Ken Burns Opens Up About Trump and the Evils of Social Media: ‘There Will Always Be Idiot Bigots’
The documentarian opens up to Marlow Stern about his latest opus “Country Music,” Trump’s unique brand of hate, and why we should all get off social media.
“Human nature doesn’t change. That could be very negative. Do you mean we can’t improve?” asks Ken Burns of America’s current nightmare. “It could be taken as very positive or very negative. I see them as both positive and negative. There will always be idiot bigots, and there will always be heroic people trying to stand up to them.”
The remarkably prolific documentary filmmaker has been called “the foremost chronicler of the American experience,” and it’s hard to deny Burns the superlative. His sprawling documentaries on everything, from The Civil War to The National Parks to The Vietnam War, are not only essential viewing but taught in schools, and his latest epic, Country Music, follows in kind.
Over the course of 16 hours, Country Music—which is now available to stream in its entirety on PBS—examines the complicated history of the music genre, from the Carter Family and Hank Williams to Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. Along the way, it reckons with issues of class, the impact women had on country, and race.
And Burns, who is seated across from me at our offices in New York, is always an intriguing interview subject given his vast wealth of historical knowledge. The last time we spoke was for The Central Park Five, his eye-opening film on the Central Park Five case that played a major role in landing the men a $41 million wrongful conviction settlement from the State of New York. Well, one of the villains of that story is now president, so naturally Burns had plenty to say about that, the evils of social media, and so much more.
I’m always curious how prolific you’ve remained, because this is essentially a dozen documentaries in one.
The thing that’s really important is, I don’t have to do every interview if the other producers are competent in interviews, but I have two producing teams where they want me to do all the interviews, so I’ll do them. These are not phoned in. I’m there for every edit session, every script session, I’m the one who decides what gets locked, so it’s not relinquishing it, it’s just I work with some talented folks, and it allows us to stagger it and use synergies of scale to get these things done.
And the quality has remained at a very high level. Not to totally trash Alex Gibney, who’s a talented guy, but it feels like he’s overextended himself and the overall quality of his work has suffered as a result. In your case, the quality hasn’t really diminished.
I understand that. A lot of it is that we’re all very greedy for creation. There’s nothing better than making a film better that I know, just improving it in the script session, in the early blind assembly, in the assembly of the rough cut, in the mixing, or now when you’re talking about it and evangelizing it. I’m addicted to it. I mean, if I were given a thousand years to live, I would not run out of topics in American history. And I’m not going to live a thousand years. I’m 66 years old, and I know what I’m going to be doing for the next ten years, god and funding willing. After that, I want to just keep going.
What are you going to be working on for the next ten years, “god and funding willing?”
In a few instances, I’ve served as an executive producer. There’s a new film coming out in November called College Behind Bars that my longtime co-director and co-producer Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein made, and my son and daughter, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, that I made Central Park Five and Jackie Robinson with—and we’re also working on Muhammad Ali—have a film called East Lake, which is about East Lake Meadows, the housing in Atlanta, and the whole history of housing by looking at one particular place. But I really am in the business of trying to share authorship with the people who have produced and worked with me for a long time, and it’s great.
I’m sure you get asked this ad nauseam, but does a Trump miniseries interest you?
You know, I’m in the history business. I’d need 25 years distance before I do him. The thing with Country Music that I’ve been realizing is, my subject is the U.S.—capital ‘U,’ capital ‘S.’ I’ve also been involved in the lowercase version of that, the two-letter plural pronoun ‘us.’ All the projects have reminded me that there’s only “us,” there’s no “them.” We live in a binary media culture that’s interested in accentuating differences between the “other.” Red state-blue state, young-old, gay-straight, rich-poor, male-female, north-south, whatever it is, we’re always going to find some dialectic. But art isn’t about that. Art is about the reconciliation of these contradictory things. So to me, there is no “them.” There is no “other.” There’s just “us.” The majesty and breath and even contradiction of the U.S., that’s my beat.
And I don’t mean to sugarcoat stuff. I don’t mean to say, “Oh, it’s all great! Look at all the African-American influence in country music in the early days, isn’t it great?” No. All the indignities that have beset us with race are there in country music. But let us also say that, A.P. Carter of the original Carter Family, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash all had African-American mentors, and Jimmie Rodgers, music’s first superstar, was a water boy on these black railroad gangs that were laying track in Southern Mississippi. He’s suffused with the blues. Even the Carter Family had a blues song. So when we think of country music, commerce and convenience suggests that we should categorize it into one thing but it’s always been many things.
It’s still the most overwhelmingly white genre of music, both in terms of performers and audience.
Yes, but the sources are the same. And let’s remember that when Ray Charles got creatively control of an album for the first time he recorded, much to the surprise of his own people, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and the great hit in the summer of ’62 was “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and he said, “You take country music and you take black music and you have the same goddamn thing every time.” And that speaks volumes. There’s been DeFord Bailey, Charley Pride, and Darius Rucker, but now there’s Rhiannon Giddens and other folks who are opening it up in country.
And Lil Nas X.
Lil Nas X is the mic-drop moment for me. Everybody’s arguing about, “Oh, Billboard took him off [the charts].” He’s the best-selling country singer of all-time, and he’s a black gay rapper. What more do we have to say? Yes, it’s the predominately white—or the whitest—and you could say that of bluegrass music and other forms.
But there have been barriers to entry for people of color in country music. When you talk about its embrace of the Confederate flag, and both fans and performers proudly waving it at shows…
Oh, most definitely. The Ryman Auditorium used to have a thing called the “Confederate Gallery,” so that ought to tell people. But I got a picture of Charley Pride staring out into the Ryman audience at the Grand Ole Opry while it was there, and for the observant, that can’t go unnoticed. All I’m trying to say is I’m not sugarcoating it, but just want people to understand that all the people we put on the Mount Rushmore of country music, they all had African-American mentors.
Did you want to work on Country Music to soothe your soul, so to speak? Perhaps you saw all the chaos in the world and thought, well, this will be a good tonic?
No, I started working on this in 2010. It’s just like Vietnam, where people said, “Oh my god, there’s so much to be talked about the Trump administration,” and I was like, I started that in 2006 and finished it a month before the Iowa caucus! I’m a child of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B, and I wanted to dive into it. But I sold the stuff when I worked in a record store in the ‘60s in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
One of the great things about Country Music is it emphasizes the effect that women have had in shaping the history of it. It’s something that really tends to go overlooked.
The original American lead guitarist is Maybelle Carter. Every guitarist in every genre owes something to Maybelle Carter and the “Carter scratch.” The original feminine voice of country music, which was dominant early on, was Sara Carter. And since then, there’s been Maddox Brothers and Rose, there’s been Kitty Wells, there’s been Patsy Cline, and then you get to Loretta Lynn who’s singing, “Don’t come home a-drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind” or “The Pill,” well before anyone in rock or country is picking up on stuff like that. Then you haven’t gotten into Dolly [Parton] yet, or Jeannie Seely, or Jean Shepard, or Reba McEntire.
Loretta’s politics have changed though.
I don’t give a shit about that. You know, what we’re saying is that, if you’re writing three chords and the truth, and you’re speaking about universal human experiences, who cares? I mean, the implication is that a redneck doesn’t feel something, and when a redneck hears, “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” nothing gets in. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s no “other.” There’s only “us.” We’re 99.9% the same. We can discuss all this stuff but anytime you start making distinctions, not only are they in trouble but we’re in trouble.
I wanted to talk about your Central Park Five documentary. The case has been back in the news thanks both to Ava DuVernay’s stunning Netflix miniseries When They See Us and Trump, who basically repeated his racist refrain about the boys (now men). It must be a bit bizarre to see all this boil to the surface seven years after your doc.
We feel pretty good. You know, we know that de Blasio came in promising to settle, and he did, and he told me that he wouldn’t have settled if he hadn’t seen our film. The important thing is that they were exonerated in 2002—unfortunately, they’d served their full terms. The second thing is that they were settled, and we were responsible for that, so that makes us happy. The rest of it is just the circus that it is: the dramatization of it, the ascension of Donald Trump, his quintupling down on their “guilt.” We know one thing: they didn’t do the thing for which they were charged and spent an entire full term without even the benefit of parole, because once they’d realized that they’d been coerced into confessing, they didn’t, so they served out their full sentences. It’s a profile in courage. All of them had been friends with us while we worked on the film, we remain friends with them, and we’ll be friend with them longer than anybody else who’s at that trough.
What did you think of When They See Us?
I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it. I’ve been working on too many films.
That case is really a good litmus test, because often when you discuss it with someone the bigotry jumps out.
Let’s remember what Trump did: he took out full-page ads in all the New York dailies asking for the return of the death sentence so that it could be applied to these innocent children. And he still insists that that would be the right thing to do.
This does seem to be a unique moment in American history, with Trump, because there’s been this rise of populism and racism building in the Republican Party for quite some time, mostly through policy, but now it’s all out in the open.
This action is not unprecedented, but having this action come from the presidency is unprecedented. This is a Republican Party founded in 1854 in a schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin, which had one purpose, which was the abolition of slavery. They achieved that with their second candidate, which was Abraham Lincoln, and they’ve been running away from that mandate ever since. And they’ve now abandoned all the other admirable mandates, like fiscal responsibility, conservatism, a level playing field for everyone, and instead replaced it with this populist, xenophobic rant.
Bad-faith people on the right always use that argument that the Democrats were pro-slavery and conveniently ignore the party realignment of the ‘50s and ‘60s with the Southern strategy.
The Southern strategy that they chose liberated the Democrats from the worst thing that they ever had, which was that part of the Democratic Party was the solid South, which was essentially obstructionists—the Dixiecrats—and once they moved over the Republican Party, liberated the Democratic Party to be a party of civil rights—I mean, it had already become the party of civil rights with LBJ doing it, and before that Truman and before that FDR, but it allowed them to be freed from the albatross of carrying with it a lot of racists. Now, the Republican Party ironically has that, and they’ve abandoned all the other tenets of that, and Democrats have to go out now and say, “We’re going to be fiscally responsible.” The last time we balanced a budget was under Bill Clinton, and everyone’s taking credit right now for this current economic prosperity but it’s mostly due to Obama.
It’s interesting how American history is taught in schools. I was talking with my girlfriend recently about how you’d have these weird American-purity exercises as young kids, where each kid had to trace their American lineage and how far back it went. Naturally, you’d have some kids in class whose relatives went all the way back to the Mayflower, and those kids were seemingly rewarded for that, and you had immigrant kids in the class who felt alienated by the exercise. This sort of American hierarchy is ingrained from very early on.
It’s not a conspiracy but power structures will out. There’s a dominant power structure in the United States, and it’s actually gotten much better because now we’re teaching kids about all kinds of histories. Kids are learning about Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, and Harvey Milk.
How maddening do you find the treatment of history in 2019? Because there are so many bad-faith people out there mangling history to accommodate their arguments. And social media seems to be making it worse.
It’s not “social media,” it’s “anti-social”—because of the very thing you’re talking about. If the Russians can influence our election with 278 million Facebook ads, how is that good? How is that “social?” Social is communication between people; not lies fostered on them. It’s not social. I don’t do any of that shit! Why would you? Get off social media. Lose your Facebook. Stop Twitter. Don’t do any of that stuff anymore. What does it do? Nothing! We have a president only because he’s good at Twitter, who is a megalomaniac. Get off it! Why listen? Why pay attention? I read a couple of newspapers, only in the hard copy, and I watch some broadcast news. That’s it.
I’d love to see a Ken Burns social media docuseries.
I don’t need to do it! It sucks! It’s like stepping in dogshit!