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Filmmaker Ken Burns on War and Civil Liberties

From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release May 29, 2004

Filmmaker Ken Burns Condemns Bush Policies on War and Civil Liberties

Produced by Melinda Tuhus
Listen in RealAudio:

Filmmaker and historian Ken Burns is best known for his documentaries, including his award-winning series on the Civil War, the highest rated program in the history of American public television. Burns spoke at Yale University's College Class Day on May 23, an annual affair that takes place the day before commencement exercises.

In his address, Burns spoke about the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and America's current war on terrorism. He expressed disagreement with President Bush's conduct of that war and concern over the threats to civil liberties and democracy posed by our own government.

As Burns addressed the graduates and their families, helicopters flew overhead, patrolling the airspace above the campus while President Bush made a private visit to New Haven to celebrate his daughter's graduation from Yale. Burns himself has a daughter in the Yale class of 2004. The following is an excerpt from Ken Burns' speech, which was recorded and produced by Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus.

The great jurist Learned Hand once said that, “Liberty is never being too sure you’re right.” Somehow, though, recently we have replaced our usual and healthy doubt with an arrogance and belligerence that resembles more the ancient and now fallen empires of our history books than a modern, compassionate democracy. (Applause.)

We have begun to start wars instead of finishing them. We have begun to depend on censorship and intimidation and to infringe on the most basic liberties that have heroically defined and described our trajectory as a free people. We have begun to reduce the complexity of modern life into facile judgments of good and evil and now find ourselves brought up short when we see that we have, too, sometimes, in moments, become what we despise. (Applause.)

It is easy, I am sure, in these times of international upheaval and titanic change everywhere, to, like an ostrich, retreat inward, to retire to our spiritually as well as physically gated communities; to smugly convince ourselves that we, in this country, have somehow triumphantly made it through, that our destiny as a people, as a society, as a nation is now assured, that, like some perpetual motion machine, we will go on forever. Nothing could be more dangerous than this arrogant belief, amplified as it is by an almost complete lack of historical awareness among us and further reinforced by a modern media, cloaked in democratic slogans but dedicated to the most stultifying consumer existence. (Applause.)

We find ourselves in the midst of a new, subtler, perhaps more dangerous civil war. The first one proved above all that a minority view could not secede politically or geographically from this union. Now we are posed to fight that war again, and perhaps again and again, this time culturally, where the threat is fundamentalism, wherever it raises its intolerant head. (Applause.)

The casualties this time will be our sense of common heritage, our sense of humor, our sense of balance and cohesion. The ultimate stakes, though, are just as great as those Abraham Lincoln faced: the Union, and the very survival of our country. What we are seeing now is a secession of ideas and identification from the mainstream. In the name of “the Truth,” we have created an infinite number of different Truths, all pulling in different directions, all oblivious to the old, or even a new, conception of the whole.

So I ask those of you graduating tomorrow -- male or female, black or white, brown or yellow, young or old, straight or gay -- to become soldiers in a new union army, an army dedicated to the preservation of this country’s greatest ideals, a vanguard against this new separatism and disunion, a vanguard against those who in the name of our great democracy, have managed to diminish it. This is a family problem, our problem, and it’s not a red state or a blue state problem. It’s our problem.

So, what do we make of all of this? Let me speak directly to the graduating class. Watch out -- here comes the advice. As you pursue your goals in life, that is, to say your future, pursue your past. Let it be your guide. Insist on having a past, and then you will have a future. Replace cynicism with its old-fashioned antidote -- skepticism. Serve your country. Insist that we fight the right wars. (Applause.) Convince your government that the real threat comes from within, as Lincoln said. Governments always forget that. Do not let your government outsource honesty, transparency or candor. Do not let your government outsource democracy. (Applause.)

Steel yourself. Steel yourself. Your generation will have to repair this damage, and it will not be easy.


Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines ( for the week ending June 4, 2004. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Melinda Tuhus.

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