January 30th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Encyclopaedia Brittanica Films, 1946: "Despotism"

I saw something interesting in Boing-Boing last Friday, and forgot I wanted to mention it. Archive.org hosts the Prelinger Archive, which contains (among other things) digitized copies of an awful lot of public-domain film, and lately activists have been passing around a link to a 1946 short film by Encyclopaedia Brittanica Films called "Despotism," which was presumably meant to be used as a launching point for discussions in high school civics classes. In this 11 minute lecture with simple visual aids, a Yale University professor tries to explain how a democracy, like Wiemar Republic era Germany, could slide so quickly into fascism. And in case you can't figure out why activists are passing around links to it, there's a much newer Creative Commons remix of it, adding modern images, rattling around the Internet lately.

Is it fair?

The narrator, Dr. Harrold Lasswell, posits a scale that runs from Democracy to Despotism, and suggests that it's the additive total of two scales. The first runs from Shared Respect to Restricted Respect, and measures what percentage of the population are considered full citizens, with the same rights as anybody else. The second runs from Shared Power to Concentrated Power, and measures what percentage of society have a meaningful say in how their communities and their nation are run. In other words, a Democratic (free) society is one in which all or nearly all of the people who live there are treated as full citizens and given equal respect, and where all or nearly all of the people who live there have an equal say in the government. A Despotic (fascist) society is one in which a few privileged citizens have more rights than others and are the only people who have any say as to what the laws will be.

He also hypothesizes a separate scale that is meant to predict whether a society is moving towards Democracy or towards Despotism, and like the previous scale, it's the additive total of two scales. The first runs from Balanced Economic Distribution to Slanted Economic Distribution, and measures the level of income and property inequality in society. The second runs from Uncontrolled Information (and Critical Evaluation) to to Restricted Information (and Automatic Acceptance). In other words, his theory predicted that if the gap between the poor and the wealthy is widening, if a small privileged few get to decide what information is broadcast or published or printed in textbooks, and if students are taught to accept everything they're told without argument, then a society is becoming more despotic, more fascist. Apparently he also meant to imply that if a society successfully eliminates the super-rich, if more middle class people own their own homes and businesses instead of working for a few corporations, if there is no censorship of writers by the government or even by the people who own the media, and if students are given full permission to argue with their teachers, then a society is becoming more democratic, more free.

His tone of voice is carefully neutral, and by describing them as numeric scales (without even suggesting how they might be calculated) Dr. Lasswell gives his theory a gloss of scientific authority that, let's face it, it really doesn't deserve. And it's the images that tell the tale. When he's talking about the Respect scale, it shows cops randomly being rude to people on the streets, it shows a manager snubbing his secretary, it shows lynchings and cross-burnings, and it shows Jews being denied access to the top schools or the best jobs, all here in America. When he talks about the Power scale, yes, it shows the Reichstag worshipping Hitler and Russian prison camps for political prisoners, but it also shows a big-city Democratic Party ward or city "boss" saying, "I'm the law around here." When he's talking about the Economic Distribution scale, he shows factory towns like Detroit, mining towns in Appalachia, and midwestern farmers losing their farms to foreclosure and being reduced to tenant farmers. There's even a slide in which he suggests that having a sales tax on food is a warning sign of increasing despotism. When he talks about the Information scale, he shows an American newspaper's advertising manager threatening an editor for trying to run a story critical of one of the advertisers, and an American school teacher humiliating a student for asking if American court decisions are always fair and just. He says he's talking about any society, but when you add the pictures to the text, he's clearly making a scientific prediction. According to his theory, since America of 1946 had discriminated-against minorities, corrupt city governments with rigged elections, increasing numbers of very wealthy people, increasing corporate control of the press, and a backlash against the teaching of critical thinking to school children, that America was moving away from Democracy and towards Despotism.

Did the next 25 years of American history, from say 1946 to 1971, back up this hypothesis? Over that span of time, did America move more towards freedom or more towards fascism? It seems to me that as a predictor, his theory fails. It sounds plausible, and when combined with current trends in concentration of wealth and federal power that plausibility makes his theory sound scary as all get-out, which is presumably why anti-Bush activists who have rediscovered this old film love it so. Too bad for them that it doesn't really hold up under careful analysis.