WASPs

The Unbearable Whiteness of Ken Burns

August 12, 2009

Multiple Pages
The Unbearable Whiteness of Ken Burns

The publicity machine is now gearing up for documentarian Ken Burns’s twelve-hour extravaganza, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, which will run for six straight nights on PBS starting September 27.

This being a Ken Burns series, the predominant theme of The National Parks will be “diversity.” So, if you go camping in a national park this month, check out the diversity of your fellow visitors. You’ll likely notice tourists from all over the world, including busloads of punctual Germans and amenable Japanese.

But, foreign tourists aren’t the right kind of diversity for Burns.

Although Burns has spent his career explaining stuff, he’s never quite figured himself out. That’s why, judging from his documentary’s preview materials, The National Parks is shaping up, after six years of work, as Ken Burns’ Worst Idea.

Burns became famous in 1990 with his magnificent eleven-hour documentary The Civil War.

Could he top it? Anticipation in the press for his 18-hour Baseball series in 1994 was intense.

Well, it turned out Burns couldn’t top The Civil War. As Baseball slogged on, reaching some kind of apotheosis of pompous tedium when interviewee Stephen Jay Gould sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” all the way through a capella, my wife started asking unkind questions about why the media would never get so excited over a documentary of this numbing length on the history of, say, soap operas or some other feminine timewaster.

Still, adrift inside the vast hulk of Baseball was an excellent two-hour documentary on the one topic that truly engaged Burns: the Negro Leagues and the Jackie Robinson story.

As more Burns documentaries piled up, it became clear that what he cares most about is telling stories about African Americans. This was acidly pointed out in the famous parody, The Old Negro Space Program:

It was a different time, you understand. In 1957 or 1958, if you were black and you were an astronaut, you were outta work.

In 2007, Latino pressure groups successfully exploited Burns’ notorious lack of interest in nonblacks by raising a stink over the shortage of Hispanics in his WWII documentary The War. He ended up caving in and inserting an extra 28 minutes of Latino Lore, that, in the words of a New Yorker reviewer, felt “tacked-on.”

In a better world, Burns could devote himself solely to making documentaries about African American subjects. There is plenty of good material, and he’s the best at it. But, in this world, he can’t: he’s white. It would be like a white actor in 2008 or 2009 being the world’s best at playing Othello: he’d be outta work. It is a different time, you understand.

(Indeed, Burns is about as white as a white guy can get. His general affect is reminiscent of the liberal social worker in the pilot episode of King of the Hill whom Hank dubs “Twig Boy.”)

Hence, Burns typically makes bloated documentaries about some subject expansive enough to give him an excuse to slip in the black stories that interests him. If the topic is right, such as Jazz, it works.

But … National Parks?

I’m sorry, but black people don’t like national parks. Less than one percent of visitors to Yosemite, for example, are black. National parks were largely dreamed up by Progressive descendants of New England Puritans, and they remain too spartan for most black vacationers’ tastes. Consider what it would take to lure black celebrities to a national park. If you want Michael Jordan to visit, you’d better put in a golf course. Oprah Winfrey? A spa. And Beyoncé is not going to sleep on the ground.

Thus, the online 25-minute preview video of Burns’ series gives off a whiff of self-parody, as if Burns is trying to top The Old Negro Space Program. His teaser is dominated by a black park ranger named Shelton Johnson. Mr. Johnson seems like a fine fellow, with a worthy cause of getting African Americans more interested in nature; but only in Ken Burns’s mind would he be a prime figure in the story of the national parks.

Not surprisingly, the basic idea for this documentary was dreamed up not by Burns but by his writer, Dayton Duncan, who was the press secretary for the 1988 Dukakis campaign. When Duncan first pitched the history of national parks, Burns was bored until Duncan mentioned that the first proto-park, Yosemite, was instituted in 1864 by … Abraham Lincoln.

Unfortunately for Burns, Honest Abe turns out to be almost the only overlap, even tangential, between his obsession and the actual history of the national parks.

If the National Parks really are “America’s best idea,” the problem for Burns and his financial backers is that this best idea was invented by the worst sort of people. The founders of the conservation movement in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were, overwhelmingly, white Protestant males. Moreover, many of the heroes of the preservation of the American landscape were active in the immigration restriction movement that triumphed in 1924. And, they often had other, even less respectable, enthusiasms, such as social Darwinism and eugenics.

The national park system, which was formalized with the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, was an outgrowth of the Progressive movement, much like the 1924 immigration restriction act. The intertwining of immigration limitation and nature preservation seemed obvious to Progressives, especially Northern Californians. Indeed, the Sierra Club stood for immigration control until David Gelbaum donated $100 million in the mid-1990s on the condition of Club leaders not opposing immigration.

All the minorities in American history played less of a role in the crucial decades of the conservation movement than just the eugenics advocates alone, such as Teddy Roosevelt, TR’s founding chief of the Forest Service Gifford Pinchot, Madison Grant (co-founder of the Save-the-Redwoods League and author of the bestseller The Passing Of The Great Race Or The Racial Basis Of European History), Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone inventor who was crucial in the early history of the National Geographic Society), John Muir’s close friend Henry Fairfield Osborn, David Starr Jordan (co-founder of the Sierra Club and president of Stanford), horticulturalist Luther Burbank, and so forth.

The Progressives’ reputation, long sky-high because they were seen as the forerunners of today’s liberals, has shrunk as their WASP chauvinism has become politically radioactive. Many of the Progressives’ favorite causes—anti-machine political reform, conservation, publicizing birth control, eugenics, muscular Christianity, immigration restrictions, and Prohibition—formed a fairly coherent agenda for maintaining WASP hegemony of America in the face of decades of heavy immigration.

A major monetary supporter of Burns’ documentary is the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund. (Haas was the great-grandnephew of Levi Strauss, who founded the San Francisco jeans company during the Gold Rush):

A portion of the Haas Jr. Fund’s grant for the production of the film supported “Untold Stories,” a research effort to discover people of diverse backgrounds who have had a profound impact on the history of the parks.

Under the leadership of Ira S. Hirschfeld, diversity is a very big deal to the Haas Jr. Fund. For example, the other frontpage story on the Fund’s website complains:

While many things have changed dramatically in the 40 years since Stonewall, one thing has not: the leadership of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organizations has remained overwhelmingly white.

So, how is Burns going to deal with the fact that “America’s best idea” was dreamed up by the kind of men whom Mr. Hirschfeld despises?

Apparently, Burns and Co. are just going to distort history by overemphasizing minor figures of the proper skintone.
Burns’ writer Dayton Duncan asserts:

It is indisputable that for generations, the national parks have been viewed as the bastion of predominantly white, upper middle-class Americans.

(Personally, I always viewed national parks as being a bastion of people with tents.)

Dayton and Burns, however, intend to fix all that by fixing history, even if the result sounds like crushingly boring TV. According to Duncan, they will show “an increasingly diverse American population” stories in which:

… they will invariably meet people like themselves: The Buffalo Soldiers and their dynamic leader, Captain Charles Young, who rose from slavery to be the third black man to graduate from West Point, and the first to be put in charge of a national park. A Japanese immigrant named George Masa, who devoted his life to saving the Great Smokies. Federico Sisneros, who protected the ruins of New Mexico’s San Gregorio de Abó until the day he died in 1988, four days shy of his 94th birthday—the nation’s oldest park ranger. Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who crusaded to preserve the Manzanar internment camp as a reminder of a shameful mistake in our past; and Adina De Zavala, who helped preserve the San Antonio Missions and therefore a more complete memory of American history. Lancelot Jones, the son of a former slave, who resisted the temptations of quick money and in doing so rescued the last undeveloped islands between Miami and Key West from commercialization. Chiura Obata, who found inspiration in Yosemite and passed it along through his exquisite paintings. Gerard Baker, the descendant of Indian people informed by Lewis and Clark in 1804 that their homeland now belonged to someone else, who was put in charge of the Park Service’s commemoration of the expedition’s bicentennial and then became the first Native American superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Robert Stanton, the second African-American to become a park superintendent, who then went on to lead the entire Park Service.

Now, that’s entertainment!

It’s often said that history is written by the victors. Yet, how true is that? For example, the South lost the Civil War, but a long line of Southern historians, down to the star of Burns’s The Civil War, Shelby Foote, made sure that the Confederacy’s side of the story was told and told well.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that history is written not so much by the victors, but by the writers of history.

And he who pays the piper calls the tune.

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Images: PBS and National Geographic

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