#1028 – Dick Bernard: A special experience: Ken Burns and Don Shelby

POSTNOTE May 30 10:42 am.: Just now I am listening to Jay Ungar’s Ashokan Farewell, made famous in Ken Burns Civil War. Give it a listen.
I was working on a project at home, yesterday, when an e-mail came in from our friend Catherine. I saw it at 12:30. “I have two tickets to see Ken Burns at 4 today at the History Center. Would you and Cathy like them?”
This was a no-brainer, albeit with almost no notice. Cathy was out of town; and I’d heard part of the freeway was closed for maintenance, and when I finally got the printed ticket via e-mail it was 3 p.m. and the program started at 4.
I arrived at the Minnesota History Center in plenty of time for the program. Unfortunately I forgot my camera. By 4, the auditorium was packed. I was lucky and got a seat in the third row.
Then commenced a riveting 1 1/2 hour conversation between film-maker Ken Burns and former well known Twin Cities TV Anchor and reporter Don Shelby. The conversation would make for a fascinating TV program on its own…I hope it was filmed for just that purpose.
The program was hosted by TPT, Twin Cities Channel Two and the Minnesota History Center.
The program began with an eight or so minute video recapping Ken Burns 40 years in the business of film documentaries, all for public broadcasting. I tried to write the titles down. My list is 23 productions though I likely missed some (you can find the list here). I’m a fan of Burns, but I can’t say I’ve seen all of the programs. My list includes the Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War, Dust Bowl, Prohibition and the Roosevelts – those are the ones I remember for sure.
I pieced together Burns biography from his own comments. He was born about 1953; when he was two his mother, Lyla, fell ill with cancer and died with the disease 50 years ago, in 1965. He was 12 when she died.
He had ancestors who were American slaveholders, and another who was a Tory in the American Revolution.
He went to tiny Hampshire college in MA beginning 1971 – apparently beginning just a year or so after the college was founded, and followed his muse of film and history with the outstanding results we’ve seen for many years. He lives in New Hampshire, and has many projects in the works.
He has informed opinions about America and Americans, flowing from many years of reconstructing our history, largely from the perspective of ordinary people living at the time. In America, race is “the burning heart of the story”, he said. It is a disabling part of our national DNA; to move on takes a great deal of acknowledgment and effort.
While Burns suggests we Americans are addicted to money, guns and certainty, he thought there was still hope. “Bill O’Reilly [Fox News] and Rachel Maddow [MSNBC] genuinely love Abraham Lincoln”. There are things we can and must find common ground on to survive.
He sees Americans as restless and hard-working, demanding individual and collective freedom.
He apparently has some disagreements with my favorite quote: Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” “Cuckoo”, he suggested. I’ll give the quote another think, from his point of view. Maybe we’ll reach some agreement, maybe not. That’s the purpose of conversation.
He knows Americans well, a Studs Terkel (“Working”) knowledge of how we are rooted, our strengths, our very deep weaknesses. Our “exceptionalism” has dimmed as we have collectively “gone to sleep”, I heard him say. What the founders words in the Constitution about the “pursuit of happiness” basically meant, he felt, was their belief in the value of lifelong learning.
He gave considerable time and emphasis to his work on the “Central Park Five”, the five black youth who were tried, convicted and sentenced to long terms for a 1969 rape they never committed. (It was a program I haven’t seen.) The rush to judgement was shameful. Even after being exonerated, he would hear people assert “they must have done something”, a refusal to acknowledge a hideous mistake. As previously mentioned, “race is the burning heart of the story”, and we will always have lots of work to do.
(My favorite “visual”, as presented orally by Ken, was this: his little daughter was terrified of the family vacuum cleaner. When it was on she ran and hid. No amount of reassurance would change her mind.
One day, for some reason known only to her, the vacuum cleaner was turned on, and his daughter went to the door of the room in which was running, and after a moment of hesitation ran in and sat on the vacuum cleaner.
She had decided to deal with her own fear in her own way.
In their house, use of the phrase “sitting on the vacuum cleaner” has a particularly powerful meaning; we need to confront our fears….)
I’ve been slow about renewing my TPT membership.
The check will be in the mail tomorrow.
Thanks, Catherine.
POSTNOTE: Jim Pagliarini, President of TPT, began the program by asking us how many of us remembered when television meant three commercial channels and a public station. It seems like 100 years ago, but many of us do remember. Then, he said, came the era of a dozen cable channels, to today’s hundreds of options, and a rapidly changing future….
Survival for entities like Public Television means adapting to changing circumstances, staying ahead of the curve, finding different ways of delivering a media product. We’re long past four channels on the TV, but even the TV is becoming passe.
But like the media itself, we need to relearn how to communicate with others.
My opinion: our very survival as a country and a planet is at stake. Individualism is a curse we cannot afford. We are a part of, not apart from, a much greater whole.
This mornings paper addressed this very issue in the business section. You can read it here.

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