Ken Burns gave the commencement speech at Stanford.
He told the audience he had carefully avoided taking political sides over the 40 year course of his career because he wanted his histories to speak to everyone; he did not want his efforts to be dismissed as partisan.
Why he thought a series on baseball or jazz or the national parks would be taken as partisan, I can only imagine, although he did lard them heavily with stories of how Blacks were kept out of the major leagues and how Louis Armstrong was forbidden to play with white performers in New Orleans.
But at this time in our nation's history, he decided to jettison that stance and without naming him, clearly identifying Donald Trump as something unlike any other candidate with a serious chance to become President.
"You know, it is terribly fashionable these days to criticize the United States government, the institution Lincoln was trying to save, to blame it for all the ills known to humankind, and, my goodness, ladies and gentlemen, it has made more than its fair share of catastrophic mistakes. But you would be hard pressed to find—in all of human history—a greater force for good. From our Declaration of Independence to our Constitution and Bill of Rights; from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the Land Grant College and Homestead Acts; from the transcontinental railroad and our national parks to child labor laws, Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act; from the GI Bill and the interstate highway system to putting a man on the moon and the Affordable Care Act, the United States government has been the author of many of the best aspects of our public and personal lives. But if you tune in to politics, if you listen to the rhetoric of this election cycle, you are made painfully aware that everything is going to hell in a handbasket and the chief culprit is our evil government."
It is a relief to hear someone, anyone, but especially a historian, flatly state that federal government can be a force for good. We almost never hear any politician, even a Democratic politician say this forthrightly.
Some years ago, I wrote Mr. Burns to see if he'd help some Hampton Democrats organize a media campaign against Scott Brown, who was trying to unseat a Democrat in the U.S. Senate. Never got a response. I guess he was still cleaving to the idea of remaining impartial. But there comes a time when silence implies consent. Qui Tacit Consentit. If vitriol goes unanswered, it becomes accepted, received wisdom.
Ever since Ronald Reagan delivered that line, "Government is not the solution; it's the problem," we have had Democrats running away from embracing government as any solution out of fear. Part of the appeal of Bernie Sanders is he does not shrink from proposing grand government solutions, for healthcare and for education and likely for other things.
Reagan said, the scariest words in the English language are: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." And all the knuckleheads out there still roar when they hear that line.
Oddly absent from Mr. Burns's list are Medicare, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights act. And those are just the federal programs we can be thankful for and American life would be far worse without.
Here in New Hampshire we have borderline personalities who have congregated under the banner of Free Staters, who are essentially anarchists, who believe public schools, public roads, public safety, fire, and police should not be governmental but given over to "free enterprise." These pathological specimens live in an alternate universe where paradise is every man for himself and the idea of community is an anathema.
|One of our better angels|
One can only imagine the life histories of these individuals, as they spun down into an ossified brain state in which "Hell is other people" has become a creed.
We see these pathetic men carrying rifles into public gatherings, proudly packing sidearms in parking lots outside political events, men so demeaned in their own minds they need a gun to establish their self importance and potency.
There will always be deranged and psychologically wounded among us. The problem is when they find a leader who appeals to this pathology and exhorts them to believe their particular brand of mental illness is a good thing.
We have to go back in history a considerable way to find leaders who rose to power on the strength of such pathology: Hitler, of course, is the classic example, but remember Lester Maddox, Jefferson Davis and any of those Southern racists who loudly proclaimed the superiority of the white race and the sub human status of blacks and Indians (now called Native Americans.)
|Better than we deserved|
For Republicans, the choice may be a little more difficult, but even Republicans will have to ask themselves if they are Republicans or Americans first.
|pied piper of pathology|
Ultimately, this is about what the idea of America really is. If you think of America as a place which celebrates differences, embraces diversity, faces the demographic changes sweeping across our continent, then you have to vote against the Republicans. If making America great again is really code for make America white again, then you vote for Mr. Trump.