OLD FICTIONS AND NEW REALITIES
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- It was a week when the Longshoremen's union pulled 3000 postcards from barrels containing 300,000 entries, the lucky winners getting entry level jobs on the docks. In Hollywood, movie buffs gathered for the annual Cinecon film festival. There is a linkage between the two items, subtle but significant, and it even bears on our upcoming election.
The topic involves our attitudes towards social and economic stratification.
Here is a typical plot from one of the old 1920s era movies we saw at Cinecon: A young man, the son of a wealthy merchant, has been through college and now is languishing. Dad, a prototypical self-made man, challenges the young man to prove himself in business. Dad doesn't approve of his son's girlfriend, because she comes from a lower social and economic class.
The plot can center on the girlfriend or the rich son, but the attitude and happy ending are equivalent: Eventually both son and girlfriend prove their worth and are accepted into the community of wealth and ease.
This week's drawing and the movie plot reveal different aspects of our national economic ideology. Whether it is a reality or a fantasy is a different question, but we can at least recognize our national obsession for what it is. We believe in not only the desirability but the possibility of breaking through economic boundaries to a life of wealth and security.
We are so accustomed to this ideology that we forget that it was not always so. The idea that a person has a place in the social strata and should "know her place" was once part of our ancestors' ideology and still exists in some parts of the world.
In the movies, it is possible for a hard working young man to make something of himself. The sister-plot involves a plucky young woman who marries that guy. They end up with a house of their own. He no longer stands in line for the chance at a low paying job, and she no longer scrubs clothes all day for a living.
Most of these films from 80 years ago reveal a strong ambivalence towards the wealthy. We would like to live like they do, but they are jerks. They are rude to the poor and insensitive to human suffering. A standard plot line involves some rich girl being reduced in circumstances (that means she now has to work to survive) and, depending on whether it is played as a comedy or as a morality tale, she either gets her comeuppance permanently or she finds her stronger inner self (and then marries that rich guy).
Implicit in this plot is the idea that it is OK to be wealthy as long as you aren't a jerk. Being a jerk is defined as liking the social divisions between poor and rich. Not being a jerk is defined as being able to recognize the value in the commoners, particularly commoners with movie star good looks.
In other words, the films of the 1920s recognized that there was a strong social structure, that it was enforced by the practices and internal culture of the rich, but that it is possible for the rare person to break through the barriers.
Not only is it possible, but such breakthroughs are treated, at least in the movies, as a desirable turn of events. Early American films had great fun satirizing the rigid social stratification of European monarchies and the social pretense of our homegrown aristocracy.
In our own time, the late 1960s was an era when many people held businessmen and their industries in open contempt. It was considered somehow sordid to be interested in making money rather than in creating art or music. The attitude was at once puerile and unrealistic, but it seems to have provoked a strong reaction which we still endure to this day.
It's no secret how a few rich men created foundations and propaganda organizations (including radio and tv networks) to push their conservative views. What we sometimes forget is that part of that campaign was the attempt to restore the attitude that we see in those old movies: Business is good, wealth is a good thing to have, and those who don't have it could get it if they did the right things. What has been missing is the more complex ambivalence expressed in those early movies and in the literature of the time.
The drawing held in the port of Los Angeles for those union cards is the place where reality bumps up against our fantasies. The reason those union cards were so avidly sought after is that they provide a chance to make a white collar salary for doing blue collar work. It's that simple. Not many high school graduates can make $90,000 a year in salaried employment. You can do it working on the west coast docks, but you can't work on the west coast docks without that card.
In an era where even well paid aviation workers are looking at the loss of their pension funds and are being driven to take large wage cuts, the docks remain a workers' stronghold.
It is hard to find a place or an industry anywhere else in this country where the wages and benefits are so good, or the employment remains so secure.
We are not hearing much about that drawing from either side in the election campaign. The Republicans don't like to talk about economic stratification. The Democrats have a different problem, namely that well paid union members are only a small part of the coalition they would like to build, and many low-paid workers have resentments of their own.
The deeper question is our attitude towards economic stratification itself. Study after study shows the increasing gap between the rich and the not-rich. In this post-Keynesian era, the old socialist idea is in ruins. Its replacement is, perhaps, the European style welfare state, in which capitalistic industry runs effectively, while income is redistributed through a system of strongly progressive taxation.
There is a sort of taboo about even discussing this concept in America. Every time the wealth gap is mentioned by a Democrat, the Republicans accuse him of "class warfare." We might respond cleverly that the class warfare has been going on for quite some time and the rich are winning. Unfortunately, this retort doesn't make it into our media very often.
Our attitude towards wealth and economic advancement is very confused and the media are not, for the most part, helping. It is a legitimate question as to whether we should tax more in order to distribute medical coverage to the poor and the middle class. It is a legitimate question as to whether we should strengthen our labor codes so that more workers in more industries can enjoy the sort of drawing we saw here last week.
The early film industry, from D.W. Griffith to Mary Pickford to Charles Chaplin explored the great questions of how our society treated the poor and celebrated the rich. They went to the fundamental questions: Is it right to do things this way? Is there anything we can do to make it better?
By comparison, our present day art and journalism are pale and thought-impaired.
The Republican attitude, implicit but unstated, is that of the rich jerks in those early movies. They celebrate being wealthy and look down on those who are not. The mass media have so far failed to make this clear to the voters.