The National Parks: The Worst Decision?
What's more, Burns completely hides the fact that recent historians of the parks have interpreted the parks (radically) differently. Indeed, to watch all 12 hours of this documentary (did anyone?) you wouldn't even know that he's engaged in an argument. This is because for Burns, history is not interpretation, it is fact. It is The Past, unmediated. Historians, according to Burns's logic, contort the past while he simply reports it. Hence, he's not really even a story-teller. Or, rather, the story's he tells are not written by him. That's disingenuous.
But Burns's obsessive singularity and simplified sense of the continuity of the American past runs roughshod over more than just debates about the democratic leanings of the founders or the exclusionary policies of the early Park Service. For him, democracy itself is an unchanging, universal platonic value. It, obviously, has no history (I wonder if Burns knows that he's marching lockstep with conservative thinker Francis Fukuyama?). We see this at the beginning of the National Parks when Burns deploys Teddy Roosevelt's words about the parks -- that they are democratic -- as if that's the whole story.
Burns's denial of History is part of a larger denial of himself as an author of histories. Teddy Roosevelt, important in creating the parks, told us that they were democratic. It must be so. Then he uses Pope to corroborate. Pope's long career in the environmental movement makes him a better subject of this history than an author of it. But this is a common tactic of Burns who claims that his stories emerge from the past unadulterated by analysis. The facts, he seems to say, speak for themselves. Covering his own narrative hand, disavowing any authorial intent or even decision, allows Burns to make these claims that his stories are somehow above the petty squabbles of academics. We can trust that his history is simply, the truth.
Ken Burns's War on History
The apotheosis of this denial isn't so much The National Parks, for at least that documentary includes historians (though at one point Burns calls Lee Stetson a "John Muir Scholar." Stetson is an actor who does a John Muir show at Yosemite, and does the voiceover for Muir in the documentary. Though a fan of John Muir, it's unclear what makes him a "scholar"). Burns is at his history hating most in his 2007 multi-part documentary, The War.
The fundamental historiographic premise of The War is that World War II is best told and understood through the recollections of veterans. The constant cry from Burns's media machine about The War was that the 15 hour documentary presents history as it really was, “unmediated.” In one interview Burns told Jon Stewart that he wanted to do "bottom up history," not the history of generals and weapons and tactics. This line was picked up and parroted by every sycophantic reviewer. As one critic from Alabama wrote, The War was
authentic social history, since Burns uses only firsthand accounts of experiences by the troops on the ground (as opposed to the generals and military experts) and interviews people from all facets of life (rather than historians and experts). Only those who were alive during World War II tell stories; there is no secondhand, hindsight analysis by telegenic historians or academic talking heads. There are no celebrated intellectuals to tell us what it all means.This vision of an objective knowable past posits historical sources, especially the “unmediated” recollections of those involved (Burns refuses to acknowledge the possibility that the 50 years since the war do anything to those recollections) that give us an unmediated access to the past. With the authority of his unimpeachable sources in tact, Burns can then claim to not being a narrator in the traditional sense, but one who simply recounts what really happened.
The payoff for his denial of authorship is that any criticism of his narrative choices simply hits a wall of denial. His narrative choices, it turns out, weren’t his choices. That’s just how the past played out (The War was heavily criticized for documenting only white soldiers.
The genius of the film was its ability to translate recollections into facts. Burns listed no historians (There is a whole politics to how Burns labels those who appear in his films: there were veterans who spoke who were historians, but Burns chose not to label them as such). Because there are no experts, indeed, no consciousness (or at least no explicit acknowledgment that what we are seeing is constructed) of the constructed aspects of the story, what we hear becomes what actually was. Burns's narrator has no more authority than the individual veterans. For Burns, history from the bottom up is not simply how the ground understands the past, but that understanding is the truth of the past.
In other words, Burns presents the words of the veterans as fact. They are never analyzed them or put into context. One particularly insane moment comes when a veteran explains that at first, the men didn’t believe the way the government portrayed the Axis. But then, as they start fighting the war, that propaganda becomes real to him (and to us as an audience). This happens, right after a rare black veteran opens up the question of the hypocrisy of fighting a war for democracy in a profoundly undemocratic nation. Thus the one open space where the contradictions of the past can be confronted and at least analyzed, Burns immediately closes by laying over a soundtrack of propaganda about this war being for freedom and against (what else but) slavery that white veterans then affirm.
Burns denial of his own authorship as a historian ultimately serves his primary goal: popularity. Many commentators have tried to explain Burns's immense popularity, so let me enter the fray. My bid for Burns's undeniable success: he tells stories that Americans already know. Burns refuses to make Americans uncomfortable with his history. Instead, he would rather reassure them that what they think about the past is true. His documentaries are largely documentary versions of the popular myths of history. He is unabashedly universal in his themes and speaks often about human experience that make us all the same. When he came to my school, he spoke repeatedly of the "universal experience of battle." That was what constituted a historical subject. What that meant for women or those who have not experienced war (and whether or not they contributed to history or were indeed even part of humanity), he refused to say. In fact he dodged the question.
Long ago academic historians gave up on the idea that human beings and the societies they create are essentially the same over time. Some romantic historians of the nineteenth century liked to see humankind in this way. Historians of the twenty-first century (even the twentieth century) believe the opposite. History is not supposed to make us feel comfortable, to justify where we're at, to explain our present moment as the inevitable conclusion to a past that is prelude. No, by showing us the near infinite variety of human experience over time and space, the perspective of history is a profoundly uncomfortable position.