Saturday, October 28, 2017

Dirt Cheap: Roosevelt’s Farming Propaganda Film of 1936

This 26-minute film is a classic example of subtle anti-free market propaganda. The Department of Agriculture produced it. It cost $6,000, which today would be the equivalent of $110,000. That was dirt cheap.

Roosevelt liked it so much that he created a federal propaganda film department in 1938.
(Go to link below to watch video)

In 1999, I published a brief account of the film and its background. It appeared in Chapter 33 of my book, Boundaries and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Leviticus. I did not include it in the 2012 typeset edition. I thought it was too obscure for an international audience. I keep it online, however, in its original typed format. It includes the footnotes. Access it here. It is my assessment of the applicability today of Leviticus 26:4: "Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit."

During the great westward expansion into the Great Plains of the United States, 1840-90, two myths competed for men's allegiance: the myth of the uncivilized wilderness vs. the myth of the garden. Both myths were based on environmental determinism. Beginning in the 1840's, some observers argued that the arid plains would make savages of civilized men. But as the American population moved westward, another myth slowly took shape, or more to the point, was shifted from the East to the Midwest: the myth of the garden. The coming of civilization would somehow increase the rainfall of the arid region.

Initially, the second myth was the product of unscientific dreams, but in the late 1870's, it began to gain scientific support, most notably from University of Nebraska scientist Samuel Aughey. The idea was encapsulated in 1881 by an epigram from Aughey's disciple, amateur scientist and professional town builder Charles Dana Wilber: "Rain Follows the Plough." This was a secularization of the promise of Leviticus 26:4. Wilber wrote that "in this miracle of progress, the plow was the avant courier -- the unerring prophet -- the procuring cause. Not by any magic or enchantment, not by incantations or offerings, but, instead, in the sweat of his face, toiling with his hands, man can persuade the heavens to yield their treasures of dew and rain upon the land he has chosen for his dwelling place. It is indeed a grand consent, or, rather, concert of forces -- the human energy or toil, the vital seed, and the polished raindrop that never fails to fall in answer to the imploring power or prayer of labor." The honest labor of the plowman would bring the rain. Man's sweat would bring nature's rain. This was an assertion that the curse of God (sweat) would bring the blessing of God (rain). Here was "works religion" with a vengeance.

The gigantic dust storms of the 1930's -- the "dust bowl" -- disabused those who might otherwise have been tempted to perpetuate this myth. Year after year, these dust storms buried hundreds of thousands of square miles of land in many feet of air-borne dirt. There was literally darkness at noon. The sweat of man's brow was caked. Then the myth of the garden shifted: from the hard-working farmer to the scientific planner. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture began to preach a new gospel of works: the plow was destroying the soil. The nation needed government-mandated soil conservation, voters were told.

The Resettlement Administration of the Department of Agriculture was ordered by its director, Rexford Guy Tugwell, one of the most notorious statists of the Roosevelt Administration (1933-1945), to create a propaganda film promoting this viewpoint, The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936). It was written and directed by Pere Lorentz, a 30-year-old former West Virginian, who had been a New York movie critic and a Washington gossip columnist and political reporter. He had never before made a movie. He had written a pro-Roosevelt picture book, The Roosevelt Year (1934). The movie cost a minuscule $6,000 to produce, but was incredibly successful artistically. As a propaganda film of the era, it is matched only by Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin, a silent movie defending the Bolshevik revolution, and by Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 promotion of Hitler and the Nazi Party, Triumph of the Will. It was so successful that President Roosevelt established the U.S. Film Service in 1938, with Lorentz in charge.

The Plow that Broke the Plains was so blatantly misleading in its splicing together of scenes, some of which historian James C. Malin says were faked, that a U.S. Senator and other critics forced it out of circulation in 1939. The narrative suggested nothing specific in the way of a restoration program for the land. It ended with this evaluation: "The sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture." In the script, the plow is not blamed for the erosion of the soil, but this theme is communicated visually. As Lorentz later wrote, he relied primarily on pictures and music; he wrote the narrative only after the pictures and the music were finished. (Lorentz died just before his book appeared in early 1992.)

With respect to the Midwest of the United States, the myth of the wilderness was superseded by the myth of the garden, which had two versions: the myth of the plow and the myth of the State.