Front page

Are you afraid of the dark?

(Click to invert colors, weenie.) (Requires JavaScript.)

All email will be assumed to be for publication unless otherwise requested.

What's in the banner?

Thursday, November 07, 2002

Deconstruction Ism

As promised, Ism, a day late.

Among the films at the Prelinger Archive is Make Mine Freedom. This is a beautiful little anti-Communist cartoon from 1948.

Labor, capital, farmers, and politicians---each group represented by a character---are all blaming each other for making a mess of things. A slick salesman comes along and wants to sell them Dr. Utopia's "Ism", which he promises will be all things to all people.

All they have to do in order to get "Ism" is sign this little contract giving up their freedom, their children's freedom, and their children's children's freedom, etc. Then Ism will take care of them forever. They're willing to do this, but up pops mild little John Q. Public. He says they should know what they're giving up first.

He begins a lengthy explanation of capitalism, using the example of "Joe Doakes" (seems to have been the "John Doe" or "Joe Blow" of its day) who had a great idea for an invention (a car---this film was sponsored by Alfred P. Sloan, former chair of G.M.). He got his neighbors to lend him some dough to develop it:

"When Joe's friends and relatives used their savings to help him buy tools and property, they were capitalists."
[All the friends blush and hide their faces.] "Don't blush folks---it's nothing to be ashamed of."

John Q. ends by telling them that the free enterprise system has made the country the richest on the earth. More of our children go to school and college than any other country. Our national income is equal to the national income of national incomes of the next six riches nations combined. "With only 7 percent of the Earth's people, we drive seventy percent of the world's automobiles."

(This is the sort of thing people trot out now to show how horrible the US is.)

Then he urges the four men to taste the Ism. They each find that it brings the giant hairy blue hand of the State down upon them, making them its slaves and puppets. So they spit the Ism out while John Q. says, "When anybody preaches disunity, tries to pit one of us against the other through class warfare, race hatred, or religious intolerance, you know that person seeks to rob us of our freedom and destroy our very lives...And we know what to do about it."

The Ism salesman is chased away by the four men, and they have a patriotic parade, which finishes with a voice-over:

"Working together to produce an ever greater abundance of material and spiritual values for all. That is the secret of American prosperity."

So, OK, the end is a little much, but the parade is funny, especially the rather swishy march John Q. does.

Here's part of what the Archive site has to say about the film:

Although [this series of films] purported to be relaxed, humorous explanations of how America's economy works, they sought both to discredit anti-capitalist ideas and explain why our system worked better than any conceivable alternative. Although the apparent collapse of socialism around the world in the late 1980s may make these films seem prophetic today, such ideas weren't taken for granted in the postwar climate.

Extensive reading of the comments on this site would suggest that whoever wrote them is really sorry about the collapse of socialism around the world.

Make Mine Freedom links patriotism with free enterprise and freedom with prosperity. "Working together to produce an ever-greater abundance of material and spiritual values for all. That is the secret of American prosperity." "Working together," of course, is a dishonest concept when used to describe communities whose interests differ.

Whoever wrote this apparently went to the University of Missed Points. This is exactly what the short intends to show, that these disparate groups do have at least some interests in common, one of them being the survival of freedom, including free enterprise. But no, labor has no interest in free enterprise, which he knows is only the name of the chill iron boot upon his neck.

The commenter would have a better argument if he pointed out that this film and many others promotes freedom with the hard sell on prosperity. Freedom brings prosperity, the films say---a point many bloggers would agree with. I'd be a little more comfortable if they'd promote freedom as something worth having regardless of whether or not it made us prosperous. An emphasis on freedom=prosperity might backfire in less prosperous times.

...Make Mine Freedom employs a "stealth" strategy. Self-deprecating humor prevails, perhaps because the films were made to play before distracted and highly skeptical audiences, and the targets of this humor include our consumer culture and the dubious innovations it creates.

Ahhh...those sophisticated audiences of old, so ready to lampoon "our consumer culture" and its "dubious innovations"---which would be, in this case, the automobile. My conversations with my parents and grandparents---the latter having grown up in the Depression, the former in the post-war years---reveal little contempt for innovation or "consumer culture". They grew up poor, and by the time their kids were in high school they were richer than they'd ever thought to be. And I'm talking people of fairly modest means here, not Bill Gates.

Strangely, one fellow seems to have missed the sophisticated, skeptical audiences:

But Roger Spottiswoode was much less favorable. In his review (included on this disc) he criticized Make Mine Freedom for its "hatred of foreigners, a contempt for their way of life, and an attempt to bigotry and intolerance at home." "The whole unpleasant dish," he stated, "is served up with a crude but appealing humor, calculated to lull an audience into a receptive frame of mind."

This is the richest horseshit, but hang on a minute.

Now, I've said before that the comments on this site are divided into reviewers (anyone who wants to sign up and submit a review), Ken Smith's (who has some unobjectionable comments I didn't reproduce) and some mysterious comments which may be from Prelinger's Our Secret Century. The reference to Spottiswoode's review "on this disc" is no doubt taken from those last comments, but I have no idea who this is supposed to be:

GREAT anti-communist PROPAGANDA entirely animation; ostensibly (scummy) patriotic film which shows us the capitalist good guys and the socialists who wish to enslave us all.

...racist caricatures of people of other nations and how they don't stack up financially to Americans in per capita income;

[Rick, I have never seen anything like this where the superego tells the mob to murder a socialist and the mob joins in happily]

The name Spottiswoode meant nothing to me. Turns out he's the director of, among other things, Turner and Hooch. Spottiswoode must have seen a different film. There is not a scrap of foreigner hatred in the film I saw. Foreigners are mentioned exactly twice: when John Q. Public says that we don't need any "imported double-talk" in the US, and when the income of foreign countries is compared to ours. There is no "contempt for their way of life", unless a pride in our own can be said to be.

As for these second, mystery comments: there are no racist caricatures in the film. There is one frame where an American sits on a big pile of coins, and six other figures, representing other countries, sit on much smaller piles. None of the figures moves or speaks. They are identifiably a Russian, an Arab, a German (or perhaps Austrian or Swiss). Two others may be French and English, and the sixth I can't identify (the picture's very small). They are caricatures, to be sure, but so are Labor, Capital, Farm, and Politician. And the salesman. And numerous characters throughout, including the stingy "Uncle Angus" who invests in Joe Doakes's business.

And "the superego" (John Q. Public) doesn't tell them to murder the socialist. They just run him out of town.

Now, to be sure, there are weird things in this film. That's much of the enjoyment of these films---not to poke fun of them (though that's good too), but as amateur archaeology, study of a time almost ours, but not quite. For example, the Farmer is a major character in this film, whereas the farm vote is no longer very formidable in American politics (at least, not as imagined here). I'm a little surprised that the Politician is seen as having his own class, his own will, rather than being just the mouthpiece of his constituents.

More startling, though, are two of the things they mention as being characteristic of America. One is "the right to a speedy and public trial". This is represented by a pretty girl on the witness stand, who gets a chorus of wolf whistles from the jury. The hell...? The other is "protection against cruel punishments and excessive fines": this is represented by a prisoner being served a full course turkey dinner by a guard. Uh, yeah, right.

I've become really annoyed at the comments on this site. The reviewers on the Prelinger site, Ken Smith and (possibly) Prelinger himself congratulate themselves on being able to see right through these corny old films. They, of course, are too cosmopolitan for cheap sentimentality and facile patriotism. So they opt instead for simplistic sophistication and discount deconstruction.

My favorite of these old films gives a wonderful glimpse into a more optimistic, confident time. I know it's fashionable to think of the '50s, say, as a dark, dread era of choking repression and endless exhortations to CONFORM! But there was another '50s, of optimism and hope. I'd love to be able to toss out the conformist '50s and grasp the optimistic, pink-and-turquoise, Googie '50s with both hands.

So that's what I'll be doing with these movies, over a period of time.

And remember, don't buy any "Ism".