American Myth Versus Reality

The American Way - Ohio River Flood

I only saw this picture for the first time last night. But it is a classic from Life magazine. The actual history of the photo isn’t quite as stark as the message of it. Just the same, the message that people take away from it is still true. There is a group of African Americans standing in a food line and behind them is a billboard featuring a a very white family (Even the dog is white!) that proclaims, “World’s Highest Standard of Living.” The tag line — “There’s no way like the American Way” — takes on a whole different meaning than was originally intended.

The photograph was taken by Margaret Bourke-White during the 1937 Ohio River flood. This particular one was taken in Louisville, Kentucky. The only thing that really matters about this is that it explains why people are holding buckets. Even more than food, the people needed clean water. The area had received 18 inches of rain over a two week period. Check out all the pictures from the original article to see just how bad the situation was. But Bourke-White was known for her ironic photographs, and she certainly knew what she was doing. She was making a broader point.

The billboard was not, as one could reasonably assume, part of a government program to cheer people up and head off revolution. No, then as now, it is our private sector that is in the business of hoodwinking us into disbelieving our lying eyes. This billboard came courtesy of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). According to James Guimond in American Photography and the American Dream, photographers[1] for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) took great relish in going after these kinds of things:

First of all, as a group trying to show what had gone wrong with America, the FSA photographers had an aversion to the conservative, big business clichés about American economic life that continued to flourish in the 1930s along with the sufferings of the depression. They expressed this attitude most clearly in the deliberately ironic photographs they made of certain billboards that were part of what Life magazine called a “propaganda campaign” by the National Association of Manufacturers in the 1930s…

FSA photographers were quite assiduous in their pursuit of NAM and other big business propaganda billboards, and their irony was more deliberate. According to Arthur Rothstein, they considered the Manufacturers’ clichés about the American standard of living so absurd — at a time when millions of Americans were suffering from the depression — that they treated the billboards as fair game for visual ironies.

What I think is so amazing about this whole thing is that nothing has changed — except that people working for the government wouldn’t think of taking potshots at big business today. I’m reminded of this every time I hear someone claim that America has the best healthcare in the world. What they actually mean is that if you are rich you can get the best healthcare in the world here. Of course, you can do the same thing in Germany, France, and Japan — but let’s not go there right now. It’s ridiculous to think this way. It’s like saying, “Why did the French people revolt against King Louis XVI? His life was great!”

But I’m afraid that most Americans like their pretty delusions. But it gets harder and harder to maintain those delusions. I don’t think the inequities in our society today cause people to be outraged the way they did in the 1930s. Instead, we’ve reverted to an older and more cynical view of the world: the rich are rich simply because they are; the poor are poor because that is what they deserve; God wills it. This is not a rational response.


[1] Margaret Bourke-White was not part of the FSA.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “American Myth Versus Reality

  1. The inequalities in our society absolutely don’t cause people to be outraged the way they did in the 1930s. That’s because by the 1930s the fight back was active on a lot of fronts; even ten years earlier, such a thing was inconceivable. We could be in the 1920s now, or the 1880s, or some equivalent to pyramid-building Egypt where the poor will suffer for the next thousand years praying to gods of wealth; who knows?

    I do know that every voice saying this is wrong, and particularly the ones saying it in an original way, can do no harm and maybe do some good. It takes a ton of small contributions to produce big ones, and the tipping point between poor people blaming themselves and poor people inspiring each other can’t be easily defined.

    Rosa Parks was an activist and engaged in civil disobedience for years before her seat-refusal moment inspired that bus strike. She engaged in activism classes at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, as did many civil-rights figures, not being given marching orders but simply meeting other activists and sharing stories/ideas.

    The Highlander Folk School was founded by Americans who toured Denmark and learned about “folk schools” founded/inspired by one N.F.S. Grundtvig. Who? Huh?

    Grundtvig was a Danish preacher in an era when Denmark was trying to play the empire game and losing out to other European powers, badly. The languages spoken in high society were German and French; Danish was low-class. Grundtvig rallied for Danish-language schools that taught folk music and local involvement in standing up to bullies. This movement hit such a chord with Danes that Grundtvig ended up having some influence on Danish royalty; enough to inspire some mildly important land reforms.

    To this day, most Danes go to church maybe twice in their lives (marriages and funerals) but they all know the same church songs. And all those songs were traditional folk songs written down by Grundtvig (like an Alan Lomax or Pete Seeger figure.) Almost no-one in Denmark knows who he was; “um, some kind of poet?” was the response I usually got.

    He, through weird religious motivation of his own, helped a people oppressed by a failing empire re-discover the power they had in sticking together and rejecting how rich people told them to define themselves. He’s forgotten in his home country, and I had to do some serious digging to find things in English describing his massive influence on Denmark.

    Which inspired some Americans so much they set up “folk schools” that embraced conversation/music and poor people getting in touch with/being proud of their roots. And that had at least some impact on Parks, Dr. King, and many other Highlander Folk School attendees. (Oh, yeah . . . did I mention King spent time there?)

    It’s not wrong to be depressed or discouraged. It’s also not correct to imagine any of us can know what we’re contributing to the future. Each of us could always do more, but doing the best we can when we can may have unexpected effects down the road. (This is why time-travel stories are stupid; make someone hesitate in traffic for a half-second, it changes everything.)

    Ooh, that’s sappy. Time for me to hit the hay!

    • I’m reading Steven Fraser’s The Age of Acquiescence. He argues that a big part of the problem is a lack of imagination. Before, people had living memories of a different way of life. Today, people think that the current form of capitalism is the only system that is possible. In the past, we put down communism because it didn’t work. But our society is getting more and more like communism for most people. Will the people ever decide that it doesn’t work? I doubt it. They will just buy into the propaganda that it is “natural” and that we can’t do anything about it.

      I used to think that increasing economic inequality would lead to revolution. More and more, I think it will lead to fascism — democratically elected fascism.

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