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 Jan. 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, Simone Popperl and Denise Couture produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Ken Burns has spent his career documenting U.S. history. But the catastrophes of the Trump era, from the pandemic to the economic collapse, have him reaching back into his archives to look at how the country might move forward.
KEN BURNS: In 1947, the city of New York vaccinated in less than one month the entire population - 6 million inoculations against smallpox. You can do that in 1947 because people were on the same page.
KING: He wrote about this in an essay for Politico. But he told our co-host, Rachel, that rallying Americans for a common good won't be as easy these days.
BURNS: I used to think that there were three great crises - the Civil War, the Depression and the Second World War - in American life. I would add this, and maybe this is the very, very worst.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You sat down and started thinking through your own archive of documentaries and about the hundreds, hundreds - thousands of interviews you've done over your long career and tried to identify some that would bring wisdom to bear right now. Where did your mind settle?
BURNS: Well, you know, I think that history, despite being a kind of litany of dark and complicated and challenging moments, also makes one paradoxically an optimist. And so I wanted to include a phenomenal moment when FDR, in the middle of his first term, goes out to the Dakotas and goes to a in-progress Mount Rushmore, in which only the heads of Washington and now Jefferson have emerged from the rocks. And he says this remarkable thing. He says that 10,000 years from now - and he said, I think there will be America in 10,000 years. And you think 10,000 years before that moment, human beings were living in caves. That 10,000 years from now - that they would look back and say that we had done our best.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: We can wonder whether our descendants - because I think they'll still be here - what they will think about us if they will believe that we have honestly striven to preserve for our descendants a decent land to live in and a decent form of government to operate under.
BURNS: A phenomenal moment. Here's a guy - FDR - pampered, only son in a sense of a wealthy age-old American family who suddenly, through his own personal suffering, understands and develops an empathy for the suffering of others. And in some ways, I've described part of Joe Biden's biography, and it has been defined by loss and suffering but 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.
MARTIN: You also wanted to include an interview that you did with famed writer James Baldwin when he was talking about what he saw in the Statue of Liberty, what it meant to him and other Black Americans.
BURNS: Yeah. I had a - it was a remarkable moment, Rachel. I was - this is the third or fourth film I'd ever made. It was on the history of the Statue of Liberty. But I also wanted to deal with the idea of liberty. And so we were speaking to immigrants like the writer Jerzy Kosinski and Milos Forman and others who could appreciate it. And I interviewed James Baldwin, and he recited the second sentence of the declaration. And he said, obviously, that was not intended for me when he got halfway - not even halfway through. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. He said - he stopped - that was not intended for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE STATUE OF LIBERTY")
JAMES BALDWIN: For a Black American, for a Black inhabitant of this country, the Statue of Liberty is simply a very bitter joke meaning nothing to us.
BURNS: And he wanted to remind us at a time when we weren't talking about race to think about that; a reminder that this statue opened to the sea welcoming immigrants had its back to America.
MARTIN: It was also so striking to hear this quote from historian Barbara Fields. Fields is a Black woman, a Black historian. She's talking about America's Civil War. And she makes plain that the war is not stuck in the past. It is...
MARTIN: It's a living, breathing thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BARBARA FIELDS: William Faulkner said once that history is not was; it's is. The Civil War is still going on. It's still to be fought. And regrettably, it can still be lost.
BURNS: So let me rewind a little bit. The - Barbara spoke at the last moments of the history of the American Civil War that we published, if you will, in the fall of 1990. And so Barbara Fields' words remain as a kind of cautionary thing that are as relevant today as they were when she spoke them in an interview I'm guessing we did in '87 or '88, perhaps. And that's a long time ago.
MARTIN: As a student of American democracy yourself, after the past four or five years, do you come out of this seeing our fragility exposed as a country or do you see the institutions have maintained, our ability to endure has actually been strengthened?
BURNS: I don't feel that our ability to endure has been strengthened. I am constantly reminded that fragility is a constant thing in the history of us. But at the same time, we just keep going forward. There is no other option but to endure.
And we are now in a toxic moment. We don't get our information from the same place the way we used to, and that has had poisonous effect on our democracy. And we have to find a way to convince tens of millions of people that this election was actually the best we've ever had in terms of the fraud that they are certain happened. And the only reason they believe that fraud is that it's become, you know, repeated so, so many times within their echo chambers that they don't even have the possibility of thinking of an alternative universe. And it is incumbent upon us to address the questions that are happening here. I mean, we've got work to do.
KING: Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRAY FOR SOUND'S "SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.