is no longer just the Confederate flag that is under attack, but the American flag as well. Likewise, there are campaigns to have the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial razed. Washington, Jefferson and other early presidents as well as the Founding Fathers, are being reviled as racists who exemplify the clever and malignant concept known as “white privilege.” Harsh, almost dictatorial, measures are sanctioned by the Left as necessary to bring about “real equality.”

In a recent commencement speech, Ken Burns stated “… real equality is the… birthright of all Americans.” Although this is the usual pretentious language expected at a commencement service, many on the Left are beginning to talk a lot about “real equality”, even proposing a redistribution of wealth. The Left employs the term “real equality”, carefully avoiding the designation “a classless society” because many Americans recall the great harm done to societies in their futile attempts to create a society without classes. The best any country can do is to try to make its laws and opportunities as fair and balanced as possible, and the United States has done that.

The Declaration of Independence claims that “all men are created equal”, and the Constitution provides for “equal protection of the laws”, but neither document mentions “equality” because our Founders knew that “real equality” was unattainable. But the Radical Left continues to fault America because, even after a half-century of across-the-board racial preferences and other race-conscious remedies, “equality is still elusive.” Maintaining that equality is “elusive” implies that it can actually be achieved, but it has never been achieved by any society throughout the history of mankind. Ken Burns and other Leftists are doing a great disservice to our nation by advocating the myth of “real equality.”

Gail Jarvis

Gail Jarvis is a Georgia-based free-lance writer. He attended the University of Alabama and has a degree from Birmingham Southern College. As a CPA/financial consultant, he helped his clients cope with the detrimental effects of misguided governmental intrusiveness. This influenced his writing as did years of witnessing how versions of news and history were distorted for political reasons. Mr. Jarvis is a member of the Society of Independent Southern Historians and his articles have appeared on various websites, magazines, and publications for several organizations. He lives in Coastal Georgia with his wife.

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