I’ve made exceptions for Ken Burns because he is an exceptional artist. I did not spend time on television, but when I saw a bit of his Civil War history, I carved out a lot of time, all the time it took to watch every episode. It was moving, it was alive, it was honest, and it showed the humanity, with all its triumphs and disastrous failures, of everyone, North or South, black or white, man or woman, in all the various collisions of purpose and commitment that marks civil war. Burns’ work was original, and at the same time, timeless.
I’ve followed him ever since, not necessarily rushing, but waiting till the moment was ripe to sit down and immerse myself in his own immersion in his American moments. The national parks, the Dust Bowl, baseball, country music, Jackie Robinson — each one an essential exploration of the soul and substance of America, each one making itself a part of essential Americana by its loving and devoted craft.
I was looking forward to Burns’ newest work, done together with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, The U.S. and the Holocaust. In some ways, it rewards the viewer with the excellence for which Burns is famed and which we expect. The familiar methodology of having the story largely told by the people in their own voices is as effective as ever, if not more so, because of the overwhelming affective horror at the center. And as narrator, Peter Coyote’s voice, as ever, is as great a voice as Edward Murrow’s or Walter Cronkite’s. I never tire of it.
The story of America and the Holocaust has been told well before. The 1994 PBS program America and the Holocaust, part of The American Experience series, already went over much of the ground covered here, having learned from many of the innovations Burns had introduced into documentary film and video. That earlier show, if anything, was more pointed and unsparing than Burns is in portraying America’s role in denying shelter and protection to Europe’s Jews as the horror of the Nazi genocide fell upon them, step by step. Spurred by the scholarship of historian David Wyman, that show was unsparing of Franklin Roosevelt, of official American complacency, and of the ineffectuality of the establishment American Jewish organizations. It was unsparing of liberals and conservatives alike, and thereby established its moral credentials.
Burns retells that story, though with a lighter hand on FDR. Fair enough. As far as that goes, it was excellent.
But Burns stumbled badly in trying to preach a moral lesson at the end. Not that such a lesson could not or should not be made. As mentioned, America and the Holocaust succeeded in drawing a searing moral lesson by its even-handed presentation of the faults of the actors of that day and allowed the viewers to connect that and apply that to the politics of the moment as they would be moved. That show trusted its viewers and their conscience.
It is not that any attempt to directly and forthrightly connect a moral lesson learned from history to the politics of the day must fail. It is only that it runs the risk of exposing political bias in such a way that the moral lesson becomes muddled, compromised, and made subservient to a political vision that is not the same as the moral vision it likes to claim it is. And here is where Burns has failed.
This is mere political propaganda, an imposture of moral authority rather than the real thing. It contaminates and poisons the moral message.
In the conclusion to the series, Burns very directly tries to show how the same forces that brought shame and guilt to America and to Germany are present and working in America today. Again, fair enough. Every human has an inclination to evil that must be mastered. Not one of us gets a free pass. The measure of our moral stature is how well we rise to the task of recognizing, controlling, and finally transforming that inclination. We are not freed of that work by party affiliation or subscription to an ideology or membership in any group.
Sadly and tragically, Burns stumbles by leaving us confused as to whether the moral peril is confined only to those who are identifiably on the right.
This is most pronounced in the final episode of his series, when he directly preaches his lesson. He shows vivid and affective images in the screen of neo-Nazi types doing their thing in all its squalid ugliness. Here they are in Charlottesville, Virginia, wearing Nazi tattoos and screaming in full paranoiac breakdown mode about not being replaced. Here they are among the crowds on Jan. 6, waving violently anti-Semitic signs.
Fair enough. If this doesn’t concern every conservative, then we are in trouble.
But where was a focus on Louis Farrakhan, in one of any number of obscene, Jew-baiting moments? Here is a powerful leader who is unabashedly anti-Semitic and who is powerful enough to subvert politicians to his purposes — that is, he’s effective and dangerous. Why was he not featured? The best guess is that Burns’ politics obscured his vision here.
Where was a showing of Jewish campus groups’ meetings being broken up, Nazi-style, by organized groups dedicated to the destruction of the country where the world’s largest Jewish population lives? Where is a clip of powerful Democrat politicians, publicly embraced by Democrat leadership, spouting anti-Semitic tropes on the House floor and in speeches — Omar, Tlaib, Pressley, and other lesser lights? Where is the focus on the leftist ideologies that identify Jews as a class to be colonialists and white supremacists, and therefore worthy objects of mobbing, exclusion, and even violence?
Furthermore, Burns willingly and powerfully equates the denial of asylum to European Jews facing Hitler’s annihilation machine to today’s attempt to any organized control of America’s borders. Can one really make a moral equation? Is assuring that we can weed out the drug runners, human traffickers, and gang members from those seeking political asylum equivalent to denying shelter to Jews fleeing the gas chambers? Is it moral to conflate the two? This is mere political propaganda, an imposture of moral authority rather than the real thing. It contaminates and poisons the moral message.
Deborah Lipstadt is featured prominently throughout this series. She is a courageous academic, a deservedly famous historian, and one who has earned a large measure of moral authority.
I disagree with her on many political points. Yet when she faced some conservative opposition to her appointment as our national point person on anti-Semitism, I supported her. I dismissed a rather partisan remark she made as not indicative of how she would work, a remark for which she apologized sincerely. I believed her. I admire people who admit and correct errors and then do not repeat them. I think she has done just that and has lived up to my trust.
Lipstadt does not stumble in this film. Burns, though, has stumbled badly. The quality of his work, the depth of his insight, the great heart of it, and the love for America that he has set down so compellingly and consistently in the rest of his body of work rises far above partisanship. It is tragic that in this, which Burns himself calls his most important work, he is stuck in a narrowness that so contradicts what has made the rest of his work beautiful and great. It would be more tragic if he doesn’t choose to address what he has done wrong.
But until he makes a correction, he is now on record as giving a pass to the whole spectrum of anti-Semitism that is alive on the left. And by his reckless association of everything Trump with Nazism, he overlooks the terrible complicity of those who are strengthening the hands of a foreign national regime in Iran that publicly denies the Holocaust, has publicly pledged to destroy Israel, and which is making every effort to obtain the nuclear weaponry by which it can obliterate as many Jews as Hitler.
That is a large omission to make and still claim the moral weight of the Holocaust behind you. Mr. Burns, be worthy of your own best vision. Don’t let this moral failure define your contribution. It is clear you are much better than this. Please live up to it.