Ken Burns Dismisses ‘Individual Freedom,’ Cheers ‘Central Role’ of Government

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Appearing on NBC’s Today show Wednesday morning, liberal flimmaker Ken Burns brushed aside the concept of “individual freedom” as he hailed the “central role” of government during a time of crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. He hoped the national emergency would usher in “fundamental change” and that “we don’t then just go back to the old ways.”

“And I was just curious, where do you think the moment that we find ourselves in right now will find itself in history?,” co-host Hoda Kotb wondered during the 8:30 a.m. ET half hour interview. Burns replied: “It’s unprecedented, it will be up there with discussions of the Depression, of the Civil War, of obviously the Second World War….the kind of togetherness that was necessary to do that, the subsuming of ‘what I want,’ individual freedom, to the larger ‘what we need,’ the collective freedom that has always gotten us through tough times.”

 

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Kotb followed up: “How do you think this will change us, as people, going forward?” Burns hoped the crisis would force a “reset” in society in which Americans welcome big government:

We have an opportunity with this crisis to reset, to get away from the kind of knee-jerk divisions, the idea that it’s easier to arouse a mob than it is to appeal to our better angels. And we’re seeing people realizing the central role that government has always played in our life. It’s been very easy over the last several decades to just knee-jerk, you know, bash government, but I know we now see that government becomes the focal point, the fulcrum to help us get through these crises.

He also went on to urge people to abandon political divisions: “And the fact that we can shed the labels of red state or blue state, you know, Democrat, Republican will be central to our solving the problem and hopefully we don’t then just go back to the old ways, that we really have an opportunity to reset.”

That was a particularly interesting comment given Burns used a 2016 commencement speech at Stanford University to launch into a tirade against then-candidate Donald Trump, compared Trump’s presidential campaign to the rise of the Nazis, and admitted that he “needed some time in the fetal position” to deal with Trump being elected. Sounds like the lefty documentarian would be most in need of a “reset.”

Later in Wednesday’s discussion, Burns reiterated that he wanted people “to be open to the possibilities of real fundamental change and to shed what has been you know, several decades of just horrific division.”

Prior to the interview, the Today show hosts gushed over Burns, labeling him a “national treasure” with “wide-eyed curiosity and passion…as abundant as our country’s rich history.” As she introduced him, Kotb remarked: “Ken, I can’t think of a more appropriate guest to have in this moment than you.”

Here is transcript of the April 29 exchange:

8:30 AM ET

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Ken Burns is with us, guys. We’re going to get his take on what we’re all going through right now. Plus, how he’s using his life’s work to help young students learn new things about the world and about history. He’s got a lot to teach all of us.

CRAIG MELVIN: Ken Burns, a legit national treasure.

(…)

8:42 AM ET

HODA KOTB: Over the course of his storied career, filmmaker Ken Burns has become a bit of an expert on everything from baseball to the Civil War, and with much of the country at home, his award-winning documentaries are now reaching new and younger audiences. We’re going to talk to Ken about that in a moment. But first, a look at what he does best.

For more than four decades, legendary filmmaker Ken burns has brought history to life, focusing his lens on major cultural influences. From America’s favorite pastime to iconic landmarks, Burns has bridged the gap between past and present, educating audiences with his extensive body of work. His deep dives into history offering lessons not often found in any textbook.

KEN BURNS: This is the story of us and guess what? There’s no “them,” which is what we all try to make up, you know? In the U.S., it’s us, no them.

(…)        

8:44 AM ET

KOTB: His wide-eyed curiosity and passion.

BURNS: This is American history firing on all cylinders.

KOTB: As abundant as our country’s rich history. Burns and PBS now teaming up to offer his documentaries to students forced to learn from home, providing his unique snapshot of the past as we live through America’s next historic chapter.

Ken Burns joins us now. Ken, I can’t think of a more appropriate guest to have in this moment than you. You’ve been chronicling history for decades really. And I was just curious, where do you think the moment that we find ourselves in right now will find itself in history?

BURNS: It will be huge. It’s unprecedented, it will be up there with discussions of the Depression, of the Civil War, of obviously the Second World War. It was nice to hear Julie Andrews reference the kind of togetherness that was necessary to do that, the subsuming of “what I want,” individual freedom, to the larger “what we need,” the collective freedom that has always gotten us through tough times. This is unprecedented.

We do have histories of pandemics, the flu in 1918. We also have, can you imagine an Indian village that is decimated by a new disease that kills 98% of your village, cities in the 18th and 19th century in America that were overrun with cholera, yellow fever, or some other pandemic, terrifying things that we’re going through right now. There are memories of that, and the more important, I think the Depression and World War II tempered us for the kind of shared sacrifice that we are experiencing today. And this is a hugely important moment.

KOTB: Let’s talk about that shared sacrifice. I think it is important people across the country are all pitching in, maybe for the first time in some of their lifetimes. How do you think this will change us, as people, going forward?

BURNS: You know, human nature remains the same. The quantities of greed and generosity, prurience and puritanism are all there. We have an opportunity with this crisis to reset, to get away from the kind of knee-jerk divisions, the idea that it’s easier to arouse a mob than it is to appeal to our better angels. And we’re seeing people realizing the central role that government has always played in our life. It’s been very easy over the last several decades to just knee-jerk, you know, bash government, but I know we now see that government becomes the focal point, the fulcrum to help us get through these crises. And the fact that we can shed the labels of red state or blue state, you know, Democrat, Republican will be central to our solving the problem and hopefully we don’t then just go back to the old ways, that we really have an opportunity to reset.

(…)

8:48 AM ET

BURNS: I think it’s really important now to take our kids, as we’re doing with PBS, tonight I’m on a webinar with teachers to remind them of these enduring themes, about freedom, about leadership, about hard times, about race, about women, about art, about innovation, all of these things that occur and reoccur that echo and rhyme throughout American history that will arm us in the best possible way to deal with this present moment, to be open to the possibilities of real fundamental change and to shed what has been you know, several decades of just horrific division. It’s made somebody some money somewhere, but it doesn’t mean anything. As I said in your clip, there’s only us and there’s no them. And if anyone tells you there’s a “them,” walk away from them.

(…)

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