Ken Burns: the Leni Riefenstahl of PBS

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Columns I’ve written about the old Confederacy and events surrounding the War Between the States have generated many unusual and, in some cases, mystifying responses. I want to share some of the more fascinating ones with you. However, I won’t waste your time repeating the countless Pavlovian responses similar to these two; "Your side lost! Get over it!" and "When will you Rebels learn that you can’t change history? Facts are facts!"

Actually, yesterday’s facts can become tomorrow’s fiction because versions of history do change. But getting people to change their minds is another matter, because psychologists have found that very few people are able to significantly alter their opinions after adolescence. For years, many school textbooks have presented only one version of the War Between the States. The mainstream media, Hollywood and TV films, political speeches, newspaper cartoons and now even historical markers at national parks have reinforced that version. Historians know that it takes a few decades to change strongly held beliefs and this is a problem they have to grapple with.

Another problem is the fact that many practitioners are using a radically different method of history. In the past, history was primarily the stories of celebrated men and women, famous battles, and so forth. However ideas by Karl Marx and, to a lesser degree, theories of Sigmund Freud, created a new approach to history, one that focuses, not on kings and queens, but on the common people; or how the underclasses were "impacted" by sociological or psychological factors.

To this new group, history should be more than a dry recitation of dates and facts. It should impart "values." In other words, the historian decides that a certain social problem must be remedied and then writes history in such a way as to lead the public to the same conclusion. This is often the case with Hollywood films. The maudlin mythologies about Abraham Lincoln immediately come to mind. Films like these are designed not only to entertain but also to persuade. This new approach, using history to proselytize, reached its zenith with the advent of television, the stellar practitioner now being filmmaker Ken Burns, the Leni Riefenstahl of PBS.

To his credit, Ken Burns is very candid about his interpretations of history. Consider these comments Burns made in an interview: "I’m telling a history of the country the Civil War made us — this is the story of race, which caused the Civil War to happen — what I’m interested in (is) the healing power of history — The only criticism I’ve had for the Civil War films, other than from rabid Confederates who say it’s pro-North, is from left-wing historians who say that any sympathy extended to the South, or any version that celebrates great men, is wrong."

These comments encapsulate the Marxist approach to history and, as many people use television for their sole source of information, they will help you understand some the responses I’m about to relate.

In one of my articles, I described the activities of New England slave traders, a subject that Hollywood and PBS avoid. I posed the rhetorical question regarding slavery. Who was more culpable, New England slave traders or Southern planters? Naively, I thought there would be general agreement that each was equally guilty.

But I was informed that I "showed a deep misunderstanding of both history and the economic law of supply and demand. Blaming slave traders for slavery is ludicrous. Merchants were only supplying the demands of Southern planters. If plantation owners didn’t want slaves, merchants would not have traded in slaves."

Another respondent compared slave traders to gun manufacturers, claiming that you can’t hold a gun manufacturer responsible for a purchaser’s misuse of a gun. While still another asked why I even brought up the subject of slave trading because it happened over a 100 years ago and was perfectly legal at the time? After defending Northern slave traders, another angry writer maintained that the South must be held responsible for slavery in America, which was ended because the North was willing to sacrifice its young men in battle to terminate the abhorrent practice. This writer then veered into a rambling attack on the Confederate flag and ended with a sermonette against the contemporary South: "The South still needs to undergo a catharsis, face up to its sins and admit its guilt in order to rid itself of the dregs of evil in the wake of a war fought to defend slavery. That catharsis, that expiation, would never be achieved if we continued to cling to a flag that to many was a symbol of that evil."

This "good guys versus bad guys" notion; the South was responsible for slavery and the North had to force its ending, was a common theme running throughout the responses. Also, there seemed to be a willful blindness towards those outside of the South who had benefited monetarily from slavery. New England slave traders were absolved of guilt. Banks who financed both slave traders and Southern planters were guiltless, as were insurance companies that insured owners against loss of slaves. No one took issue with railroad companies for using slaves to lay railroad tracks or textile mills that bought cotton picked by slaves or tobacco companies that bought tobacco harvested by slaves.

The only problem my respondents found with Reconstruction in the South was that it was ended prematurely. If, they claim, it had been allowed to continue, the South’s land and resources could have been equitably redistributed. The misrule of occupying military commanders and the shenanigans of Carpetbaggers and Scalawags mentioned by earlier historians was rejected. Instead, those in charge of Reconstruction were described as, "officers in the Union occupation forces who stayed on after their discharge — it was an opportunity to rebuild a shattered economy and construct a new society based on freedom — they went into politics only when it became clear that these goals could not be achieved without the vigorous leadership of Republican state governments to preserve the principles of nationalism and freedom that they had fought for as soldiers."

Some respondents also furnished quotes from websites like this one: "The next step (in Reconstruction) would have been to break up the plantations and parcel them out to the freedmen and the landless poor whites. This would have finished off the planters as a class, and such widespread ownership of productive property would have democratized the South — Reconstruction governments were among the most progressive this country has ever seen. Universal education, tax relief, ready credit, increased freedom of movement, access to employment in all trades and some degree of physical protection raised all boats in the effort to lift up those on the very bottom of society."

Although schools, bridges, railroads and other infrastructure were indeed built, the outcome of the Reconstruction experiment was far from a collectivist Utopia. Bribes and kickbacks demanded from dishonest contractors help enrich the military commanders and their corrupt cohorts while depleting state treasuries. The years of being excluded from the political process coupled with the confiscation of property by military commanders instilled in Southern whites a severe animosity toward the Republican Party as well as freed slaves. This animosity would fester for decades. In the end, Quakers and other non-governmental groups who constructed and staffed schools for the newly freed slaves were to effect the only positive accomplishments during the Reconstruction period.

In one article I mentioned famous Southern historian, poet, and novelist, William Gilmore Simms, a man who is denigrated by Marxist historians because he not only defended the Confederacy in his writings, but also managed the plantation his wife inherited upon her father’s death. As a historian, Simms wrote extensively about the Revolutionary War including his novel, "Woodcraft," a book that describes the adventures of Captain Porgy, a somewhat bumbling South Carolina plantation owner who volunteers and fights for America’s independence. One respondent forwarded a portion of a review of this novel in which the reviewer focuses on Captain Porgy’s claim that he was fighting to preserve a way of life that he had struggled to create. Captain Porgy’s assertion leads the reviewer to conclude that the only reason Southerners fought for America’s independence was to prevent the loss of their slaves.

However, at the time of the American Revolution, 30% of the population of New York City consisted of slaves. There was a slave market on Wall Street, slaves were used on the farms along the Hudson River, and Long Island was simply a slave island containing numerous slave markets. The writer either ignores or is ignorant of slavery outside of the South and he ends his review with this bizarre statement: "Such perverted views about the principles behind the American Revolution did not die a lawful death with the crushing of the Confederacy, any more than eugenics or "race hygiene" theories vanished after the World War II defeat of Nazism, which was the direct heir to the Confederate ideology."

I have to believe that the passion of some of these responses is attributable to viewing "politicized" TV versions of history. Although the past is not blatantly distorted, filmmakers do selectively portray events. Also, they can evoke powerful feelings by using dramatic visual images enhanced by poignant voice-over narrations. But is this history? It is certainly not balanced history. But, as we live in a "Cliff Notes" culture, these overly simplified depictions are extremely popular.

Overall, my respondents despised General Robert E. Lee, whom they unanimously called "a traitor to his country." In addition to being a traitor, Lee was also "a cruel racist and a defender of slavery despite all the apologetics." These writers couldn’t seem to agree on his military prowess. One states that Lee was "the most overrated general in U.S. history. He led his side from calamity to calamity." While another claims that "Lee, while a very good general, was in fact a traitor to his country and came as close as anyone in history to destroying the United States of America — his actions must finally be judged for the terrible end they promoted — Lee must be responsible in large part for the deaths of over 600,000 Americans."

Many of the slurs against Robert E. Lee seemed to be motivated by the term usually applied to him; "aristocrat." Apparently today’s egalitarian mindset rankles at the idea of aristocrats, patricians and Southern gentlemen. Lee and the Southern plantation owners were often dismissed as phony "blue bloods" that needed a lesson in humility.

Some felt that, after the War, the nation should have conducted its version of the Nuremberg Trials and prosecuted General Lee and other Confederate leaders for war crimes. They were incensed that Lee is still celebrated with monuments, plaques and portraits. Regarding the Lee monument in Dallas, one sent these comments: "Is it not abominable that the murderers of American soldiers are honored, receive greater honor than these men (Union soldiers) who died for our country. This was done to satisfy the precepts of their fascist ideology-Confederacy." Georgia’s compromise to remove the Confederate flag symbol from the state flag in return for hanging a portrait of Robert E. Lee in the Georgia Capitol brought these comments: "As compromises go, that’s a pretty good one. Better Georgia hang the picture of a traitor in its Capitol than hoist the symbol of his treachery up flagpoles all over the state."

These extreme opinions are understandable if you bear in mind that these respondents maintain that General Lee and others fought solely to prevent emancipation of slaves. All other reasons for the war were dismissed. Also, these writers seemed to judge the issue of slavery using a "Statute of Limitations." Selling slaves and owning slaves was acceptable until 1820, or some cut-off point around that time. From then on the practice was evil. This line of reasoning absolves most slave owners who resided outside of the South. Also exonerated are most of the 13 of our first 18 presidents who owned slaves at some point in their lives; the last being Ulysses S. Grant.

My respondents’ revulsion of Robert E. Lee was matched by their admiration for General William Tecumseh Sherman. This man is the object of their veneration. To them, Sherman is the ultimate military tactician and his decision to wage war against defenseless civilians is considered a stroke of genius. But, again, there are conflicting views. Some claim the atrocities that occurred during Sherman’s celebrated march through the South never happened. It was a myth the South used to explain the economic disaster it faced at the end of the war which "could be better traced to the South’s decision to secede — and so begin the war — than to anything that Union soldiers did." According to these Union apologists, blaming Sherman "diverted attention from Southern responsibilities in bringing on the war, and thus for the outcome."

In an article about the burning of Columbia, South Carolina, I stated that, "Almost 500 buildings and their contents had been destroyed including warehouses, factories, offices, hotels, schools, libraries, private residences, churches, and a Catholic convent." Some respondents claimed that retreating Confederate soldiers were the ones who burned and looted the city. But most didn’t attempt to deny Sherman’s acts however; they did try to justify them. One respondent claimed."destroying factories and hotels where Confederate troops may have been housed was clearly within military doctrine of the time. If you really want to create revisionist history I suggest you do a bit more research."

Another angry Sherman supporter castigated Confederates for being, "a bunch of self-important, self-styled aristocrats who had to invent that u2018cavalier’ crap to justify their invented superiority and then denying that right to an entire race of people. The South provoked the war and started the war, and Sherman showed them what the war was all about. They got what they deserved."

Finally, I will cite this extraordinary statement: "His (Sherman’s) destruction of the South was not done to be cruel but, rather to convince Southerners that an early end of the war would benefit them more than a prolonged fight would. Paradoxically, for all the suffering, physical, economic, and psychological, that the South endured during Sherman’s march, in the long run the march proved beneficial to the Southerners for it destroyed the institution of slavery, to which all Southerners themselves had been enslaved."

Gail Jarvis [send him mail] a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, is an advocate of the voluntary union of states enumerated by the founders.

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