Momentous Monday: Meet the Middletons

Thanks to boredom and Amazon Prime, I watched a rather weird movie from the 1930s tonight. While it was only 55 minutes long, it somehow seemed much longer because it was so packed with… all kinds of levels of stuff.

The title is The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair, and while the content is 7exactly what it says on the tin, there are so goddamn many moving parts in that tin that this is one worth watching in depth, mainly because it’s a case study in how propaganda can be sometimes wrong, sometimes right and, really, only hindsight can excavate the truth from the bullshit.

While it seems like a feature film telling the fictional story of the (snow-white but they have a black maid!) Middleton Family from Indiana who goes back east ostensibly to visit grandma in New York but, in reality, in order to attend the New York World’s Fair of 1939, in reality this was nothing more than a piece of marketing and/or propaganda created by the Westinghouse Corporation, major sponsors of the fair, poised on the cusp of selling all kinds of new and modern shit to the general public.

Think of them as the Apple or Microsoft of their day, with solutions to everything, and the World’s Fair as the biggest ThingCon in the world.

Plus ça change, right?

But there’s also a second, and very political, vein running through the family story. See, Dad decided to bring the family to the fair specifically to convince 16 year-old son Bud that, despite the bad economic news he and his older friends have been hearing about there being no job market (it is the Great Depression, after all) that there are, in fact, glorious new careers waiting out there.

Meanwhile, Mom is hoping that older daughter Babs will re-connect with high school sweetheart Jim, who had previously moved to New York to work for (wait for it) Westinghouse. Babs is having none of it, though, insisting that she doesn’t love him but, instead, is in love with her art teacher, Nick.

1939: No reaction.

2020: RECORD SCRATCH. WTF? Yeah, this is one of the first of many disconnect moments that are nice reminders of how much things have changed in the 82 years since this film happened.

Girl, you think you want to date your teacher, and anyone should be cool with that? Sorry, but listen to your mama. Note: in the world of the film, this relationship will become problematic for other reasons but, surprise, the reason it becomes problematic then is actually problematic in turn now. More on which later.

Anyway, obviously richer than fuck white family travels from Indiana to New York (they’re rich because Dad owns hardware stores and they brought their black maid with them) but are too cheap to spring for a hotel, instead jamming themselves into Grandma’s house, which is pretty ritzy as well and that says grandma has money too, since her place is clearly close enough to Flushing Meadows in Queens to make the World’s Fair a daily day trip over the course of a weekend.

But it’s okay — everyone owned houses then! (Cough.)

And then it’s off to the fair, and this is where the real value of the film comes in because when we aren’t being propagandized by Westinghouse, we’re actually seeing the fair, and what’s really surprising is how modern and familiar everything looks. Sure, there’s nothing high tech about it in modern terms, but if you dropped any random person from 2020 onto those fairgrounds, they would not feel out of place.

Well, okay, you’d need to put them in period costume first and probably make sure that if they weren’t completely white they could pass for Italian or Greek.

Okay, shit. Ignore that part, let’s move along — as Jimmy, Babs’ high school sweetheart and Westinghouse Shill character, brings us into the pavilion. And there are two really weird dynamics here.

First is that Jimmy is an absolute cheerleader for capitalism, which is jarring without context — get back to that in a moment.

The other weird bit is that Bud seems to be more into Jimmy than Babs ever was, and if you read too much gay subtext into their relationship… well, you can’t read too much , really. Watch it through that filter, and this film takes on a very different and subversive subplot. Sure, it’s clear that the family really wishes Jimmy was the guy Babs stuck with, but it sure feels like Bud wouldn’t mind calling him “Daddy.”

But back to Jimmy shilling for Westinghouse. Here’s the thing: Yeah, sure, he’s all “Rah-Rah capitalism!” and this comes into direct conflict with Nicholas, who is a self-avowed communist. But… the problem is that in America, in 1939, capitalism was the only tool that socialism could use to lift us out of depression and, ultimately, create the middle class.

There’s even a nod to socialism in the opening scene, when Bud tells his dad that the class motto for the guys who graduated the year before was, “WPA, here we come!” The WPA was the government works program designed to create jobs with no particular aim beyond putting people to work.

But once the WPA partnered with those corporations, boom. Jobs. And this was the beginning of the creation of the American Middle Class, which led to the ridiculous prosperity for (white) people from the end of WW II until the 1980s.

More on that later, back to the movie now. As a story with relationships, the film actually works, because we do find ourselves invested in the question, “Who will Babs pick?” It doesn’t help, though, that the pros and cons are dealt with in such a heavy-handed manner.

Jimmy is amazing in every possible way — young, tall, intelligent, handsome, and very knowledgeable at what he does. Meanwhile, Nicholas is short, not as good-1ooking (clearly cast to be more Southern European), obviously a bit older than Babs, and has a very unpleasant personality.

They even give him a “kick the puppy” moment when Babs introduces brother Bud, and Nicholas pointedly ignores the kid. But there’s that other huge issue I already mentioned that just jumps out to a modern audience and yet never gets any mention by the other characters. The guy Babs is dating is her art teacher. And not as in past art teacher, either. As in currently the guy teaching her art.

And she’s dating him and considering marriage.

That wouldn’t fly more than a foot nowadays, and yet in the world of 1939 it seems absolutely normal, at least to the family. Nowadays, it would be the main reason to object to the relationship. Back then, it isn’t even considered.

Wow.

The flip side of the heavy-handed comes in some of Jimmy’s rebukes of Nicholas’ claims that all of this technology and automation will destroy jobs. While the information Jimmy provides is factual, the way his dialogue here is written and delivered comes across as condescending and patronizing to both Nicholas and the audience, and these are the moments when Jimmy’s character seems petty and bitchy.

But he’s also not wrong, and history bore that out.

Now this was ultimately a film made to make Westinghouse look good, and a major set piece involved an exhibit at the fair that I actually had to look up because at first it was very easy to assume that it was just a bit of remote-controlled special effects set up to pitch an idea that didn’t really exist yet — the 1930s version of vaporware.

Behold Elektro! Here’s the sequence from the movie and as he was presented at the fair. Watch this first and tell me how you think they did it.

Well, if you thought remote operator controlling movement and speaking lines into a microphone like I did at first, that’s understandable. But the true answer is even more amazing: Elektro was completely real.

The thing was using sensors to actually interpret the spoken commands and turn them into actions, which it did by sending light signals to its “brain,” located at the back of the room. You can see the lights flashing in the circular window in the robot’s chest at around 2:30.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the 1930s if the robot didn’t engage in a little bit of sexist banter — or smoke a cigarette. Oh, such different times.

And yet, in a lot of ways, the same. Our toys have just gotten a lot more powerful and much smaller.

You can probably guess which side of the argument wins, and while I can’t disagree with what Westinghouse was boosting at the time, I do have to take issue with one explicit statement. Nicholas believes in the value of art, but Jimmy dismisses it completely, which is a shame.

Sure, it’s coming right out of the Westinghouse corporate playbook, but that part makes no sense, considering how much of the world’s fair and their exhibit hall itself relied on art, design, and architecture. Even if it’s just sizzle, it still sells the steak.

So no points to Westinghouse there but, again, knowing what was about to come by September of 1939 and what a big part industry would have in ensuring that the anti-fascists won, I can sort of ignore the tone-deafness of the statement.

But, like the time-capsule shown in the film, there was a limited shelf-life for the ideas Westinghouse was pushing, and they definitely expired by the dawn of the information age, if not a bit before that.

Here’s the thing: capitalism as a system worked in America when… well, when it worked… and didn’t when it didn’t. Prior to about the early 1930s, when it ran unfettered, it didn’t work at all — except for the super-wealthy robber barons.

Workers had no rights or protections, there were no unions, or child-labor laws, or minimum wages, standard working hours, safety rules, or… anything to protect you if you didn’t happen to own a big chunk of shit.

In other words, you were management, or you were fucked.

Then the whole system collapsed in the Great Depression and, ironically, it took a member of the 1% Patrician Class (FDR) being elected president to then turn his back on his entire class and dig in hard for protecting the workers, enacting all kinds of jobs programs, safety nets, union protections, and so on.

Or, in other words, capitalism in America didn’t work until it was linked to and reined-in by socialism. So we never really had pure capitalism, just a hybrid.

And, more irony: this socio-capitalist model was reinforced after Pearl Harbor Day, when everyone was forced to share and work together and, suddenly, the biggest workforce around was the U.S. military. It sucked in able-bodied men between 17 and 38, and the weird side-effect of the draft stateside was that suddenly women and POC were able to get jobs because there was no one else to do them.

Manufacturing, factory jobs, support work and the like boomed, and so did the beginnings of the middle class. When those soldiers came home, many of them returned to benefits that gave them cheap or free educations, and the ability to buy homes.

They married, they had kids, and they created the Boomers, who grew up in the single most affluent time period in America ever.

Side note: There were also people who returned from the military who realized that they weren’t like the other kids. They liked their own sex, and couldn’t ever face returning home. And so major port towns — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, Boston, New York, Miami, New Orleans — were flooded with the seeds of future GLB communities. Yes, it was in that order back then, and TQIA+ hadn’t been brought into the fold yet. Well, later, in the 60s. There really wasn’t a name for it or a community in the 1940s.

In the 60s, because the Boomers had grown up with affluence, privilege, and easy access to education, they were also perfectly positioned to rebel their asses off because they could afford to, hence all of the protests and whatnot of that era.

And this sowed the seeds of the end of this era, ironically.

The socio-capitalist model was murdered, quite intentionally, beginning in 1980, when Ronald fucking Reagan became President, and he and his cronies slowly began dismantling everything created by every president from FDR through, believe it or not, Richard Nixon. (Hint: EPA.)

The mantra of these assholes was “Deregulate Everything,” which was exactly what the world was like in the era before FDR.

Just one problem, though. Deregulating any business is no different from getting an alligator to not bite you by removing their muzzle and then saying to them, “You’re not going to bite me, right?”

And then believing them when they swear they won’t before wondering why you and everyone you know has only one arm.

Still, while it supports an economic system that just isn’t possible today without a lot of major changes, The Middletons still provides a nice look at an America that did work because it focused on invention, industry, and manufacturing not as a way to enrich a few shareholders, but as a way to enrich everyone by creating jobs, enabling people to actually buy things, and creating a rising tide to lift all boats.

As for Bud, he probably would have wound up in the military, learned a couple of skills, finished college quickly upon getting out, and then would have gone to work for a major company, possibly Westinghouse, in around 1946, starting in an entry-level engineering job, since that’s the skill and interest he picked up during the War.

Along the way, he finds a wife, gets married and starts a family, and thanks to his job, he has full benefits — for the entire family, medical, dental, and vision; for himself, life insurance to benefit his family; a pension that will be fully vested after ten years; generous vacation and sick days (with unused sick days paid back every year); annual bonuses; profit sharing; and union membership after ninety days on the job.

He and the wife find a nice house on Long Island — big, with a lot of land, in a neighborhood with great schools, and easy access to groceries and other stores. They’re able to save long-term for retirement, as well as for shorter-term things, like trips to visit his folks in Indiana or hers in Miami or, once the kids are old enough, all the way to that new Disneyland place in California, which reminds Bud a lot of the World’s Fair, especially Tomorrowland.

If he’s typical for the era, he will either work for Westinghouse for his entire career, or make the move to one other company. Either way, he’ll retire from an executive level position in about 1988, having been in upper management since about 1964.

With savings, pensions, and Social Security, he and his wife decide to travel the world. Meanwhile, their kids, now around 40 and with kids about to graduate high school, aren’t doing so well, and aren’t sure how they’re going to pay for their kids’ college.

They approach Dad and ask for help, but he can’t understand. “Why don’t you just do what I did?” he asks them.

“Because we can’t,” they reply.

That hopeful world of 1939 is long dead — although, surprisingly, the actor who played Bud is still quite alive.

Image: Don O’Brien, Flickr, 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0), the Middleton Family in the May 1939 Country Gentleman ad for the Westinghouse World’s Fair exhibits.

Free-for-all… Wednesday?

Since Friday will see the beginning of my annual Christmas Countdown of various music videos themed to various holidays, regular features will not be as regular until 2021. This is basically my way of being able to take a vacation while not leaving my loyal readers without content.

So, since during Thanksgiving week Wednesday is really Friday, here’s Friday’s regular feature, in which I answer random questions from a website. Enjoy!

When’s censorship warranted?

Whenever someone wants the DJ to play Nickleback.

Okay, serious answer: We first have to remember what censorship is and is not. If a private entity, like a business, a website, a blog, a chatroom, or any other entity not affiliated with the government wants to prohibit the saying of any particular words or phrases or the posting of any kinds of images or videos, they are completely within their rights.

This is not censorship, and it’s why I’m ambiguous on the concept of, say, a bakery not wanting to make a cake for a same-sex couple because it offends the owner’s religious beliefs.

Honestly, and I say this as a queer atheist, that’s their right — just as it’s the right of people who do not agree with that stance to not patronize the business. Likewise, if I owned a business, I’d be within my rights to ban any clothing or jewelry with religious imagery or symbolism but, again, I’d also be free to suffer the economic consequences.

Of course, my second example isn’t quite the same, because it would take aim at everyone. To be similar in idea to the bakery example, I’d have to limit it to one particular religion.

What is censorship? It’s this same thing, except when it’s done by any governmental entity at any level. The analogous example to the bakery in this case is a city clerk who refuses to issue same-sex marriage licenses because it conflicts with her religious belief.

The baker is making a business decision. The government official is practicing censorship. The logic behind it is that the former is a private entity that has the right to choose those with whom they will or will not associate or do business.

On the other hand, since the government is financed by all for the benefit of all, it has no right to refuse service.

So the answer to the question, “When is censorship warranted?” is never. That’s because it’s up to us, the People, to keep an eye on things like hate speech, and incendiary language, and use the powers we have to shame and shun.

Does it work both ways, in terms of political leanings? Of course it does. And if you’re going to push in one direction against the beliefs and statements of the other side, you have to accept that they’re going to push back.

At the same time, the government has no right to shut either or any side up, with one exception, and that falls under the concept of clear and present danger. But you can look into that yourself. It will make for fascinating pre-holiday reading.

Where do you like going for walks?

As usual, for my contradictory self, I love walking in two places: in a dense urban setting with plenty of buildings and people around, and in nature — in particular beaches and forests.

I love the former because there’s always something new and interesting to discover, especially if you’re doing it in a city you thought you were very familiar with but in a neighborhood you’ve never walked through. I’ve had many an amazing photo safari on the streets of L.A. neighborhoods I’d only ever driven through before.

The flip side of that is a good walk in nature, and a large part of why I enjoy the beach and forests is that the sensory overload is just so relaxing. The seashore has a distinct smell of salt and sea-life, and the air always feels electrically fresh.

Meanwhile, the sound and rhythm of the waves, particularly as they crash on shore, is like the Earth’s heartbeat, reminding you that she is a living thing as well. Visually, there’s nothing better than the beach to remind you what you live on: a big ball of wet dirt, and from the edge of the beach to the horizon at sea, you’re seeing the transition from the minority to majority surface of the planet.

That is, there’s a lot more water than there is land, and if you watch very carefully and live close enough to ports, you can watch the ships come and go over that horizon and vanish around the curve of the Earth.

Forests are just as enchanting, though. Not only are you surrounded by the smells of the dirt and trees, and any flowers or other plants that might be around, but if you just listen, you can hear that the place is full of life that you don’t necessarily see, but you can certainly sense it.

You’ll hear birds and insects, as well as small animals skittering around in the bushes and underbrush. If you’re lucky, you may even encounter a deer and be quiet enough to get to watch for a while before they sense you and pronk off into the deep woods.

If you’re not lucky, you might encounter a bear or mountain lion, but that’s why you have to choose your forest strolls wisely.

What should they teach in high school but don’t?

Well, other than critical thinking and a combination of political science and physics, the big things missing in high school education is a course covering basic life skills.

These are things like managing your own household and finances, and preparing for that transition into that time when mommy and daddy won’t be doing it for you anymore.

Ideally, this should be when you turn 18, but some parents still can’t let go, and they’re a big problem.

Anyway, it could be a multi-year course called “Adulting 101.” Modules would include things like budgeting, covering how to balance your checkbook and why you should, why you should avoid getting credit cards as long as possible, alternatives to student loans, and whether an expensive college is really worth it anymore, depending on your career track.

Other things to cover would be the “Domestic Bliss” module. They used to teach this in high school and call it “Home Economics.” But, guess what? That was eons ago, and the classes were meant for only the girls.

Why? Well, home economics was all about cooking and cleaning and baking and making the home a castle for hubby. It was also all about figuring out how to make the household budget work based on the allowance he gave you out of the salary that he went off to earn.

It should have been called “How to be the perfect little housewife.”

But forget all that sexist hoo-hoo. The core stuff is genuinely necessary for everyone: How to cook, how to bake, how to clean, how to stretch the food budget the farthest and in the healthiest way, and to keep it practical and modern, “How to get along with your roommates” is definitely a part of this class. How to allocate chores, how to settle disputes, how to split bills and finances, and so on.

And then there are all those other bits, like laundry, auto maintenance, negotiating a lease/rental agreement and tenant’s rights, how to open a bank account, how to make a resume and do a job interview, how to negotiate a raise, and so on.

The problem is that, currently, the schools are too focused on teaching the kids how to pass standardized tests instead of actually teaching them, and that’s got to change.

But I think another disincentive to bringing back the basic “blue collar” vocational-style programs that schools used to have is the mistaken belief on the part of the schools that the parents are teaching this stuff to their kids.

And the parents probably either think the same thing about the schools, or just assume that their kids will figure it out.

Well, I didn’t learn any of these from either entity, at least not officially. I sort of learned cooking by watching my mom do it, but she never officially trained me.

Hell, I didn’t even learn typing in school, I had to learn that myself — but that’s probably the reason I can often hit 95 wpm by touch without errors. I didn’t learn the “right” way. I learned the right way for me.

What would happen to a society in which no one had to work, and everyone was provided enough food, water, shelter, education, and healthcare for free?

This seems like the inverse of the previous question. If we can’t train our kids how to Adult and take care of themselves, then why not provide everyone with all of the necessities?

A common answer, I’m guessing (and I’m not trying to strawman) is that if people were given that kind of freebie, then they’d all just become lazy and dependent and never do anything.

Fortunately, that’s not how human nature works. You’d get maybe 20% of the population that would decide, “Okay, this is great,” and just kick back and enjoy all the freebies.

But the key to it is this: We’d only get the necessities for free. Your food isn’t going to be steak and caviar. It won’t be crap, but it won’t be fancy. Likewise, depending on your family size, you might get anything from a studio apartment up to possibly a small single-family home of the type that was once called a “starter,” but nothing fancier.

Oh yeah — clothing falls under shelter, actually, but it would be a basic wardrobe — maybe enough tops, bottoms, socks, and undies for a two week cycle, one or two fancy outfits, and the minimal assortment of shoes — business, business casual, and sport/leisure.

But again, all of it off the rack and not fancy, although you should be able to choose your colors, designs, and sizes from a catalog.

Education could be handled through the tons of existing online free courses that libraries and universities already have, and educational advancements could actually serve as a credit system to up the “niceness” of the previous categories. “You’ve mastered Italian 1? Congratulations, your food and clothing allowances are now increased by 20%.”

Healthcare would cover all the keeping you healthy and not dead stuff, but none of the unnecessary procedures like rhinoplasty or breast implants or liposuction.

Note that entertainment, hobbies, and any other luxury items are not covered, and this is where the system creates incentive.

See, it doesn’t say “Nobody ever needs to work again.” It says, “No one who doesn’t want to has to work again.”

But if you want to, and there’s something you’d like to earn money for, then the jobs are out there for you to find. The best part is that you don’t have to work full-time because you’re not trying to pay for the basics.

Instead, it’s an ad hoc thing. For example, say you want to go to a concert and take your SO, and the tickets you want are $250 each. Not covered under the basic minimum programs. However, you’ve got an app and can pull some gigs, and you can plan exactly what you need to do and win to earn enough for the tickets and some incidental cash on top of that.

If you’re more ambitious, with all the time you have not working for mere survival, you can create — whether it’s art, music, ideas, businesses, whatever. And, again, you’ll still have enough consumers who will be able to afford your stuff because there are plenty of people for whom “just the basics” are never enough.

Finally, there are those who would not go back to work for money in any active way but, instead, would volunteer their time and talents because now they could — and that’s the 20% of people on the other end of the spectrum.

So, we have probably 20% never working at all and 20% volunteering, leaving the 60% in the middle. Out of that bunch, maybe 10% would start their own businesses or other creative ventures, and the remaining 50% would effectively be the workforce.

And there’s a lot of work, because you have either corporations or government who have to manufacture, allocate, and distribute all of the aforementioned freebies.

The obvious question is this: If no one is paying for those things, then where does the money come from? The honest answer is that we’d have to redefine money first — but given the scenario, we already have.

Remove the need to pay for the basics, and you’ve removed the need for money. Everyone is provided everything when we all share all the resources with each other. So the subsequent economy is one in which skill and knowledge are directly traded for needs and desires.

It becomes the ultimate barter economy. And yes, maybe we create a currency based on that — but instead of it being “This piece of paper is worth X amount because the government says it has credit enough to cover it,” we’d wind up with something like “This barcode (or blockchain) is valid in exchange for 250 standard labor units based on work done by the bearer,  [Name].”

The person or entity receiving that code has now acquired 250 standard labor units, which they can turn around and spend on what they please. And the economy is still flush with money. The only difference is that it is now truly capital produced by the workers — who are controlling the means of production — and not bullshit produced by bankers.

But don’t call it communism. That’s naïve. Call it what it really is: A future that will leave no one behind, but reward those who really do have ambition and talent. If you’re the kind to bitch about “lazy welfare queens” (a myth created by Ronald Reagan), then you should actually love this system.

Why? Because under this system, there’s no way that someone who doesn’t want to work at all is going to get those mythical big-screen TVs, or even be able to buy alcohol or weed or whatever. If they want it, they’ll have to become part of that 50%.

And wasn’t that the goal all along?

Happy Thanksgiving, all! Here’s to smooth sailing on into 2021.