Watching old films of the 40’s and 50’s explicitly reveals the underpinnings of our American cultural narrative. Produced before the rise of contemporary comic irony or social satire, these post WWII films feel more like “educational” dating or coming of age films that were shown in high school. Commentary on the virtues of honesty, courage, and the nature of evil is delivered with all the subtlety of a hammer.
This cinematic approach makes for rather hokey plots, stiff dialog and predictable outcomes, but while watching these films I can’t help but feel how far from our own narrative roots America has wandered. The 1952 film “The Sellout,” staring Walter Pidgeon, Karl Malden and a host of movie regulars of the time, is nothing special. A small town newspaper publisher exposes corruption within the local Sheriff’s office, and the criminals intimidate him into leaving town. In the end, he testifies against the Sheriff, and the Judge at the hearing gives a stirring speech about “the law” being bigger than any man. It’s one of those “feel good about America” speeches about how “nobody is above the law,” even the powerful. It sounded self-righteous but comforting; the “little guy” at least, could count on justice. Too bad it’s not true, and perhaps never was.
I found myself thinking about America’s financial collapse of 2008, its continuance and the suffering it has caused “the little guy.” As for justice, the little guy is still waiting.
As recounted in books, articles and films like The Inside Story, a small coterie of well-paid professionals decided to play “cute” with the derivatives and housing markets on Wall Street, defrauding investors and homeowners alike. Goldman Sachs, the investment bank which received billions of public bailout funds, was hawking investments in bundled mortgage securities to investors while simultaneously selling the securities short in their own accounts because they knew they were junk. Wells Fargo, Countrywide, and Bank of America falsified records to make it easier to claim ownership of homes.
Was it the homeowners who received help when the housing market collapsed due to criminal acts? Not at all; in the end, public money bailed out the “bad guys” instead of the “little guys” and to this day, proper justice has not been served. The rich bankers who made a killing at the expense of the little guy’s job, pension and health care are fat, happy and still raking in the dough. This has happened under the watch of both Republican and Democratic administrations, which tells us who pulls the strings in Washington D.C.
If you steal a loaf of bread worth $2.25 you can be arrested and end up in jail. Steal $2.25 billion, and you can get a big bonus. Blue-collar crime gets the daily headlines, but white-collar crime is where the real money is found. At this point it appears that Bernie Madoff will alone remain the poster boy of justice in America, serving as a stand-in for all those who have escaped the law and continue to prosper.
I’d love to watch a Judge condemn and sentence Wall Street bankers and investment houses that stole billions and left so many broke, but 1952 is a long time ago and I was just a silly kid who believed in “the law” and the “little guy.” Ah, well.