More Lessons On Human Nature From (American) Human History
After catching ‘docu-fever’ and watching one after another about political and financial systems (Human Nature, Inhuman Systems), I was surprised to find I still had an appetite for more (rip that band-aid off!) so I to wandered over to the U.S. history aisle. Actually, by this time I was beyond feeling horrified or disbelieving and was largely just thirsty for more information – by which I mean ‘more-than-my-white-washed-public-school-education-delivered’ information. Like most people, I’m naturally curious but after the awakening, that curiosity had kicked into high gear and I was in permanent learning mode. It was as if, upon realizing I hadn’t understood reality – I mean, at all – I was determined to find out just what else I really didn’t understand, including the very part of human history that I’d been living through.
I’m sure my decision to watch these films was also influenced by the political and social energies swirling in this country by late 2016 – and ever since then. We’ve seen increasing accounts of verbal and physical violence inspired by nationalism and racism and that this is simply an echo of our earlier history, the films below make unquestionably clear. It’s as if the collective ego that is America finds itself once again at the same crossroads, wondering how we got here yet never willing to truthfully confront the lessons of our past that keep bringing us here.
So here are the films that, taken together, lay out a part of the story about how it is that we come to these times in this country. It starts with the Civil War which, as the marvelous Shelby Foote argues, defined America and allowed it to be what it became, for good and ill. The racial tensions and discrimination that remained after the Civil War continued to shape the American culture and the film I Am Not Your Negro shares some riveting stories from the Civil Rights Movement that arose as a result. Continued racial discrimination in the U.S. continues to spark the formation of activist groups; Truth and Power covers the rise of Black Lives Matter – and the government’s response. The Armor of Light tackles another legacy of the Civil War: tensions over gun rights, specifically the conflict between spiritual teachings and gun ownership. The role of the media also comes up repeatedly as Reverend Schenck interviews his congregation, peers and others their opinions about gun use, which brings me to what was the final entry in my list, Manufacturing Consent. In this film, Noam Chomsky demonstrates how corporate media is serving the interests of political and business groups over those of the general public. Then I decided to add the recent Ken Burn’s series on Vietnam because it is salient, it is superb and because I don’t want to write another post about war for a while. (Ugh!)
The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns (2015)
Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the civil war. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars … did what it did. But the civil war defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you going to understand the American character in the 20th century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-19th century. It was the crossroad of our being and it was a hell of a crossroads.” —Shelby Foote, writer.
It’s Ken Burns so you know it’s going to be exceptionally well done. This 9-part series is a riveting, brutal and enlightening look at this critical time in American history. My formal education did little to provide any real understanding of this war but this series delivered numerous insights and shed light on why so many north-south lines of division still exist in this country.
I Am Not Your Negro (2017)
“I am saying that a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey; what you will do with what you find or what you find will do to you.” –James Baldwin
Samuel L. Jackson reads from writer James Baldwin’s unfinished novel, Remember This House, against a backdrop of images and video from the civil rights era and Baldwin’s life. The author had intended the novel to tell the story of America through the lives of three civil rights leaders – Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – and they figure prominently in this evocative film. I was not familiar with James Baldwin’s writing before watching this movie and it was a powerful introduction to his work. Though the civil rights story has been told in countless films, I found this one exceptional for the emotional weight lent to the images by Baldwin’s writing.
Truth and Power (2016 – )
Remember the good ol’ days when the ideas in George Orwell’s book1984 were still a warning instead of a today’s headlines?
This documentary series takes a look at ten cases that have exposed government and corporate abuses of power. Each short episode summarizes a specific type of abuse: illegal cellphone taping, unlawful surveillance, and concealing the truth from public view are some of the delightful examples on display. It’s the headlines of today brought to life with individual stories.
A few things jumped out at me about this series, the first being the wide variety in the kinds of abuses occurring. We don’t hear about the abuses of just one kind of technology that taps into one kind of data; we hear about many technologies that are meant to look at all kinds of data. The second thing these cases made clear was how massive these technologies are. These are not systems built to target a person or group, though that’s the focus of each story. Instead, the tools exposed are all clearly purpose built to deal with massive data collections. Since it’s clearly far too late to put the Data Genie back in the Privacy Bottle, I greatly appreciate films of this kind that keep reminding us of the full price we’re paying for the use of our tech.
The Armor of Light (2015)
“It demands a lot of lamentable patience because I do know lives are on the line. Certainly what I would call the spiritual health of the church is on the line.” –Reverend Rob Schenck
During one of several trips I made to Mississippi some years ago, I heard a young friend describe having vacationed in “almost all of the states in the confederacy but not many up north”. He was serious. At that moment I got an indelible glimpse of the undercurrent of Civil War loyalties still running through the collective identity of the American south. Listening to the conversations Reverend Schenck has with his congregation and peers in this film provides the viewer with these same kind of insights. Though I am neither a Christian nor a gun owner, I found this film absorbing and forceful for the honest and open way it depicts the intellectual and spiritual journey of Reverend Schenck. If we could all emulate his mindful approach, we might actually make some progress in our national conversation on this sensitive subject.
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992)
“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” –Noam Chomsky
This fascinating and frustrating film combines a review of Noam Chomsky’s life and political activism with an illustration Manufacturing Consent, a book authored by Edward Herman and Noam in which they argue that the U.S. system of mass media carries out ‘system-supported propaganda’ meant to shape and direct human behavior. And because it’s almost three hours long, there is plenty of time to dive into fascinating details in all of these areas.
It’s a strange exercise to watch this film with the knowledge that much of what Noam predicted (warned of) over 25 years ago has come to pass. Today, the state of our Fourth Estate is deeply alarming to anyone paying attention, even members of the media, and this film uncovers many of the reasons why. Though the stated role of the media in a democracy is to speak truth to power, over the course of his career, this film makes a very persuasive case that large media companies are filling a very different role in the country today. (This movie is hard to find online; it’s also available on YouTube)
The Brainwashing of My Dad (2015)
“In almost every act of our lives … we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.” –Edward Bernays, PR industry pioneer, author of ‘Propaganda’, 1928
In the movie above, Noam exposes the tools corporate media uses to shape public opinion. In this film, we see those tools specifically applied with disturbing results. Not unique results, you understand, just pretty damn disturbing. This is a story that I could relate to personally, having known a few people similarly changed over the years after tuning in exclusively to Rush Limbaugh or similar content. The conclusions the film reaches about the impact of ‘right-wing’ media are not new but they add a penetrating look at the history leading up to this radical shift in U.S. media practices. The film points back to President Nixon’s work with a consultant named Roger Ailes as the beginning of what became a massive, orchestrated effort to create and deploy a media complex designed to shape American political opinion. That this came to pass is not news to anyone who’s been paying attention but the historical context provided in this movie adds an interesting layer to the explanation.
The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns (2017)
I first encountered the film-making talents of Ken Burns when watching his series Baseball. It was such an effective telling of the story – not of just the sport but also of the country for whom the sport has become ‘a national past-time’ – that I bought the video series so I could listen again to his insightful re-counting of American history. I don’t even like baseball.
So when I discovered during my recent historical documentary kick that Ken Burns had made several such films, I immediately scheduled a binge session and dived into his series on the Civil War and WWII. By the time I had finished these two series, Ken’s new films on the Vietnam war had been released so I decided to get it over with and watch this 10-part series as well.
After watching this remarkable and infuriating series, this paragraph from a New York Times review seems the wisest thing to say: “The saddest thing about this elegiac documentary may be the credit it extends its audience. “The Vietnam War” still holds out hope that we might learn from history, after presenting 18 hours of evidence to the contrary.”
top image: janaka dharmasena / shutterstock.com