I can't tell if this is a rant or a review, but let's talk for a moment about Ken Burns' latest production: The War.

On the plus side, and completely irrelevant to my point here, this is a legitimately decent series. It's enjoyable. It gets most of the history right (if not complete). It bears all the trademarks of Burns' inimitable yet often poorly-imitated style. It doesn't lapse into "Greatest Generation" fellatio. And, of course, it tells a riveting story. My guess is that its biggest sin is not being The Civil War. Burns' career offers us a very powerful example of why creative people should never start out with a masterpiece. The public has reacted poorly to nearly everything he's done since that series because, well, it's just not as good as the original Ken Burns Masterpiece. That's unfortunate, because some of it has been pretty good (Lewis & Clark, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Unforgivable Blackness). Of course let's not deny that some of it has been excruiciatingly bad as well. Baseball, I'm looking in your direction.**

Here's the real problem with The War: Burns is a good documentarian, which is to say that he lets his subjects tell the story. It's in their own words. So in that respect he is entirely at the mercy of his subjects to make the product vivid and compelling. Comparing The War to The Civil War is a great side-by-side exercise illustrating just how differently Americans express themselves a century apart. Modern (which is to say 20th Century) America simply isn't anywhere near as eloquent as mid-19th Century America. That's not really Ken Burns' fault, but it dramatically impacts the narrative quality.

Now, I know better than to criticize "The Greatest Generation" so let's clarify that it isn't really the fault of any individual depicted in the series. It's just the way our society has changed. The uneducated slaves in The Civil War manage to express themselves with more depth and eloquence than 99% of the subjects in The War. We live in a time and place in which compound sentences are de facto evidence of effeminate bookishness and, by extension, treasonous America-hating. The fact that the subjects in the more recent film are exponentially better-educated than their 19th Century counterparts can't overcome the fact that anti-intellectualism grew at an even faster rate during the interim.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there's just a sample bias at work here (the only 19th Century letters to survive were the really good ones). But the cynical part of me looks at how much we've declined since World War II and finds the dumbing-down theory persuasive. When you're watching The War, bear in mind that it's not Ken Burns' problem that the Average Joe uses a 500-word vocabulary to express himself in simple, declarative, 7-word sentences. At this rate, the Ken Burns Jr. production of World War III is going to feature mostly grunting and pointing.

**The series would have been better received if it stuck with its original title: 15 Hours About the Yankees.

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  1. Peggy Says:

    I heard a truly horrifying statistic lately; something along the lines of "in 1950, students entering high school had a working vocabulary/passive understanding of 25,000 words, and in 2000, it had fallen to 10,000." I believe it, based strictly on the number of times per day I hear "I know what i'm *trying* to say, I just don't know how to say it!" from my students.

  2. Desmond Says:

    At the risk of having 70 points knocked off my IQ, I think it is time for another 1984 analogy. Newspeak, anyone?