What Ken Burns Said

By Don Mohler

Note: This is a very different visit to the Front Porch. There are no photos to accompany the text. There are no snarky comments by yours truly. It is significantly longer than a typical post. I know that the common belief is that people no longer have the patience to read more than a few hundred words at one time. I hope you will make an exception for the address below. I am posting the text of renowned historian Ken Burns’ graduation address to the students at Brandeis University. For the first time in his career, Mr. Burns chose to comment on the political divisions racking our nation. His reasons are evident in his remarks. My takeaway is that if we are to survive, we must recapture the importance of being a nation that values “us.” I look forward to your interpretation.

 The text is reprinted exactly as transcribed by the college. It is unedited. If you agree with me that it is compelling, I implore you to share with others. Thank you.

Brandeisian, love it.

Listen, I am in the business of history. It is not always a happy subject on college campuses these days, particularly when forces seem determined to eliminate or water down difficult parts of our past, particularly when the subject may seem to sum an anachronistic and irrelevant pursuit, and particularly with the ferocious urgency this moment seems to exert on us. It is my job, however, to remind people of the power our past also exerts, to help us better understand what’s going on now with compelling story, memory, and anecdote. It is my job to try to discern patterns and themes from history to enable us to interpret our dizzying and sometimes dismaying present.

For nearly 50 years now, I have diligently practiced and rigorously tried to maintain a conscious neutrality in my work, avoiding advocacy if I could, trying to speak to all of my fellow citizens. Over those many decades I’ve come to understand a significant fact, that we are not condemned to repeat, as the saying goes, what we don’t remember. That is a beautiful, even poetic phrase, but not true. Nor are there cycles of history as the academic community periodically promotes. The Old Testament, Ecclesiastes to be specific, got it right, I think.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun. What those lines suggest is that human nature never changes or almost never changes. We continually superimpose that complex and contradictory human nature over the seemingly random chaos of events, all of our inherent strengths and weaknesses, our greed and generosity, our puritanism and our prurience, our virtue, and our venality parade before our eyes, generation after generation after generation. This often gives us the impression that history repeats itself. It does not. “No event has ever happened twice, it just rhymes,” Mark Twain is supposed to have said. I have spent all of my professional life on the lookout for those rhymes, drawn inexorably to that power of history. I am interested in listening to the many varied voices of a true, honest, complicated past that is unafraid of controversy and tragedy, but equally drawn to those stories and moments that suggest an abiding faith in the human spirit, and particularly the unique role this remarkable and sometimes also dysfunctional republic seems to play in the positive progress of mankind.

During the course of my work, I have become acquainted with hundreds if not thousands of those voices. They have inspired, haunted, and followed me over the years. Some of them may be helpful to you as you try to imagine and make sense of the trajectory of your lives today.

Listen, listen. In January of 1838, shortly before his 29th birthday, a tall, thin lawyer prone to bouts of debilitating depression addressed the young men’s lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?” He asked his audience, “Shall we expect some trans-Atlantic military giant to step the earth and crush us at a blow?” Then he answered his own question. “Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live through all time or die by suicide.” It is a stunning, remarkable statement, one that has animated my own understanding of the American experience since I first read it more than 40 years ago. That young man was of course Abraham Lincoln, and he would go on to preside over the closest this country has ever come to near national suicide, our civil war, and yet embedded in his extraordinary, disturbing, and prescient words is also a fundamental optimism that implicitly acknowledges the geographical forcefield two mighty oceans east and west and two relatively benign neighbors north and south have provided for us since the British burned the White House in the War of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Key.

Lincoln’s words that day suggest what is so great and so good about the people who happen to inhabit this lucky and exquisite country of ours. That’s the world you now inherit: our work ethic and our restlessness, our innovation and our improvisation, our communities and our institutions of higher learning, our suspicion of power. The fact that we seem resolutely dedicated to parsing the meaning between individual and collective freedom; What I want versus what we need. That we are all so dedicated to understanding what Thomas Jefferson really meant when he wrote that mysterious phrase, “The pursuit of happiness”. Hint, it happens right here in the lifelong learning and perpetual improvement this university is committed to.

But the isolation of those two oceans has also helped to incubate habits and patterns less beneficial to us: our devotion to money and guns and conspiracies, our certainty about everything, our stubborn insistence on our own exceptionalism blinding us to that which needs repair, especially with regard to race and ethnicity. Our preoccupation with always making the other wrong at an individual as well as a global level. I am reminded of what the journalist I.F. Stone once said to a young acolyte who was profoundly disappointed in his mentor’s admiration for Thomas Jefferson. “It’s because history is tragedy,” Stone admonished him, “Not melodrama.”

It’s the perfect response. In melodrama all villains are perfectly villainous and all heroes are perfectly virtuous, but life is not like that. You know that in your guts and nor is our history like that. The novelist, Richard Powers recently wrote that, “The best arguments in the world,” — and ladies and gentlemen, that’s all we do is argue — “the best arguments in the world,” he said, “Won’t change a single person’s point of view. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” I’ve been struggling for most of my life to do that, to try to tell good, complex, sometimes contradictory stories, appreciating nuance and subtlety and undertow, sharing the confusion and consternation of unreconciled opposites.

But it’s clear as individuals and as a nation we are dialectically preoccupied. Everything is either right or wrong, red state or blue state, young or old, gay or straight, rich or poor, Palestinian or Israeli, my way or the highway. Everywhere we are trapped by these old, tired, binary reactions, assumptions, and certainties. For filmmakers and faculty, students and citizens, that preoccupation is imprisoning. Still, we know and we hear and we express only arguments, and by so doing, we forget the inconvenient complexities of history and of human nature. That, for example, three great religions, their believers, all children of Abraham, each professing at the heart of their teaching, a respect for all human life, each with a central connection to and legitimate claim to the same holy ground, violate their own dictates of conduct and make this perpetually contested land a shameful graveyard. God does not distinguish between the dead. “Could you?”

“Could you?” A very wise person I know with years of experience with the Middle East recently challenged me, “Could you hold the idea that there could be two wrongs and two rights?”

Listen, listen. In a filmed interview I conducted with the writer James Baldwin, more than 40 years ago, he said, “No one was ever born who agreed to be a slave, who accepted it. That is, slavery is a condition imposed from without. Of course, the moment I say that,” Baldwin continued, “I realize that multitudes and multitudes of people for various reasons of their own enslave themselves every hour of every day to this or that doctrine, this or that delusion of safety, this or that lie. Anti-Semites, for example,” he went on, “are slaves to a delusion. People who hate Negroes are slaves. People who love money are slaves. We are living in a universe really of willing slaves, which makes the concept of liberty and the concept of freedom so dangerous,” he finished. Baldwin is making a profoundly psychological and even spiritual statement, not just a political or racial or social one. He knew, just as Lincoln knew, that the enemy is often us. We continue to shackle ourselves with chains we mistakenly think is freedom.

Another voice, Mercy Otis Warren, a philosopher and historian during our revolution put it this way, “The study of the human character at once opens a beautiful and a deformed picture of the soul. We there find a noble principle implanted in the nature of people, but when the checks of conscience are thrown aside, humanity is obscured.” I have had the privilege for nearly half a century of making films about the US, but I have also made films about us. That is to say the two letter, lowercase, plural pronoun. All of the intimacy of “us” and also “we” and “our” and all of the majesty, complexity, contradiction, and even controversy of the US. And if I have learned anything over those years, it’s that there’s only us. There is no them. And whenever someone suggests to you, whomever it may be in your life that there’s a them, run away. Othering is the simplistic binary way to make and identify enemies, but it is also the surest way to your own self imprisonment, which brings me to a moment I’ve dreaded and forces me to suspend my longstanding attempt at neutrality.

There is no real choice this November. There is only the perpetuation, however flawed and feeble you might perceive it, of our fragile 249-year-old experiment or the entropy that will engulf and destroy us if we take the other route. When, as Mercy Otis Warren would say, “The checks of conscience are thrown aside and a deformed picture of the soul is revealed.” The presumptive Republican nominee is the opioid of all opioids, an easy cure for what some believe is the solution to our myriad pains and problems. When in fact with him, you end up re-enslaved with an even bigger problem, a worse affliction and addiction, “a bigger delusion”, James Baldwin would say, the author and finisher of our national existence, our national suicide as Mr. Lincoln prophesies. Do not be seduced by easy equalization. There is nothing equal about this equation. We are at an existential crossroads in our political and civic lives. This is a choice that could not be clearer.

Listen, listen. 33 years ago, the world lost a towering literary figure. The novelist and storyteller, not arguer, Isaac Bashevis Singer. For decades he wrote about God and myth and punishment, fate and sexuality, family and history. He wrote in Yiddish a marvelously expressive language, sad and happy all at the same time. Sometimes maddeningly all knowing, yet resigned to God’s seemingly capricious will. It is also a language without a country, a dying language in a world more interested in the extermination or isolation of its long suffering speakers. Singer, writing in the pages of the Jewish Daily Forward help to keep Yiddish alive. Now our own wonderfully mongrel American language is punctuated with dozens of Yiddish words and phrases, parables and wise sayings, and so many of those words are perfect onomatopoeias of disgust and despair, hubris and humor. If you’ve ever met a schmuck, you know what I’m talking about.

Toward the end of his long and prolific life, Singer expressed wonder at why so many of his books written in this obscure and some said useless language would be so widely translated, something like 56 countries all around the world. “Why,” he would wonder with his characteristic playfulness, “Why would the Japanese care about his simple stories of life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe 1,000 years ago?” “Unless,” Singer paused, twinkle in his eye, “Unless the story spoke of the kinship of the soul.” I think what Singer was talking about was that indefinable something that connects all of us together, that which we all share as part of organic life on this planet, the kinship of the soul. I love that.

Okay, let me speak directly to the graduating class. Watch out, here comes the advice. Listen. Be curious, not cool. Insecurity makes liars of us all. Remember, none of us get out of here alive. The inevitable vicissitudes of life, no matter how well gated our communities, will visit us all. Grief is a part of life, and if you explore its painful precincts, it will make you stronger. Do good things, help others. Leadership is humility and generosity squared. Remember the opposite of faith is not doubt. Doubt is central to faith. The opposite of faith is certainty. The kinship of the soul begins with your own at times withering self-examination. Try to change that unchangeable human nature of Ecclesiastes, but start with you. “Nothing so needs reforming,” Mark Twain once chided us, “As other people’s habits.”

Don’t confuse success with excellence. Do not descend too deeply into specialism. Educate all of your parts, you will be healthier. Do not get stuck in one place. “Travel is fatal to prejudice,” Twain also said. Be in nature, which is always perfect and where nothing is binary. Its sheer majesty may remind you of your own atomic insignificance, as one observer put it, but in the inscrutable and paradoxical ways of wild places, you will feel larger, inspirited, just as the egotist in our midst is diminished by his or her self regard.

At some point, make babies, one of the greatest things that will happen to you, I mean it, one of the greatest things that will happen to you is that you will have to worry, I mean really worry, about someone other than yourself. It is liberating and exhilarating, I promise. Ask your parents.

Choose honor over hypocrisy, virtue over vulgarity, discipline over dissipation, character over cleverness, sacrifice over self-indulgence. Do not lose your enthusiasm, in its Greek etymology the word enthusiasm means simply, “god in us”. Serve your country. Insist that we fight the right wars. Denounce oppression everywhere.

Convince your government, as Lincoln understood that the real threat always and still comes from within this favored land. Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts.

They have nothing to do with the actual defense of our country; They just make our country worth defending.

Remember what Louis Brandeis said, “The most important political office is that of the private citizen.” Vote. You indelibly… [audience applauding] Please, vote. You indelibly underscore your citizenship, and most important, our kinship with each other when you do. Good luck and godspeed.

Don Mohler is the former Baltimore County Executive and President and CEO of Mohler Communication Strategies. He may be reached at don@donmohler.com.

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