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Posted by on Oct 1, 2009 in Arts & Entertainment, Politics | 7 comments

The National Parks: America’s Best Socialism?

Ken Burns just announced a follow-up to The National Parks:  America’s Best Idea.  The film is tentatively titled, “The Baldwin Brothers:  Not So Much.”  Ironically, the Wayans brothers will be doing the voice-overs.  

“In the late 1900s a boisterous band of Baldwin brothers headed for southern California, packing their Ford Pinto full of hopes, dreams, and hair products.  Their enigmatic leading man charm would soon change the landscape of Hollywood forever.  Or at least until they started gaining weight.”

Unfortunately, Burns’ Baldwin saga is years from completion.  This is primarily because of the extensive archival footage.  For example, there exists more head shots of Alec Baldwin than photos of the Civil War.  Even though the film is in early production, Burns confidently asserts his film will be the best Baldwin brother film ever made with two or more Baldwins.

Until then, we will have to settle for The National Parks:  America’s Best Idea.  This is a shortened version of the even longer and more awkwardly titled, The National Parks:  America’s Best Idea is to DVR This Thing if You’re Ever Going to Make it Through All Twelve Hours.   

There’s a fine line between boring and therapeutic.  The difference depends on how you feel right before you go to sleep.  Ken Burns is the master of therapeutic film making.  I am entranced by his gentle folksy guitar soundtracks and calmly annunciated voiceovers.  I am hypnotized by the rhythmic sway of his every panning camera; slowly zooming in and out, back and forth, revealing every nuanced detail of a carefully chosen black and white photo or vivid painting.

The films of Ken Burns create both narrative and narcotic tension.  On one hand we are swept into the details of a forgotten story.  On the other hand, we are lullabied to sleep.  Consequently, we find ourselves nodding off at the turning point of a Civil War battle or in the middle of a John Muir Sequoia soliloquy.  This places the work of Ken Burns within the realm of pleasant dreams.  When we awake, we are comforted, yet not quite able to remember.  

I haven’t yet watched the entire series (the DVR is stacking them up as I write), however, I’m already intrigued by the series’ overarching theme of democracy.  One would expect an exhaustive treatment of The National Parks to be rooted in an environmentalism motif.  Although Burns deals with conservation, his National Parks thesis is rooted in the issue of democracy.

In our current political climate, democracy has become a euphemism for “freedom from collective responsibility.”  When politicians hint at collective stewardship, accusations of socialism are soon to follow.  Thus democracy has become freedom to go it alone or to be left alone to do as one pleases.  Within this definition, the greatest threat to democracy is government advocating or administrating a shared mission.

In recent months, thousands upon thousands of protestors have gathered together to unite against the government uniting us.  It appears that a large portion of the populace would rather endure the ills and excesses of capitalism than accept the tyranny of governmental regulation.  

Within our present dialogue and definition, Ken Burns inserts the reenacted voices of Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and many other past champions of democracy.  As I listened to their words, I began to realize the modern world has lost a portion of democracy’s definition.  It’s as if a page has been torn, removed, or simply forgotten.

In reference to the National Parks Roosevelt observed “It is the preservation of the scenery of the forests and the wilderness game for the people as a whole, instead of leaving the enjoyment thereof to be confined to the very rich.  It is noteworthy in its essential democracy.  One of the best bits of national achievement which our people have to their credit.  And our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever.  With their majestic beauty all unmarred.”

For President Roosevelt and many other God fearing, flag loving, patriotic Americans democracy was more than just the freedom to go it alone.  Democracy was also the promise of equal access to God’s creation.

Unlike Europe, America embraced a concept of national land ownership that was thoroughly democratic.  In fact, some of the most majestic portions of our land were set aside for the collective and common good.  

Through the National Parks, Americans became co-stewards of God’s creation.  We took on a collaborative responsibility to preserve, protect, and share our national treasures with each individual in every generation.  This equal access to America’s natural wonders was, and is, a thoroughly democratic ideal.   

It is common for protest groups to champion the protection of country.  In recent months there has been a resurgence of the phrase “Give me back my country!”  Ken Burns’ film points out the complexity of answering such a demand.  If one’s country is defined as the ability to go it alone, then a collective vision is nothing more than tyranny.  However, if one’s country is defined as common access to common treasures, then the answer must be found in shared responsibility and collective stewardship.

As with almost all uniquely American enigmas, the answer most likely lies somewhere in the middle.  Or maybe I’ll discover the answer by the end of the series, if I can just stay awake long enough to find it.