Given what we know about the lies that led up to the war

No. False dichotomy. We don’t have to choose between highly specialized academic history written for other historians on the one hand, and Ken Burns on the other. The fact that most history is not written for a broad public is not a reason to be uncritical of tedious sentimental Ken Burns.

Historians aren’t very happy with Ken Burns. He’s a simplifier; we complicate. He makes myths; we bust them. And he celebrates the nation, while we critique it.

That’s the party line, anyway, among my fellow academics. And while I agree with some of their attacks on the recently concluded TV series about the Vietnam War that Burns co-created and co-edited with Lynn Novick, there’s something else at work here.

It’s called sour grapes. Put simply, Burns has managed to engage a huge public audience. And that makes him suspect among members of our guild, who write almost entirely for each other.

The criticisms are so vituperative and dismissive that they need an explanation beyond the substantive objections, Jonathan Zimmerman says.

Several scholars praised Burns for including multiple voices — especially Vietnamese ones — in his interviews. But most historians in the blogosphere took him to task for distorting the conflict, especially with regard to his quest for a shared national narrative that can bind Americans together.

That’s been Burns’s key theme since his blockbuster 1990 series on the Civil War. And yes, it can lead him astray. As many historians observed, his Civil War series seriously underplayed the ways that the postwar “reconciliation” reinforced white supremacy.

Well, that’s a big problem, isn’t it – all the more so because he’s so popular. Popularizing a sentimentalized and distorted version of the Civil War and its aftermath is a big deal. Americans seem to love to embrace a sentimental dishonest version of our history, and we see the unhappy results all around us.

And we see the same flaw in his portrayal of the Vietnam War, “begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings,” the narrator declares.

That probably wouldn’t pass muster around a university seminar table, given what we know about the lies that led up to the war. So what? Surely, these documentaries have engaged millions of Americans in dialogues about their past. And isn’t that what history is supposed to do?

So what? So what? So spreading sentimental bullshit about the Vietnam War is exactly that, that’s so what.

The problem, Zimmerman repeats, is the shortage of good history for the general public.

“I believe you have failed and lost touch absolutely in the communication of history to the public and that it has fallen to the amateur historians, if you will, to try to rescue that history,” Ken Burns told the Journal of American History — the flagship publication in our field — in 1994. “I would hope that the academy could change course and join a swelling chorus of interest in history for everyone.”

That never happened. To be sure, a small number of academic historians — think Eric Foner, or Jill Lepore — have published books that attract wide readerships. And many others have entered the public sphere via blogs and social media, as the reaction to the Vietnam series illustrates.

I did think Eric Foner, also David Oshinsky, David Brion Davis, Gordon Wood, Henry Mayer…It’s really not that hard to find accessible history by going to a library or a large bookstore.

But I agree with him that historians shouldn’t be rebuked or penalized for writing non-specialist history.

At almost every institution, however, historians are still evaluated and promoted based on their peer-reviewed scholarship rather than by their public engagement. If anything, writing for lay audiences counts against them. When I was a junior professor, a senior colleague advised me to stop publishing op-ed columns. They marked me as a glib and unserious scholar, she said, or even — gasp! — as a journalist.

Until our academic reward system changes, Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and their fellow popularizers will dominate the history that Americans actually consume. That makes historians jealous, and — even worse — it makes us irrelevant. Our research won’t matter until it becomes common knowledge. And the history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world.

But Ken Burns does television. Eric Foner and Jill Lepore do books; Ken Burns does television. Maybe the solution here isn’t to stop criticizing Ken Burns, but rather to get people who work in public tv to get together with Eric Foner or Jill Lepore to do good documentaries. By “good” I do not mean ones in which we’re expected to stare at still photographs for a long long time while somebody drones sonorously on the soundtrack.

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