Monday, December 20, 2004

Hyman Flunks His Finals

Okay, pop quiz: which notable American made the following remark at a 2004 commencement address?

“[History is] not just those pessimistic voices that have recently entered our studies, voices which seem to suggest that our history is merely a catalogue of white crime.”

A. Ken Burns
B. George Will
C. William Bennett
D. William F. Buckley, Jr.

Try this one:

“In the name of the truth, we have created an infinite number of different truths, all pulling in different directions, all oblivious to the old or even a new conception of the whole.”

A. Ken Burns
B. George Will
C. William Bennett
D. William F. Buckley, Jr.

Choices B, C, and D all sound promising. These sentiments certainly seem in keeping with a generally conservative worldview. It might surprise you that these comments both came from Ken Burns’s speech at Yale, the same speech
Mark Hyman excoriates as wacky neo-Marxist prattle.

At least, you’d be surprised if you only knew of Burns’s speech from what Hyman says about it. If you actually read it (which you can
here), you’d see that it is in many ways a traditional commencement address, asking seniors to apply the lessons of the past to the present and future (which has never struck us as a particularly pinko notion).

In a colossally misguided and flat-out erroneous reading of the speech, Hyman says that Burns equates the current war in Iraq with the Civil War. He doesn’t. He suggests we are living in a time of deep national divide, a divide of ideas and values, that in some ways mirrors the circumstances that created the Civil War.

Does Burns make comments that are generally critical of the administration’s policies in Iraq? Yes. But they make up a small section of the speech and never mention Bush by name. He talks consistently in the first-person plural: decisions and actions that we, as Americans, have made.

Hyman also charges Burns with having communist overtones in his speech, hypocritically chastising people for making money while he profits from his own work. Would you be shocked to hear that Burns’s remarks bear no resemblance to this characterization? Burns laments what he sees as a growing arrogance and lack of self-reflection in America, which lead us to feel that we’re right and everyone else is wrong. He then goes on to say:

Nothing could be more dangerous than this arrogant belief, brought on and amplified as it is by a complete lack of historical awareness among us, and further reinforced by a modern media, cloaked in democratic slogans, but dedicated to the most stultifying kind of consumer existence, convincing us to worship gods of commerce and money and selfish advancement above all else.

Okay, Mark: we know this is a long and structurally complex sentence, but try to read it slowly and parse it out. Is he saying people are bad if they make money? No. Is he saying our capitalist economy is inherently evil? No. The subject in the last portion of the sentence is “a modern media.” That’s you, Mark! Isn’t reading fun when you can make a personal connection with it? Now, what is he saying about the media? He’s saying that the media, while pretending to serve our national interests, thrives by trying to get us to think that money and economic advancement are good in and of themselves, and to put them ahead of helping our fellow citizens. Burns is suggesting that while making money is a good and necessary thing, it’s probably not a good idea to make it something we see as having moral value by itself.

That probably cuts a bit too close to the bone for Hyman. After all, Burns’s general description fits Sinclair perfectly: a media outlet that panders to patriotism while using a business model based on minimizing expenses and maximizing profits in the short term at the expense of quality.

Moreover, what Burns says is directly at odds with conservative dogma, which states that making money is a good in itself and that becoming rich is proof of sound personal character and high morals. Despite any number of examples to the contrary (Gilded Age robber barons, Enron, etc.) and notable historical figures who have pointed out the error of this belief (this one carpenter guy from a small town in the Mideast … I think he’s got a birthday coming up), this equation of money with goodness lies (pun intended) at the heart of far-right ideology.

And that’s why Burns inspires such wailing and gnashing of teeth from Hyman—not because he’s saying anything radical or even because he’s making some general, unspecific criticisms of the Bush administration. It’s because in appealing to traditional American values and calling on our collectively shared history, he questions central tenets of conservatism: that our President/Father is unquestionably right (as long as he’s a Republican) and that money equals goodness.

Ken Burns was invited to speak at Yale because his daughter was a member of the graduating class of 2004. He made a speech that abided by the time-honored structure of the commencement address, but also offered thought provoking ideas that challenged his audience to examine their beliefs, assess their most deeply held values, and use this knowledge to guide their lives in the future.

Yeah, you’re right, Mark: those Yalies really got cheated.

And that’s The Counterpoint.


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