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Ken Burns To Stanford Grads: Stop Donald Trump

June 13, 2016, 3:26 AM UTC
Ken Burns
FILE - In this July 22, 2014 file photo, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns speaks during the “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History ” panel at the the PBS 2014 Summer TCA in Beverly Hills, Calif. Burns details the connections between two distantly related American presidents in his new documentary series. The 14-hour series unfolds over seven days on PBS, starting Sunday. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)
Photograph by Richard Shotwell — Invision/AP

It started with Abraham Lincoln and ended with Arthur Miller, and in between was Donald Trump. A lot of Donald Trump.

About seven minutes into what would be a 25-minute commencement speech at Stanford University, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns turned to the words of Abraham Lincoln to call on the graduating students—and thousands of spectators sitting in the stands above—to do “everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process, divided our house.”

Burns was referring to the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Burns called Trump many things—a charlatan, a naked emperor, a bullying, infantile man—as he addressed the graduating class of Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

But just like “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” in the J.K. Rowling’s series of Harry Potter novels, Burns never actually said his name. He didn’t need to.

The message was clear, and mostly well received. At one point, a few loud boos emanated from one section of Stanford’s stadium, where commencement was held Sunday. But students, and others, quickly drowned out the few vocal opponents.

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Burns’ speech puts Stanford in the national spotlight for a second time this month—the first after Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced former Stanford student Brock Turner to six months in jail for sexual assaulting an unconscious woman outside a fraternity party in January 2015.

The graduation did attract protesters over the sexual assault and weak sentence, including some students who ditched the typical costumes of the Wacky Walk tradition for more serious garb to protest sexual assault on campus. In his opening remarks, Stanford President John Hennessey called for a moment of silence for both the survivors of sexual violence and victims of the nightclub massacre in Orlando. Even Burns gave a few moments of his speech to denounce sexual assault.

Below is the transcript of Burns’ speech, beginning at about the seven-minute mark. For the entire commencement, you can watch the YouTube video below. Stanford published the transcript of Burns’ speech on its website.


As a filmmaker, as a historian, as an American, I have been drawn continually to the life and example and words of Abraham Lincoln. He seems to get us better than we get ourselves. One hundred and fifty eight years ago, in mid June of 1858, Abraham Lincoln, running in what would be a failed bid for the United States Senate, at a time of bitter partisanship in our national politics, almost entirely over the issue of slavery, spoke to the Republican State Convention in the Illinois State House in Springfield.

His political party, the Republican Party, was brand new, born barely four years before with one single purpose in mind: To end the intolerable hypocrisy of chattel slavery that still existed in a country promoting certain unalienable rights to itself and the world.

He said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” A house divided against itself cannot stand. Four and half years later he was president, presiding over a country in the midst of the worst crisis in American history, our Civil War—giving his annual message to Congress, what we now call the State of the Union.

The State of the Union was not good. His house was divided. But he also saw the larger picture. The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty,” he said, “and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and we then will shall save our country.”

And then he went on. “Fellow citizens we cannot escape history. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

You are this latest generation he was metaphorically speaking about.

And you are, whether you are yet aware of it or not, charged with saving our union. The stakes are slightly different than the ones Lincoln faced. There is not yet armed rebellion, but they are just as high.

And before you go out and try to live and shape the rest of your life you are required now to rise as Lincoln implored us with the occasion.

You know it’s terribly fashionable these days to criticize the United States government, the institution Lincoln was trying to save. To blame it for all of the ills known to human kind, and my goodness, ladies and gentlemen, let’s be honest, it has made more than its fair share of catastrophic mistakes. But you would be hard pressed to find in all of human history, a greater force for good. From our Declaration of Independence to our Constitution and Bill of Rights, from Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation and the 13th, 14th, 15th and women’s 19th amendments to land grant college and homestead acts from the transcontinental railroad and our national parks to child labor laws, social security, and the national labor relations acts from the GI bill, and the interstate highway system, to putting a man on the moon and the affordable care act, the United States government has been the author of many of the best aspects of our public and personal lives.

But if you tune into politics, if you listen to the rhetoric of this election cycle you are made painfully aware that everything is going to hell in a hand basket and the chief culprit is our evil government. Part of the reason this kind of criticism sticks is because we live in an age of social media, where we are constantly assured that we are all independent free agents. But that free agency is essentially unconnected to real community, divorced from civic engagement, duped into believing in our own lonely primacy by a sophisticated media culture that requires you, no desperately needs you to live in an all-consuming disposable present. Wearing the right blue jeans, driving the right car, carrying the right handbag, eating at all the right places, blissfully unaware of the historical tides that have brought us to this moment, blissfully uninterested in where those tides might take us.

Our spurious sovereignty is reinforced and perpetually underscored to our obvious and great comfort, but this kind of existence actually engrains in us a stultifying sameness that rewards conformity not courage, ignorance and anti-intellectualism, not critical thinking.

This wouldn’t be so bad, if we were just wasting our own lives, but this year our political future depends on it. And there comes a time when I, and you, can no longer remain neutral, silent; we must speak up, and speak out.

For 216 years, our elections, though bitterly contested, had featured the philosophies and characters of candidates who were clearly qualified.

That is not the case this year.

One is glaringly not qualified. So before you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process, divided our house. To fight against, no matter your political persuasion, the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much maligned, but subtle art of governance.

Who is against lots of things, but doesn’t seem to be for anything—offering only bombastic and contradictory promises and terrifying Orwellian statesman, a person who easily lies, creating an environment where the truth doesn’t seem to matter, who has never demonstrated any interest in anyone or anything, but himself and his own enrichment. Who insults veterans, threatens the free press, mocks the handicapped, denigrates women, immigrants, and all Muslims; a man who took more than a day to remember to disavow a supporter who advocates white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan.

An infantile, bullying man, who depending on his mood is willing to discard old and established alliances, treaties, and long-standing relationships.

I feel genuine sorrow for the understandably scared and they feel powerless—people who have flocked to his campaign in the mistaken belief that as often happens on TV, a wand can be waved and every complicated problem can be solved with the simplest of solutions. They can’t; it is a political Ponzi scheme. And asking this man to assume the highest office in the land would be like asking a newly minted car driver to fly a 747.

As a student of history, I recognize this type. He emerges everywhere and in all eras. We see nurtured in his campaign an incipient proto-fascism, a nativist anti-immigrant know-nothingism, a disrespect for the judiciary, the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted, jingoistic saber rattling, a total lack of historical awareness, a political paranoia that predictably points fingers, always making the other wrong.

These are all virulent strains that have at times infected us in the past, but they now loom in front of us again, all happening at once. We know from our history books that these are the diseases of ancient and now fallen empires.

We know from our history books that these are the diseases of ancient and now fallen empires. The sense of commonwealth, of shared sacrifice, of trust—so much a part of American life is eroding fast, spurred along and amplified by an amoral Internet that permits a lie to circle the globe three times before the truth can get started.

We longer have the luxury of neutrality or balance or even bemused disdain. Many of our media institutions have largely failed to expose this charlatan, torn between a nagging responsibility to good journalism and the big ratings a media circus always delivers. In fact, they have given him the abundant airtime he so desperately craves, so much so that it has actually worn down our natural human revulsion to this kind of behavior. Hey, he’s rich; he must be doing something right. He’s not.

Edward R. Murrow would have exposed this naked emperor months ago. He is an insult to our history. And do not be deceived by his momentary good behavior; it’s only a spoiled misbehaving child hoping somehow to still have dessert.

And do not think that the tragedy in Orlando underscores his points; it does not. We must disenthrall ourselves as Abraham Lincoln said from the culture of violence and guns and then we shall save our country.

This ladies and gentlemen is not a liberal or conservative issue, a red state, blue state divide; this is an American issue. Many honorable people, including the last two Republican presidents—members of the party of Abraham Lincoln—have declined to support him.

And I implore those Vichy Republicans who have endorsed him to please, please reconsider. We must remain committed to the kindness and community that are the hallmarks of civilization and reject the troubling unfiltered Tourette’s of his tribalism.

The next few months of your commencement, that is to say, your future will be critical to the survival of the Republic. The occasion is piled high with difficulty. Let us pledge here today that we will not let this happen to the exquisite, yet deeply flawed land we all love and cherish, and hope to leave intact to our posterity.

Let us nobly save, not meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.

Let me speak directly to the graduating class: Watch out, here comes the advice.

Look, I am the father of four daughters. If someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted, take it effing seriously and listen to them. Maybe someday we will make the survivor’s eloquent statement as important as Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail.

OK, try not to make the other wrong, as I just did with the presumptive nominee: Be for something.

Be curious, not cool. Feed your soul too, everyday.

Remember insecurity makes liars of us all, not just presidential candidates.

Don’t confuse success with excellence. The poet Robert Penn Warren once told me that careerism is death. Do not descend too deeply into specialism either, educate all of your parts, you will be healthier.

Free yourself from the limitations of the binary world; it is just a tool, a means, not an end.

Seek out and have mentors, listen to them.

The late theatrical director Tyrone Guthrie once said, “We are looking for ideas large enough to be afraid of again.” Embrace those new ideas. Bite off more than you can chew.

Travel; do not get stuck in one place. Visit our national parks. Their sheer majesty may remind you of your own atomic insignificance, as one observer noted. But in the inscrutable ways of nature, you will feel larger and spirited, just as the egotist in our midst is diminished by his or her self-regard.

Insist on heroes, and be one.

Read: The book is still the greatest man-made machine of all—not the car, not the TV, not the smartphone.

Make babies. One of the greatest things that will happen to you is that you will have to worry—I mean really worry—about someone other than yourself. It is liberating and exhilarating, I promise. Ask your parents.

Do not lose your enthusiasm. In its Greek etymology, the word enthusiasm means simply ‘God in us.’

Serve your country. Insist that we fight the right wars. Convince your government, as Lincoln knew, that the real threat always and still comes from within this favored land. Governments always forget that.

Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts; they have nothing to do with the actual defense of our country, they just make our country worth defending.

Believe. Believe as Arthur Miller told me in an interview for my very first film on the Brooklyn Bridge. Believe that maybe you to could add something that would last and be beautiful.

And vote. You indelibly underscore your citizenship and our connection to each other when you do.

Good luck and Godspeed.

The response on social media to Burns’ speech was overwhelmingly positive, with celebrities, journalists, and the general public Tweeting their support.

And, finally, it seems Stanford is pleased with their choice of commencement speaker and his remarks: