In his latest documentary, the award-winning filmmaker examines the life, achievements and complicated backstory of one of America's most famous Founding Fathers.
There are many ways to describe Benjamin Franklin, a person any American schoolkid knows from social studies class. He signed, and helped draft, the Declaration of Independence and was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Franklin was also a writer, scientist, inventor, diplomat and political thinker. He helped set up our modern postal system and is credited with popularizing lending libraries and creating the first public fire department, in Philadelphia. And he invented the lightning rod and bifocals.
To award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, the subject of his latest historical documentary was also the first person to understand what it means to be "American." A man who considered himself British most of his life, Franklin became an American while working to ease tensions with England. He saw firsthand that Britain would never grant colonists, including celebrated thinkers such as himself, the rights and respect afforded to British citizens.
"He's the first one to imagine what it's like to be an American," Burns says when asked to describe the takeaways from his two-part, four-hour documentary called, simply, Benjamin Franklin. "He's not on the $100 bill for nothing." Burns' latest airs this week on PBS and is available to stream on PBS.org, and he spoke with me during an interview for CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast.
Franklin "is the epitome of American striving," Burns says. "But contrary to this kind of developed libertarian view, where I owe nothing to nobody and government is best that governs least and all that sort of stuff, he's definitely for all of us getting together and sharing things. He invents all these things, which he holds without patent. He's not going to make money on it. This is stuff that benefits other people. And, you know, if you did that today, people would be horrified."
There's more that makes Franklin different from today's inventors, says Burns. As a printer and publisher, Franklin also valued bringing people together to share ideas. He helped reform the US postal service so letters weren't sent from the states to England before being delivered back to recipients in the American colonies. He authored Poor Richard's Almanac, sharing his wit and wisdom in plain, pragmatic prose. And he published a newspaper, The Philadelphia Gazette, in which he wrote essays about life in the colonies and described his experiments with kites, lightning and electricity.
"He was social media," Burns says. "He's a printer. He's a publisher of books and magazines -- and stamps and mail. He controls, in these English seaboard colonies, the flow of information. That's social media. And it's for the better good, right? He's allowing ideas, there's humor."
In contrast, Burns adds, today's social media platforms are "asocial."
"Ever go into a room with a teenager? Do they do anything with each other? They think they are, but they're all looking at their devices. They're not present. There's nothing social about their presence," he says.
"Actually, social media is the isolation of the human being," Burns says. "And the problem is that within the structures of social media are all the ingredients of tyranny. They're supposed to be democratic and liberation, but they also permit lies to be spread and to be spread maliciously, without any affect to what they do. We are not allowed to scream fire in a crowded theater unless there's a fire. That is the limitation of free speech. But there is no such limitation throughout the internet. Even the minor slaps -- 'Oh, we're going to kick him off of Twitter, or we're going to do this' -- the damage is already done. It's already been done ... Visit a national park. It makes you healthier."
It's a pretty dark view of the society we live in. He also has a few thoughts on the culture of misinformation thriving in the world today, the challenges facing our democracy, the racism that permeates our culture, the inequities faced by women, and the looming danger of climate change. But Burns -- who's used his filmmaking skills and partnership with public broadcasting to bring us everything from insights into jazz, baseball and country music to intimate looks at notable Americans like Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson and Mark Twain -- says part of the antidote to our "really challenged time" is storytelling.
"The novelist Richard Power said the best arguments in the world won't change a single person's point of view -- the only thing that can do that is a good story," he says. "We've just got to tell stories. I believe my responsibility, because I'm very fortunate to know what I'm supposed to be doing, is to try to tell stories in our past that help us sort of understand the way we've gotten through things like this before."
Burns also talked about the contradictions of Franklin, who was a slaveholder who didn't become an abolitionist until very late in his life. And we talked about the homemade quilts Burns has collected his whole life -- he calls quilts "unknown stories" -- and about his favorite piece of tech, his smartphone. We also talked about how Steve Jobs convinced him to let Apple name a special effects feature in its video software after him. The "Ken Burns effect" is a type of panning and zooming used to bring still images to life.
"I've saved lots of weddings and trips and bar mitzvahs and memorial services because people have been able to put it together into nice little shows," he says with a laugh. "But it is a kind of superficial version of what we're trying to do to wake up those old photographs that seem moribund and dead. We want to get inside them and read them and wake them up and ask them to tell us their stories."
Listen in to my wide-ranging conversation with Burns in the podcast player above. Or subscribe to I'm So Obsessed on your favorite podcast app. In each episode, Patrick Holland or I catch up with an artist, actor or creator to learn about work, career and current obsessions.