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Creator of Civil War Documentary Series Calls Today ‘Most Fraught Time’ in U.S. History

Detail of Storming Fort Wagner, c. 1890, depicting the 54th Massachusetts Regiment’s assault on July 18, 1863. (Kurz & Allison/Library of Congress)

Ken Burns, the skilled documentarian responsible for, among other things, the excellent Civil War miniseries, had some interesting things to say in an interview with Brian Williams this past Friday. First, the thing I can agree with: Burns considers Woodrow Wilson, a notorious racist even by the standards of his time, “the most overrated president.” Unfortunately, as Cameron Hilditch recently pointed out, this overrating continues today among presidential historians.

Now, for the thing I’ll have to dispute. Burns also stated the following: “The problem is, this is the most fraught time, I think, in the history of our Republic.”

To make sure that I wasn’t just taking him out of context, I kept listening. Burns proceeds to cite the familiar Benjamin Franklin anecdote about being asked by Elizabeth Willing Powel what kind of government he’d just helped create when walking out of the Constitutional Convention and replying, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” Burns then adds:

I think this is where the rubber is meeting the road. We’re at this desperate place, the convergence of all of these viruses: The side effects of the misinformation and the paranoia and the lying, voter suppression. And then the rewriting of our history, our saying that we’re not interested in facts, we’re not interested in the truth, we’re not interested in the many varied voices that make us up.

In April, ours was merely “the one of the most challenging times — if not the most challenging time — in American history,” according to Burns. Things have gotten quite a lot worse in the past three months, apparently.

Being as charitable as possible, a version of Burns’s point — that self-government will always face challenges — is undoubtedly true. But before we start saying our “Ashokan Farewell,” it’s worth having some perspective. “Fraught,” according to Merriam Webster, means “causing or characterized by emotional distress or tension.” Our age certainly has its distresses and its tensions. Let no one deny that. But are they worse than, say . . . I don’t know . . . the time that our nation was literally at war? A time whose history has been excellently explained and popularized by . . . Ken Burns? Even if you believe, as I do, that our nation still bears scars from that conflict, that seems better than being in it!

Maybe it’s too low a standard to say, “Hey, maybe things are bad, but at least we’re not in the Civil War.” But if we are to think clearly about matters, it is best to characterize them accurately. Since I am not currently engaged in an actual shooting war against other Americans, I think it’s fair to say that Ken Burns has not done so.

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