72 Comments

I disagree with this assertion: "if we are to prevent future Holocausts from happening, we must start seeing each other as more than just people we oppose". What we must start doing is refusing to accept the obliteration of the distinction between two events that have nothing to do with each other. The Holocaust is not "like" any of the events portrayed in the montage at the end the film. It was sui generis. To draw a comparison of it to anything else diminishes the crime and soils the memory of those who perished.

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I think it's important to remember that Ken Burns is first and foremost a film maker. His grasp of history has always been somewhat shaky, and underscores how frequently journalists and filmmakers are confused with historians in the public mind. Burns seems especially unaware of the dangers of both race essentialism (and identity essentialism, which is gaining momentum these days) and othering, both of which played directly into what the Nazis were able to do and the relative ease with which they were able to do it. When people are defined only by labels (based on race or self-proclaimed identity) it becomes very easy to marginalize and dehumanize those outside a particular label, and equally easy to blame every problem under the sun on those same labeled groups. Burns of course also chose to ignore events that didn't fit into his particular political message, which diminishes his claim to be any sort of historian. We should be wary of anyone claiming to be "on the right side of history"...history has no sides. Only those spinning it have sides.

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Over the decades, I have watched many Ken Burns films and I see Burns as one of our most skillful American filmmakers. However, I also consider Burns to be a partisan propagandist. This film, about America and the Holocaust is not the first of his to take a political side and to make generalized condemnations of conservatives and the working class.

Ken Burn’s career-long client, the institution that broadcasts his documentaries, has been Public Television. In the past, I have made large donations to PBS. Over time, I have come to recognize that, in representing their coverage of history as being objective, neither Burns nor PBS are being truthful or fair and I do not believe that they are acting in good faith.

Today, I prefer to make my charitable donation to people and institutions, without a partisan agenda, institutions such as F.A.I.R. and F.I.R.E..

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I was kind of disgusted by Ken Burns’ attitude about one side having all the good guys. I no longer respect him after months of vilification of the white working class as racist monsters. Then add in everyone who did not wish one of our “free” corporate, liability-free vaccines. The left was calling for banning anyone who did not bend the knee to Pharma on the shot that doesn’t even stop transmission. Thousands lost their jobs and were denied organ transplants etc. He is now just another uninformed bully in my book.

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Nov 28, 2022·edited Nov 28, 2022

It is easy to talk about the Holocaust as a very dark chapter of history. Burns fails to see any parallels, however, with our last two years when citizens cheered their neighbors being fired and banned from restaurants, and obediently presented their “vaccine cards” to show they took a shot that didn’t even prevent transmission. (Moronic but also incipient fascist). Oh but Democrats are soooo good, Burns attests with his biased montage. Even Michael Moore called the vaccinated “the good people.” Other prominent Dems wanted unvaccinated people banned from hospitals. Noam Chomsky called for them to be expelled from society altogether. Burns was probably cheering him on. What a dope! He is pathetic as this type of dividing and stigmatizing marked the beginning of Nazi Germany. The novel, liability-free shots were apparently right for every single person in the country. I have never heard of any medical treatment with that profile.

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Well said, Gabriel. I have made the same point to people with whom I have discussed the documentary. I would add another related point: the film incorrectly throws antisemitism under an umbrella of white supremacy. I do not want to digress into a discussion of how that terminology is used today, as that is well beyond the scope of the article, but antisemitism is decidedly not white supremacy. It has been perpetrated by people of all races, ethnicities and nationalities since the dawn of time. Yes, white nationalist groups are antisemitic, but they, unfortunately, are far from the only ones. Putting antisemitism under the white supremacy banner also has the effect of suggesting it is only coming from those on the political right, when we have ample evidence of it on left as well. In other words, exactly what Burns did with his clip selection for his reel.

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Gabriel, thanks for writing this. Hate is hate . There is no good hate v bad hate. Burns decided to demonize and stereotype. We need to treat all persons as individuals and we should not shield those who happen to look like or think like we do when they are violent or use hate filled language that can easily lead to violence.

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This is correct with regard to Burn's buying into the current polarized us-them view of our political conflicts. It is outrageous that Burns uses (and misuses) the divisions in our society now as analogs of Hitler's obsessions. They are not.

But I believe Ron Radosh has a better analysis of the flaws in Burns' take on the US response to the Holocaust

https://quillette.com/2022/10/27/fdr-and-the-hol.ocaust/

Jonathan Tobin has a similarly focused critique

https://www.commentary.org/articles/jonathan-tobin/ken-burns-holocaust-documentary/

Radosh's focus is on Burns failure to deal fully and honestly with the criticisms of FDR for his refusal to do more to help the Jews. Burns is a reliable liberal New Dealer and his demonizing of the American right has the effect of diverting not simply from all of our common humanity (as this piece correctly sees) but diverting from the failures of the left. FDR's role is a legitimate matter for debate, it's not settled one way or the other. But Burns avoids a good deal of the case against FDR on this. And in his ending's focus on the right, he is also avoiding the far more disturbing forms of antisemitism on the left these days -- among some elements of Black political culture, in our universities a la the BDS campaign, Ilhan Omar, etc.

I admit to finding Burns views on this disturbing for another reason. I posted the following in response to Radosh, and I will add it in here. In case anyone has an interest.

"My wife and I are just finishing up for the second time watching the Burns' documentary series Country Music. I consider it perhaps his best work (at least next to his Civil War series). Country Music is a magnificent depiction of the way that form of American music encapsulates the amazing assimilative power of this society and its capacity to promote cultural sharing across all class, racial, ethnic, generational, and geographic dividing lines. That is, it completely undercuts the crabbed nonsense on the left now about intersectional hierarchies, the overwhelmingly systemic nature of racism, the evils of cultural appropriation, etc. It fully examines the role of racism and class bigotry in its story, but its central and positive theme is its celebration of America's strengths. Hence, I was saddened greatly to see Burns now indulging in the most superficial form of polarized demonization of half the nation that has become all too prevalent across the board in America today."

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Burns burned out on this documentary - the first part on the Holocaust was fascinating - so much footage that I had never seen before. But what a catastrophe the ending was - to equate the Holocaust with contemporary migration issues is just so wrong - really wrong. What a mistake.

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FDR should have at least bombed the rail tracks into the camps. He did not.

The NYT buried the story until the very end.

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One final comment. This is what I chiefly object to in this article. The author writes:

“ Rather than engage in the complexity and nuance required to discover what was being—and should be—fought for, the documentary decided to end by highlighting once again what—and who—should be fought against. The focus was on human evil rather than humanity; vanquishing monsters rather than converting or preventing them; getting rid of problems instead of focusing on solutions.”

Yes. After three episodes of watching the horrors of the Holocaust, the proper response is to see Hitler and the Nazis as evil. This is not a matter of trying to talk to your neighbors who may have different philosophies or partisanships. This is a matter of dealing with humans who relinquished their humanity and became monsters. And such evil exists today.

There are times when FAIR’s philosophy of arguing peacefully is woefully naive and inappropriate to the situation. For the author of this article to come away with this criticism of an important film about the darkest days of history misses the mark and comes across as a petty and grasping attempt to champion and apply FAIR’s approach of nonconfrontational “argument” to situations that are beyond it. It is dangerous to be so caught up in any doctrine that so blinds or narrows one’s perspective.

I am frankly disheartened that FAIR should have chosen to publish this, but of course I defend its right to do so. I am disheartened because Ken Burns produced a powerful and moving documentary which I would hope would be met with gratitude from this organization. Instead, we find picayune harping. Burns is one of the good guys. Criticize artistic decisions that don’t work, but for god’s sake look at the bigger picture and give gratitude.

If this dismissal of Burns’ epic achievement and the dismissive and nasty comments that followed are shared by the leadership or greater membership of FAIR, I fear it is an organization to which I should not belong.

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"While of course we must oppose all the hateful beliefs which Burns underscores in his closing montage..."

Recognizing that half the country doesn't oppose these things is the first step.

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One final comment. This is what I chiefly object to in this article. The author writes:

“ Rather than engage in the complexity and nuance required to discover what was being—and should be—fought for, the documentary decided to end by highlighting once again what—and who—should be fought against. The focus was on human evil rather than humanity; vanquishing monsters rather than converting or preventing them; getting rid of problems instead of focusing on solutions.”

Yes. After three episodes of watching the horrors of the Holocaust, the proper response is to see Hitler and the Nazis as evil. This is not a matter of trying to talk to your neighbors who may have different philosophies or partisanships. This is a matter of dealing with humans who relinquished their humanity and became monsters. And such evil exists today.

There are times when FAIR’s philosophy of arguing peacefully is woefully naive and inappropriate to the situation. For the author of this article to come away with this criticism of an important film about the darkest days of history misses the mark and comes across as a petty and grasping attempt to champion and apply FAIR’s approach of nonconfrontational “argument” to situations that are beyond it. It is dangerous to be so caught up in any doctrine that so blinds or narrows one’s perspective.

I am frankly disheartened that FAIR should have chosen to publish this, but of course I defend its right to do so. I am disheartened because Ken Burns produced a powerful and moving documentary which I would hope would be met with gratitude from this organization. Instead, we find picayune harping. Burns is one of the good guys. Criticize artistic decisions that don’t work, but for god’s sake look at the bigger picture and give gratitude.

If this dismissal of Burns’ epic achievement and the dismissive and nasty comments that followed are shared by the leadership or greater membership of FAIR, I fear it is an organization to which I should not belong.

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"It’s not enough to remember and warn of all the bad ideas and behaviors we are fighting against. We must be clear in what—and who—we’re fighting for."

Amen. And the traditional American values (freedom, rights, ...) will do fine as a starting point.

One further point: when will Burns do documentaries on the American left/socialists/communists and their support of and work for (e.g. as spies) Stalin?

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The onus is not on me to engage in lengthy rebuttals and debate in this text forum. For what are you supposed to be grateful?! The damned film, of course!

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Is it necessary to be this mincing, bowing, scraping and namby-pamby in criticizing a hate-mongering propaganda campaign worthy of Goebbels because Ken Burns directed it? He is their Leni Riefenstahl but it’s okay because it’s got good audio quality?

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