Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl: Blowing Sand
in Our Eyes
by Gary North: Translating
Yellin: The FED's Mistress of Fog
"Something done magnificently that should not have been done at
Ken Burns is
a gifted producer of documentaries. His series on The
Civil War was an artistic triumph. It has shaped the way
documentaries are made. His subsequent effort, Baseball,
was pretty good if you are a baseball history fan. Jazz,
reviewed in 2001, was less successful artistically and in terms
of its impact. That had to do more with the demise of jazz than
with Burns' creativity. He told the story well. After 1940, the
story turned dark.
on World War II, The
War, was as flat as stale beer. He never found a way to
tell the story of the war. He failed to find representative chronological
incidents that told a coherent story with an identifiable theme.
The film is a series of chronologically interchangeable stock footage
from the War Department that Burns strung together by means of letters
and diaries that did not carry any theme that I could detect. The
documentary was mostly noise and nostalgia.
His most recent
Dust Bowl, is a visual masterpiece. The script is compelling.
Peter Coyote is a great narrator. The interviews with survivors
add authenticity. But it has one major defect: it is a sophisticated
propaganda film in the tradition of Pare Lorentz's 1936 film, The
Plow That Broke the Plains. The first half of that classic
film is available on Archive.org.
Burns even uses a clip from the movie.
OF ALMOST ARABIA
a paid propagandist. The New Deal put him on its payroll. He had
a message: the Great Plains were turning into a desert. The New
Deal alone could save the plains from becoming Arabia. To understand
what Burns has done, you must understand who Lorentz was and what
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 1840s, 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.
The dust storms
of the 1930s disabused those who might otherwise have been tempted
to perpetuate this myth. Year after year for a decade, 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 United States 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.
Administration of the Department of Agriculture was ordered by its
director, Rexford Guy Tugwell, to create a propaganda film promoting
this viewpoint, The Plow That Broke the Plains . It was written
and directed by Lorentz, a 30-year-old former West Virginian, who
had been a New York movie critic, a Washington gossip columnist,
and a 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, it was in the tradition of 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. (Riefenstahl died in 2003.) It was so successful
that President Roosevelt established the United States Film Service
in 1938, with Lorentz in charge.
that Broke the Plains was so blatantly misleading in its splicing
together of scenes, some of which ecological historian James C.
Malin says were faked, that a United States 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
following is from a pro-Lorentz author. It describes the pre-1941
New Deal propaganda program for agriculture.
the second half of the 1930's, the United States Government embarked
on unique project, a public relations campaign to keep the American
people informed about the New Deal and the necessity of its programs.
Under the direction of the Resettlement Administration, the Government
first sponsored radio and photography campaigns, which produced
some of the most famous work of artists including Walker Evans,
Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn. Some of the photographs that Evans
took went into the critically acclaimed book that he worked with
James Agee to produce, Let
Us Now Praise Famous Men. In 1935, the Resettlement Administration
decided to produce films as a method of getting its message to a
wider segment of the public. The films produced under the auspices
of the Resettlement Administration represent the only peacetime
production by the United States Government of films intended for
commercial release and public viewing ever. They also heralded a
new direction for American documentary filmmaking because of the
sophistication with which they were made. These films were known
as the Films of Merit, and the first of them were directed by Pare
Administration was an exercise in government-funded population control.
It moved people off the land and into urban areas.
Resettlement Administration was founded on May 1, 1935 as part of
the second phase of the New Deal. Dr. Rexford Guy Tugwell, the Under-Secretary
of Agriculture, was appointed as its administrator. The goal of
the Resettlement Administration was the relocation of impoverished
farm families and poor city families. It also focused on the prevention
of unprofitable farming techniques and improper land use, as well
as the preservation of natural resources. Finally, it was responsible
for the creation of three "Greenbelt" communities, suburban housing
developments outside of Washington D.C., Cincinnati, and Milwaukee,
intended to provide improved living conditions for city dwellers.
Like many other New Deal agencies, it was founded on the belief
that a control of social conditions would produce better lives for
American citizens. . . .
to the project with the first film already conceptualized. Dr.
Tugwell originally envisioned that the Resettlement Administration
would produce a series of eighteen films, the first of which he
suggested should deal with the Tennessee Valley Authority. The
TVA had been created in May of 1933 and was charged with building
dams and establishing flood control, projects that dovetailed
with the Resettlement Administration's commitment to environmental
conservation. But Lorentz wanted to make a film about the Dust
Bowl, an idea that he had unsuccessfully pitched to the Hollywood
studios a year earlier. Lorentz was able to convince Tugwell to
make this film, which became The Plow That Broke the Plains.
But Lorentz' second film for the RA would explore Tugwell's idea.
The River, which many film critics argued was an even greater
artistic success than The Plow That Broke the Plains told
that story of the great rivers of the American continent and the
work of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
of these projects led Roosevelt to establish the United States
Film Service in 1938 under Lorentz' direction. The USFS was active
until 1940, when Congress cut off its funding.
a self-conscious acolyte of the messianic State. We get a sense
of his deeply religious motivation at 20 minutes and 30 seconds
into his movie. With the barren landscape as the image, he inserts
an off-key organ playing the Doxology: "Praise God from whom all
blessings flow." In short, "You dare not trust that God." Implication:
"You can trust the New Deal."
for Tugwell, he was the most famous member of Roosevelt's "Brain
Trust." The Wikipedia entry on him reminds us: "He participated
in the Committee to Frame a World Constitution from 1945 to 1948.
He also viewed a revised national constitution as necessary to enable
economic planning, and late in life composed a constitution for
the Newstates of America. In it, planning would become a new branch
of federal government, alongside the Regulatory and Electoral branches."
goes over the same dusty ground. It is filled with photos, paid
for by the federal government. There is no question: the dust storms
blames the dust bowl on the profit-driven plowing of the 1920s.
The farmers bought tractors and planted wheat. This ruined the grassland.
Then, when the rain ceased for a decade, the now dry soil blew away.
It was true
chronologically. Farmers plowed the soil and planted wheat. The
rains ceased. The land dried up. Dust storms began. But chronological
sequence is not causation.
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