Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 2, 2020

The Great American Lie

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:00 pm

Opening today as VOD on Amazon and Apple, “The Great American Lie” is an urgent, heartfelt documentary about the increasing difficulties faced by lower-income Americans since the Reagan “revolution”. You will be reminded of the continuity with the current White House occupant when a clip of “the Gipper” features him promising to make America great again.

On the plus side, the film is replete with statistics that illustrate how we have become “two Americas”. The film’s website gives you a flavor of the kind of numbers that are presented throughout the film:

We are currently living in one of the greatest periods of social and economic inequality in our nation’s history. Today, the top 0.1% of Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 90%. In 2017 alone, 82% of new wealth created went to the top 1%.

Meanwhile, one in five American children and one in eight American women live in poverty – despite us being one of the wealthiest countries on earth. Increasing inequality has created deep social, economic, and political divides. Clearly the status quo is not working.

The film pivots between interviews with numerous academic and journalistic pundits who are appalled by the growing inequality and people who have been affected by it. We hear from Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Kristof throughout, as well as a host of psychologists, sociologists, and other social scientists. They all decry America’s failure to be more like European social democracies. Although Bernie Sanders’s name is not mentioned once in the film, “The Great American Lie” makes the same kind of points he made on the campaign stump.

As for the people affected by hard times, I found Scott Seitz’s story most interesting. He was a steelworker in McDonald, Ohio, a town not far from Youngstown and named after the McDonald family that was to steel as General Motors was to auto. When the steel belt around Youngstown turned into a rust belt, working people were devastated in the same way that Flint was devastated by GM’s plant closing. Seitz was one of the victims of this collapse.

He now works seven days a week to provide for his family. His story illustrates the costs of the transformation of the American economy, including on his college-educated son. We meet him as well and learn that he is a single father, the result of his wife’s heroin addiction, something that she kept secret from him even when she was pregnant. For Seitz and other men barely scraping by in McDonald, the solution was to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Despite the evidence that it was mostly upper middle-class people voting for Trump, we cannot gainsay the defection from the Democratic Party that made the difference as well.

The film was directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the wife of California governor Gavin Newsome who is one of the numerous compassionate liberals heard throughout the film deploring the greed of the upper classes. If you’re looking for solutions to America’s transformation into a Third World country, you won’t find it in this documentary. You get a feel for the message that is repeated throughout the film from the director’s statement in the press notes:

Inequality is not unique to America, but the American Dream is, and we’ve loaded that dream with extreme masculine messages about individualism, power, and money. Our values allow us to put a billionaire on a pedestal and blame the poverty of millions of people on their supposed lack of hard work. The Great American Lie will take a hard look at our values to begin to right this ship.

Values? I suppose that things would be a lot better if the tax structure looked a lot more like it was under Eisenhower and if the Republicans were more like Nelson Rockefeller than Calvin Coolidge but the real problem is capitalism, not bad values. Nothing will make the area around Youngstown prosperous again. Investors expect steel to generate profits, not health and happiness for the Scott Seitz’s of the world.

Despite the film’s failure to identify the underlying cause of economic suffering, I can still recommend it as a cogent, well-made treatment of the human costs. It would make for a good discussion for an off-campus high school or college class, especially for a Marxist professor trying to get students to think about the built-in liabilities of liberalism.

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