January 01, 2010

Democracy in Burns's National Parks

In October I posted an overview of Ken Burns's documentary National Parks: America's Best Idea. Here are my postings on the individual episodes:

The Scripture of Nature
The Last Refuge
The Empire of Grandeur
Going Home
Great Nature
The Morning of Creation

Now let's look at the series' central message. The following article is on point:

Ken Burns' New National Parks Documentary Starts Slowly, But Gets Better

By Levi NoveyCriticisms of the Series as a Whole

Before watching the documentary, I wrote on the Huffington Post that I wondered if the series would adequately discuss the unpleasant aspects of national parks, such as the forced removal of tribes and settlers from their lands. I am pleased to report that it does address this history adequately.

On the other hand, I also wrote that the documentary "might also suffer from having too many inarticulate or vague exaltations as to why national parks are important." This is in fact, the main problem as I see it with the documentary.

It seems that about every 5 or 10 minutes, Burns has one of his interviewed guests pontificating about the meaning of national parks. While this is certainly important, if you watch the whole series it becomes a grating annoyance. What I think is most likely is that Burns and Duncan realized that few people would watch the entirety of the documentary, and thus felt obliged to provide these repetitive segments. The problem is that sometimes these attempts to explain the meaning of national parks are not well articulated, or seem to appear out of context.

What's Great about the Series

What I found to be the best aspect of Burns' documentary was his ability to tell the story of how diverse individuals from all walks of life, who had convictions about protecting natural areas from exploitation, were able to find like-minded friends and then wage successful campaigns to create national parks. This is inspirational.

The challenge of going up against big government bureaucracy and corporate interests has not changed any at all since the parks were created. It's a shining example of how individuals have power to change the world, and that even some of those people who have institutional power and wealth also are willing to take actions for the common good. In our modern time when it's easy to lose our inspiration for environmental causes, Burns gives us a wealth of examples of how hard work and persistence can pay off.
Comment:  Novey's points are good ones. I suspect Burns would agree with the second one but not with the first. So let's consider the first point.

The series' central conceit that the parks represent our democratic ideals doesn't quite work. For 400 years before the parks' founding, and for most of the parks' 100 years, Americans have sought to exploit the land. Only in the last few decades have we truly tried to preserve the land for future generations.

It's kind of like saying Russia or Japan represents the democratic ideal. Yes, after several hundred years of dictatorial governments, these countries are now democracies. That doesn't mean "democracy" is an accurate representation of these countries' histories. Like our park system, they've become democratic only after a long and difficult struggle with non-democratic forces.

Parks are often undemocratic

How did the parks come about? One recurring theme is how the locals--residents (including Indians) and settlers, miners and ranchers, developers, et al.--didn't want "their" land turned into parks. The government created many parks despite popular opposition--for instance, by using the Antiquities Act in a way not envisioned by Congress. In other words, an autocratic government overrode the wishes of a democratic majority.

A recent example of this, chronicled in The Morning of Creation, happened in Alaska. The locals didn't want their land set aside and the fed did. The feds won and it was the right decision, but it was forced upon Alaskans against their will.

And the series notes several instances of Indians being forced off their land. How does that square with the democratic ideal? If a democracy wants to trample on a minority's rights, it can? No.

The law and the Constitution are supposed to protect those rights. A democracy that's functioning properly respects the rights of a minority against the wishes of a majority. The land grabs are examples of the government's and the park system's failure to work in a democratic fashion.

Parks don't make history

The series gives the National Park Service credit for preserving sites ranging from presidential monuments to Civil War battlefields to civil-rights landmarks. For starters, that was a relatively late development, not part of the NPS's original mission. More to the point, the NPS preserved the sites after they achieved their fame, not before.

The series' thinking seems to be backward. For instance, the Lincoln Memorial commemorates the greatness of Lincoln's vision, the NPS maintains the Lincoln Memorial, so the NPS is responsible for Lincoln's vision. No. The vision came first, then the Memorial, then the NPS's maintenance of it. Preserving Lincoln's memory doesn't mean the NPS is preserving democracy. Even without the Memorial, we'd remember and honor Lincoln and his vision.

The series uses Marion Anderson's performance at the Lincoln Memorial as an example of how the parks have strengthened democracy. Harold Ickes, who was in charge of the parks and the Memorial, gave Anderson permission to sing there after the Daughters of the American Revolution turned her down. But even if the Memorial wasn't part of the park system, some official could've given her permission to sing there or somewhere else. The park system was involved, but its involvement was incidental, not central.

America's 10th or 20th best idea?

I'm sure the park system has contributed greatly to our country: by preserving America's natural treasures and instilling the idea of sharing responsibility for them. But is the park system important to the functioning of our democracy? Is it "America's best idea," as the series subtitle says? No.

Representative government, due process of the law, civil rights, universal education, and an environmental ethic are among our best ideas. Our national parks may be on the list; they may be in the top 50 or 20 or 10. But no one except Burns would say they're America's best idea.

For more on the subject, see Review of Burns's National Parks and Burns on Our National Parks.

Below:  The World War II and Washington Monuments from my November trip to Washington DC.

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