Big Individualism for You and Me: Industry as Hero for the Common Man

Curator's Note

Just a year before the United States' entry into World War II, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) released the movie "Your Town," a short film designed to trumpet the benevolence of American Industry.  The movie, viewed in 1940 by more than 6.5 million people across all 48 states, was released at a time when American business still felt besieged by a confluence of factors. As scholars like Wendy Wall and Stuart Ewen have pointed out, industry faced continuing adversarial pressures from an activist federal government, social reformers, labor unions and consumerist movements. As recently as 1937, NAM had commissioned a poll that found that 66 percent of the American publics had an unfavorable view of big business.

"Your Town" attempts to speak back to those factors by emphasizing a near-religious faith in the power of Industry (and not the government) to resurrect the hopes and aspirations of Americans.  In concert with American values of self-betterment through individual enterprise, it uses the movie to portray Industry as a fellow autonomous entity that seeks progress.  The difference, the movie points out, is one of scale -- American Industry offers a Big Individualism that allows many in society to benefit when business has freer reign.

Accordingly, the movie portrays industry as a heroic figure, helping a town ("your town") progress from an inauspicious beginning to its eventual (and seemingly, inevitable) prosperity. The movie acts as a parable, designed to encourage Americans to eschew potential anti-business forces and align themselves with business' desires for a return to a laissez faire state. By portraying business as a heroic Big Individual, the movie attempts to co-opt American Exceptionalist notions of each individual as the arbiter of his/her fate. In doing so, it says that Business faces the same challenges as any individual and is, therefore, embued with an aura of valiant endurance. Business, it says, is just like you, Mr and Mrs. America.  As Chris Vogler has pointed out about the hero in narrative: "Each person hearing a tale or watching a play or a movie is invited, in the early stages of the story, to identify with the Hero, to merge with him ..."

Seventy years later, after extensive bailouts of large corporations, legislative largesse for health care companies and the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision affirming corporations as having free speech rights, corporate interests inordinately influence the law and socioeconomic policies.  Meanwhile, through the endurance of Big Individualism, Americans continue to convince themselves that their own individualism is what rules daily life in the U.S. A poll recently published by Parade magazine found than two-thirds of Americans said that one of the American Dream's chief attributes was that it allowed individuals to better their lot through hard word and education. Sixty percent said individual liberty was a keystone of the country.  Each person's striving, says Big Individualism, is what still propells America -- blurring the reality that actual power often operates in systemic ways that have little to do with the capability of any single individual.


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