#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.

#448 – Dick Bernard: Ken Burns "Prohibition"

We watched the first segment of Ken Burns latest documentary on PBS last night. (Part 2 of the 3 part series is tonight at 7 p.m. Sunday nights program here. More details including archived material here.)
I very highly recommend watching the entire series…and doing more than just watching: it is a natural for very serious reflection.

Disclaimer: I am not a tee-totaler. On the other hand, if I was the statistical average for consumption of beer, wine and spirits, the alcohol industry would scarcely exist. My parents were, I believe, tee-totalers. They never said why, but my guess is that for both of them, their opinion was formed through earlier family experience. I’m the family historian. I can speculate.
As I watched Prohibition last night, I kept thinking of the arrangement on my office bookshelf, which has been directly behind me whenever I’m at this computer screen, and has been the same for many years (you can click on the photo to enlarge).

Front and center is a Crucifixion in a bottle, one of several made by my Grandfather Bernard at some point in his life. The bottles, all the same, were said to be whiskey bottles. Grandpa in his early life was a carpenter, a lumberjack and miner, later in life chief engineer in a flour mill. According to my Dad he did these creations himself. They are rough yet precise works. It is unknown when he crafted them. He died in 1957.
To the left of the whiskey bottle is a goblet made of shell casings by my Uncle Frank, Grandpa’s son and Dad’s brother, in the machine shop of the ill-fated USS Arizona (where Frank died and his burial place). Behind the goblet is a model of the Arizona. To the right is a mini-Peace Pole given to me by my friend Melvin Giles some years ago. And behind all of them is a portion of an American flag. Invisible to the right is a model of the Destroyer Woodworth, on which my Mother’s brother, Uncle George, was an officer in WWII.
As I say, all of these have a long history at this particular place in my office, behind my computer screen. Together they evoke “America”. And at the center of it all is a Whiskey Bottle and a Crucifixion scene….
Part One of “Prohibition” recounts the nearly 100 year effort to ban alcohol in the United States. It is a story full of personal tragedies, zealots, charismatic evangelists, superb lobbyists, and the usual collection of political characters, saloon keepers and charlatans.
Prohibition became the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in 1920.
Part two and three of the series will detail the failure of this campaign prohibiting a behavior and the ultimate repeal of the Amendment – the first (and last) such action ever in the 224 year history of the Constitution. What good it might have done was likely exceeded by the negatives.
The learning opportunity from this film comes, in my opinion, not from the event itself, but how it relates to all manner of schemes and causes to require this, forbid that, or condemn the other.
The list is very, very long. Pick your particular bias – something that you think should be done, and required of everyone. It’s on my list. And there’s some charismatic leader who can sing a mean song, and some passionate zealous followers who cannot conceive a country or a world without their passion being enacted to their satisfaction. The cause is their crusade.
As prohibition proved, such things never ever work. The experiment in prohibition should be an object lesson.
But, you say, “that was then, and this is now”?
Sure it is.
UPDATE October 5, 2011: We watched Parts 2 and 3 of Prohibition on Monday and Tuesday evening.
I’d highly recommend the entire Prohibition series for stone-sober viewing and then deep reflection about what will (not “can”, but “will”) go wrong, for any zealots, ideologues, moralists, etc. who think they can successfully manipulate American diversity by their own scheme or design. This includes the ones who claim to have the objective truth, not to mention God firmly on their side.
As the five hour series demonstrates, you can reach a peak in power and influence, but it is a long and certain fall from the pinnacle in ways you could not anticipate, and in the process you inflict considerable damage upon the very society you proclaim to save.
As I mentioned, I am neither a tee-totaler nor a drinker worthy of the label.
Makes no difference, I’ve seen the ups and downs of this and many other issues over the years. The ideals collapse upon very different realities.
I never studied the subject of alcohol (and tobacco) consumption, other than by observation during my adult life. Legally mandated notice about such as the dangers of alcohol and tobacco use certainly did have a positive impact. But, I think, the greatest impact on the body politic was simple changes in the way people were, together. It used to be, for instance, that you could find accommodation for smoking everywhere. Today smoking is by no means an endangered vice, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what it used to be, and nobody had to pass a constitutional amendment to make that so.
This will not stop the power people from attempting to move their own political agendas, from attempt to outlaw certain kinds of marriage, to mandating war without end, to perpetual and enduring peace, to ridding the world of abortion, or to rendering irrelevant certain political factions which hold different opinions from the temporarily dominant majority. Dreams ultimately collide with reality.
All the carefully concocted schemes will, at minimum, collapse over time, leaving rubble in their wake.
Will our societ collapse along with them?
Go to the link at the top of the page to rewatch the series, or check with your local PBS station.
Don’t miss it.