I suspect that Ken Burns' latest documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," hits closer to home to many Americans than many of Burns' earlier efforts, spectacular as they were. Lewis and Clark's journey, the Civil War, and even World War II, for instance, recede as mere history in many minds. But to the millions of Americans who have visited national parks as children, or with children or grandchildren of their own, the unlikely creation of national parks and monuments speaks to their actual memories, or to their dreams. My two trips to Glacier National Park this summer, one with each of my kids, remains by far the highlight of my year, or, really, of my decade.
Burns' six-part, 12-hour film carries many lessons, most importantly the quintessentially democratic idea of special places set aside not just for the rich, but for all. Then, many years after the first parks were formed, came this key concept: the preservation of wildlife, not just scenery. But what will bring tears of gratitude to many viewers is the realization that our national parks could easily have never come to be.
Conservationists, of course, will lap up this documentary, much as red-meat conservatives devour commentary on Fox News or liberals wolf down columns by the likes of Paul Krugman. People always have divided themselves into such categories, whatever the causes or labels may have been over the centuries. And it is human nature to favor the balm of what we already believe.
But whatever your politics, the fact remains that unless the government had not wrested these lands out of the hands of red-faced, sputtering entrepreneurs unable to see how bureaucrats could be allowed to hinder progress, there's not a conservative living today who could visit these crown jewels, not of only our continent, but of our democratic way of life.