Drug Legalization

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 amendmentâ€"which were usually about expanding human rightsâ€"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 alcoholâ€"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 â€"though I don’t work in that same wayâ€"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 commonâ€"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 naivelyâ€"it was naiveâ€"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.  

NEXT: Matt Damon: "We Bought a Zoo" Star Sez Country Would Have Been Better Off with a "One-Term President With Some Balls" Than Obama

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  1. Good morning reason!

    1. Bringing bean-bag shotgun rounds to a rifle fight will do that.

      1. I guess he didn’t realize the BATF was arming his opponents.

    2. drugs were, no doubt, involved…which is the subject of this thread. jeesch

  2. 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.”

    Back in the good old days an editor at the big 3 broadcast stations may have decided his piece was too controversial to put on television. What would his opinion been then?

    1. I think he’s just saying that he’s in favor of the RIGHT people deciding what the audience gets to see. You know, the “right” people – the ones that he hangs out with.

      1. The “right” people, the ones who get their funding by pointing a gun at others.

    2. What are you saying? That they wouldnt be Top Men?

  3. People can seek their own self-satisfying sources of knowledge,” he says, which “is hugely dangerous.”

    People are starting to think for themselves. And we can’t have that. I find Ken Burns and the idea that people shouldn’t be allowed to seek their own sources of information to be extremely dangerous.

    1. You see, I’m intelligent enough to think for myself. I don’t require the betters to determine what is acceptable lines of reasoning and what ultimately is considered the “truth”. In fact, I belong to the class of people who should be sifting through complex situations and distilling the “truth” to the unwashed masses. Leaving normal people to their own inferior devices to deduct their own versions of the “truth” is dangerous. I am your filter America. You’re welcome!

      1. Now Kenny, what did we tell you about gnawing those straps on your straightjacket? You’ll get breakfast at 8am just like every other day; until then please refrain from biting, chewing, nibbling, munching and/or generally attempting to digest anything else on the premises. Thank you!

  4. Isn’t saying “I am no fan of the market when it comes to film” just another way of saying “the world owes me a platform”?

    1. But isn’t that the way you want a creative type to think? It’s an excrescence of confidence. How could anyone think that way unless he was convinced he really had the stuff? And if he was so convinced, how could he not think that way?

  5. “Slavery was our worst idea,”

    Yeah, but slavery isn’t the only thing we invented in the US; there’s also the car!

    1. You know, all those ATMs and computers have put so many people out of work. That’s why we have all this unemployment.

      1. You don’t know what Hard Times are Daddy. HARD TIMES… are when the textile workers in this country, are out of work, got 4-5 kids, can’t pay there wages, can’t buy the food. HARD TIMES… are when the auto workers are out of work and they tell ’em “Go Home”. And HARD TIMES… is when a man has worked in a job… 30 YEARS, they give him a watch kick him the butt and go “Hey, a computer took your place daddy” that’s Hard Times.

    2. Slavery wasn’t “our” idea.

    3. > slavery…we invented in the US

      bullsh!t…slavery has been a part all human societies since the beginning of time…until we fought a war to end it.

      1. Try googling ‘human slavery’ or ‘human traffiking.’

        Let’s say the US Civil War was a battle, ok? There’s still slavery in the US and in the world.

  6. He went to my highschool.
    As did Iggy Pop.

    1. Where is that?

      1. Pioneer High, The People’s Republic of Ann Arbor

        1. I am surprised they haven’t renamed it “Young Pioneer High”.

          Jay Nordlinger of NRO is from Ann Arbor too. He talks about this book store there called “The Little Professor” that only carried leftist approved books. Wouldn’t carry anything else. He used to call it “The Little Oppressor” growing up.

          1. but that’d be all good if the books were rightwing?…or if the store owner was *forced* to include them in inventory?

            1. Urine – thanks for bringing your unique brand of stupid to us again! You once again miss entirely what John was saying, and give an utterly misdirected analogy. Comic gold – you’re the gift that keeps on giving.

              Thanks, Urine!

              1. nope – my comment was spot-on john’s subject. it tries moar harder…

          2. I had to look up “Young Pioneers”.


          3. “The Little Professor”

            I thought that’s what Paul Krugman called his penis…

            1. “The Little Professor”

              I thought that’s what Clinton called his labor secretary.

              1. Being as he’s never had a tenured job, I thought that’s what they call Obama.

        2. My friend Craig Large went to Pioneer.

          1. I was there from 2000-2004.
            With over 2,000 kids in the school though, I didn’t even know most of my class.

            1. The Large Man aka The Dancing Bear graduated in 1988. Well before your time. Even though he’s from Michigan, he’s a decent guy.

          2. I used to own a Pioneer stereo.

            1. What’s a stereo?

              1. there was a time when audio was produced by dedicated machines that allowed flexible routing of multiple sources through a powerful amplifier that drove the speakers.

                now, feel free to go back to enjoying your LM386 powered, 5watt, portable media devices.

                1. But why would anyone want to vacuum their tubes? They’re glass. Just wipe them down with windex.

    2. Okay, is this a competition, two most famous people from commentariat’s High Schools?

      Quetzalcoatl starts us off with Burns and Pop, which isnt bad.

      I counter with Diane Sawyer and Wes Unseld.

      1. Vince Lombardi and Joe Torre.

        1. Me and . . . . I guess it’s just me.

          Overton, Memphis, 1971.

      2. Wes had one of the best afros ever back in the day.


        1. Dr J.’s was pretty sweet too.


      3. Well, if it’s a competition then let me add Bob Seger.

        1. Bob and Iggy. That is pretty good. What is it with Detroit and music stars? It must be the cold weather.

          1. Yeah, but what has Detroit done lately? Jack White?

            1. Kid Rock. But in fairness no one lives there anymore. What has Carthage produced lately?

            2. Jack White is good. He’s no legendary guitar god or anything (that a lot of people like to pretend he is), but he makes solid music. I also have to say that after seeing the White Stripes live once I was pretty impressed with the sheer amount of sound and presence he and his ex-wife had as a rock duo.

              1. Jack White and White Stripes suck balls. The music is horrid.

                Other than that, he’s great.

              2. Based only on hearing studio tracks, I have to say that Meg White one of the worst drummers at her level (i.e. bands of similar popularity).

            3. MC5, The Meatmen, The Necros, The Fix, Negative Approach, Laughing Hyenas…

            4. Yeah, but what has Detroit done lately?

              Detroit has demonstrated the end state of the modern urban center. Chicago is on its way to repeating the experiment and OH’s cities are … well, best not to speak of Ohio. It’s just too depressing.

              There is a reason why most people want to live in the suburbs despite the endless cheerleading by those who celebrate the alleged increasing “urbanization” of the U.S.

      4. Erskine Bowles and I am too ashamed to name another.

      5. Steve Alford and Kent Benson.

      6. If you went to a high school that was formed by merging two other schools, can you count alums from both places? If so, Jerry West and Randy Moss.

      7. After extensive googling, the closest thing to famous from my high school is this guy.

        1. I decided to check the wife’s alma mater and found out that my mother-in-law went to HS with Peggy Noonan.

          1. My wife’s alma mater graduated members of Black Flag, Descendents, Redd Kross, Circle Jerks, and Pennywise. Oh, and about half of the AVP tour.

      8. Shockingly, I know of no one “famous” from Alma High School.

      9. Jean Kirkpatrick graduated from my H.S.

      10. Nolan Ryan and…um, well, there was a girl in my class who’s friends with the family on “Sister Wives,” so there’s that.

      11. Bud Colyer and one of those politicians I couldn’t stand.

      12. ron jeremy and george tenet, 2 big pricks

    3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N…..ble_alumni

      Nnamdi Asomugha

      Quentin Tarantino

      1. My high school apparently can only pump out jocks ranging from football to MMA, and apparently a sports broadcaster.

  7. 1. Slavery
    3. Prohibition

    #2 was the income tax.

    1. I vote for medicare as number 2.

      1. Income tax is a worse idea than medicare. Considering the income tax is a minor form of #1.

        1. Before that they had what amounted to a national sales tax in the form of tariffs. If the money still comes out of my account, I really don’t see the difference what form the tax is in.

          And medicare is going to ruin the greatest health care system in the world and bankrupt the richest country in history. That, is a bad idea.

          1. Before that they had what amounted to a national sales tax in the form of tariffs. If the money still comes out of my account, I really don’t see the difference what form the tax is in.

            It makes a huge difference. One kind of tax just tries to fund the treasury. Another attempts to find out what John does during the day, how he makes his money, why, who he associates with and what can we do to change John’s behavior so we can build a better world.

            Income tax is the latter.

          2. Before that they had what amounted to a national sales tax in the form of tariffs. If the money still comes out of my account, I really don’t see the difference what form the tax is in.

            It makes a huge difference. One kind of tax just tries to fund the treasury. Another attempts to find out what John does during the day, how he makes his money, why, who he associates with and what can we do to change John’s behavior so we can build a better world.

            Income tax is the latter.

            1. So true, I had to say it twice. Reckanize.

      2. I vote for the New Deal as #2, but some may count that a slavery too.

    2. 4. Reality tv.

    3. I reject the entire argument because slavery wasn’t our idea.

    4. #2 is The Federal Reserve system.
      #3 Income Tax
      #4 Alcohol and Drug Prohibition
      #5 Our interventionist foreign policy

  8. Ken Burns = Unaware Douchebag

    1. What makes you think he’s unaware?

    2. +1. What a dick this guy is.

  9. After reading this interview, I’m pretty much left thinking that Ken Burns can go fuck himself. I’m glad I figured that one out and didn’t even require his expert guidance.

  10. Slavery was our idea? So, the Greeks, Romans, etc. didn’t have it first? It wasn’t a human phenomenon long before 1787? I had no idea.

    1. They learned it from watching AmeriKKKa.

      1. goddamn oracles and their spoilers.

  11. “People can seek their own self-satisfying sources of knowledge,” he says, which “is hugely dangerous.”

    Dangerous to whom?

    Him, I assume, and his bottom line.

    Ska, above me, said it best.

  12. I, too, prefer that people hand me money with no strings or expectations attached. Luckily, the government is decidedly less provincial when handing out the hard-earned dollars of the taxpaying rubes.

  13. His professional abilities aside, my word what a snot-nosed douchebag the guy is.

    He’s essentially demanding that his fellow citizens be forced to support his work because his films “make this country worth defending and worth living in.”

  14. Isn’t saying “I am no fan of the market when it comes to film” just another way of saying “the world owes me a platform”?

    Presumably there’s some kernel of self-awareness in him somewhere, a shamed core that knows he’s a below-average clip-show editor whose ridiculous material and reputational success consist of his being the government’s favorite clip-show editor.

    There are really only two possible reactions to knowing you’re such a disgraceful shit: self-effacement, or a desire to efface. So he wants to eliminate the mechanism by which others might be chosen over himself, the chosen.

    “Assholes gonna ass.” ?Sigmund Freud

    1. But Burns made the highest rated show on PBS. That’s like being the most productive farmer in North Korea!

  15. I just finished Season 2 of Boardwalk Empire. Who hasn’t seen it and wants a spoiler?

    1. You made that show? Is Allen L. Rickman still in it?

      1. Season 2 was a lot better than season 1, but the show still lacks a certain something.

  16. Hi Ken. Please note that slavery was not our idea, we were simply doing the same thing the rest of the world was doing at the time. Don’t get me wrong, it was bad, but it wasn’t an American idea. The bedouins and tribes in Africa came up with it.

    Also, for the record, Alcohol is indeed a drug, and a very dangerous one at that. Pot is just a pleasant herb, but booze, now that stuff is wicked.

    1. Seriously. Native Americans were doing peyote in the desert for how long? Then the white man brings the firewater.

      Occifer, am I free to get wasted?

      1. at least some tribes were aware of fermenting corn.

  17. Burns lost me when he tried to justify smoking bans. He knows someone who died from lung cancer? Well, I know someone who died from cirrhosis. So, let’s go back to prohibition! So much for eschewing doctrinaire activism. Thanks, Nick, for exposing this ass clown for the hypocrite that he is.

    1. smoking ban != tobacco ban, but then that distinction is probably 2 advanced 4 u 2 grasp;-]

      since smoking the evil weed only grew after the introduction of pre-rolled cigs, band those.

      or, since 50% of beach waste (not sure if that’s wet or dry weight, or volume;-) is cig.butts, require 20 butts as a deposit for each pack…cleans up environment, gives bums^H^H^H^Hhomeless a source of income;-)

  18. Ken Burns is “America’s Top Documentarian”?


    Now, these two might need to duke it out over who’s the “Most Authoritarian”, but Moore’s clearly #1 on the doc front.



    1. To be fair, MM is a fat, marxist propagandist who only masquerades as a fat, marxist documentarian.

      1. Errol Morris is better than both of them put together.

  19. “People can seek their own self-satisfying sources of knowledge,” he says, which “is hugely dangerous.”

    Yes! It is dangerous to have diversity of thought and opinion. All comrades please report to the re-education camps immediately where Ken Burns and his ilk can direct your media consumption to our liking.

  20. I’ve enjoyed many of Ken Burns, that’s because I like looking at old pictures. His “stories” leave a lot to be desired. Really, he likes old Abe. Nuff said.

  21. Ken seems awfully angry and bitter.

  22. As soon as Burns makes a documentary about a currently hot political issue, the world will see just how committed he is to telling all sides of a story.

  23. Ken knows his funding depends on being non-controversial, which is fine. I mean, c’mon: baseball, the Civil War*? His funders are absolutely not going to want to be associated with anything that has the whiff of conflict to it.

    So its no surprise that he scrupulously avoids the painfully obvious in his doc on Prohibition.

    And that would all be fine, if he weren’t so full of it his work being free of “strings and compromises” and thus worthy of taxpayer support.

    *Face it, War of Northern Aggression obsessives: it is not controversial outside of some very narrow circles.

    1. But in those narrow circles? Hoo boy.

    2. His “funders?” You mean government, and politically connected organizations, right?

  24. Fragile skinny with milky white skin and tons of attitude, Olena is the kind of girl who always gets noticed. A truly cosmopolitan girl, this young firecracker is well traveled, funny, stylish and if we are honest, a little bit crazy!

    Tomboy Olena loves her US truck caps and converse shoes but also has an appreciation for ultra sexy lingerie! In line with her anarchic attitude she loves punk music and lots of sex. And throughout the shoot she chomped on protein rich crabsticks to help maintain that lean and mean body of hers!

    Oozing sex appeal and a little bit wild, Olena is the kind of girl your mother warned you about ? you have been warned!


  25. Mr. Burns is undeniably a great documentary filmmaker, but he doesn’t seem to appreciate the “hugely dangerous” consequences of either limiting peoples access to “self-satisfying sources of knowledge” or the dangers to his own artistic freedom when some arbiter decides Mr. Burn’s stuff is devisive.

  26. Guy looks kinda baked to me. I met him in person a few years ago, and he looked kinda baked then too. And short.

  27. I watched the entire series and loved it. Truly interesting to see the whole history of the “dry movement” behind the act of prohibition. That was part of history that I wasn’t aware of.

    I do have issue with a few things Ken Burns said and if he is really on here reading the comments I would love to hear your honest feedback.

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

    Burns: No, I think it’s less to that.

    I vehemently disagree with Ken on this point because today’s Drug war is modern prohibition. The exact same unintended consequences have arisen from this prohibition. We have gangsters murdering by the 1000’s in Mexico. Dangerous drug cartels running gangs in America. Prisons overfilled with drug users and sellers. Extremely high black market profits driving everything – Weed alone is worth something like $15Billion to Mexican Drug cartels every year – that is a HUGE business.
    To me the parrallels are so astoundingly similar that it’s just beyond me why our country continues this maddness. The desire by 10% of the population for weed is always going to be there. The desire by 1-2% of the culture for harder drugs is always going to be there.
    Treat it as a medical problem. Legalize ALL Drugs and then work on regulation, taxation, education and rehabilitation.

    “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.”

    I find this statement to be false. Throughout human history there has been use of cannabis, opiates, coca leaves, mushrooms and other naturally occurring drugs. The Chinese, middle eastern cultures, central, south and native North Americans have used marijuana and other naturally occurring drugs for hundreds, even thousands of years. So in some cultures/regions these ‘drugs’ have seen relatively widespread use but in modern western culture the use is certainly less. I do agree that alcohol use has certainly been more widespread. Cannabis should be legal for recreational and medicinal use. We use opiate based drugs in all kinds of medicinal situations for pain killers. Anyway this is a weak argument then we should maintain the current Drug War – it’s time to end the drug war and follow the lead of Portugal and Amsterdam.

    “When you wake up at three in the morning and your house is on fire, you don’t call the marketplace.”

    If there were no ‘public fire stations’ the marketplace would supply firefighters either through volunteerism or business that sell monthly (or even some combination). The trouble comes from some people who would freeload. However I could see some HOA’s requiring fire insurance for apartment owners and other high density zones. Where there is a need – someone in the marketplace would fill that need.

    “You are not expecting the marketplace to protect you after 9/11.”

    NO. I am not. That is an issue of national defense and the federal government is supposed to protect our borders. However I will point out that it was our Government’s Foreign Policy that led to 9/11. Had our leaders and military never been involved in middle eastern affairs, attacking Iraq and occupied other nations lands – we probably never would have experienced 9/11.

  28. Careful air drummer, we didn’t “fight a war to end” slavery, let’s keep the history accurate, and that’s as inaccurate and ignorant as they come!

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