The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

« Previous Post | The Big Picture Home | Next Post »

Is Ken Burns a secret propagandist for socialism?


I wasn't planning on DVR-ing Ken Burns' new six-part PBS series "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," which debuts Sunday night because: 1) I don't have 18 hours of room left on my TiVo; 2) judging from the title, I kinda already know where Burns comes down on the idea of national parks; and 3) I didn't give for KCET's last pledge drive and watching all that beautiful scenery will just make me feel more guilty.

But Time magazine's James Poniewozik, a columnist full of iconoclastic ideas about TV and pop culture, has come up with a brilliant take on "National Parks" that has suddenly aroused my interest in the series. In his mind, the "National Parks" project isn't just another Burns snoozefest that, as Poniewozik slyly puts it, finds the filmmaker "passionately arguing positions almost everyone agrees with." The series is actually an ingenious refutation of the popular conservative belief that big government is evil, outmoded and unnecessarily involved in ruling our lives.    

Noting that the original impetus for establishing national parks came from naturalists like John Muir who were horrified to see how Niagara Falls was nearly destroyed by the greed and hucksterism of free market- loving charlatans, Poniewozik writes: "With America frothing over the role of government -- Should it save banks? Should it expand health coverage? -- 'The National Parks' makes a simple case for an idea that is wildly controversial in the year of the tea party: That we need government to do things the private sector can't or won't."

In other words, the entire origin of the national park system, whose most passionate backer was a Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, is based on a firm belief in -- Glenn Beck, cover your ears, please -- government intervention to regulate an out-of-control free-enterprise system. In fact, one of the more dramatic moments in Burns' documentary involves the battle to create a park in the Great Smoky Mountains, while logging companies bankrolled anti-park ads and were "frantically cutting the old-growth forests to extract everything they could before the land was closed to them."

In some ways, Burns' new series sounds like almost as radical a critique of free market excess as Michael Moore's new "Capitalism: A Love Story." Of course, it's unlikely to cause as much of an uproar as "Capitalism" because Moore is a natural magnet for controversy while Burns' films, with their lilting music and cozy slo-mo zooms, can make the most incendiary historical events appear almost as soothing as a glass of warm milk.

However, Poniewozik has uncovered the razor blade inside Burns' cinematic pillow. To hear him tell it, Burns' portrait of the creation of our national parks should give conservatives pause in their rush to pillory government at every turn. As Poniewozik writes: "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's right for people -- through government -- to protect them from business interests and even the people themselves." For this, I'd say bravo for Ken Burns, whose portrait of American ideals couldn't have come at a better time than right now.

Here, watch for yourself:

Photo: Ken Burns. Credit: Jemal Countess / Getty Images

Comments () | Archives (81)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Thanks for associating Ken Burns with socialism. Perhaps now his body will be found hanging from a tree in a National Park with the word "Fed" scrawled on his chest.


The current GOP mantra - "Government screws up everything" is not sold based on facts or examples - it is an article of faith - a religious belief of the group that simply does not want to pay taxes for anything - and in the process redefines Jesus's "take care of the poor, or the least of us" into screw the poor because they deserve to be poor and I deserve to be -----(fill in the blank with anything from "near-poor" to "ridiculously rich" as the belief that I am better off than you for a reason and therefore need not worry about your health or well being does indeed cross class lines).

Thanks for a nice article - I needed the laugh and the smile - you nailed it! :-)



everywhere a strawman.

Government is a necessary evil. Necessary, because without government, there would be no roads, the borders would be undefended (uh, wait), and there would be no common law.

This L.A. Times writer attacks conservatives by building a shabby strawman out of absolute, all or nothing, myopic thinking. Like Frankenstein clumsily knocking over the fine china while muttering, "Obama Good. Bush Bad."

Teddy Roosevelt did not start the national parks, Abraham Lincoln (Republican) did in setting aside Yosemite (which was initially run by California) in 1964. Though Roosevelt did champion the parks. The bill creating the National Park Service, the agency, was authored by another Republican, Senator Reed Smoot, a Mormon Elder.

Very nice tongue in cheekiness here by Mr Goldstein.
Oooh the evil doing "capitalists" gonna hate this docuslobber.
I actually like Ken Burns, and admire his eye.

SO... Lets have the debate, instead of just jumping off with "solutions"
Thesis+antithesis=synthesis - Georg Hegel

While your at it... Google AGENDA 21. Whats a "buffer Zone" and WHO controls it?

"Agenda 21 is a 40-chapter UN document to reorganize the world around socialist, command and control regulation."Michael S. Coffman, Ph. D.

It's funny how conservatives don't seem capable of understanding that the free market is morally neutral. The Right fulminates over what its members denounce as immorality and obscenity in movies, TV, and pop music but never considers for a moment the fact that the corporations responsible for this are just acting as the market requires, promoting the interests of shareholders. This is why the lumber companies had no problem cutting down forests and why the national park idea was first developed. Of course national parks are socialist. Left to their own preferences, developers and lumber companies would have leveled every stand of useful timber in the country.

Goldstein and the Time writer are essentially total idiots. If you found Burn's Civil War, Baseball and other documentaries a "snoozefest" then you ought to give you're former teachers, and parents for that matter--a swift kick in the nuts. Why do so many people fail to have curiosity of their past. Republicans keep trying to re-write history and they don't like it when someone tries to set the record straight. The conservatives would love to de-fund the national parks system and sell of the land for a profit.

Shame on you! There are many issues that need regulating. Drugs and Slavery are two examples that free enterprise should not prevail. To reach so far out to think conservatives, like Glenn Beck would be against all regulation is ludicrous and abuse of your position as a writer with access to the 'liberal' press. Whatever they paid you to reach so far out to try and do a tie-in is about 100 times too much. I guess in order for you to get published you had to slam the Conservative readers.

The Nicolet National Forest was a cut over field when taken over by the National Park System in early 1900's. Today it is a beautiful forest that is managed for sustainability, it is not a rotting wilderness.

It might be better to say: The free market "RARELY" acts in the public interest. The free market isn't about public interest, it is about unfettered commerce. I'm not attacking capitalism, as an economic system it beats other economic rule-systems mankind has played with. But capitalism isn't inherently beautiful, it isn't inherently "correct", it no more came from God than communism did. Capitalism is a human invention, and all around us there are broken human inventions we loved in their day...

The question for the future of capitalism is: How many controls does the public interest need to place upon the economic rule-system of capitalism?

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 | ยป


Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...

Stay Connected:

About the Bloggers



Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: