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Stick Figures Don’t Make Waves

When Ken Burns’ latest docudrama on “The War” first hit the preview circuit, he was rightly blasted across the progressive blogworld for excluding Hispanic Americans from his depiction of the Great War. Some 500,000 Hispanics contributed to the war effort, including more than a dozen Medal of Honor recipients. As a result of the uproar, Burns added 28 minutes of new interviews and photographs to tell the stories of two Hispanics and one American Indian.

But his 13-hour PBS series has another serious gap that should be examined. And in doing so, it’s not to single out Burns, but to highlight how “The War” illustrates a recurring narrative in popular U.S. culture: one that omits issues of America’s working class as a class or portrays them in ways that feed on common stereotypes.

Harvey Kaye, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and author of a populist biography of Tom Paine, that most progressive of America’s founders, applauds Burns’ efforts to “tell the story not from the vantage point of the statesmen and generals, but from the perspective of those who did the actual fighting and of those on the home front who provided them with food and materiel and anxiously awaited their return.”

Yet Kaye notes that although the series explores the racism that dictated a segregated U.S. military, the incarceration of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast to internment camps in the country’s interior and the tragedy of the 400,000 U.S. war dead, Burns neglects the context that “encouraged and sustained young Americans in all their diversity to fight fascism and imperialism.”

Writing recently in The Guardian, Kaye points out:

Burns’s narrator appreciatively states that Roosevelt redirected the energy of the New Deal to the war effort, and Burns’s now-elderly storytellers recall how FDR’s voice inspired them. Yet we hear nothing about what the New Deal entailed and why it mattered. We also never hear FDR pronounce the “four freedoms” or call for a second bill of rights for all Americans.

We never hear about the hundreds of thousands of housewives who volunteered to police local businesses in support of wartime price controls. And we never hear about labor unions, whose membership during the Depression grew from three to nine million, and during the war to 15 million. Burns makes no reference to A. Philip Randolph’s AFL Pullman Porters and the March on Washington Movement that pushed FDR to integrate the war industries, or the CIO’s policy of biracial unionism.

And let’s face it—how many of us have ever even heard of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights? It would have included many items opposed by Republican party reactionaries because it would guarantee:

  • A job with a living wage.
  • Freedom from unfair competition and monopolies.
  • Homeownership.
  • Medical care.
  • Education.
  • Recreation. 

In The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It Now More Than Ever, University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein describes how Roosevelt laid out the reasons for his proposal in a January 1941 State of the Union address:

At the inception of the Constitution, the nation had grown “under certain unalienable rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.” But over time, these rights proved inadequate. Unlike the Constitution’s framers, “we have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” As Roosevelt saw it, “necessitous men are not free men,” not the least because those who are hungry and jobless “are the stuff out of which dictatorships are made.”

So much for recent revisionist scholarship portraying Roosevelt as an anti-populist.

Ignoring or sensationalizing the economic struggles of America’s men and women is not new. Think of “On the Waterfront,” a movie classic that in portraying the 1940’s struggle of East Coast dockworkers for better pay and treatment on the job, demonizes the union as much as the employer. (For a much different take, check out a new DVD that highlights the 1930’s West Coast union organizing effort by the dynamic labor leader Harry Bridges, founder of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The film captures a one-man play by actor/producer Ian Ruskin, whose efforts to champion Bridges, not surprisingly, have not made it to the big screen.)

In addition to bashing unions, another refrain common in pop lit and film is one that shows difficult working conditions, such as life as a hotel maid, but offers no examination of, let alone solution to, the structural causes behind low-wage exploitation. Instead, the poor working class girl (typically), gets “saved” by a wealthy knight in a shining business suit. “Maid in Manhattan,” anyone?

But with a shortage of rich (and don’t forget, handsome) guys to go around, and presuming many of working America’s low-income aren’t female, marrying into male wealth probably is not the policy platform we need to address income inequality.

With popular culture lacking even the most superficial treatment of the factors underlying economic injustice in this nation, we are left to believe our inability to provide for our families the way our parents did is solely our fault and that no one else is sharing in our struggle. Most especially, we are left without the vision of how change can happen when we do join together—in unions, community groups or online action. (Yes, there are the occasional gems like “Norma Rae,” but their number is far outweighed on the scale by the “Maid in Manhattan” genre.)

For the Ken Burns’ war series, this lack of economic and political context results in protagonists whose motivations for sacrificing their lives remains unexplored. As Kaye writes:

We need to know about those things to better comprehend how, in the wake of a devastating and in critical ways persistent Depression, Americans—of every color and ethnicity—were both ready and eager to fight not only imperial Japan, the country that attacked them at Pearl Harbor, but, equally and all the more aggressively at the outset, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. We need to know those things to better understand the commitment to and confidence about America that we hear so beautifully expressed by Burns’s own storytellers. And we need to know those things to grasp more fully why we look back to our parents’ and grandparents’ generation as we do.

One can understand Burns’s need to not alienate his sponsors. Yet one cannot help but wonder if his desire to avoid the politics of the present did not also severely shape his telling of the past, for, as much as he attends to America’s racial injustices, he drains America’s second world war generation of any real political commitments or aspirations.

Stereotypes and stick figures can’t change the world. And for corporate-driven pop culture, that’s the point.

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Tula Connell

Tula Connell