Filmmaker Ken Burns delivers the 2016 Commencement address at Stanford.
(Image credit: L.A. Cicero – The full text can be found here.)
“Ken” Burns is an American filmmaker, known for his style of using archival footage and photographs in documentary films. His most widely known documentaries are The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Central Park Five (2012), and The Roosevelts (2014). Also widely known is his role as executive producer of The West … and Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies ….
Objectivity About History – Burns begins by stating that he is “in the business of memorializing … history.” He reminds people of the power the past exerts on us, and how it helps us better understand the present. He also says that for “nearly 40 years now, I have diligently practiced and rigorously maintained a conscious neutrality in my work, avoiding the advocacy of many of my colleagues, trying to speak to all of my fellow citizens.” (In other words, he has tried to tell both sides of the story as impartially as possible.)
Inspiration From The Past – As we look back over the past Burns asks where we should look for inspiration. “Which distant events and long dead figures will provide us with the greatest help, the most coherent context and the wisdom to go forward?” Why is this important? Because:
The hard times and vicissitudes of life will ultimately visit everyone. You will also come to realize that you are less defined by the good things that happen to you, your moments of happiness and apparent control, than you are by those misfortunes and unexpected challenges that, in fact, shape you more definitively, and help to solidify your true character—the measure of any human value.
Burns vividly recalls finding out at age 8 that his mother was dying of cancer. She was not crying about her impending death, but about how her illness was bankrupting her family. Fortunately her neighbors’ small donations kept the family solvent, and Burns learned about how life’s struggles can be ameliorated with small victories. In his filmmaking career he has tried “to resurrect small moments within the larger sweep of American history, trying to find our better angels in the most difficult of circumstances, trying to wake the dead, to hear their stories.”
Meaning From The Past – But how do we overcome the fear of death? How do we find meaning in life if we all die? History helps us answer these questions.
The past often offers an illuminating and clear-headed perspective from which to observe and reconcile the passions of the present moment, just when they threaten to overwhelm us. The history we know, the stories we tell ourselves, relieve that existential anxiety, allow us to live beyond our fleeting lifespans, and permit us to value and love and distinguish what is important.
The United States Government – Burns himself finds particular inspiration from Abraham Lincoln. In 1858, while speaking his colleagues in the new Republican party about slavery, he uttered these words: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” But within a few years he was president of a divided nation and, in his Annual Message to Congress, he asked us to rise to the occasion.
Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. … The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for Union. … We know how to save the Union. … In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.
Burns points out that Lincoln is speaking to us, we must rise to the occasion and save the country. He also rejects cynicism about our government even though it has made “catastrophic mistakes.” In fact the lives we live are made possible, to a large extent, by our government.
From our Declaration of Independence to our Constitution and Bill of Rights; from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the Land Grant College and Homestead Acts; from the transcontinental railroad and our national parks to child labor laws, Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act; from the GI Bill and the interstate highway system to putting a man on the moon and the Affordable Care Act, the United States government has been the author of many of the best aspects of our public and personal lives.
Individualism – We forget how much government gives us “because we live in an age of social media where we are constantly assured that we are all independent free agents.” We don’t see our connection to the entire community because of:
a sophisticated media culture that … desperately needs you – to live in an all-consuming disposable present, wearing the right blue jeans, driving the right car, carrying the right handbag, eating at all the right places, blissfully unaware of the historical tides that have brought us to this moment, blissfully uninterested in where those tides might take us.
Our false individualism makes us feel important “but this kind of existence actually ingrains in us a stultifying sameness that rewards conformity (not courage), ignorance and anti-intellectualism (not critical thinking).” And now such ignorance threatens our political future. ” And there comes a time when I—and you—an no longer remain neutral, silent. We must speak up – and speak out.”
The Unique Danger of Donald Trump – Here is best to quote a man who knows so much of American history, Burns himself:
For 216 years, our elections, though bitterly contested, have featured the philosophies and character of candidates who were clearly qualified. That is not the case this year. One is glaringly not qualified. So before you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process, divided our house, to fight against, no matter your political persuasion, the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much maligned but subtle art of governance; who is against lots of things, but doesn’t seem to be for anything, offering only bombastic and contradictory promises, and terrifying Orwellian statements; a person who easily lies, creating an environment where the truth doesn’t seem to matter; who has never demonstrated any interest in anyone or anything but himself and his own enrichment; who insults veterans, threatens a free press, mocks the handicapped, denigrates women, immigrants and all Muslims; a man who took more than a day to remember to disavow a supporter who advocates white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan; an infantile, bullying man who, depending on his mood, is willing to discard old and established alliances, treaties and long-standing relationships. I feel genuine sorrow for the understandably scared and—they feel—powerless people who have flocked to his campaign in the mistaken belief that—as often happens on TV—a wand can be waved and every complicated problem can be solved with the simplest of solutions. They can’t. It is a political Ponzi scheme. And asking this man to assume the highest office in the land would be like asking a newly minted car driver to fly a 747.
Burns has seen this type of figure arise many times and many places in history.
an incipient proto-fascism, a nativist anti-immigrant Know Nothingism, a disrespect for the judiciary, the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African-Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted, jingoistic saber-rattling, a total lack of historical awareness, a political paranoia that, predictably, points fingers, always making the other wrong. These are all virulent strains that have at times infected us in the past. But they now loom in front of us again – all happening at once. We know from our history books that these are the diseases of ancient and now fallen empires. The sense of commonwealth, of shared sacrifice, of trust, so much a part of American life, is eroding fast, spurred along and amplified by an amoral Internet that permits a lie to circle the globe three times before the truth can get started.
Burns does decry that the media has not exposed this charlatan, primarily because he delivers good ratings. “In fact, they have given him the abundant airtime he so desperately craves, so much so that it has actually worn down our natural human revulsion to this kind of behavior.” As Burns notes, “This is not a liberal or conservative issue, a red state, blue state divide. This is an American issue. Many honorable people, including the last two Republican presidents, members of the party of Abraham Lincoln, have declined to support him.” And he implores those Republicans” who have endorsed him to reconsider. “We must remain committed to the kindness and community that are the hallmarks of civilization and reject the troubling, unfiltered Tourette’s of his tribalism.”
Burns concludes this section of his speech by saying to these graduates of one of the most prestigious universities in the world:
The next few months of your “commencement,” that is to say, your future, will be critical to the survival of our Republic. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty.” Let us pledge here today that we will not let this happen to the exquisite, yet deeply flawed, land we all love and cherish—and hope to leave intact to our posterity. Let us “nobly save,” not “meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
Fatherly Advice – He finishes by offering some advice. Take it seriously when someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted; be for things not just against things; be curious; feed your mind; remember that insecurity makes liars of us all; don’t confuse success with excellence; don’t overspecialize, be generally educated; think beyond the binary; seek out mentors; embrace new ideas; travel; read; have children, you will learn much; be enthusiastic; remember the great threats to your country come from within; support science and the arts; vote; and
Believe, as Arthur Miller told me in an interview for my very first film on the Brooklyn Bridge, “believe, that maybe you too could add something that would last and be beautiful.”
What a wonderful speech. Thank you Ken Burns.
I’ll conclude with the disclaimer the Huffington Post features after every one of their columns about Trump:
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.