The Big Picture
Patrick Goldstein on the collision of entertainment, media and pop culture
Is Ken Burns a secret propagandist for socialism?
September 24, 2009
I wasn't planning on DVR-ing Ken Burns' new six-part PBS series "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," which debuts Sunday night because: 1) I don't have 18 hours of room left on my TiVo; 2) judging from the title, I kinda already know where Burns comes down on the idea of national parks; and 3) I didn't give for KCET's last pledge drive and watching all that beautiful scenery will just make me feel more guilty.
But Time magazine's James Poniewozik, a columnist full of iconoclastic ideas about TV and pop culture, has come up with a brilliant take on "National Parks" that has suddenly aroused my interest in the series. In his mind, the "National Parks" project isn't just another Burns snoozefest that, as Poniewozik slyly puts it, finds the filmmaker "passionately arguing positions almost everyone agrees with." The series is actually an ingenious refutation of the popular conservative belief that big government is evil, outmoded and unnecessarily involved in ruling our lives.
Noting that the original impetus for establishing national parks came from naturalists like John Muir who were horrified to see how Niagara Falls was nearly destroyed by the greed and hucksterism of free market- loving charlatans, Poniewozik writes: "With America frothing over the role of government -- Should it save banks? Should it expand health coverage? -- 'The National Parks' makes a simple case for an idea that is wildly controversial in the year of the tea party: That we need government to do things the private sector can't or won't."
In other words, the entire origin of the national park system, whose most passionate backer was a Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, is based on a firm belief in -- Glenn Beck, cover your ears, please -- government intervention to regulate an out-of-control free-enterprise system. In fact, one of the more dramatic moments in Burns' documentary involves the battle to create a park in the Great Smoky Mountains, while logging companies bankrolled anti-park ads and were "frantically cutting the old-growth forests to extract everything they could before the land was closed to them."
In some ways, Burns' new series sounds like almost as radical a critique of free market excess as Michael Moore's new "Capitalism: A Love Story." Of course, it's unlikely to cause as much of an uproar as "Capitalism" because Moore is a natural magnet for controversy while Burns' films, with their lilting music and cozy slo-mo zooms, can make the most incendiary historical events appear almost as soothing as a glass of warm milk.
However, Poniewozik has uncovered the razor blade inside Burns' cinematic pillow. To hear him tell it, Burns' portrait of the creation of our national parks should give conservatives pause in their rush to pillory government at every turn. As Poniewozik writes: "The national parks -- and 'The National Parks' -- are based on ideas that are classically, if not radically, communitarian: That the free market doesn't always act in the public interest. That it's good that every American shares ownership of and responsibility for the most exclusive properties in the country. And that it's right for people -- through government -- to protect them from business interests and even the people themselves." For this, I'd say bravo for Ken Burns, whose portrait of American ideals couldn't have come at a better time than right now.