Look at all of those ‘Socialist’ Mountains: Ken Burns’s National Parks and the Right

Look at all of those ‘Socialist’ Mountains: Ken Burns’s National Parks and the Right

K. Mattson: Look at all of those ‘Socialist’ Mountains

WHAT BETTER statement about right-wing lunacy is there than the accusation that Ken Burns, America’s most famous documentarian, is a socialist? Well, not a socialist in the self-proclaimed-sort-of-way but a socialist because the theme of his recent series, “America’s National Parks,” makes him one. The galling idea to set aside some of the most beautiful areas in the country as public property that belongs to all citizens equally, is, you see, a form of socialism, at least in the mind of a Time blogger.

Worse yet, Ken Burns—perhaps before or after he joined DSA—has even labeled America’s national parks the country’s “best idea.” He lifted that term from the socialist, I mean liberal, novelist Wallace Stegner. The nerve of this man, you can imagine his critics recoiling. Here he is telling a story of America, land of the free market, that actually checked the interests of private commercial developers (loggers, miners, tourist hucksters) and did something for the sake of a communal good. Egads! Man the barriers and call the tea baggers to Washington, D.C. or we will become prisoners not of “creeping socialism” but of “already-in-our-midst socialism.”

Coming to his own defense, Ken Burns turned uncharacteristically pungent and sharp. Here’s his riposte to the charge in an interview with the Daily Beast:

This is a season of insane and stupid discussion about government. If you begin to label things socialism when no one knows what they are talking about, then the military is socialist, and the guy collecting trash and firemen are socialists. Government activity can’t be reduced to a Rush Limbaugh-like stupidity. It’s much more elastic, vibrant, pliant, deserves more intelligent thinking. The government gave us the Emancipation Proclamation, the New Deal, the GI Bill. And the national parks.

And he’s right. Who in the past would ever have imagined that a long documentary on the national parks system would be called socialist propaganda? For sure, PBS’s reputation has declined over the years, with the right taking aim at Bill Moyers and some episodes of Frontline. And the blog world can blast out messages that stick in ways that they couldn’t have just ten years ago. But still, this is incredible.

Normally, critics would be lambasting Ken Burns as the cardboard cut-out version of middlebrow culture. After all, his style of zooming in on a photograph and playing loud music and narration is, by now, cliché–mocked by people who have enough time on their hands to do mash-ups posted at Youtube. Burns’s documentaries are what middle class people watch on television when they want to feel educated. Quick and easy history for the masses, Burn’s documentaries are often the sort of fare that the History Channel churns out on a daily basis.

Today, though, Burns appears to be not just a raving socialist but an educator who deserves to be listened to if only because his job is getting harder and harder. Sure, some of his work is clichéd, but it also challenges Americans to reconceive their past and think about what values they want their country to stand for.

Most important, “America’s National Parks” reminds us that individuals from the past fought to protect spaces they loved. There are the well-known stories that the documentary has already covered: the early founding of Yellowstone and Yosemite, the debates between Teddy Roosevelt and the founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, and the damming of the Hetch Hetchy valley close to Yosemite National Park. Burns expands the tales and tells of lesser-known citizens and women’s civic organizations who struggled to protect beautiful places like Rocky Mountain and Mesa Verde National Parks. He shows how Stephen Mather, first director of the National Parks, volunteered to kick in his own money to improve and protect parks under his care.

Having watched the show’s first three episodes, it’s hard not to congratulate Burns. Especially considering how he haunts his documentary with the specter of an America without national parks. Imagine amusement parks at Yellowstone (“Come See Gusherville!”) or the Grand Canyon as a gated community of ritzy McMansions. Burns reminds his viewers of the possibility of a world without public space, without government ownership of land, without a sense of protection and conservation.

I’ll admit that Burns’s series doesn’t always rivet my attention. The shows grow long at times, dragging and plodding. The second episode seemed to clock in at about two hours and fifteen minutes, and its last moments struggled for air. Burns’s tendency to open a new chapter with a long quote from a significant individual (usually read close to the style of speech the person had) gets tiresome and confusing at times. The titles within episodes are often vague, and the music sometimes gets distracting.

And yet: what other television show would have received such attention? Watching the series, I imagine what it was like for Americans in the past to discuss television as a shared national culture (watching Edward Murrow take down McCarthy, for instance, or show the plight of fruit workers out west). And hell, if Burns can help us understand that government has had a role to play in the past—one that has given things to the American people—than that’s a good thing.

Next time I’m at a national park I can imagine encountering people who might think about their experience differently. I can even imagine a father holding his child’s hand and saying as he stands in the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (a place where I stood just two months ago with my own kid), “look at those pretty socialist rocks and those amazing socialist buffalo.” And I can say honestly that that would be a good thing.

Kevin Mattson is on the editorial board of Dissent and is author most recently of “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?”: Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country.

Image: A 1938 poster for Grand Canyon National Park (Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons)