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Filmmaker takes up cause of national civil discourse

Associated Press / March 26, 2011

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PHILADELPHIA — Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns is bringing his new film “Prohibition’’ to the National Constitution Center in the hopes of promoting more civil national discourse.

Burns, who has won acclaim for documentaries including “The Civil War’’ and “Baseball,’’ said at a news conference yesterday that highlights from his new 5 1/2-hour, three-part series, premiering this fall on PBS, will kick off a forum called “Civility and Democracy in America.’’

The forum at the Constitution Center, a museum dedicated to explaining the US Constitution, will include a series of group discussions over the weekend and a large town hall-style exchange that will be taped for a future broadcast.

The Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson that killed six people and critically injured US Representative Gabrielle Giffords has stoked public debate about the potential harm of inflammatory political rhetoric.

Many lawmakers have called on their colleagues to tone down the vitriol, and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — a Republican and a Democrat — announced shortly after the Arizona shooting that they would be honorary cochairmen of a new national institute to promote civility in political discourse.

At the Philadelphia event, not formally connected to the ex-presidents’ initiative, about 50 panelists with backgrounds in history, ethics, media, religion, politics, and business will take part in sessions on civility and come up with ideas to continue the discussions with similar events around the country in coming months.

“We find ourselves . . . so preoccupied with identifying the divisions among each other that we forget to get the things done that we have to get done,’’ Burns said. “We distinguish red state-blue state, black-white, young-old, male-female, gay-straight, east-west, north-south, and forget to select the thing we have in common, which is that we are all Americans.’’

Burns said the current national climate has many similarities to the Prohibition era: single-issue political campaigns that “metastasized’’ and produced unintended consequences, as well as the demonization of immigrants, unfunded mandates, smear campaigns against politicians, and a population that felt it had lost touch with its country and wanted to take it back.

Such struggles “speak as much to our period now as it does to the 13 years in which we were possessed by the fever to ban alcohol on this continent,’’ he said.

The past should teach us that failing to confront passionate issues with civility means our discourse and our democracy suffers.

“History is still a table around which we can all agree to have a civil conversation,’’ he said. “Quite often if we’re talking about a contemporary argument, whatever it might be . . . abortion or taxation or unions or funding for public broadcasting, we tend to lose our balance.’’

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