Ken Burns: We Are Living Through America’s Fourth Great Crisis

Ken Burns: We Are Living Through America’s Fourth Great Crisis
Don’t expect a 16-hour Ken Burns documentary on the Trump administration anytime soon (or ever). In a new piece for Politico, the legendary documentarian says that he will not make a film about this moment in time, which he calls the “fourth” greatest crisis in American history—after the Civil War, the Second World War, and the Great Depression.

In the piece, Burns mines his extensive historical filmography for lessons from the past, sharing “some thoughts—and film clips—on how I think history can help us in this, our moment of crisis.” Burns argues that “the story of our democratic experiment” is best told through our lowest points.

“In order to truly understand and appreciate the promise of the country, still unrealized for too many, we must explore the points at which it was most challenged, at times when it appeared even to almost fall apart,” Burns explains. But rather than cast last week’s insurrection as “the start of something or an end,” Burns proposes: “It is a moment when we each get to decide how we want to proceed.”

Burns posits that American democracy is as fragile today as it ever was, and that the Civil War—which he calls “the greatest crisis in our country’s history”—is in many ways still raging. Burns quotes the historian Barbara Fields: “‘The Civil War was still going on,’ she reminded us, recognizing in those few words the collapse of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement and the ongoing racism that to this day is woven into American life and institutions. ‘It’s still to be fought, and regrettably it can still be lost.’”

Burns also illustrates the stark difference between Trump and former president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who “expertly” handled two of America’s great crises and “developed an authentic empathy for his fellow citizens”—a presidential quality that Burns says “seems almost mystical to us today.”

Referring to one of his interviews with James Baldwin, Burns points out that America has always been a myth-ridden land, teeming with inequity and injustice. In the interview, Baldwin says that, to Black Americans, the Statue of Liberty was “a very bitter joke, meaning nothing to us.” Burns concludes: “Baldwin, like other Black Americans before and after him, understood, as we all should, that you cannot blindly accept American myths. Ours is a complicated, brutal history. But the promise of America is still a promise, something we can all demand to be part of.”

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Anna Grace Lee is an editorial fellow at Esquire, where she covers pop culture, music, and entertainment.

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