Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ken Burns: Beauty is Democratic

I was unable to see all of Ken Burn's National Parks: American's Best idea on PBS, I watched 3 of the 6 Episodes. I did manage to see clips from the other episodes and plan to watch them all when the Public Library gets a copy.

I'm mixed on Ken Burns. His documentaries are far too long, too sappy at times, and can have long stretches of sheer boredom (The exception here is Burn's Baseball, which was fantastic from start to finish). On the other hand, his documentaries always include fine interviews, great images, and remarkable observations. They are always worth watching despite the problems. National Parks is standard Ken Burns in all respects.

Two things stood out for me. First, there was a great deal, particularly in the first episode, about finding God in nature. John Muir played a large part here. The nature mysticism in the first episode was never sufficiently developed, but it was quite well done. Americans like John Muir and Walt Whitman developed a particularly American theology in which God is to be found right here in the beauty, power, and sheer grandeur of nature. That Burns touched on this tradition at all is remarkable, for Americans have lost much of it. As the documentary stressed, finding divinity in the land is the defining feature of Native American spirituality. A continent as beautiful as North America naturally gives rise to such a theology of divine immanence.

Second, the major idea of the film is that "big government" is not always bad. In fact, Burn's documentary makes a strong case that only a strong federal government can protect the public good.

James Poniewozik, writing for time Magazine, captures this perfectly:

The miniseries starts in the mid — 19th century, when nature lovers began urging that the expanding nation set aside areas of wilderness to remain undeveloped and unspoiled. Their cautionary tale was Niagara Falls, which by the 1860s was "almost ruined" — overrun by hucksters and tourist traps, with nearly every good view privately owned. Unless the government acted, advocates like naturalist John Muir warned, Yosemite and Yellowstone would end up the same way. "To Europeans," reads narrator Peter Coyote, Niagara "was proof that the United States was still a backward, uncivilized nation."

Government intervention! Private-sector-bashing! Americans trying to impress Europeans! These and other pinko motivations would secure a permanent federal handout for Yogi Bear and his picnic-basket-redistributing comrades. You can imagine how the proposal might go down were the parks starting from scratch today. Socialized nature, controlled by tree czars?

And in the decades that followed, there were battles — with drillers, ranchers, developers — over and over (and over: The National Parks is gorgeous, but at 12 hours, it sometimes gives new meaning to the term geologic time). When FDR created Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943, a Wyoming Senator likened the plan to Pearl Harbor, while a local journalist compared it to Hitler's Anschluss.

Burns and writer Dayton Duncan make plain which side they're on. (The subtitle is a hint.) A section on the battle to create a park in the Smoky Mountains contrasts schoolkids collecting pennies for the effort with logging companies bankrolling ads and "frantically cutting the old-growth forests ... to extract everything they could before the land was closed to them." Speaking to critics this summer, Burns said, "If there were no national parks, [the Grand Canyon] would be a gated community."

The national parks — and The National Parks — are based on ideas that are classically, if not radically, communitarian: That the free market doesn't always act in the public interest. That it's good that every American shares ownership of and responsibility for the most exclusive properties in the country. And that it is right for people — through government — to protect them from business interests and even from the people themselves (like the early visitors who shot game and scratched their names on ancient rocks). A series on a public-TV network that calls a government program America's best idea? Has no one alerted Rush Limbaugh?

It is a good time to remind Americans that federal government is not always bad. To the contrary, big business is a serious threat to Democracy. Privatization puts power, wealth, and property into the hands of a few, public services and resources - like National Parks - spread power, wealth, and property to all of us. "We the People" own the national parks. This is a truly democratic idea. And that idea makes Ken Burns new documentary well worth viewing.

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