"Don't Need A Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows"
A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.
Propaganda’s Iron Curtain April 2, 2007
On release of Frank Capra’s 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” the national press declared it “Un-American.” But the film critics and audiences flocked to the theatres to see Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur paired as the country rube and the wised-up city girl. The film tells the story of a backroom deal to appoint rube Smith, a small-town patriot to the United States Senate after an incumbent’s death. Smith arrives in the character of Jimmy Stewart, agog at the splendor and idealist inferences of the capitol monuments to Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson. It is pure “Capra Corn,” as Harry Cohn, the studio head used to say. But beneath the corn and “awe-shucks” fumbling of Stewart’s Smith, is a timeless expose of political and moral corruption.
Senator Smith discovers that family friend and senior Senator Paine played by Claude Rains has been on the take for twenty years, and he is crushed. When Smith is bribed by media magnate Jim Taylor who tells him he “Can have a good life at whatever he wants,” provided he plays ball and keeps quiet - he is incensed. None of this was new in 1939. The public had long been aware of corrupt political bosses, industrialists, and media magnates that control what people see, read and think. A year later, the Welles, Mankowitz masterpiece “Citizen Kane” exposed the corroded side of a thinly disguised William Randolph Hearst. But what Capra’s film does that others overlook, is reveal the iron-curtain of control that boss Jim Taylor’s machine had over literally all media in his territory.
Senator Paine, trapped by boss Taylor, bears false witness against Smith, accusing him of thievery and graft. But when inspiring Jean Arthur wises him up to how he can fight back, he begins a filibuster on the Senate floor. He reasons that if he can keep talking for twenty four or more hours, that’ll be enough time to get the real story of Taylor’s corrupt operations out to the people. But what the idealistic Mr. Smith is unprepared for is the level of violence the propaganda machine will unleash against him. It is a machine that includes nearly every newspaper and radio station in the state. It is a propaganda machine so powerful and so riddled with affiliate corruption that not a single word of his message gets out to the people. Capra pushes his camera into boss Taylor’s headquarters where he is calling in every political favor he’s ever curried. Taylor tells his stooges to buy up all available radio time, put up picket lines, billboards, banners and posters across the state declaring Smith an “enemy of the working poor.” It is a formidable display of mass media control. It is a propaganda campaign that mirrored that of infamous Nazi Joseph Goebbels who was using the same tactics in Germany at the time.
What impresses about “Mr. Smith” today is not the timelessness of the story, or the beauty of idealism, or the triumph of conscience over evil - but the sobering look at propaganda machinery. Boss Taylor, with everything on the line, destined for the penitentiary if he doesn’t succeed, spares no extreme or expense. He orders the Police to fire-hose protestors, he pays off radio networks to carry phony accusations, his newspapers put out Extra editions with hate inspired headlines, and political rallies are quickly convened to denounce Senator Smith as a traitor, heretic, thief. As propagandists know, stay on script, keep telling the same story over and over again, and the people will believe it. And when a minor leak arises, from Smith’s beloved Boy Scout supporters who print up their own newsletter - Taylor calls out his muscle dogs. Again Capra unabashedly shows us the level of decrepitude the corrupt sink to. Goons bust into the kids’ print shop and smack them down. Gangsters swoop up copies of the Scouts’ papers before they can get to the streets, and in a shocking revelation, a Taylor truck smashes into a car full of kids, injuring and perhaps killing them. The facts are that propagandists won’t hesitate to attack even children in their desperate struggle to survive.
Like many works of public consciousness, Frank Capra’s film reminds us that the world we perceive as the “real” one around us - might not be exactly what it seems. Our newspapers, radio, television, and internet are all gateways to the vast world of knowledge. The present day media syndicates, like those of boss Taylor, need only control access to those gateways, to control the way masses of people perceive the world. As much as we like to believe that the internet provides us unfettered access to an entire globe of ideas - we are sorely wrong. Data in digital form requires pipes to distribute it to our homes, offices and mobile devices. These pipes, be they physical wires, cables or electromagnetic like satellite, radio, TV - are the bottlenecks. Like the Soviet Union’s iron curtain of the past, all that is required to control information is to control distribution of it. Entire nations are now internet controlled by the use of filtering technology at global access points. Satellites under the ownership of media conglomerates need only broadcast the data the conglomerate deems “profitable.” Radio and TV networks carry syndicated news stories from “pool” reporters who consolidate the news to meet the expectations of their conglomerate masters. The world you perceive as the world as it is - is quite probably not as it is.
At the conclusion of “Mr. Smith,” it is self-hatred that champions over evil. Smith, on his last legs, confronted with the dis-informed public response, never-the-less vows to fight on. He stands in front Senator Paine whom he once idolized - the Senator who stepped down the easy path of corruption twenty years earlier - and invokes the memory of his own father. A man they both idolized, who was murdered for fighting for “lost causes.” The only causes worth fighting for, recalls Senator Paine. It is the memory of this good man, the man Senator Paine was once himself, that topples the machinery of propaganda. Because like all good men gently turned foul, they still have a conscience. And the conscience we know is the only part of man that can touch the face of God. When Senator Paine allows himself to remember the honest, good work he once did as a young idealist - he allows the hand of God to touch him. Then, in shame, he storms onto the Senate floor and does the thing he has not done for twenty years… He tells the truth.