The Great American Vaccine Debate (with Ken Burns)
On this Fourth of July holiday, we’re returning to a favorite episode with filmmaker Ken Burns about his latest documentary, “Benjamin Franklin.” When he wasn’t busy taming electricity, Franklin was encouraging inoculations to combat the smallpox pandemic of the 18th century. He bitterly regretted not inoculating his 4-year-old son, Francis, who died from smallpox in 1736. Andy talks to Ken about Franklin’s role during the outbreak, how he balanced his libertarian views with scientific and public health reasoning, and whether Franklin would support a COVID-19 vaccine mandate if alive today.
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Check out these resources from today’s episode:
- Watch Ken Burns’ documentary, “Benjamin Franklin”: https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/benjamin-franklin/
- Watch this extended scene on inoculation that did not make it into the final film: https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/unum/playlist/innovation#benjamin-franklin-inoculation
- Order free at-home COVID-19 tests through the USPS: https://special.usps.com/testkits
- Order Andy’s book, “Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response,” here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250770165
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For additional resources, information, and a transcript of the episode, visit lemonadamedia.com/show/inthebubble.
Andy Slavitt 00:00
We raised the question of a vaccine mandate, where, to some people, that’s either just an absolutely no brainer. And others it is exactly arbitrary power. I’m wondering where you think frankly would come out. And I’m wondering if you’re willing to tell us where you would come out?
he’d be absolutely in favor of vaccine mandates. Without a doubt. This is just you know; this is common sense.
Welcome to IN THE BUBBLE. This is your host, Andy Slavitt. It’s Wednesday, March 30th. You just heard Ken Burns, perhaps our greatest living historian, documentarian of our country. I wanted to understand the question that we’ve been wrestling with these last couple of years around the pandemic, which is this battle that seems to be fought between people who say, hey, government, you can’t tell us what to do. It’s all about freedom. And the people who say, hey, wait a minute, there’s a clinical basis to approaching a pandemic. And there’s a way of running a society where we all look out for one another. And it does require a certain amount of compromise and listening to authority and rules and regulations. And like, when did that debate start? That debate began in 2020. With the pandemic did it begin with Trump? Did it begin 2008? The housing crisis? You know where is this, like lack of faith in government, and this fighting for this definition of freedom begin and as it plays itself out, and decisions like, hey, are vaccine mandates reasonable or not? I want to go back and trace out a little bit. And Ken Burns is probably the best person you could possibly talk to when it comes to understanding our history. And as it turns out, Ken Burns has been working on a documentary that he’s about to release next weekend PBS, that is actually about the pandemic, not this pandemic. But the pandemic that occurred during Ben Franklin’s time, during the time of our forefathers and our foremothers and our fore sisters and our fore brothers. Can you have a fore brother? I don’t think you can. I think it’s just the forefather or a fore mother. But during the founding of this country, we had a pandemic smallpox, it ended up killing Franklin’s son, his young child. And this whole question of how we think about this pandemic has its roots in other pandemics, I mean, 1920, for sure, the flu, but also going all the way back to when George Washington said to the army, hey, you can’t be in the Army unless we give you this inoculation. And it’s totally fascinating. Going into this with Ken Burns. First of all, if you’ve watched any of his documentaries, the guy is a just a fount of information, knowledge, perspective in history. He also has developed a set of views and a set of perspectives and values that I think come from his understanding of history, and what is more complex versus what is over simplified. But he really grounds this conversation that we’re about to have in this very interesting sense of identity as Americans like who we are. And I will tell you, there is a large part of me that when I look at the rest of the world I’m overjoyed with and protective of the freedoms we have here. And I think we all are, maybe we take them for granted. And there are other parts of me that think we take that to an extreme at our peril, and confuse ourselves by thinking that something is an individual right, when in fact, nothing on earth gives us the right to put other people in harm’s way. And this question of how would Franklin who was the symbol of freedom, and is admired by libertarians and people who believe in that philosophy? How would he have felt about a vaccine mandate? That’s one of the questions we get into. But that’s only one of the things we talk about. Listen to this for where it goes for listening to can provide some perspective on who we are as people and who some of the most interesting figures are in our time, and I think you will get a lot out of it. I really enjoyed it. And again, he’s got a documentary. This documentary releases on PBS on April 4, this is about his 40 year of making historical documentaries, that everything from the Civil War to baseball to almost any topic, and he says he’s got about 1000 documentaries in him if he lives that long, God willing. Alright, let’s hear from Ken.
Andy Slavitt 04:59
You have, Ken over the years, really explored some of the most, I think, fascinating and defining topics of our time. And at this point, I had a question of both why, Ben Franklin and also, why did he wait so long to tell the story?
You know, it’s funny Andy, I sort of feel like, you know, I’m about 40 films into 1000 films, if I were given 1000 years, which I won’t be so, to me, there’s so many, I would never run out of topics in American history. And we’re always juggling the balls of all of the ones that we are doing, seven right now, to the 47 that we want to do. And all of those ideas that are begging to get in, I had spent some time in several films on the West, on Thomas Jefferson on the shakers in a kind of 18th century period, and had sort of moved away from there, and then really felt like I wanted to get back in and Franklin seem, you know, these take years to make. So you have to understand there’s a kind of, it’s like one of those horse, you know, mechanical horse race things, you know, where there’s stuff going, and we release something on Ernest Hemingway in the spring a year ago. And then in the fall on Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali is arguably the most compelling American personality of the 20th century, without argument, I believe the most compelling American personality of the 18th century is Benjamin Franklin. They both happen to be inborn. I discovered in the course of working on these two projects on January 17. So for the astrologers, among us, there’s some nice stuff to deal with. He’s just amazing. He’s, you know, he’s Isaac Newton. He’s a great writer. He’s a great humorist. He sort of initiates American humor; he is the greatest diplomat without question in the history of the United States. He’s the first person who ever kind of realized, borrowing from Native Americans, ironically, that Americans could be united that the disparate interests of Georgians and New Hampshire rights could be reconciled. And he, two decades before the American Revolution began, promoted what was called the Albany plan of union with a slogan and the picture that he drew up called Join or Die of a segmented snake, which then got adopted for the revolution. And as of course, undergone many appropriations over the years, not the least of which is its current very conservative appropriation, but Join or Die was the essence of his understanding. And he got that way from, you know, I had an interview the other days, the guys asked me, what would he think of social media? I said, he was social media. He’s a printer. He’s a writer. He’s a newspaper publisher, and he’s a postmaster. He controls everything. He’s like Zuckerberg, and everybody else all rolled into one. And so he would have understood social media, I mean, scratch his head, because it’s an oxymoron. Social media is not social.
Andy Slavitt 08:04
Could you drop Franklin into virtually any time? If he would have been a remarkable person in the context of that time?
Yeah, I guess I really want to avoid that kind of Great Man, capital G, capital M, kind of theory of history, circumstances at that time, I mean, he is self-made, he’s not on the $100 bill for no reason. And yet, it’s full of wonderful contradictions. You know, he invents all this stuff and holds them without patents, which is not what you’re supposed to do in America, you’re supposed to collect as many Benjamins as you can, you know, and do for self. And so he’s this incredible, sort of, you know, hero to a kind of libertarian striving in America that has never ceased. And at the same time, he is an all about self-improvement too, in a very good and decent way. But he’s also about community. He’s also about civics, he’s also about doing things together, he’s always into social stuff. And so to me, he becomes the last, I mean, he’s also older than anybody else, right? I mean, his son is older than Jefferson, and Adams and Patrick Henry, and Madison and all the folks at the time of the revolution. And he’s a reluctant revolutionary till he really wants, you know, America to be you know, he wants to be a Britain and he’s humiliated in London, for a very complicated set of political reasons. And it’s at that point, he walks into a place called the cockpit, a British citizen and walks out an American and is, you know, an incredible and very radical one. And let’s remember that our American Revolution was a civil war. Our Civil War was a sectional war, people talk about brother, because there may be six examples, but this was, you know, his own son was the royal governor of New Jersey, deposed, imprisoned and when he got out, he started a terrorist organization that killed patriots because patriots were also killing Tories and loyalists. And so it’s a complicated story. And Franklin seems to involve himself in every way with it. And of course, the heart of the American story is the toleration in our founding document, the Constitution of slavery without mentioning treating this enslaved population of the southern states as each person as three fifths of a person with no other rights other than for apportionment to game the system to give the southern states a disproportionate congressional kind of power. And they would have up until the Civil War, and the Civil War happened in large measure, because there was a guy there who seemed to suggest you might take away their ability to expand slavery into the new states that were forming, and therefore, they would lose their congressional majorities. And so it’s a very complicated thing. And Franklin himself enslaved people, and at the end of his life became an abolitionist. I mean, he knew which way the wind was blowing, it was politically smart move on his part. But I think it also was a lifetime of curiosity. And he started a school for African American kids and was stunned at the equality of their capacity. And then something begins to brew in him. So he proposes the first anti-slavery petition to the United States government. It’s not even taken up by the Senate and causes huge, huge controversy in the house where it’s defeated. But he, you know, he handles it in this spectacularly wonderful way, writing a parody about it that just, you know, shocks us today, for the simplicity, and yet the complexity of it, and since we’re still prisoners, of those compromises of which he was, you know, one of the architects and you have to ask, the reason why we have the United States in the Constitution is because we were willing to extend to the southern states to pass that we would create a union and not deal with the biggest thing, which was slavery. So Franklin’s at the nexus of all that stuff, so he’s irresistible.
Andy Slavitt 12:11
You can see the fascination, and then that he has a bit of a journey in his life makes it more relatable than some figure that you could almost put on a chessboard like George Washington.
Yeah. Well, do you know even everybody’s complicated, and this is the problem. It’s what we do with them after the fact. And so for me, I don’t go into tell you, Andy, what I know about Benjamin Franklin is discover for myself what I don’t know, and then share with you the process of discovery. And so I was just reminded the other day, I.F. Stone who I have privilege of interviewing in the early 80s for film on Huey Long, great leftists, wonderful muckraking journalist and investigative reporter. Some acolyte, you know, was horrified that he admired Thomas Jefferson, he said, How could you possibly admired Thomas Jefferson who owned human beings? And I.F. Stone said, because history is tragedy, not melodrama, you know, Andy, melodrama, every hero is perfectly virtuous, every villain is perfectly evil. But that’s not the way human beings are. And so when you dig and you scratch the surface of any subject, you find dimension, you find contradiction, you find undertow, and that, in fact, makes for a good story. Anywhere you go, it’s not in any way diminishing the quality of the tapestry to lift up that carpet and sweep out some of the dirt and say, and this too.
Well, that requires us to do some work, and not be reflexive and get past 180 characters. And the fact is, if you can invest several hours and watch one of your documentaries, then you can begin to grapple with it yourself. But as a society, I guess it just asked a direct question, you know, how do we deal with historical figures that we idealize in some form like a Washington or a Franklin or Jefferson, but have these very, in your face elements to them that in today’s society are intolerable? Is there a right way to wrestle with this? Where should we come out as a society? And where do we get it wrong?
Ken Burns 14:20
Well, I think we get it wrong by taking it too far. We get it right by understanding context and understanding that complexity. None of us are perfect and while you know, the people that we have revered and put on pedestals are people of their time, that’s no excuse whatsoever. And so it’s very simple with Confederate monuments. Most of them went up at a period when White rule was being brutally re-imposed over the Old Confederacy. And, you know, just take them down, put them in a museum to interpret them in a different way. But you can’t throw out Thomas Jefferson and you can’t throw out George Washington without […]. He’s central to everything. I mean, the two most important people to the success of the creation of the United States in my mind, are Washington and Franklin and everybody understands that Jefferson articulated, but even then Franklin is the editor of it. So Jefferson says, we hold these truths to be self evident and to be sacred. And Franklin goes, no, no, no, no, no, to be self-evident. He’s a scientist, you know, he’s saying, this is just natural, right, that all men are created equal, right? Oops, asterisk, both of them slave, enslavers, you know. And so I think we just we have to do it with nuance we, it is a tragedy, human life is a tragedy, no one gets out of it alive. And I think this idea that you can have a switch one way or the other, and adjudicate all of the stuff is a road to madness, you know, we like to say that history repeats itself, it never has, it’s just that human nature never changes, Andy never changes. You know, the Ecclesiastes, that’s the Old Testament, right? It says what has been will be, again, what has been done, will be done again, there’s nothing new under the sun, which means that we can see in ourselves as well as in those past figures, the same quantities of greed, but also generosity of presence. But also puritanism. And so, you know, we just have to do that, you can’t be a parent, for example, if you are not willing to tolerate contradiction, and that unfortunately, we live in a computer and media age in which everything is binary, you know, rich or poor, gay or straight, you know, red state, blue state, whatever it is, we’re certain that if we can just label the other and there is no other, there’s just us.
Andy Slavitt 16:43
Oh, do we cling too closely to this Great Man theory?
Yeah, way too much, way too much. And so what we’ve tried to do in our films is balance it with a bottom-up view, and also to expose the you know, I made a documentary 25 years ago on Thomas Jefferson, you know, didn’t get away unscathed for the hypocrisy in his life. But he did distill a century of enlightenment thinking into to me the second greatest sentence in the English language. The first is I love you. But the other one is, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And he didn’t follow John Locke and say property, happiness was the pursuit of lifelong learning in a place in which you trusted people to govern themselves. And the more important word in that phrase is pursuit, this is something you do, you’re trying to do, you’re never going to get there.
Andy Slavitt 18:13
Let’s talk a little bit about science and the role science plays in this because I think, we tend to think of these times as being very colored by faith by being very colored by the puritanical elements. Certainly, this is a Franklin’s childhood, but in the whole context of the revolution, yet Franklin comes onto the scene. And he’s a person of science. And how does that context fit? How well accepted? Was that it really where I want to go with that a little bit Canada’s, the relationship that we have, I think, the sometimes very uneasy relationship we have as Americans, with science and scientists.
Yeah, no, I think there was much broader acceptance. This is the Age of Enlightenment, this is, you know, coming out of the dark ages into a Renaissance, and then a period of exploration and enlightenment. And so we tend to think that is either or, again, a kind of binary presumption, I was gonna say, assumption, but it’s a presumption. And so you have really complex things. He’s born into Boston, into a very rigid, hierarchical Puritan society run by the […] clan. And it’s so ironic because of course, they established the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a century before almost a century before Franklin’s birth, to establish religious freedom from the persecution they’re experiencing in Europe and in England, and people fled from them like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams to begin in Rhode Island in New York and other places, more liberal places, and more liberal interpretations of Christian doctrine. And then of course, he runs away to Pennsylvania which is Quakers which is even a bigger layer of tolerance but he’s, something in him has been inventive since the very beginning. He’s you know, he basically invented kind of parasailing. I mean, he led sail pull himself along a pond, he invented some rudimentary flippers when he was a kid to do stuff. So he’s this inventive and restless mind. He’s first a printer. That’s what he knows how to do. And that’s kind of as one of our consultants, Joyce […] says, you know, that’s hyper literate, you’re setting type upside down and backwards, and you’re also carrying this stuff. So he’s big and strong and strapping, and he’s hyper literate, and he’s reading stuff. He’s getting exposure. So he’s a publisher, he’s a great writer. He’s a humorist. He invents a kind of an American humor. And then he retires. He’s a very successful businessman, and he retires to pursue science. And this was a noble pursuit. And you know what, in the 18th century, the world knows only one America. And that’s Benjamin Franklin. There’s nobody else, they have no idea where America is, God forbid where Philadelphia is, or Pennsylvania or whatever it is. But they know of this one guy, the Modern Prometheus, the man who tamed electricity, who saving lives practically with a lightning rod, who’s invented a stove, who invents bifocals, all of these things, from a restless and exploring scientific mind, which he’s also applying in very enlightenment ways to his own self and his own relationship to God too, because these are not mutually exclusive. People are including Pope’s, and religious figures, trying to deal with science as well. And trying to understand the fact that this new age has said no, the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, it’s actually a little bit different than that. And may we propose you think about your universe in new ways. And so this is an exciting time to be alive. It’s very fluid, we would say today, and that’s what I think we don’t appreciate. We just look back powdered wigs, you know, breeches, you know. And we just figure we know everything. And the great arrogance of the present is that we think we’re better than the people in the past because we’ve survived and in fact, you know, the wonderful for me conversation we’re having today, we sort of pretend to ourselves that this is something new, people for 10,000 years have been having exquisitely wonderful conversations and is with the same depth and profundity as you and I could ever achieve in an hour’s conversation.
Andy Slavitt 22:32
Well, it’s funny, I find that we do think we’re superior, we’ve got superior knowledge. And yet we also to your point about the Great Man theory, we also hold certain periods of time, the people to be exceptionally special, and to some extent, almost at a level of like they’re communicating with God to have written the Constitution or have, you know, achieved some great victory in the Civil War, or Muhammad Ali to overcome all things, we were fascinated with these people, because I think to some extent, but we wouldn’t have it’s possible that they do this.
But it’s also because we’re curious. And our fanzines tell us this all the time, at how much they’re like us too, right, that is to say, you know, we talk about heroes, and we, you know, we’ve got a really perverted view right now that they’re perfect. And of course, they’re not perfect, they are flawed. The Greeks invented the concept and it wasn’t a show perfection. You know, Achilles had his heel and his hubris to go along with his great strength. So these are moral stories that are put in front of us so that we can be reminded that these godlike figures, these great men, you know, these exceptional people are actually going through stuff that we go through too. So they’re lessons for us, we’re supposed to learn in the story of Achilles we’re supposed to learn it seems to me and be inspired by the story of Muhammad Ali. But the thing that makes them more interesting to me, is to remind us that, you know, Muhammad Ali was incredibly unfaithful, he abandoned Malcolm X, he spoke about his greatest rival Indeed, many of his rivals with the Jim Crow language that a White racist would use, he just did that and then he died the most beloved person on the planet. So there, you deal with that, right? And so I liked that. I like that stuff. And it just it allows us to not be so instantaneously sure that we can make a judgement.
Andy Slavitt 24:38
It’s a great subtitle, by the way for your documentary. You deal with it.
You deal with it. Yeah, no, well, I’ve got a I’ve got a t shirt that was made up by one of my colleagues. We invite all sorts of folks to criticize our films, scholars and whatever during the course of it. And inevitably, you get some tedious person who wants you to make some other thing that you’re not doing even though you’ve explained the contours of and this is early on, when I’m sure it looks terrible, but it says Make Your Own effing film, right? And I’ve never had the courage to put it on and to go to one of those meetings. But there is that kind of sense that like, you have to just deal with what we’re going to do. I love the fact that people criticize my films, particularly the long ones, like Baseball and Jazz and Civil War for what we left out, wait a second, 18 and a half hours was not enough for you, you don’t think this is boring, you’re just pissed off because I left out this World Series, or this general or this battle. And you go, yeah, we’re storytellers. We’re not encyclopedias. And I’m totally happy to answer all of those letters with enthusiasm and generosity and tolerance.
And point them to Wikipedia. In 1the midst of all of the things that are going on in Franklin, a very dynamic life, lived at a time that I think, you know, you remind us does not necessarily feel more special than our own time. something does happen. And that is, like our own times, we have a pandemic, and you bring us back 400 years to look at this other pandemic. I wonder if we could play a first clip of that from your documentary.
Ken Burns 28:08
Well, first, let me just say that this is a special clip that we created out of the outs, we deal with this story, very briefly in the film, but I think with the same resonance that you’re getting at Andy, but this is an extended piece for Unum, our sort of curated website, which is trying to deal with the evergreen topics of American history. And of course, what could be more evergreen right now. But it’s so interesting that this project was begun well, before the pandemic started, and almost every film I’ve ever made, has come out. And I’ve always, you know, promoted them by saying, What if I told you I was making a film about this, this, this and this, and you’d say, I’ve been talking about the present moment is true about Vietnam. It’s true about prohibition. It’s true about every film that I’ve done, where you just cannot believe like Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun. And so this comes to us at a time when we’re grappling with that, what I find so interesting, is that you have I don’t want to say a religious class, but a group of people, who are people of faith, professional, people of faith, who are dabbling Philip Dray’s comment maybe isn’t right. I mean, you’re not dabbling if you’re taking the advice and this I find incredibly ironic, because people believe in this White supremacy, you know, beyond measure that the African slave could in fact, give them a hint about how they might go about mitigating this impossibly devastating disease of smallpox?
Andy Slavitt 30:09
Especially, it’s such a primitive sounding solution.
Well, this is, you know, this is the thing. I mean, I remember my dad was an anthropologist, and he would tell me when I was a young boy, all these stories that would let me up, he said, you know why the Christians lost the crusade is because the wounds were treated with old and stale and moldy bread by the Saracens. So they were basically had invented penicillin, you know, a couple of millennia before penicillin, or a millennia before penicillin. You know, it, these are kinds of the stuff that you just want to disrupt in history, these assumptions, the superficial, conventional, the danger of that conventional wisdom, and look where we are, saturated with media and slaves to conventional wisdom, the most superficial, the most wrong disinformation that you could possibly imagine. And so what you have in the 18th century is people getting their sources from a wide variety of stuff, but they’re willing to look at this and go, okay, I don’t want to lose any more kids. I don’t want to lose any more people in my family, I don’t want to lose any more people in my congregation, why can’t we try it? And there is a little bit of wisdom in saying, if you give a little bit of this disease and your body knows how to fight it, it’s a biggest inoculation is different from vaccination. I mean, it’s, an assault, right? You’re getting smallpox in a small quantity, and your body is figuring out how to fight it, and then it becomes resistant to all forms of smallpox. It’s just brilliant.
I want to look at the inoculation. But before we do, maybe you could set a little bit of context, if you don’t mind about smallpox itself. At the time, how widespread was it? How disrupted was it? What were public attitudes?
Ken Burns 32:09
It’s a plank, you know, it’s a scourge, as Philip Dray says, it’s it when it comes and it’s it comes in waves, and it comes at different times, and you’re free of edits in different places. And it just concentrates and it you know, its deadly. And it’s beyond disfiguring, Andy. I mean, it’s just it’s, it’s, you know, we, you know, there’s Ebola is kind of the boogeyman now of what would happen and you know, your skin fills with the sores and they break. It’s just devastating. And, and it’s devastating native populations, it’s devastating all sorts of populations in the colonies, then the colonies of who’d become the United States. It’s just, it’s horrific scourge.
And is your sense that this was considered something that was you just had to live with? Or was your sense Different? I mean, I’m struck by this, and you do show images, that it was unavoidable. If someone were to contract smallpox, whereas you look at our pandemic COVID-19, it’s lethality isn’t its invisibility?
Yeah. Yeah. So I don’t know, I think, you know, clearly, it’s a much more religious time in terms of your commanding, I mean, the whole idea of the Puritans is it has nothing to do with what you do here. It just God’s grace is whatever it is. And it’s Franklin, who’s gonna suggest a more existential, kind of what would be called adopted by most of the founders, that kind of deism in which, you know, you do good works, and you prove to him always Him, capital H of that. So I think there’s various things and what the enlightenment has helped do is, is increase the role of science in everybody’s life. And so I think what you’re having is just the convincing of people to get over the obvious barrier, you asked in your previous question, what you’re telling me I should give a little bit of the disease, we’re way past that now. And it’s been captured by people for this, you know, we’ve had vaccine mandates for years, you couldn’t go to public school without polio, and […] and mumps and measles, all of that sort of stuff we’ve been doing, you can’t serve in the armed forces. And so all of a sudden, this one just became, because it could, in our society, a political hot potato, but you still have a job of convincing people that this is actually the way you’re going to go if you’re in the 18th century, and you don’t want to get the thing that Uncle Harry got.
Andy Slavitt 34:46
Well, I would come back and talk a little bit about that hesitancy and how even some of Franklin’s words or themes are either used or misused depending on what you might tell us but let’s look at inoculations don’t want to play another clip where inoculations which are which are kind of an early fore runner idea of a type of vaccines come to play. My interpretation from this clip is that the loss of his son cemented his belief in inoculation.
I think that belief was already cemented Andy, I think what happened, it was just purely one of those tragic things, which is, he’s got a super bad cold, we don’t want to make it worse. He’s been frail. We don’t want to make it worse by the trial that inoculation would give to his body, right? This would be a serious reaction. So they’re just gonna hold off before they inoculate him, but it’s too late. And so there’s a sense of justice, so many families in the last, you know, two years, literally two years I remembers two years ago today, I just trimmed my sails. I said, I’m going home. You know, I was on the road. And I said, I think I’m going home. I think that a lot of people have gone oops, I wish I’d done that. I wish I’d known. I wish I’d hadn’t believed this or heard that or whatever it might be that I had selfishly avoided it or I’d proselytized against it for some reason. And I think there’s a kind of circumstantial sadness, he was already a scientist and committed to this, this was a devastating blow just because it was here was a guy who was not against it for any reason, he was for it.
Andy Slavitt 38:17
It’s interesting Ken, and I don’t know whether or not Franklin was, would meet this definition. But there is a certain belief system and action system, which goes a little bit something like vaccination for the but not for me.
Not for him. He’s committed to it. It’s just I think it’s the Frankie’s […] general for illness and the fact that he has a particularly bad cold, we’ll wait until he’s better and then we’ll inoculate him. But it’s too late as oops, just as it says there are some people who are as you know, immunocompromised. And there’s an article in the paper today about how for the immunocompromised, the place that had given them some solace, throne congregations are now places of danger. And so that what kind of further isolation is enforced by the fact that you can’t go worship God the way you wish to worship God, because of your state and your inability to get vaccinated to protect yourself.
Let’s watch the third clip. I really, we’re so glad that you made sure that you had that point made, that the loss of a child actually does feel the same way it would feel to us today.
Ken Burns 41:24
When I think in almost all of our considerations in politics, we neglect what Franklin is bringing up here, which is potentiality, you know, who is going to be the next Albert Einstein? No one, but who will be this and who will be that and you know, Are you certain it will come from the privilege precincts? Why are we not investing in all human beings. And so I think, just as it said, that an amputee still has sensation in the missing limb. So to the missing people from a civil war from death, my mother died when I was 11 have cancer, there’s not a day when I don’t think about that I’ve been without a mother, it’s coming up on 57 years, you know, that’s way too long to be without a mother, but I also, her death, transformed me, my potentiality increased, because I write about people who are dead, I wake the dead. And it’s really a conversation with a long-departed person who left before I was 12 years old. So all of us are dealing with the absence of something. And that’s the great lesson of life is lost. As I said, None of us are getting out of this alive. And I think this focus is in an important way. And I know I’ve strayed from your question, but I think there’s a much larger spiritual metaphysical dimension to this that can be understood and shared by the purely rational and scientific. And also by the people who have deeply held religious beliefs. And I find it so interested in this period now where we are so superficially divided by these things, that the cause deep, deep divisions, even though the differences are superficial and artificial, that you can have a period of time which could teach us really, really actually educate us to the fact that you had clergymen and scientists working together in support of this, you had tragedy and the possibility to escape the specific gravity of tragedy, and that we have a value for human life that we ourselves, Lord our own, you know, addiction to, and yet, we don’t prove it with our actions. We don’t we don’t ever prove it with our actions. And I think that one of the great lessons that can come in, lesson sounds like there’ll be a test on Tuesday, or that, you know, you’re shamed by this. One of the great moments of the past is this ability to go, oh, this is so much like, now, this is so much like me, you know, that the poignancy? I mean, Benjamin Franklin is a great stylist and a great writer. And he knows as a scientist, that he still is going to yield, as Einstein did the ultimate experiment to God.
Andy Slavitt 44:29
I think what was beautiful about a lot of your work can is you figure out how to help us help ourselves, drop our guards down and relate to something at a very universal level, like loss and how we deal with loss. And, you know, in those moments, when we witness somebody going through something like this, which all of us experience, it does cause us even if it’s only temporary. And I’ll grant you that life has a way of sucking us back into these polls or however, however, we define ourselves that for these moments, I think, maybe we don’t whether we realize it or not, we are feeling something. And we’re connecting to something. A lot of us find that missing right now.
Yeah, I was sent yesterday coincidentally Andy by a friend a text that included a picture of an African American man holding up a Ku Klux Klan, hood and cape. And the subsequent attach story very brief was essentially that this person had gotten to know and engaged in a multi-year dialogue with a Klansmen who, in the course of that understood the essential humanity of the Black person he found so reprehensible, and that he left the Klan and sort of shed everything. And, and the tangible manifestation of that was the hood. And the and the robe that he bequeathed to a Black man, the target of that animus along with Jews and Catholics, and, you know, whatever else. The crazies hate. And then you realize, you know, I’ve said this, a few years ago, I started saying this, that I’ve had the great privilege of working nearly 50 years, telling stories about the US. But I’ve also had the privilege of telling stories about us. That is to say, the lowercase two letter plural pronoun, all of the intimacy of us and all of majesty and the complexity, the contradiction, as we’ve talked about, and the controversy of the US. And what I’ve learned, in nearly a half a century of doing this is that there’s no them. There’s no them, there’s only us. And whenever anyone tells you, there is a them run away, there’s just no them. It’s only us, and this is where we get ourselves tidy in all of our religious traditions, all of them understand that fundamental thing, however, corrupted, they become in the course of their dogmatic dispersal, right? They have at their heart, the possibility of the individual of us to improve and see each other with the same love. I mean, it’s just, you know, this is what all of these stories are about. Somebody asked me that. So what are your films are about, and I go the most difficult, I mean that PBS, we’re not allowed to put, you know, the FCC bans a lot of four-letter words. But the one that that is not banned, that nobody talks about is love. It’s just too hard. It’s like, oh, yeah, okay. I see where he’s, I’m not going there, right. And you can say, Oh, I agree with him, you’re still not going there. Because it’s so hard to actually embrace what it means. But all of the films are about love. And it’s not because of me, is because that’s what it’s about. That’s the mechanics of the universe. I have a political yards sign in my home in New Hampshire. It says love multiplies. That’s the only equation I know to be absolutely true.
Andy Slavitt 48:28
Just the point that there’s nothing new under the sun. Yet, I want to help ask you to help me wrestle with the question of what things pervert our sense of connection, and sameness and, and the ability for that to be true for this universality to be true. And very specifically, the internet and not the physical internet, but the ability for multiple narratives and mythologies to be created. The ability for it to happen at a force multiplier effect, Franklin was, as you said, was the only well-known person is time, which is amazing, considering that the only technology was really, you know, the words we said to one another and things we wrote down. In today’s day and age, you can scale a bad idea of perception to the point where, and this goes back to our conversations about what a tragic hero is, is a single mistake gets documented in damn near real time for ever, how does that pervert our behaviors? How does that pervert our views?
Utterly, of course. I mean, it’s called the web, right? What is a web? A web is a trap. A web is something that you get entangled into, and then you were killed. Right? I just don’t know of any other way to put it. So you know, in 1862, Abraham Lincoln gave a message to Congress what we call the State of the Union. He said, the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present as our cases new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, stop being slaves disenthrall ourselves, and then we will save our country. So his message, nothing new under the sun is our message. You just shed it. I have somebody who tweets for me, I have never been on Twitter. I think PBS has a Facebook page; I have never ever been on Facebook. Do I look like I’m suffering? Am I missing stuff? I do have grandchildren. I do see pictures of them. Are they on Facebook? They might be but I don’t know, I see them in person. Or I take a picture of my own, or someone shares a picture, a daughter shares a picture with me of their children. And so I have it, I don’t feel my life is in any way diminished. In fact, I feel liberated from the tyranny that I see so many of my friends participating in. And it is that tyranny, which is responsible for the kinds of things that you say this lack of kind of judicious stuff, see everything is a melodrama, as I.F. Stone would say, and not a tragedy. The tragedy gives us the sense that the old comic strip that Walt Kelly made called Pogo, it’s way before everybody’s time. But you know, it was the most famous frame from that said, we have met the enemy. And he is us.
So I find that both refreshing. And yet something about it is a small bit ironic to me, Ken in the following sense. And that is if when it will be unavoidable when someone writes the history of our time when a future iteration of you documents, this period of time, it will inevitably have been it feels to me at least like it will be so colored..
Ken Burns 52:13
Grist for the mill. Yeah, absolutely. Right. Oh, absolutely. And I don’t think it’s contradictory to say that I you know, we go into emails, we go into stuff I serve, or did serve on the board of the National Archives Foundation. And of course, we’re dealing now less with the beautiful Civil War records and ledger books than we are with electronic stuff that might be, you know, lost in some Florida State or, you know, you know, flushed down the toilet or whatever it might be, you know, this is we don’t make any decisions were the civilians. But, you know, we’re trying to serve those people who are trying to digest information that’s coming in lots of different ways. So we’ll always be pursuing that. And if I were given those 1000 years, which I won’t be, the grist for the mills of all those future films will obviously entail a great deal of electronic records and, and will send us into the great trap of the web.
So I think this has been an absolutely fascinating conversation. And I appreciate you not just being willing to talk about the film. It makes you think, but some of these larger issues we don’t get to talk about very often that I find you gives all of our activities, some additional meaning.
An African slave told Cotton Mather, how to get through a smallpox thing. That’s, you know, what they said about the American Revolution is the world turned upside down? It’s right there. It’s right there. Our presumptions are just completely that about human life and human ability, right? I mean, we’re talking about and I don’t mean to belittle our concern for Ukraine at this moment. But these are white people, right? If this was going on in Africa, we would not have 20 correspondents there and saying, all of a sudden, their lives are being disrupted in a way they were going on they’re normalized, meaning a life like mine, going to the supermarket, going to the cinema, trying to decide whether I’m getting vaccinated or wearing a mask. You know, every human life has value. And to me, the key to all we’ve discussed is Cotton Mather, where Cotton Mather got the lifesaving information.
Andy Slavitt 54:40
Well, you know that the name of this podcast is in the bubble. And one of the themes that emerged actually quite naturally that by design, it’s how much our empathy extends about as far as our bubble often does. And it’s one of the things that’s played us during this pandemic. I would finish if I could with this question. Of the we’re facing today that I couldn’t help but be confronted with and watching this documentary on Franklin, which I think really actually, in some respects, takes almost perfectly takes the context of the contradiction of Franklin and in shows how he’s being used in opposing ways. So there’s, on the one hand, the scientific side of Franklin, and the trust and faith and evidence and the things that are self-evident. And on the other hand, to go back to actually how your documentary open, where you’re the first thing we hear is about how much frankly, values freedom. And it was partly interested why you chose that open the film, because in some respects, that feels like a very politically contentious phrase.
Yeah. I think it’s really important that in this binary world, where everything has one or zero, it isn’t that and so you have somebody like, Franklin, it’s not contradictory. He believes in that if he were here, he would explain himself better than I could possibly to your dialectical question.
Andy Slavitt 56:18
For him. It wasn’t, I don’t think it was contradictory. It was just simple complexity. But for, but simple complexity. That’s a good phrase. But what I’m getting at today, is I think you have a set of people who will use either one of those sides of him. And I’m wondering, when it particularly comes to the question, you raised the question of a vaccine mandate, where, to some people, that’s either just an absolutely no brainer. And others it is exactly arbitrary power. I’m wondering where you think Franklin will come out. And I’m wondering if…
He’d be absolutely in favor of vaccine mandates. Without a doubt. This is just you know; this is common sense. What he’s talking about in arbitrary power, is what he feels is the distance of the British government and the capricious way in which they’ve sought to balance their debts from what is the French and Indian war that is turned into a worldwide conflict. Gration called the Seven Years War. And it saps the treasury of Great Britain, and they’re looking for the colonists to pay it back. Because they saved the colonists. So, you know, you’re dealing with arbitrary power, it meant that all of these taxes, the Intolerable Acts, all of the kinds of stuff that Great Britain resorted to and the rhetorical, the escalating rhetoric that created our American Revolution, but you know, I think what we have to do is the larger thing, in my films, I want to let everybody in I just finished a film that’ll be out in September, called America and the Holocaust. It’s six and a half hours, it’s three parts. And you know, it gives full voice to the America Firsters to the U-Genesis to the, you know, the Pro-Nazi sentiments and, you know, gives a hard time to the people who have emerged from at least this historical accounting as the heroes of it. And so, you know, and it’s, you know, we’re back in Ukraine again, which was the wild east for Hitler and his breathing room and the West for Stalin and his stuff until Hitler, you know, reneged on their pact, and just bleed? I mean, if you know anything about this, you know, there were I think 560,000 German Jews more than half got out. Same with Austrian Jews, more than half got out. There are 3.3 million Polish Jews. And more than half did not get out and Ukrainian and Lithuanian and what is now Belarus. And, you know, the same stuff is happening and we just have to learn our history not because we’re condemned to repeat it, we’re already not going to repeat it. As Mark Twain says, History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And we’re always going to find these rhymes, but we have to be able to dispassionately learn from the past. And if that it means saying that the stories can be Trojan horses that you let in and it may just appeal to somebody on the surface oh, arbitrary power and you stick around for the inoculation tragedy. You stick around for the horrible compromises, you stick around for the evolution out of being an enslaver to an abolitionist, a liberator, at least intellectually, what does that do? Can it be like this my friends texted me. Can you have a conversation? If I just speak to the people who already agree with me? What the hell am I doing? I want to speak to everybody who still thinks that Charles Lindbergh was right. That still thinks that Hitler was you know, some, you know, smart guy. You know, what is Trump call you know, Putin like really? You think so? You know, can I show you the madness here? And the inhumanity? Why do we even have to repeat this? But we you know, I mean, repeat the arguments, but we do.
Andy Slavitt 1:00:13
Alright. Well, that’s a documentary we really, really need. And it’s interesting because there’s some segment of the population in American population that just does not like being told these really nasty, nasty truths about ourselves in our history. But I’m really glad you’re making it. Ken, I want to thank you. Actually, I want to thank you for teaching us about us. And you know, you will live 1000 years. But I suspect that there are so many who will come will come after you, that will owe so much of their work to you, that you can imagine that those 1000 films will get made.
That’s an awful nice thing to say. Thank you. Thank you. Lots to be said. Lots of stories to tell, won’t run out of stories, that’s for sure.
Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kathryn Barnes, Jackie Harris and Kyle Shiely produced our show, and they’re great. Our mix is by Noah Smith and James Barber, and they’re great, too. Steve Nelson is the vice president of the weekly content, and he’s okay, too. And of course, the ultimate bosses, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, they executive produced the show, we love them dearly. Our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, with additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia where you’ll also get the transcript of the show. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter. If you like what you heard today, why don’t you tell your friends to listen as well, and get them to write a review. Thanks so much, talk to you next time.