Could Harvest of Shame be filmed today? And if so, what would our reaction be? Horror? Guilt? Scorn?
In 1960, CBS News produced a documentary titled Harvest of Shame. Migrant farmworkers, the conditions under which they lived and worked, were the subjects. To further emphasize the misery, CBS premiered this episode on Thanksgiving night. Perhaps it hoped the subject matter would pierce viewers deeper on our national okay to gorge day.
I first saw the show about 16-17 years after its initial broadcast. Recently I re-watched Edward R. Murrow and a cast of fellow citizens then likely considered disposable, if better-off Americans bothered considering them at all, discuss who made our nation’s groaning larders possible.
Watching it again after intervening decades, the black & white program has become starker, my understanding of disparities in America clearer, as the chasm between empathy and indifference in Americans has widened.
Viewed through the current prism, tuning into the airwaves of today, it’s not hard to imagine how programs like Harvest of Shame, or the greater emphasis of print media not merely to be satisfied with reporting the discrepancies in American life, but to expose them, to investigate them, provided the genesis of the right-wing’s “liberal media” claims. After all, pretty much until the 60s, most of the harrowing journalism could only be found in slick magazines like The New Yorker or even Fortune.
Influential as such titles are their reach was limited. Only when newspapers and television, true mass media, stopped protecting the public’s sensitivities and boldly decided to hold mirrors up to less ideal aspects of America did more of us start realizing we weren’t the people we’d proclaimed ourselves to have been.
Along with the era’s politics and social movements, didn’t these reverse side exposures of American prosperity and conformity infuriate the right into counteraction? The poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the shunned given presence, didn’t those sort of people ruin every single fable ladled about the United States?
All that knee-jerk braying about America being “the greatest country in the world!” got flushed when the frequency of exposures gained wider public awareness. Contrary to the claims, indeed we are imperfect.
Suddenly now the formerly invisible were, being interviewed, photographed, filmed, filling prestige daily edition news holes and prominent TV program slots. Our stains were being splashed everywhere.
The only worse exposure could’ve been when the Russian in Dr. Strangelove saw “the big board!”
Mind, these reporters weren’t woolly-haired Trotskyites stirring shit but occasionally sterling, always inquisitive, ink-stained wretches presenting our shady sides to ourselves. To the insecure among us, though, such revelations skewed the national narrative established by George Washington chopping down a cherry tree.
Although these disclosures cast the country in less brilliant light, for the most part our response to them burnished our reputation and self-esteem. Rather than just be disgusted that swaths of our country sat on par with recently de-colonialized Third World nations, outrage that our fellow citizens resided in similar conditions prompted the best, the most generous exertion of our national character.
When faced with the same, older countries would’ve offered lip service, averted their eyes, or blamed the afflicted. I believe the usual responses have always been, “Those people want to live that way.” Or, “There’s nothing that can be done.” Or better, “There’s nothing we can do.”
Our society is young and diverse. If there’s an advantage to being culturally callow, here it is.
American civilization, such as it is, has shallow roots and isn’t jaded. While bootstrapping has fallen out of vogue – nobody advances completely on his or her own; we’ve all had assistance and guidance somewhere along the climb – strands of initiative course through our national body. In many ways, a decent many of us resemble Judy and Mickey getting the gang together to put on a show. Only less frenetic – and no singing and dancing.
It’s not that Americans are particularly noble. We’re not. Never forget many of the Founders owned slaves. Also, akin to other invading conquerors since time immemorial, our predecessors eradicated the native populations when they couldn’t simply shove them along.
Yet unlike previous giants who’ve strode this earth, Americans will attempt atonement by making effort to improve the fates of those ignored or trampled. These endeavors are what the press chronicles, in glory and damnation. That’s probably what’s angered the right most of all.
Doubtlessly the red-in-the-face frothers reading reactionary columnists, watching barking head shills, and listening to radio propagandists, believe our grandeur gets short-shrift by our failures. Sure. We’ve done marvelous things. Maybe we will commit further magnificent acts in the future.
Generally our public institutions and the servants operating them perform capably. Almost numbingly so.
The screw-ups are rare. When they occur, these rightly become news.
The right, though, sees giving these deviant instances, as well as rummaging through the lives of the more sordid among us and the unsavoriness plenty of us prefer to overlook then disseminating said discoveries as public disservices. Of course these are some of the same people ready to drop homilies about honesty, probity, at the drop of another’s transgression although the scold has done, is doing, will do much worse.
But to right-wingers it’s all about image. An America without shadows, one that also leaves no fingerprints.
The right proclaims great piety but practices little. When right-wingers bellow sacrifice, they mean others must sacrifice. These same scoundrels abusing the term “patriot” then wish to deny benefits to others they themselves gorge upon.
Media reveals our imperfections in the same way Toto brought to light the man behind the curtain. Isn’t it to our betterment not to ignore what’s wrong, but fix it? Don’t only the insecure wish to keep mistakes concealed?
The press, an honest press, reports on dubious accounts minus fear or favor. By their habits this means right-wingers are far more often caught in the hypocrisy crosshairs than progressives.
No wonder the right loves Fox News. Both are untroubled by facts. The network promotes and echoes ignorance to the blinkered multitudes it transfixes throughout the country.
Guess who votes against themselves and for the right in Baboon America?