All I can say is that it's a good thing it's Ken Burns. If the micromanagers and pseudo-censors representing the politically correct Congressional Hispanic Caucus were taking on a lesser filmmaker, who knows what would happen? At least it's relatively easy for PBS, the Public Broadcasting System, to stand behind the best documentary artist in America. In this climate, the second-best might not fare so well.
The current controversy centers around Ken Burns' forthcoming film, "The War," which focuses on how the people of four American towns were affected by World War II. Famous historians everywhere have supported the project. Burns, who has created epic "poems" about everything from sports to the Civil War, seems poised once again to capture the country's imagination in a seven-part series.
Of course, I haven't seen it yet. But neither have the people protesting that PBS shouldn't support Burns or air his series because, from those four towns, none of the people who go to war are Hispanic.
I kid you not.
It's not that he says anything bad about Hispanics. No racist slurs, ugly comments, derogatory references. But how dare Burns pick his own towns and his own people without making sure everyone was represented? Who does he think he is, the storyteller or something?
They've even formed a committee to demand that Burns redo the film, which took him six years to make and is now completely done. "Defend the Honor Campaign" it's called, and its only purpose seems to be to attack a guy who went so far as to offer to add additional material at the end of the movie to include Hispanics — as if this were an encyclopedia and not a movie.
That's right. Burns could have justifiably told these folks where to go and what to do when they got there, which is what any number of people I know in the television business would have done. Instead, in a meeting last month, he sat with his critics and tried to come up with an acceptable compromise that would not involve tearing his movie apart (he described it as grafting an additional limb on a child), but would recognize the contribution of Hispanics to the war effort.
But that wasn't good enough.
They want the additional materials to be in the movie, not an addendum to it.
So what did they do? Did they, in that fine American tradition, decide to make their own movie, to tell the story a different way, a way that meets what they see as a false idea with a true one, and win in the marketplace of ideas?
No. They got a bunch of Congressmen and women who should have other and better things to do, and who have no business telling artists who to include in their films, to send threatening letters demanding that PBS not show the film unless Burns does what they tell him.
From the great liberal tradition of inclusiveness to the great liberal tradition of censorship if you don't get what you want.
It's one thing to have a private group protest what's included in a film. If activists and professors need something to do, and this is the best they can do, so be it. But members of Congress, who are bound by the Constitution to stay out of the business of telling people what they can think or say, should keep their hands off the content of programming, particularly in the case of PBS, which depends on the government for financial support.
The danger is not that broadcasters will ignore Congress, as PBS has announced it plans to do in this case, but that they will listen too carefully. The high-stakes issues involved in government regulation of the broadcast industry create the danger that even indirect criticism may have a chilling affect on free speech. Here, there is nothing indirect about the criticism. Members of Congress have taken it upon themselves to judge the content of what should be shown, which is as close to the definition of censorship as you can get.
Hispanic Americans have real issues to worry about in America today, starting with immigration reform, equal employment opportunity, education, health care, etc. Ken Burns is the least of their problems. And people who call themselves leaders, much less take an oath to uphold the Constitution in the process, should be expected to recognize that.
The whole incident leaves you feeling sorry for Hispanics — not because they've been left out of a PBS film about what happened 50 years ago, but because their leaders today leave so much to be desired.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.