“Today, there’s nothing new under the sun,” intoned hallowed PBS filmmaker Ken Burns as he lamented the persistence of racial inequality in the United States in a commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis. So reported USA Today College.
Recalling the lofty text of the Declaration of Independence, Burns reminded his audience that Jefferson, the declaration’s author, owned more than 100 slaves. Jefferson’s hypocrisy is alive and well today, opined Burns, in the form of “color-blindness” that he believes ignores the reality of structural racism.
Burns -- a dogmatic liberal who made a shameless Ted Kennedy-boosting Democratic convention film in 2008 (for that "strong old goat") despite (or because of) his PBS-subsidized wealth -- decried how America has "habits and patterns less beneficial to us: our devotion to money and guns; our certainty — about everything; our stubborn insistence on our own exceptionalism, blinding us to that which needs repair, our preoccupation with always making the other wrong, at an individual as well as global level."
Time magazine published the entire transcript, including this exploration of conservatives still pushing racism on the country with color-blindness:
Before the enormous strides in equality achieved in statutes and laws in the 150 years since the Civil War that Lincoln correctly predicted would come are in danger of being undone by our still imperfect human nature and by politicians who now insist on a hypocritical color-blindness — after four centuries of discrimination. That discrimination now takes on new, sometimes subtler, less obvious but still malevolent forms today. The chains of slavery have been broken, thank God, and so too has the feudal dependence of sharecroppers as the vengeful Jim Crow era recedes (sort of) into the distant past. But now in places like — but not limited to — your other neighbors a few miles as the crow flies from here in Ferguson, we see the ghastly remnants of our great shame emerging still, the shame Lincoln thought would lead to national suicide, our inability to see beyond the color of someone’s skin. It has been with us since our founding.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote that immortal second sentence of the Declaration that begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…,” he owned more than a hundred human beings. He never saw the contradiction, never saw the hypocrisy, and more important never saw fit in his lifetime to free any one of those human beings, ensuring as we went forward that the young United States — born with such glorious promise — would be bedeviled by race, that it would take a bloody, bloody Civil War to even begin to redress the imbalance.
But the shame continues: prison populations exploding with young black men, young black men killed almost weekly by policemen, whole communities of color burdened by corrupt municipalities that resemble more the predatory company store of a supposedly bygone era than a responsible local government. Our cities and towns and suburbs cannot become modern plantations.
It is unconscionable, as you emerge from this privileged sanctuary, that a few miles from here — and nearly everywhere else in America: Baltimore, New York City, North Charleston, Cleveland, Oklahoma, Sanford, Florida, nearly everywhere else — we are still playing out, sadly, an utterly American story, that the same stultifying conditions and sentiments that brought on our Civil War are still on such vivid and unpleasant display. Today, today. There’s nothing new under the sun.
Burns lamented that just as Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn out of disappointment that racial discrimination continued: "That civil war had not cleansed our original sin, a sin we continue to confront today, daily, in this supposedly enlightened 'post-racial' time."
Burns drafted the graduates into a “new Union army” to marshal against the “color blindness” types:
You’re joining a movement that must be dedicated above all else — career and personal advancement — to the preservation of this country’s most enduring ideals. You have to learn, and then re-teach the rest of us that equality — real equality — is the hallmark and birthright of ALL Americans. Thankfully, you will become a vanguard against a new separatism that seems to have infected our ranks, a vanguard against those forces that, in the name of our great democracy, have managed to diminish it. Then, you can change human nature just a bit, to appeal, as Lincoln also implored us, to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” That’s the objective. I know you can do it.
Then he ended with briefer pieces of advice like “Black lives matter. All lives matter.” (That drew big applause.) And vote for liberals:
Serve your country. By all means serve your country. But insist that we fight the right wars. Governments always forget that.
Convince your government that the real threat, as Lincoln knew, comes from within. Governments always forget that, too. Do not let your government outsource honesty, transparency or candor. [A Hillary slam? Don’t count on it.] Do not let your government outsource democracy.
Vote. Elect good leaders. When he was nominated in 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” We all deserve the former. Insist on it.
Perhaps the silliest exhortation coming from Burns is the one about foregoing career advancement for political goals. Ken Burns has never suffered a lack of wealth, comfort, or celebrity for advancing his liberal bias. PBS only rewards him for it.