Despotism, 1946

Despotism, 1946 July 19, 2004

Karl Martino points us to this fascinating 1946 classroom film on "Despotism," which you can download or view online at the Internet Archive.

This 10-minute film from Encyclopedia Britannica Films features Dr. Harold D. Lasswell of Yale, who was a professor of law and of political science at the school while both our current and our most recent presidents were students there.

The film, produced in the immediate aftermath of World War II, presents a spectrum from democracy to despotism. And it begins with this cautionary note:

Avoid the comfortable idea that the mere form of government can of itself safeguard a nation against despotism. … When a competent observer looks for signs of despotism in a community, he looks beyond fine words and noble phrases.

That last is shown against a backdrop of patriotic Americans reciting the (original) Pledge of Allegiance, which fades into the silhouette of a lynching. That's the implicit message of this film, It Can Happen Here.

We are introduced to a man "who makes it his business to study these things" — presumably Dr. Lasswell. The professor offers two "yardsticks" for measuring the existence of despotism or democracy in a given community or nation.

The Respect Scale ranges from shared to restricted, and measures "how many citizens get an even break." The Power Scale ranges from shared to concentrated. "The test of despotic power is that it can disregard the will of the people," the professor says. It's notable that in this 1946 film, both racism and anti-Semitism are offered as examples of despotic tendencies.

But here's where the film really gets interesting. The professor then offers two more scales by which, he says, an observer can determine whether a nation is headed toward democracy or toward despotism. These scales are Economic Distribution and Information.

Here's what the professor has to say about economic distribution, which he measures on a scale from "balanced" to "slanted":

If a community's economic distribution becomes slanted, its middle-income groups grow smaller and despotism stands a better chance to gain a foothold. …

If this condition exists over the nation as a whole, so that the control of jobs and business opportunities is in a few hands, despotism stands a good chance. …

Another sign of a poorly balanced economy is a taxation system that presses heaviest on those least able to pay.

In 1946, the unjust or inequitable distribution of wealth was perceived as a dangerous tendency and a threat to democracy. The Cold War hadn't yet begun in earnest.

Over the following decades, Soviet despotism rose as a challenge to democracy in the world. And because Soviet despotism was nominally about the redistribution of wealth, talk about equitable economic distribution as a necessary prerequisite for healthy democracy became suspect. And not just suspect, but condemned as anti-democratic and anti-American. Watching this 1946 film gave me a real sense of how great a setback for democracy vs. despotism the rise of McCarthyism really was.

The professor's final scale, which measures information on a range from "uncontrolled" to "controlled" seems eerily prescient, forecasting the McCarthyism to come. He wasn't really forecasting, of course, he was simply describing the past two decades in Europe.

A community rates low on an information scale when the press, radio and other channels of communication are controlled by only a few people, and when citizens have to accept what they are told. In communities of this kind, despotism stands a good chance. …

If books, newspapers and the radio are efficiently controlled, the people will read and accept exactly what the few in control want them to.

(The film includes a little vignette about a despotic teacher inculcating this unquestioning acceptance in her students. The teacher bears a remarkable resemblance to Beth Grant in Donnie Darko.)

Now, Billy, go pull the shades. And I need a volunteer to work the projector.

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7 responses to “Despotism, 1946”

  1. It’s especially disturbing that such a film or educational program simply wouldn’t sell in many markets today (read the whole South) and so probably wouldn’t be done. What was that about slanted information again?

  2. I read an interview with Arthur Miller where he pinpointed the transition. Death of a Salesman had been a huge success, and the film rights were sold almost immediately. The studio had no qualms at the outset, but by the time they’d finished filming, they were worried that it might be “anti-American.” Somewhere during that process, it had become treasonous to question consumerism.

  3. Wow, this is a great find. Much appreciated. The ironies here with the Bush administration are rich. Today, Hannity would say this was an American-hating film, Arnold would say it was made by a girly-man, and some Washington Post would say it indulges in conspiracy theories.

  4. If any documentary filmmakers are reading this, you do realize that this film is now in the public domain, don’t you? Might be time for a little video remix (hint, hint).

  5. Interesting.
    All the more so for me, as I was halfway thru the piece before I realized it was discussing despotism and not nepotism. The challenging thing was that it was always just on the verge of making sense that way.

  6. Search for “animation” on that site. The advertising cartoons of the era are really trenchant too.
    There were apparently a whole slew of pro-capitalism cartoons made, shortly after WWII, to try to convince people that Big Buisiness would trickle down to make them more prosperous, and that anyone against it was unamerican…

  7. Despotism, as seen in 1946

    Slacktivist has a post discussing a 1946 classroom film on “Despotism”, which included some interesting narration:
    “If a community’s economic distribution becomes slanted, its middle-income groups grow smaller and despotism stands a better chanc…