Nathalie Weiss was graduating from Stanford University when she listened to the commencement address by Ken Burns. At the time, she was disappointed that his focus was to push graduates rather than congratulate them.
Now she feels differently. She wrote and asked him what to do now that Trump has been elected, and he finally sent a response; you can read more about it here.
And you can read his letter to her, here:
December 12, 2016
Please forgive the amount of time it’s taken for me to respond to your heartfelt and anguished letter. I guess I too have been suffering from the unexpected turn of events, I too needed some time in the fetal position, covers pulled up to my chin, as I tried myself to come to terms with an election that seems to have undermined so much of the progress we’ve made in the last fifty years — on race, women’s rights, the environment, diversity and understanding our role in the world.
Do not be too hard on yourself. We are all distracted by comforting routines and habits. It is hard to break from them to do what for many seems abstract: participating in our much maligned political process.
But I hear in your anguish a call to action that ought to awaken anyone — including myself — who misread this election. We need to be thoughtful in that action. Blind, angry protest will not help; it will only strengthen those who do not share our worldview. Passivity — as we have both discovered — is also not an option.
We must choose a middle ground: engagement. But the engagement we seek must understand that those people who did not vote as we did are not our enemy. In fact, true engagement is walking into the heart of that constituency, offering shared stories and real solutions rather than narratives that are calculated to divide, offering fellowship and unity, where fake news has helped stoke tribal angers.
We must understand too that we have also been betrayed by the so-called “mainstream media,” who fawned for months over the clearly unqualified candidate, giving him billions of dollars of free media, betrayed by cynical executives more interested in a buck than the facts of the matter, and betrayed by the lazy paid pundits more interested in protecting their own “brands” than in the well-being of the Republic they pretend to serve.
We were betrayed too by pollsters phoning in — literally — their work and by politicians who spoke to their base and did not venture from safe venues, that is to say, they stayed far away from the genuine hurt and the mistrust and the economic dead ends that afflict so many of us.
We must try to point out that even with a progressive president who taxed the wealthy, the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown; we can be assured now that this gap will only grow, not shrink. We must engage the business sector — corporate America will play a huge role in helping maintain our equilibrium, either by applying pressure to retrograde political forces or facing the pain of consumer boycotts.
We must try to remember that this level of vulgarity, of blatant lying, of demonizing whole groups of people, nearly always backfires, that real change will come when middle class whites, Hispanics and blacks realize they share more in common with each other than those in whose interest it is that they stay divided. This has been a successful strategy for generations in this country: why not blame the other, who might take your job, rather than blame the boss who laughs all the way to the bank.
What to do, you ask? A million things, of course. But it begins only with the first step of awareness and commitment, which you have already made.
Just go forward. Engage. Don’t despair. Find likeminded people — not from your social circle, but everywhere. Change the opinions of others, not with ridicule, but reason. Finally, remember too that Barack Obama himself has said that the highest office in the land is not president, but citizen.
With my sincerest best wishes,