Ken Burns’ Misunderstanding of Pronouns

Last week, David Marchese interviewed filmmaker Ken Burns for The New York Times. It came on the occasion of yet another in the growing series of Burns documentaries about the iconic people, objects and trends that most Americans recognize as the pillars of their culture. They include baseball, jazz, the Roosevelts, the Civil War, the Brooklyn Bridge and the war in Vietnam, among many others. The latest, which will premiere next month, is on Ernest Hemingway.

Marchese detects an underlying motive in Burns’ work: the wish to affirm and highlight the importance of certain historical artifacts, if only to remind sometimes forgetful Americans that they possess a common culture. Burns is engaged in a valiant effort to convince Americans that they must recognize a powerful cultural identity capable of uniting them. Burns wants his fellow citizens to believe that military might and monetary clout are not the only forces that define American exceptionalism. He believes that the soft power conveyed by remembering the cultural icons and important moments of the past may endow the nation with a new source of vigor.

As Marchese notes, Burns wishes to correct the impression that the nation is condemned to flounder in an increasingly complex set of culture wars that, to all appearances, have undermined the once vibrant national spirit. Burns, a 67-year-old baby boomer, admits his attachment to the feelings of pride he experienced in his youth when, despite the obvious contradictions that emerged with the Vietnam War and a “turned on” counterculture, there was a sense among white, middle-class Americans — regardless of their political preferences — that the nation was engaged in the noble mission of fulfilling the project its founders had imagined nearly two centuries earlier. 


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Burns was 7 years old when John F. Kennedy stirringly called people to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” — and the entire nation seemed to agree that that was a good idea. Sixty years later, the slogan in most people’s minds has become: Grab whatever you can for yourself because no one out there is going to help you.

Marchese asks Burns whether his optimistic project isn’t “quixotic.” Burns replies enigmatically that he has “made films about ‘us.’ All of the intimacy of that two-letter lowercase plural pronoun and all the majesty and contradiction of the U.S. But the thing that I’ve learned is that there’s no ‘them.’ This is what everybody does: make a distinction about ‘them.’ It’s just us.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Them:

The most impersonal of the personal pronouns in the English language, particularly prized by people with a paranoid cast of mind. In US culture, the pair “they/them” has come to mean those who are not like us and who should therefore be thought of as a threat.

Contextual Note

Burns stresses the fact that the two letters, “U” and “S” spell not just the name of the nation but the people who compose it in their collective identity: “us.” He appeals to the idea of solidarity in the midst of diversity, in conformity with the Latin motto that appears on the nation’s Great Seal: e pluribus unum. Out of many, one. The one, according to Burns, is “us.”

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When Marchese suspects the denial of the existence of “them” may sound naive in a clearly fragmented nation, Burns defines his position as a categorical moral imperative that all Americans should embrace. He calls it “a nonreactive state, which is the state of observation.” In his role as a cultural journalist, he even appears to believe that it’s “part of a journalistic discipline.” It means struggling with oneself to avoid categorizing other people as “them.” At one point, he evokes John Keats’ concept of “negative capability,” which he interprets as meaning listening to all sides. Keats might have found Burns’ interpretation somewhat superficial. In any case, American culture has always preferred positive force to negative capability.

Burns attempted to put negative capability into practice in his series of films on the war in Vietnam. Though the media critics acclaimed the film for its inclusive breadth, the historian Andrew Gawthorpe, writing for the Journal of Strategic Studies, judged that “Burns and Novick’s superficial telling of the history of the war fails to get to grips with the deeper ideas and structures of belief that led the USA into the Vietnam debacle in the first place – and which, if not tackled, threaten to lead it down similarly unwise paths in the future.”

In the conclusion of his article, Gawthorpe describes the nature of that delusion that consists of believing in the capacity of a documentary filmmaker to transform the perception of “them” into “us.” “The ‘national healing’ Burns wished for implies not a useful confrontation and interrogation of these controversies and errors, but rather a soothing return to the status quo,” he writes. Throughout his work, Burns generously hopes that the divisions created by past and present traumas may be healed. But at a moment in history when belief in the nation’s institutions is crumbling, redefining the warring groups as a potentially unified “us” resembles a form of voluntary blindness.

Historical Note

Andrew Gawthorpe notes that Ken Burns’ hankering for a return to a comfortable status quo evident in his Vietnam War documentary reflects the mentality that “has led the USA to recently repeat in Iraq and Afghanistan many of the same mistakes made in Vietnam and gives us no reason to suspect it will not do so again in the future.” As a final thought, he adds: “[A] superficial rendition of [history] presents us with the risk that we will treat only the symptoms of what ails us and not the deeper malady.” The “us” Gawthorpe refers to is suffering from a “deeper malady.” For a nation that has never managed to create a functional health care system, this becomes particularly worrying.

Ironically, former President George W. Bush proved to have a more secure sense of history and a better understanding of the concept of “them” than Burns. During his first presidential campaign in 2000, Bush offered this thought, framed in his inimitable style: “When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was us vs. them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there.”

Bush understood that since the Second World War, the US economy and political system depends on its fear of a threat from some group that can be labeled “them.” The glorious expansion of the economy during the Cold War existed thanks to the stability of Americans’ perception of the Soviets as the indispensable “them.” The permanence of the Soviet threat (real or imaginary) justified a series of aggressive actions across the globe as well as the imposition of standards and cultural memes — American soft power — that no one dared argue with.

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Today, the vast majority of Americans, encouraged by the media, have been taught to believe that the Taliban, the Iranians, the Venezuelan “socialists” and the Chinese are not people and nations, but simply “them.” They are perceived not just as others to whom we can be indifferent, but as a threat to America’s being and its values. Thanks to the confusion of the 2016 US presidential election, the Democrats and their media have elected the Russians as the dominant them.

The difference between the media-induced perception of foreign policy during the Cold War and today is that we now have multiple “thems.” That is the ultimate effect of the consumer society that celebrates choice and encourages the affirmation of personal identity not only through the brands each consumer adopts, but through the choice of an enemy each citizen or group of citizens is free to make.

Focusing on the nation itself, Burns hopes that Americans will not treat one another as belonging to a group of threatening “thems.” He believes that if Americans at least occasionally listen to Louis Armstrong and read Ernest Hemingway while attempting to admit only to forget their foreign policy blunders of the past (such as the Vietnam War), all will be well again in the consumer empire.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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