In the first-ever virtual “Kalb Report” on July 27, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns told moderator Marvin Kalb that the United States in 2020 is in the midst of one of the four great crises in this nation’s history.
The triple threat of the coronavirus—a pestilence in Burns’ words—the ensuing economic collapse and the racial reckoning of the Black Lives Matter movement, all overseen by ineffectual and counterproductive leadership at the top, has put the nation in a calamitous situation that ranks with the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II, he said.
“We find ourselves in a hell on earth of our own making,” said Burns. “All of the things we have taken for granted are no longer there.”
Kalb reflected on the events of another tumultuous year—1968—which caused some people at the time to worry that the American experiment in democracy may have come to an end. He asked whether Burns thought it was valid to compare 1968 to today.
Though he agreed it had been a difficult year for American democracy, Burns said that unlike today—and regardless of the events taking place—in 1968 people generally continued to believe in the legitimacy of government institutions.
“No matter how many bombs went off, no matter how many body bags came back, no matter how many leaders were assassinated—even the most venal of our politicians still adhered to a kind of set of rules,” Burns said. “But there’s a sense now that the playbook has been thrown out, and it’s anything goes.”
Today, he said government conspiracies, deep states, disrespect for institutions and “a kind of narcissistic acquisitiveness” have taken the place of the playbook and upended normal democratic procedures.
Still, Burns said he sees the possibility of hope that the country will pull through these current crises. “I think this reckoning has the possibility of delivering us on the other side, whenever that may be. And please, may it be sooner rather than later.”
Kalb and Burns talked from their homes in Maryland and New Hampshire, respectively, often appearing together on split-screen, in a virtual program produced by the National Press Club’s Broadcast Operations Center. The program, co-produced by University of Maryland Global Campus and livestreamed on the National Press Club website, is still available for viewing—and will be broadcast on Maryland Public Television in September, prior to its national distribution to public television stations across America.
The Emmy award-winning documentarian has produced 36 films about American history that have explored everything from the Civil War to Jazz to the Statue of Liberty to the Vietnam War to baseball.
History may not repeat itself Burns told Kalb. But, he added, as Mark Twain is credited with saying, that sometimes “. . . it rhymes.” And, throughout this nation’s history, America has had two important rhymes, he said.
One is freedom, “the nature of it, how we advertise it, the falseness of it,” and what Burns described as the internal tension between personal freedom, what “I” want, and collective freedom, what “we” need. He said the clearest example of that tension is the controversy over wearing masks to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
In his estimation, if people had chosen “we” over “I” and worn a mask to save their lives and those of their parents, children, neighbors “and all the rest of ours . . .and if we had done that months ago, we would be all right. And that’s the collective freedom.”
Race, of course, Burns said is the other rhyme—starting with the “original sin” of slavery that still “chains us to our past.” Nearly every documentary he has made is permeated with an exploration of race, he added.
“It’s tough for two white guys, you and me, to actually talk about [race] with any reasonable degree of authority,” Burns told Kalb before drawing a connection between the current coronavirus pandemic—and what he described as the nation’s ongoing pandemic that has been present since 1619 when Africans were forcibly brought to these shores.
“And that is to say, that you and I haven’t ever worried about going to a convenience store . . . until now. You and I have not worried about what it’s like to go out jogging or walking in the park . . . until now,” Burns said. “And this has been the normal state for African Americans as long as they have been in this country.”
The fear and repression that African Americans have had to live with throughout this nation’s history belie the credo “all men are created equal” that many hold up as the basis of American exceptionalism, he said.
But, “something happened,” said Burns, referencing protests in cities nationwide since George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis on May 25 by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while arresting him for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20.
“I am stunned at the tenacity of this, where people are just saying ‘enough! We cannot live this lie of the American dream.’”
Kalb asked Burns whether we Americans have lost the capacity to think of ourselves as a unit and have devolved into a nation of warring factions. Burns replied that though the stories he has told throughout his career are about this nation—the U.S.—those same stories also have been about the two-letter lower-case pronoun—us.
True, Burns said, in periods throughout U.S. history people have sought to pit ‘us’ against ‘them’ because they found that such division “pays.” But he said 40 years of documentary filmmaking has taught him that there is only us. “There is no them. And whenever anyone tells you there’s a them, run far away.”
Asked who he would choose as an inspiration for this time, Burns named U.S. Representative and civil rights activist and icon John Lewis, 80, who died July 17 after a six-month battle with cancer. Known as the conscience of the Congress, Lewis served Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for more than three decades.
He challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals as a Freedom Rider in the 1960s—and famously helped lead a voting-rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he and other marchers were brutally attacked by heavily armed state and local police. The shocking images that emerged from that “Bloody Sunday” stirred national support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“He’s my man right now,” said Burns, who added it was a great privilege to have known Lewis for most of the last 30 years—before drawing another parallel between the “two viruses, the two pandemics.”
Like our nurses, like our doctors, like our first responders, John Lewis ran toward the problem, Burns said. “He ran toward the problem knowing from experience that his head was going to get beaten in, that he was going to be bruised and battered, and maybe killed . . . and certainly put in jail.”
Lewis ran toward the problem Burns said because he understood that solving problems required action—and because he believed that we could make things better.
“Our friend John Lewis was right. We just have to say, yes, we can make it better. I ask everyone within the sound of my voice to wonder whether you are part of the solution or part of the problem?” Do you pay lip service? “Or are you going to do something about it?”
Watch The Kalb Report: One for the History Books—A Conversation with Ken Burns on a Turbulent 2020 HERE.
The production was overseen by National Press Club President Michael Freedman, who co-created the series with Marvin Kalb 26 years ago and serves as executive producer. This marked the 101st program in the multi-award-winning series.
The Kalb Report is a joint project of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, University of Maryland Global Campus, the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma, and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It is underwritten by a grant from Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, and Maryland Public Television serves as the presenting station for national distribution.