Ken Burns Says U.S. Is 'Beset By 3 Viruses': COVID-19, Racism And Misinformation

The storied filmmaker believes the U.S. is in the midst of its fourth great crisis, following the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II.

Historian and filmmaker Ken Burns, who is renowned for his documentaries on everything from the history of baseball to the Vietnam War, argued in an NPR interview on Tuesday that the United States is battling not one but three different “viruses” while also gripped in the throes of its fourth major national crisis.

“We’re beset by three viruses, are we not?” Burns said. “A year-old COVID-19 virus, but also a 402-year-old virus of white supremacy, of racial injustice. ... And we’ve got an age-old human virus of misinformation, of paranoia, of conspiracies.”

According to Burns, who first made this point in a Politico commentary published on Jan. 12, the U.S. has endured three national crises in the past: the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II. He said the current era, marked by Donald Trump’s divisive presidency and a crippling pandemic that has led to 400,000 dead Americans so far, is the country’s fourth major period of tumult.

Burns suggested that “we are now in a toxic moment that needs a kind of discipline” and that misinformation had led to a “poisonous effect on our democracy.” The filmmaker did argue, however, that he was hopeful for the future.

“We’re beginning to have a racial reckoning,” he said. “More people voted than ever before. ... Poll workers defied the coronavirus, voters defied the coronavirus and held the safest and most accurate vote in our history. Courts upheld every challenge to that. We have a woman as a vice president — we have a woman of color as a vice president. This is a time not for rejoicing, but to remember that in order to gather strength to deal with these dark moments, we have to actually remember to let in the light that is right in front of us.”

Burns, who in 2016 described Trump as “an infantile, bullying man who, depending on his mood, is willing to discard old and established alliances, treaties and longstanding relationships,” told Politico that he was not planning to make a film about this moment in American history ― “or at least not now.”

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