Ken Burns: The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Not History Repeating Itself
The famed documentarian talks to Tarpley Hitt about the novel coronavirus pandemic and “East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story,” a new documentary he executive produced for PBS.
As the outbreak of the novel coronavirus shutters small businesses across the country, the number of jobless claims has skyrocketed from 70,000 last week to 281,000 Friday, and could spike as high as 2.25 million by next Thursday, according to analysts at Goldman Sachs. The sudden economic downturn has sent legislators on all sides of the aisle scrambling for stimulus packages to offset the damage. The GOP offered a $1,200 tax rebate; Chuck Schumer discussed expansions to unemployment insurance, sick leave, and low-interest loans; Bernie Sanders proposed sending $2,000 to every American household for the duration of the crisis. One economist told CNN Business that job loss in April could surpass the worst month of the Great Recession, when 800,000 jobs disappeared in March of 2009, comparing it to a repeat of the Great Depression.
On March 24, PBS will air a new documentary titled East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story, from filmmakers Sarah Burns and David McMahon and executive producer Ken Burns. The film tells the story of East Lake Meadows, a housing complex located on the outskirts of Atlanta which fell into “criminally negligent” disrepair after the local and federal government neglected its low-income and overwhelmingly black residents—and the complicated legacy of trying to redress that damage. But it also tells a larger story about the history of public housing in the United States—a system which began as a way to help the white working poor ascend to the middle class as the country struggled against the kind of economic slump the country may find itself in again.
In advance of the release, Ken Burns, the documentarian behind The Civil War, Jazz, The Vietnam War, and Country Music, spoke to The Daily Beast about the parallels between that moment and now, and what we might take from East Lake Meadows in a moment when housing assistance may become more critical than ever.
“It’s entirely germane to the kinds of conversations that we need to be having today—struggling or working poor families are going to be hardest hit by this virus,” Burns said. “What are we going to do again? What kind of policies are we going to have that don’t just recapitulate the same mistakes that we’ve had before? As this stimulus package gets going, the lobbyists are swarming, thinking that this is an opportunity to get a deal. You just begin to realize, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be picked apart.’ Who is going to benefit? Will it be the middle-men? Will it be the people with the vested interests? Or will it be directed at the people who actually need it?”
Burns rang me from his home in New Hampshire, where he has been in quarantine with his two younger children.
“Three weeks ago, I couldn’t have told you that we would be where we are. Now we’re on the advent of this thing,” he said. “I’ve been locked in my home with my two little kids. I’m a single dad. I’m running the washing machine three or four times a day, I’m doing three meals a day, we’re trying to keep them from killing each other over their vacation that got ruined. Their school has been cancelled probably for the rest of the year.”
Burns said he disagreed with characterizations of the pandemic as a “repeat” of history.
“History doesn’t repeat itself—it doesn’t. Never once has history repeated itself,” Burns explained. “But as Mark Twain is supposed to have said, history rhymes. If we played to those rhymes, it would be foolish. It would destroy our story—we might as well just do a contemporary issue. But what we find is that, by doing history well, you have a chance to bring up these evergreen topics, whatever it might be. I go back to Ecclesiastes in the Bible, and it says, ‘What has been, will be again. What has been done, will be done again.’ That suggests to me that human nature doesn’t change—good and bad. It superimposes itself over the seemingly random chaos of human events. We see echoes and ghosts and themes and evergreen topics. With human beings, if you believe Ecclesiastes, there’s nothing new under the sun.”
Many of the questions about how COVID-19 would impact daily life, he said, echoed themes from across his movies.
“A good deal of every story I’ve ever done deals with freedom, and also the tension within the idea of freedom,” Burns said. “That is to say, the collective freedom—what we need—and individual freedom—what I want. They’re almost always at odds, and particularly now: ‘I want my favorite restaurant opened’—well, it isn’t going to happen, because our collective freedom requires social distancing. And it’s about race, because how can you have people who have the peculiar experience of being unfree in a free land not be at the center of the story? It’s just one of those glaring contradictions that you can’t ignore.”
For months before the pandemic, housing policy has been at the fore of American progressive politics. In November, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders unveiled the Green New Deal for Public Housing, a bill that would dedicate up to $180 billion over a decade to renovating 1.2 million units of federally funded housing with sustainable infrastructure. The same week, Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced the Homes for All Act which would authorize the construction of 12 million public and affordable housing units across the country. All three politicians, along with countless other progressives across the country, have taken the Homes Guarantee pledge, a commitment to policy that affirms housing as a human right. Asked about the movement to drastically expand and improve America’s public housing stock, Burns supported the proposals.
“I think there has to be a reinvestment in public housing,” Burns said. “It has to be addressed initially at the neediest, rather than just the notion that mixed income is the solution to everything. It’s the solution for those fortunate enough to get in there, but that didn’t include the majority of the people who lived at East Lake Meadows... Somehow, we’ve got to invest, knowing how much the word ‘home’ in the English language has meaning. We have to be building homes for people.”
The Daily Beast’s feature on East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story will run on Tuesday, March 24.