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Jewish World Review
May 8, 2007
/ 20 Iyar, 5767
PBS darling gets abused by PC police
Ken Burns is one of the great cinematic artists of our time. But not even his peerless reputation protected him from identity politics. Latino politicians and activists rolled him on The War, and PBS disgracefully let it happen.
This is not about denigrating the noble sacrifice of Latino soldiers. This is about corrupting art through politics.
To understand just how absurd the activists' demands are, realize that Mr. Burns did not set out to make a comprehensive portrait of the American experience in World War II. If he had, protesters would have a point.
Instead, the filmmaker chose to explore the war through the particular experiences of people in four geographically disparate towns: Sacramento, Calif.; Waterbury, Conn.; Luverne, Minn.; and Mobile, Ala. His film crew went to those locations and sought out anyone who had lived through the war whether on the battlefield or the homefront and was willing to talk about it.
They found African-Americans in some of those locales. They found Japanese-Americans too. They even found a Jewish former medic. What they didn't find was Latinos who had lived through the World War II era. No surprise there. Though the U.S. census didn't measure the Latino population discretely until 1970, it was almost certainly tiny relative to the rest of the U.S. population during the 1940s. And it was concentrated in the border states.
The point is, Hispanic veterans are absent from this documentary not because their sacrifice isn't valued. They weren't included because they didn't fit the perfectly legitimate storytelling frame chosen by the artist. It makes as much sense to complain that Mr. Burns insulted Texans by leaving Lone Star veterans out. Should the Texas congressional delegation demand redress (or at least rewrite)? Please.
What the Latino activists have done, thanks in part to pressure from Hispanic members of Congress, was to force a compromise, however slight, of a distinguished filmmaker's artistic vision for the sake of identity politics. This is a terrible precedent. PBS has opened the doors for any special-interest group to force its political agenda onto a work of art and historical storytelling.
Mr. Burns argues that when working in public television, one has to take the views of the public into consideration. That's true. If taxpayers don't want to pay for this or that kind of art, they shouldn't have to even Ken Burns documentaries. But once a publicly funded artwork is approved, both art and artist must be protected from political interference.
Massaging history or art to assuage grievance is intellectually corrupt. Bullying an artist to alter or amend his work for socially therapeutic ends that is, for political correctness is immoral. The next time an ethnic, religious or other group demands the right to compel changes in a controversial PBS program, the network will have no ground to stand on.
Make no mistake, if activists and their congressional allies can do this to Ken Burns, they can do it to anybody.
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Rod Dreher is assistant editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News and author of the forthcoming "Crunchy Cons" (Crown Forum).
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© 2007, The Dallas Morning News,
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.