Beverly Gage Misses the Mark on Ken Burns’ ‘The War’

Ken BurnsThe War–a seven-episode, fourteen-hour documentary on the Second World War, released in 2007–was never going to find favor with all who viewed it. Mostly because it is unabashedly sentimental, an unforgivable sin for those of ironic and skeptical persuasion. Even granted this, Beverly Gage‘s review in Slate–which I read after finishing my view of Burns’ opus–seems particularly misguided.

For Gage, The War is “manipulative, nostalgic, and nationalistic”, a bit like making “The Civil War solely from the Union perspective.” Of course, as Gage admits, Burns set out to provide an incomplete, all-American narrative:

Burns readily admits that The War is neither a complete nor balanced account of World War II. “The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting,” reads the opening screen of each episode. “This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced that war.” He means this quite literally.

Imagine that: being forced to take a movie-maker’s manifesto at face value.

The War showcases a handful of lively, eloquent Americans from four disparate towns—Waterbury, Conn.; Sacramento, Calif.; Mobile, Ala.; and Luverne, Minn. The series contains no identifiable historical experts. (Though cultural historians Paul Fussell and Sam Hynes appear frequently, they are also veterans and are identified only as “infantry” and “Marine pilot.”)

This identification should have given the game away to Gage; this documentary was never intended to be an academic analysis of the Second World War; it is meant to give voice to those who are not often heard from–those who remained at home, and those who fought the war.

The War offers no commentary from the German or Japanese side, or even from the British or Canadians.

But a multi-faceted narrative of the Second World War need not be contained in the same source; perhaps we could stitch one–of the various home fronts during that conflict–by stitching together German, Japanese, British and Canadian ones. And since Gage did bring up the topic–why leave out the personal narratives associated with the many home fronts in that war? You know, the Russian, the Polish, the Czech, the Indian–the list goes on.

Indeed, apart from a few necessary mentions to move the plot along, the film says little about Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Hirohito, Churchill, FDR, or any of the other national leaders who presided over the worst catastrophe of the 20th century.

Of all the bizarre critiques that could have been mounted of Burns’ documentary, this one surely takes the proverbial cake. The Second World War remains the most profusely documented and forensically analyzed human event ever; millions of pages and miles of film have been expended on it; its political, economic, and military dimensions have been the object of study for professionals and amateurs alike. The names that Gage lists above are among the most recognizable names in human history–largely because of their role in the Second World War. And yet, somehow, an academic historian insists that a narrative, intended to be narrowly focused through a very particular lens, is flawed, precisely because it disdains traveling through some deep, well-worn grooves.

I could go on on, but I’ll stop here. Gage was clearly determined to castigate Burns for not having made another documentary altogether. Her mood in the review suggests she would have slammed comic book artists for using too many illustrations and comedians for being too facetious.

Matthew Yglesias Does Not Seem to Understand E-Commerce

Matthew Yglesias is skeptical of people who think e-commerce giant Amazon has a creepy, monopolistic plan to take over the world of retail. He quotes Jay Goltz, ‘proprietor of a small retail store’ as saying it is ‘impossible to make money competing with Amazon…because Amazon itself isn’t making money’:

Why would a company choose to operate without a profit? Because it wants to provide great value? Check. Because it wants everyone to love the brand? Check. Because it wants to gain market share? Check. Because it wants to put everyone else out of business, so that it can one day flick a switch to raise prices and make a fortune? CHECK!…Gaining market share by not taking a profit makes the most sense if you are planning to raise prices later when you have less competition.

Yglesias acknowledges this Amazon strategy is widely talked about, but still, he wonders:

But it’s hard to see how that plan would work. Part of the genius of the Internet is that it makes it much easier for brands to directly market their wares to people. It’s easy to see how Amazon might put K-Mart out of business, but the only way for them to put Samsung out of business would be to actually manufacture mobile phones and televisions. And if Amazon ever starts trying to charge outrageous markups on Samsung’s products, people would just buy directly from Samsung. Amazon would probably be more efficient at delivering things quickly, but then any price premium Amazon charges would be in effect an upcharge for fast delivery not a monopoly rent. And most of the time delivery speed just isn’t that big a deal.

My guess is that Amazon’s growth-first strategy really is exactly what it looks like—a strategy to pursue growth-first that shareholders tolerate because Jeff Bezos is executing it really well and he has a compelling vision. But “drive the competition out and then raise prices” is very much a meatspace business strategy. In a world where physical location doesn’t matter very much, it’s hard to see how you could pull it off. And even if you could pull it off, you’d still have to just assume that the Justice Department and the FTC would for some reason fail to enforce the anti-trust laws.

There are several problems with this optimism.

First, Yglesias is comparing apples and oranges. The threat from Amazon is not to primary manufacturers but to the retail business. Why would Amazon ever want to put those who manufacture the goods it retails out of business? Amazon’s primary value as a retailer selling everything under the sun is in making it unattractive to shop anywhere else. This does not mean customers will not buy elsewhere if the price is right; it is just that with economies of scale, very few competitors will be able to compete with Amazon. Monopolistic behavior is thus still available to those who practice e-commerce; physical location is irrelevant, here, yes, but not in the way that Yglesias imagines. It does not insulate against the acquisition of monopoly.

Second, suppose we grant Yglesias’ assumption that Amazon would need to hurt Samsung in order to live up to its supposed monopolistic threat. Amazon could still do so by providing a clearinghouse for Samsung competitors and marketing them aggressively, by making Samsung look less attractive (with aggressive markups), by monopolizing retail spaces and reducing Samsung’s distribution capabilities. It is not the case that the ‘only way’ Amazon could hurt Samsung is by manufacturing the same items that Samsung does.  That assertion shows a lack of understanding of Amazon’s capabilities, many made possible by its operational medium.

Lastly, I find Yglesias’ faith in the FTC and Justice Department quite touching.