Ken Burns on Prohibition, Pot, and PBS

Q&A with America's top documentarian


"Slavery was our worst idea," says legendary documentarian Ken Burns. "I'm not sure that Prohibition was second, but it's really up there." In his five-and-a-half-hour film Prohibition, which aired in three parts on PBS in October, Burns takes an in-depth look at one of the most controversial episodes in U.S. history. Working with his longtime collaborator Lynn Novick, Burns explores the causes, failures, and legacy of the nation's "Noble Experiment" in banning alcohol. 

Burns' previous works on topics such as the Civil War, baseball, and jazz were critical and commercial successes, helping to revitalize the documentary form and start rich conversations about race, history, and politics. Prohibition likely will do the same. 

"There were all these factions, left and right, black and white, that were for [banning alcohol]," he says. "It [is] too easy to dismiss it as purely a retrograde, conservative attempt to pull the country back to some good old days that never existed. It was a much more complicated dynamic." The documentary stresses the role of Progressive legislators in pushing the 18th Amendment.

Burns, a self-described "Democrat for life," eschews doctrinaire activism in his art, bringing decades-old stories to life through the eyes of colorful characters, written testimonials, and period music. "The telling of history need not be Castor Oil, the dry recitation of dates, facts, and events," he says.

Despite the immense popular appeal of his work, Burns is no fan of "the market" when it comes to making films. While Bank of America is a major funder of Prohibition, he says that in a commercial television setting the company probably would have exerted editorial pressure on the finished product. He says corporate money and commercial outlets, even on niche cable channels, come with too many strings and compromises attached. And he worries that the proliferation of cheap production and distribution technologies, while a cause for optimism, leads to audience fragmentation. "People can seek their own self-satisfying sources of knowledge," he says, which "is hugely dangerous."

reason.tv Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie sat down with Burns in New York City in October. For video of this interview, visit reason.tv.

reason: Why is Prohibition in vogue these days? There seems to be a real interest in this period, in re-examining it.

Ken Burns: There's always a superficial interest in Prohibition. You've got gangsters; everybody wants to be able to kill the people who piss them off. You've got women who are seemingly promiscuous; the flapper dancing with the short skirt and the bobbed hair on top of the tables. 

But in every case is the understanding that Prohibition reveals a lot more. This is the story of single-issue political campaigns that metastasize with the most horrible unintended consequences, including creating organized crime. This is about the demonization of recent immigrants. This is about a whole group of people who feel like they've lost control of their country and want to re-exert that control by imposing on these newcomers some new law. It sounds so familiar.…It resonates with today's themes.

reason: What are the parallels with today? Is the parallel directly to the drug war?

Burns: No, I think it's less to that. Alcohol is used by every culture since there have been human beings. Drugs are a subcultural thing. Alcohol was something everybody did, so eliminating it required a great act of faith to take place. Drugs are not favored by a majority of people. While there are lots of similarities and the possibility of taxing and regulating marijuana is a hugely interesting consideration, once again, it's unintended consequences. You have to be careful. 

[Prohibition was] so much like our political moment: lack of civil discourse, the demonization of immigrants, smear campaigns during presidential elections, all of this sort of single-issue campaigning. All of that stuff resonates with today, because, in fact, human nature is the same. Prohibition brings out and reveals to us our essential dichotomy, not between us as much as within us. The generosity and the greed. The Puritans and the prurients. The sincerity and hypocrisy. The Saturday night at the bar and the Sunday morning in church. 

reason: Your previous documentary, about America's national parks, called them America's best idea. Would you say Prohibition was our worst?

Burns: It's close to being our worst. Slavery was our worst idea. I'm not sure I'd put Prohibition second, but it's really up there. For the first time in our history, we had an amendment'"which were usually about expanding human rights'"that actually restricted human rights. It was put in there, ironically, as an amendment because we thought it would be enshrined in the Constitution and therefore never be repealed. But of course it's the only amendment that's been repealed, which shows that at least we have some intelligence and woke up to the hypocrisy.

(Interview continues below video.)

reason: One of the themes of the documentary is political overreach, that trying to make it an amendment forced the issue in a way that perhaps it wouldn't otherwise have been.

Burns: I'm not sure it's overreach as much as it's moral certainty. That the drys were so certain that they were right, so self-righteous in their convictions, that when they were able to achieve [what they sought], through a completely fascinating political transformation of the country over the previous 100 years, they then refused to compromise an inch. As it was clear that the law was ineffectively written, that it was ineffectively applied, and uneven and hypocritical, they didn't make adjustments. And because they didn't make adjustments, which might have at least prolonged Prohibition for them, it then became just as easy to have it undone as it had seemed to have been to have it created.

reason: One of the main voices in the documentary is Pete Hamill, the New York columnist and writer. He talks at the very end of the documentary about how one of the lessons of Prohibition is the folly of trying to control people's behavior legislatively, proscriptively. If you pull that impulse forward, is there a straight line to draw?

Burns: Oh, there's definitely a straight line through all these panaceas, these magic bullets, these things we can do that will make us a more perfect society. Actually, one of the benefits of Prohibition, despite this horrible inheritance of organized crime and all the other bad things it did, is that it gives us pause. When somebody comes and says, "You know what we need, we need this amendment or we need that amendment," we just kind of go, "Wait a second." Because the memory of Prohibition and those unintended consequences is fresh. 

reason: But we're speaking in New York City, which in 2003 banned smoking in bars, and earlier this year banned it in outdoor spaces. We live in a world where what is allowed for children is being more and more proscribed. I mean, 800,000 people are arrested for marijuana possession a year. Have we substantially changed?

Burns: No, we're always in pursuit of a more perfect union, and sometimes that pursuit involves trying to legislate, uh, activity. I won't even say "morality." It's activity. We legislate murder, we don't steal, we're not into pedophilia. Governments are and laws are always in the business of legislating morality. Sometimes we overextend, from the left and from the right, and we find people generally do the right kind of centering to put us back. When you find out that, say, secondhand smoke is dangerous, then I think you've got some scientific evidence. And perhaps it might be seeming to those people who like to smoke as some imposition, but I also know someone who died of lung cancer. Never smoked a day in his life, but seemed to have developed it from his parents, who were smokers, and he was exposed all of his life to secondhand smoke. So maybe that's a good thing. 

I don't know what the overreach is, but to enshrine something in the Constitution, to make an amendment, that's a different thing.

reason: How did Prohibition fail? 

Burns: First of all it failed in its application. It was so unevenly and so unfairly applied. It was mostly working people who were the victims of it. The rich seemed to get away [with drinking]. The president of the United States, Warren G. Harding, had a "Whiskey Cabinet" that met every week, fueled by a bootlegger who brought in whiskey to the White House. It's bound to fail when you have that kind of top-to-bottom, systemic hypocrisy. The cop on the street is bribed, the Prohibition agent is bribed, the sergeant at the desk is bribed, his captain is bribed, the judges are bribed, the senators are bribed, the assistant attorneys general are bribed. This is a corruption all the way through.

reason: Wait, are you talking about now? Or Prohibition?

Burns: [Laughs] I'm talking about Prohibition. What happens is that in 1928, eight years into this, a presidential candidate dared speak up. Al Smith, a Catholic, but also a wet, gets destroyed for both his Catholicism and his wet posture. But it opens the door, and people start talking about it, and people begin to realize how hypocritical this whole thing had been, and the movement happens. 

The real turning point is the Depression. You say, "OK, we got rid of the fifth largest industry for what reason? We don't have these jobs that we could use for what reason? And we don't benefit from this tax revenue for what reason?" Life was so hard in the Depression. We can't even appreciate it now, even in tough economic times, how bad it was in the Depression. When Roosevelt came in, within a week beer was legal, and the repeal of the amendment went into effect, that is to say alcohol was available, on December 5, 1933. It was almost anticlimactic. It is like, we've got to get going with something else more important. If 10 percent of the population, or whatever it is, has a problem with alcohol, let's try to deal with that. But let's not superimpose the solution on 100 percent of the people.

reason: Today's marijuana legalization movement seems to be tracking a lot of what was going on in Prohibition, in the sense that there are now exceptions for medical marijuana, as there were for medical applications of alcohol. You see the need for new revenue. You see a normalizing or a mainstreaming of marijuana. NBA players love it, rap stars love it. You know everybody smokes it or has smoked it. Do you see this pushing forward?

Burns: Of course. I think it will be incremental. Marijuana, as we know, is the biggest cash crop in the United States, more than soybeans, more than wheat, more than corn.

reason: And all without subsidies. Except the subsidy of the black market.

Burns: Exactly. And so you have that attractive thought that cash-strapped states and cash-strapped federal government have, that its regulation and taxation would help in the criminal aspect of it, but also to bring in revenues. But you also still have to consider what are the unintended consequences. 

Some kid asked me, "How would you test for driving while under the influence of marijuana?" We now administer, and every cop is competent in administering, a Breathalyzer test. But are you going to take a blood sample and determine the level of THC? How do we regulate? How old [do you have to be] to have access to it? Because it is drugs, and you don't have that widespread human history that you have with alcohol'"we've been fermenting, brewing, and distilling since there have been human beings. 

What will happen? It remains to be seen. But you do feel that there's been an incremental difference. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where in the late '60s we had a $5 pot [fine]. The cop caught you with less than an ounce, and it was a $5 ticket. That was like parking too long at a parking meter.

reason: Let's talk a little bit about your broader worldview. In a 1998 speech you talked about why you were a Yellow Dog Democrat. What do you mean by that, and how does that influence your work?

Burns: My work is without political advocacy. I'm trying to speak to as many people as possible. I happen to have been born into a family of Democrats. A Yellow Dog Democrat is sort of a Democrat for life. But that just is the circumstances of my birth. My job is to tell a good story, to tell it well, and tell it fairly. 

reason: Arguably more than anybody over the past generation or two, you've revitalized documentary filmmaking, documentary storytelling. What explains your success and appeal? 

Burns: Well, sometimes history is used as a kind of propaganda tool or a superficial, sanitized Madison Avenue celebration of the goodness of America and the good old days. I'm clearly not interested in that. I would suggest that documentaries have been undergoing a renaissance for many, many decades, and they manifest in so many different ways, that to make one, or two, or three people responsible is not the case. 

We've just been laboring in one area in which we saw that the telling of history need not be Castor Oil. It didn't have to be the dry recitation of dates, facts, and events, stuff you should know. The last time I checked, that was homework. But rather, realizing that the word history is mostly made up of the word story, and to tell complicated and dramatic stories that obey the same laws as stories told anywhere. Feature films are governed by the same laws, and we've done that, and people have responded by the tens of millions, and that's thrilling.

reason: Who are your primary influences as a filmmaker and as a historian?

Burns: Well I'm not a historian. I'm an amateur historian. The last time I took a course in American history was in 11th grade, where they hold a gun to your head and make you take it. I'm a filmmaker, and my influences are wide. There are still photographers, social documentary still photographers, like my mentor Jerome Liebling, and Paul Strand, and Walker Evans, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Dorothea Lange. There are filmmakers, the pantheon of great world filmmakers. In drama, the Scorseses in America, the Orson Welleses in America, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Frank Capra. But there are also other documentary filmmakers. I may not have that stylistic similarity with an Errol Morris, but you can't help but admire the genius of his stylism. I like Werner Herzog, who is not only a friend but a passionate, almost ecstatic filmmaker, who has these operatic takes on the world. I always enjoy '"though I don't work in that same way'"what he does.

reason: Where did your kind of aesthetic sensibility come from? Because it's remained recognizable over time.

Burns: A style is essentially the authentic application of technique. Every person who's an artist has a style, and if you just change for the sake of change, you're probably not an artist. You're somebody following the fashions of the time. So if you go into a room of Cézanne paintings, they all look like, from the middle, the same. You go up to each one, and they're different. You recognize a stylistic similarity in my films, but only because it's me trying to express myself. But each film has its own unique and diverse sets of criteria. 

I grew up with a father who was an anthropologist and an amateur still photographer. My first memory is that great alchemy of watching a photograph come to life in a dark room. My teachers at school were not only filmmakers but social documentary still photographers. I'm rooted in that thing. But I'm also rooted in writing and a kind of humanist tradition of American history that includes not just the old top-down version, but a bottom-up version that acknowledges women and labor and minorities and other people, so-called ordinary people, in the rush of history. That American history isn't just a sequence of presidential administrations punctuated by war. If you're willing to embrace a much wider and more diverse history, then it's more complicated. And if it's more complicated, then you have to lift up the rug of history and show warts. You have to have undertow and be able to tolerate that undertow, and the contradictions that attend anyone, great or so-called ordinary. That's been the work for the last 35 years.

reason: Your current project is underwritten by PBS or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and some nonprofit foundations as well as the Bank of America. You could get private funding for your projects, right?

Burns: That's not true.

reason: Oh?

Burns: Upwards of 40 percent of my project comes from some governmental source or another. PBS is not exactly governmental. It is actually not governmental, but it gets some money from the government, and they give us money. But the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a significant funder, and quite often the National Endowment for the Humanities is. In a perfect world, we'd want government support, and a lot more of it would exist.

reason: Why?

Burns: The marketplace can't take care of everything. It's subject to the whims and the caprices of sponsors who want to change things. When you wake up at three in the morning and your house is on fire, you don't call the marketplace. You are not expecting the marketplace to protect you after 9/11. And while I don't mean to suggest that public television has anything to do with the defense of this country, it helps make the country worth defending, because it has a set of people operating free of those pressures of the marketplace. It just so happens that they produce some of the best children's, some of the best science, some of the best nature, some of the best arts, some of the best public performance, some of the best public affairs, and some, I'm told, some of the best history on the dial. 

That's not so bad with one foot in the marketplace and the other tentatively out. I have dedicated myself, not just to working there, where I have creative freedom, and free of commercial interruptions, but because I believe in the idea of service and the exchange. Television is a passive medium that washes over us and puts us to sleep, and this offers us the opportunity. When people looked at our national park film, 10 million of them got up off the couch and went to visit a national park.

reason: It's not a question of whether or not you can get money from the government and do good things with it, but is that the best way to fund your projects? 

Burns: I've spent 30 years realizing how lucky I am, because there is public broadcasting. It is incredibly difficult. I could easily, if I jumped to some other fully marketplace [setting], enjoy many picture deals. But they would own it; they could control it. The real proof of it is to watch the arc of my professional life and see that at every time, without naming names, groups came to me and said, "What are you working on?" or I would go to the groups and I'd say, "I'm doing 11 and a half hours of still photographs of the Civil War," and they laughed me out of their office. Then when it was the highest-rated program in the history of PBS, they came to me, "What are you doing next?" I said, "I'm doing a sequel to The Civil War." "Oh, that's great. What is it?" "A history of baseball." "Uh, OK. How long is it?" "Eighteen and a half hours." Laughed me out of the office. When that had even higher viewership than The Civil War, they came to me, "What are you doing next?" I said, "The history of jazz." And they said, "African American stuff doesn't sell." So I got to do the work that I wanted to do. 

reason: And you wouldn't be able to do that through HBO?

Burns: Well, I don't know. They would still own it, they would still control it, there would be a boss above.

reason: You're saying the taxpayer is giving you free money to do things, and we don't get anything back from that?

Burns: I've paid back my grants 100 percent. If McDonnell Douglas did that for the defense contracts, our budget would be a different thing. I received $1,349,500 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the first money that The Civil War received went to pay that back in full. 

reason: What about private television? Because Errol Morris does not seem to labor under either a great need for public funding or a lot of corporate control.

Burns: But he also works a great deal of his time doing commercial work on the side, which I don't have the time, or the luxury, or the talent to do.

reason: Every artist, every producer, every director, every writer wants to own things and have creative control. And it's hard to maintain in the best of circumstances. We live in a world where there are proliferating outlets, where copyright laws, regardless of whatever their intentions or their stated policies are, are harder and harder to enforce. Is this a good time for cultural expression, or do you find it chaotic? Are you worried about where are the films going to come from, where is the capital, etc.? How are you feeling about living in a proliferating world?

Burns: I feel pretty optimistic. It is chaotic, and chaos causes anxiety. I've gone through where selling 60mm prints for $900 to libraries was a viable thing. And libraries had budgets to buy several films a year. And then we went to U-matic, and then to VHS, and those went down in price to DVDs, and now it's all downloads, or getting to be all downloads. So there is a kind of anxiety about changing things, but this proliferation of equipment, the proliferation of platforms and outlets, can only be a good thing. 

The biggest problem is the fragmentation. When I grew up, there were four or five channels, and people basically shared a common canon of knowledge and awareness of the world. Now people can seek their own self-satisfying sources.

reason: Is that a problem?

Burns: Oh, it's hugely dangerous.

reason: Is it that they're actually seeking out something that is not self-satisfying in a negative way, but in an expressive way?

Burns: That's a really good question. I travel the country and I see more of the negative influence of that. I see the narrowness of viewpoints, left and right. And, you know, the Latin motto of the United States is e pluribis unum: out of many, one. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the late historian, used to say that we suffer today from too much pluribis and not enough unum. I'm in the business of unum, and so when you kind of go out and see the extent to which pluribis has taken over, that we no longer share experiences in common'"except in the most dramatic moments like 9/11, all of a sudden MSNBC and Fox are indistinguishable. That's actually a positive and good moment. And it shows that people yearn for a sense of community and connection, despite the fact that the proliferation of all these sources does offer this cornucopia of options which are terrific.

reason: To bring it back to Prohibition, one of the things that your series does is that it complicates the idea that Prohibition was all going one way or the other.

Burns: That's right. There were all these various factions, left and right, black and white, that were for it. We woke up to that in the middle of that. It was too easy to dismiss this as purely a retrograde conservative attempt to pull the country back to some good old days that had never existed. It was a much more complicated dynamic, a genuine concern for the toll of alcohol, an ability on the part of the United States, to always think, not just naively'"it was naive'"but also sincerely, that you could correct the ills of society through legislation. 

And that appealed to a broad number of people, sometimes with nefarious [agendas]. I mean, the Ku Klux Klan wanted it, because the worst thing in the world was to see a black man with not just a ballot but now a bottle, and that would turn them into beasts, and it represented the worst kind of racism. But on the other hand, Booker T. Washington wanted it, because he thought alcoholism distracted from black advancement. And so what do you do with that, other than to look at it as a phenomenon kind of in equal weight, and go forward and try to understand the crazy insanity that Prohibition was? 

reason: Do you have a next project lined up?

Burns: I've got seven films, in various stages.

reason: Any that you want to share with us?

Burns: Oh yeah. I can't understand why filmmakers always say, "Well, I can't really talk about this project." We've just finished editing a film on the history of the dustbowl. We're completing a film on the Central Park Jogger case, those five black and Hispanic boys accused of wilding, served their full sentences, didn't do it. We have a major series on the history of the Roosevelts. We're shooting right now a film on Jackie Robinson. We're shooting right now a major series on Vietnam. We're in research and preproduction on a series on the history of country music. And we're designing a biography on Ernest Hemingway, which will take us through this decade. God and funding willing.

reason: I'm not sure I believe in either of those, but more power to you.