Thursday, May 03, 2007

But I'm a Taxpayer!

I have been following the whole Ken Burns’s* WWII documentary controversy with the mild interested reserve of someone who doesn't watch TV and has no plans whatsoever to watch the documentary. According to the WaPo article, Latinos' Battle With Burns Taken to 'War' Sponsors, “the controversy began last fall when, after a screening of the film, Burns's team acknowledged that Latinos were not represented in the documentary.”

The Post goes on to state:

“PBS and Burns have said that they will add additional material to address the issue and that they have hired a Latino filmmaker to assist in producing it. But Burns and PBS have said repeatedly that the film itself is complete and that the new material will not be part of the stories detailed in the documentary.

“The addition of new material hasn't quieted the protests; the organizations are concerned that such content will be a mere "add-on" that marginalizes the war service of Latinos.”

I am still unsure where I stand on the issue. On one hand, I understand how certain groups, like Native Americans and Latinos, are feeling marginalized. On the other hand, I believe it is important to respect a director’s artistic vision.

However, a quote by Manuel Mirabal, the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility’s chairman, annoyed me:

"We should all be working to resolve this issue together. We understand that Ken Burns has his artistic principles, but in this case taxpayer dollars were used to make this film and it is flawed. Ken Burns can make as many films as he wants, but the buck stops here because he's using our taxpayer dollars." [Emphasis added]

I hate the “you’re using my taxpayer dollars” argument, and anytime anyone uses it, I lose a tiny bit of respect for their argument.

As you may know, I work for a government contractor. I do my best to answer people’s inquiries, but there isn’t always an easy answer. I may need to refer a caller to a technical contact, a regional office, or an entirely different agency. Sometimes, when this happens, a caller gets frustrated and will say, “I’m a taxpayer.” I guess they are trying to say, “I pay your salary, you should do everything you can for me.”

I usually respond with “I am a taxpayer, too.” Because, really, how much of an individual’s taxes actually go to a specific organization? Think about it. How much did you pay in taxes last year? Now, divide that by all the organizations that use tax dollars. What fraction of a penny did that particular whiny taxpayer contribute to my salary?

What fraction of a penny did an individual, or even a large group of individuals, contribute to Ken Burns’s documentary? There are millions of taxpayers. Do we all get a voice in the production of Mr. Burns's documentary? What about the taxpayers who like it as is?

One of my former co-workers at the Sackler Gallery of Art gift shop is an amazing artist. One day at work, she told me that at her exhibition, someone came up to her and asked, "Why don't you paint white people?"

The artist replied, "Because I'm black."

What if she had received a grant from a tax-supported governement agency? Should that taxpayer have the right to force my friend to paint white people?

As taxpayers, do we all get to dictate what artists create? Should every taxpayer be intimately involved in how every single aspect of our society is run? At what point do we put our sense of taxpayer entitlement aside and let people get on with their work?

Now my brain hurts.

*Grammar note: VUBOQ prefers to use Burns' instead of Burns's; however, he is choosing -in this particular instance- to follow the style example set by the WaPo article.


  1. I think the lines start to blur regarding artistic vision when you're making a documentary. Yes, you are still telling a story as you see it, but there is the added issue that you are arguing for this vision to be What Actually Happened, and the expectation that many of the viewing audience will end up being convinced of such. If Burns had been making a fictional movie based on actual events from WWII, it would be like most other WWII films made in Hollywood that generally ignore the fact that minorities existed in the 40's, and there would be grumbling, but it wouldn't have rubbed people the wrong way in the same manner that calling this a "documentary" has.

  2. Ken Burns made "Jazz," which means everybody ought to STFU and leave him alone. I don't give a shit how marginalized they think they are.

    The fact is that not everyone needs to be equally represented everywhere all the damn time. That is what's called handicapping. Here are a couple of quotes that illustrate my feelings on bringing everything down to the lowest common denominator:

    The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal. - Kurt Vonnegut

    The way to assure that no child is left behind is to make sure no child gets ahead. - Jerry Pournelle

    As for taxes, well. Paying for something doesn't mean you're qualified to have an opinion on it.

  3. I'm not sure where "lowest common denominator" came into play here...(?)

  4. As an actual historian, I don't think that "I'm an artist" would amount to much of anything when my work is reviewed. If Burns doesn't like being critiqued in this way, he should make fictional movies (which would have a different layer of critique).

    Also, he probably could have avoided this problem had he not been so grandiose in his statements about the documentary. You can't claim to be making the documentary on World War II that shows the "human experience" and then claim, "Well, I didn't mean every human." I doubt the black artist claims to represent all of humanity with her art. Rather, she would probably say that she is painting from her experience.

  5. i think it's simply time that we stop seeing any representation about white people and start focusing on all that have been left out. when I decide the playing ground has been leveled then we can think about whiteness for whiteness sake. but maybe we could make a special concession to gay whites and give them a 10 minute mention for every 2000 hours that gays of nonwhiteness are on stage.

    as for the taxpayers' money and artistic vision, jesse helms took care of that and made sure marginalized groups were silenced. so no worries, you're getting exactly what he wanted you to get in ken burns. embrace it. the mind is a terrible thing to fill with unapproved-by-moral majority clutter.