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

Dear Nathalie,

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.

Be one.

With my sincerest best wishes,

Ken Burns

23 responses to “Engage

  1. “…it begins only with the first step of awareness and commitment,…”

    I was thinking about this just a few days ago, whilst contempalting a commute without a personal vehicle. We are all responsible for the state of the planet, whether it’s the environment, or the politics, or the culture. Those who deny the science, the existence of a problem at all, who voted for a fatuous, narcissistic sociopath, they carry a very great load of responsibility and they need to own it. Those who have lived in indolent ignorance, lubricated with the salve of apathy, also carry a heavy load of responsibility. However we might best engage them to possibly bring them over to an understanding of reality, without a proper confrontation and acceptance of respective responsibilities there will not be a sufficiently motivated commitment to compensating for the previous participation in inaction and in explicit harm.

    Those of us who have understood the problem and have supported the notion of acting to mitigate, but who have optimistically assumed that it would “come good” just as a flag unfurls in the wind, also carry a burden of responsibility commensurate with the degree of tepidity in our reluctance to confront the actual magnitude of the challenge. If one’s response was limited to replacing incanedscents with LEDs, well, guess what – you’re still more a part of the problem than a part of the solution. Still inclined to whizz past the bus stop or train station in your SUV, or fly for hours for a fortnight’s holiday? You’re probably more a part of the problem than the solution…

    The degree of effort required to make a difference is greater than most of us think, greater than many want to admit or to which to commit. Yes, it’s difficult to face it, but avoiding it won’t make it go away. So face it, understand it, and take responsibility.


    Then do something about it.

    • I can’t agree. Yes, every little bit helps, but we are going to have to restructure society, and that takes rules to drive the necessary change. The simplest rule is a price on carbon emissions. The important thing to note is this doesn’t work by making our electricity more expensive and hence we try and use less. No, it works because at some point the power company does the maths and decides that solar power is cheaper than coal fuelled power, and all of a sudden everyone’s emissions have dropped, without them doing anything.
      Yes, their electricity costs more, but with the rapidly developing technologies of solar, wind etc, it will turn out to not be a huge rise.
      The same will apply to cars. People will give up their gas guzzlers, not through some great virtue, but simply because they are too expensive to run. Just the way I ride a bicycle, not through any virtue, but because traffic is a pain, and parking is expensive.

      In some sense, the *only* thing we have to do is get the price on carbon emissions right.

      Of course AGW is the tip of the iceberg. There are many other problems to tackle that will take similar methods – making the real cost explicit.

      • “In some sense, the *only* thing we have to do is get the price on carbon emissions right.

        Of course AGW is the tip of the iceberg. There are many other problems to tackle that will take similar methods – making the real cost explicit.”

        This is what clarity looks like. Unfortunately there are legions of people dedicated to preventing implicit costs from being made explicit. Not sure what the solution is – buying them off isn’t really possible and would represent a new low in terms of moral hazard. Out-legioning them is going to take too much time.

      • John, you make a sensible case, but let Kevin Anderson explain why, whilst that would have been sufficient if we started 20 years ago, it is no longer sufficient. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gJ78vDU17Y
        Infrastructure change takes time – at least 20 years, probably more like 40 for everything. And emissions have to go down at 10%/year _now_ to have a chance of staying under 2C. That is only physically possible with demand reduction amongst the 10% of the world that does nearly all the emitting. I don’t know about you but that certainly includes me.

        Economic incentives like carbon taxes are a very fine thing, but have never generated reductions at more than 4%/yr, and economists insist that we can’t go faster than that.

      • Wookey, that is a good video. I still think we should implement a price on carbon immediately. But maybe more is needed…

      • While I applaud Anderson for his activism, I feel that Glen Peters is a better reference in terms of temperature and energy data: https://mobile.twitter.com/Peters_Glen?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

        He’s the best in the businesd

  2. Got into an argument in another forum about Trump picking Perry to head the DoE. The main point I tried to make (unsuccessfully) is to not equate views you don’t like with a lack of intelligence. Perry’s not a Rhodes’ scholar, but he’s not an idiot either, and engaging on that level is a sure way to lose. There are plenty of reasons he’s a bad pick (IMO) that have nothing to do with his intelligence.

    Like Burns pointed out, too many people backslid economically over the last 8 years. Many of the people who voted for Trump also voted for Obama (twice!). I don’t blame them for being frustrated. I blame the Democratic party for not being able (or even willing) to address their concerns.

    I have no idea what will happen over the next couple of years, and I don’t see any point in pre-emptively panicking over things that may or may not happen. Gather facts, engage, argue. Focus on things that *will* make a difference in *everyone’s* lives (such as AGW). Be prepared to lose a few battles.

    • I blame the Democratic party for having actual policy instead of promising to bring back 20th century manufacturing and raising tariffs on all the Chinese products they buy at Walmart. I accept Trae Crowder’s analysis that middle America doesn’t want wonky solutions when they can have glittering promises.

  3. >We are all responsible for the state of the planet, whether it’s the environment, or the politics, or the culture

    While we all are responsible, let’s not apportion the burden of blame equally, nor just upon how one votes because this is not a problem that can be ‘solved’ top down, that is not how chnage like this works, you need a significant minorty of folk living low emissions lifestyles and normalising that behaviour before you’ll see any change from the politicans. As Professor Krumdieck points out, we need a massive chnage to our economic and political systems to address this Even the folk who say we need to mitigate don’t and can’t be convinced to stop emitting prodigiously, if they can’t be convinced to act, what hope of convincing others ?

    The assumption seemed to be that all we needed to do to make this better was to elect Obama in a skirt and things ‘would be better’. Even if Ms Clinton was elected, things at best… would be the same.

    All we need to do to ensure the destruction of the biosphere (and by destruction I mean so change it that civilization as we know it will struggle to exist) is keep doing what we’re doing now. Driving to work, flying for holidays, not using renewable electricity…emitting … and by 2030 there will a couple more billion folk wanting to do the same thing.

    Climate change, population etc are all symptoms of us wanting to live unsustainably. Yes we’re all responsible but the biosphere doesn’t care how righteous your emisisons and that responsibility falls upon those of us who seek to hasten environmental destruction. If you’re emitting more than about 3t or CO2, you are the problem.

    [cite]Business leaders recognise that the biggest risk to their business is energy transition. The most popular concept of this transition involves a substitution of renewables for fossil fuels and development of elusive tail-pipe technologies like carbon-capture and storage. This concept is comforting and simple. But it is also profoundly wrong. There is no way to achieve an energy transition without completely reworking every aspect of our infrastructure, industry and economy to vastly reduce energy demand. Changing the global economy to nearly eliminate the use of fossil fuels is a “wicked problem” – a problem with no known solution.[/cite]

    Dr Susan P Krumdieck is Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Advanced Energy and Material Systems Lab, University of Canterbury, New Zealand


  4. Susan Anderson

    Thank you for this letter.Their

    I am sick and tired of people to my “left” blaming Hillary. Their self-righteous HillaryHateTM is as much part of the problem as anyone else. Jill Stein, yuck! It’s time we all give some respect to those who have lived the life, walked the walk, fought the fight, and stop blaming victims for the way real enemies have exploited the unicorn to promote the midden.

  5. I’m not to the point where I can engage with Trump supporters yet. I may never get there. Even if these people are not overtly racist, sexist, lying, egotistical, short-sighted pond scum, they have signaled that they are just fine with governed by such as long as it has a penis and makes rosy promises.

    The problem is not that we have a man who has been the but or a running joke since the 1980s. It is not that the government will not be run by the worst of the worst of the worst. It is that 43% of eligible voters could not be bothered to vote. It is that of those who voted, fully 53% (those who voted for Trump or who were sufficiently fine with Trump being president that they wasted their vote on a third part) were too dim to vote in their own and the Country’s (hell, the world’s) interests. Many if not most of these voters seem to reject the very idea of truth. They view everything as opinion and all opinions as equal. Even if we manage to survive 4 years of having an narcissistic imbecile at the helm, we will still be left with a majority of potential voters who are incapable of ascertaining the truth if they do not reject its very existence. Without a smarter electorate, I think we are probably done.

    • I think maybe we need to see that when people vote against “more of the same”, they may have legitimate grievances. The popularity of Bernie Sanders came from the same thing that produced Trump. The neoliberal agenda may actually have to be abandoned, and the real problem for most established political parties is that they won’t do that – largely because most of their donors (and hence people who have their ear) are corporations that really want globalism.

      • Except that Obama is extremely popular for an outgoing President. And Hillary had already rejected TPP. And the man about to take his place has been the poster child for “more of the same” since the ’80s. The voters in the US either embraced a racist, misogynistic, pathological liar, or they couldn’t be bothered to get off their asses to vote against him. The American people have revealed themselves to be too stupid to maintain a democratic government. The American government retains an arsenal capable of striking anywhere in the world at a moments notice, and this power is now in the tiny hands of a anti-intellectual, anti-enlightenment “short-fingered vulgarian”.

  6. Pete Dunkelberg

    Snarkrates and others, bear in mind that most voters voted for Hillary Clinton. We are held back by an electoral college quirk. Nate Silver thinks the FBI made the difference.


    T-rev, your notions concerning candidate Clinton are implausible and contrary to the evidence (her platform and the points she campaigned on). btw I voted for Bernie in the primary.

    I say this not only to spoil your fun, but because it is important to realize that US society is actually ready for progress, this electoral accident notwithstanding.

    Krumdieck is Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Advanced Energy and Material Systems Lab, University of Canterbury, New Zealand


    • Pete,
      No, a majority did not vote for Hillary Clinton. She got ~48% of the votes cast. She got <30% of the eligible voters. Over 90 million Americans could not be arsed to vote–in an election where the stakes were this high! And worst of all, there are over 62 million voters in this election whose regard for truth and decency is so low that they saw fit to vote in a short-fingered vulgarian, arguably the vilest man to seek office ever in the United states. No matter what happens with this individual, those 62 million idiots will be there, mucking up the works of American politics for a generation.

      And even if the American people reap the downfall they deserve for turning their back on the very idea of truth, America will still be Haiti with nukes.

  7. The most effective single thing that anyone can do to combat climate change, while at the same time saving money and becoming healthier, is to stop eating meat. http://m.pnas.org/content/113/15/4146.full

    • Indeed, but that only accounts for maybe 10% of their emissions. So they also need a do a pile of other things to account for the other 90%, slightly over half of which they usually have direct control (transport, stuff, heating) and half of which they only have indirect control (schools, defence, government, infrastructure etc).

      It’s a multifaceted problem, and everyone needs to make a pile of changes _and_ hassle their governments and companies to make changes too. Effectively, there is a now a war on, but not enough people have noticed yet.

  8. Nice emblem, Susan, but post- Knickerbocker unicorns come
    hun voorhoofd hadden ze een scherpe hoorn, die wit was aan de basis, rood aan de bovenkant, zwart in het midden, en groen aan de buitenkant.

  9. Susan Anderson

    Ah Russell,

    Stumped! (for those like me needing a translation: “their foreheads they had a sharp horn, which was white at the basis, red at the top, black in the middle, and green on the outside”)

    I’m also inclined in my continuing annoyance with magic thinking to reference St. George and the Dragon. This does *not* illustrate what I have in mind, but it’s a good one:

  10. Susan, I’m th one who’s stumped- you exhorted us to” stop blaming victims for the way real enemies have exploited the unicorn to promote the midden.”

    What other midden had you in mind?

    My take on the 17th century dutch emblem caption is that it must have inspired Delingpole’s Green on the Outside Red on the inside book.

  11. Susan Anderson

    Russell, you are more literate than I, I was just playing (had to use google translate). In general, it is incumbent on all of us to move on and do our best with a sorry situation. In one of your posts you provided a program from the Heritage Foundation Texas meeting where climate science deniers held forth about how they alone are holding aloft the torch of truth and honesty. (Delingpole is contemptible, my opinion.)

    In my timewasting internet writing, I am still encountering people who thought Bernie was so right that they either stayed home, voted for him or Jill Stein, or even switched to Trump, and are now attacking Democrats under the assumption that somehow after the last 40 years of Kochian manipulations and Republican obstruction Hillary and other hardworking moderates and politicians are the problem. These are the people I’m labeling unicorn worshippers and victim blamers. Bernie is a kind of unicorn or St. George (perhaps Don Quixote), since he says what they want to hear but refuses to acknowledge that the tarnish on Hillary is because she’s actually tried to do those things. They worship him and hate her.

    I know you’re a Republican, but I also know you are rational about what is going on with our climate, and it seems to me you have more to put up with than I in largely Democratic-leaning fora. You were not my target. I don’t expect you to agree with me about parts; the fact that you are here at all makes you a bit of a hero (don’t blush).

    So the people I’m worried about are people to my left who think burning the house down will work and are still hating on Democrats and Hillary. The talking points they are using come from a quarter century of opposition work.

  12. So what does the midden have to do with the unicorn- or the rhinoceros as the case may be?

  13. Susan Anderson

    Ain’t we got fun (with apologies to Tamino, hope this doesn’t come out too large. Russell, pax. Midden is perhaps too kind to Trump, and unicorn is Bernie Sanders and what I call the purity monster.