Essay on Liberal Propaganda

Migrant Mother

John Steinbeck wrote a book about it, Dorothea Lange recorded it with a camera, and Woodie Guthrie wrote songs about it to tear at your heart, and it all happened in this area.’ These words were written in 1990 to describe our first Dust Bowl Festival. It was a success, and the Greater Lamont Chamber of Commerce decided to hold this Festival every year.
Weedpatch Camp Website (Arvin Federal government camp):


In 2003, the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government awarded Al Franken a paid fellowship. Mr. Franken, the author of the best-selling, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right" — a vicious political broadside against the Bush administration — was a member of the Harvard Class of 1973.

Considering the influence of Harvard economists, from Joseph Schumpeter to Paul Samuelson to Kenneth Arrow, on American public policy and considering the role of the Harvard Business School in shaping the ethics of CEOs of public companies, and noting the motto on the Harvard seal (Veritas), the attitude of this leading liberal institution as to "truth-telling" is relevant to understanding the ethics of corporate managers in the 1990s.

The Roots of Media Bias

The bias of American media towards the Democrat Party was fixed three generations ago by another Harvard graduate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who flattered university economists and suborned the press with a massive propaganda effort called Federal One.

The New Deal was not adverse to lying to advance its cause, but by seducing academics to its side, many of these lies have been transformed into 'truth' taught to school children for half a century.

Much of current economic policy is supported on an emotional tangle of hundreds of tiny falsehoods, that together form a Big Lie that influences how Americans perceive the world.

A Case Study in Propaganda

An egregious example of the New Deal’s exploitation of the privacy of the unfortunate and the willingness to lie is the case of what is sometimes referred to as the most famous photograph in American history, ‘Migrant Mother’. The picture has been reprinted at least a million times.

It appears on U.S. postage stamps, museum posters, coffee table books, school texts, t-shirts, mother’s day cards, and government exhibitions. Migrant Mother was the poster girl of the New Deal. She was a face with no name, as was befitting a ‘forgotten’ person.

The picture is part of the greater money-making, fame-gathering, razzle-dazzle political extravaganza of the Dust Bowl, that took in John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Henry Fonda, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize Committees, the Hollywood studios, the record companies, the universities, and just about anyone who could figure a way to make a buck by pandering to the eagerly deluded masses.

Just as Joseph Goebbels sought a hero-victim to create the legend of Nazi glory, using the murder of the SA storm trooper, Horst Wessel, the New Deal propagandists grasped at Migrant Mother to symbolize the evils of the capitalist system against which FDR was leading the charge.

Sixty-two years later, the Clinton Administration continued to perpetuate this New Deal myth with a postage stamp entitled, ‘America Survives the Depression’, falsely implying that the Migrant Mother was typical of Americans during the 1930s and suggesting that her ‘survival’ was due to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, honored on two other stamps of the same series.

Migrant Mother Mini-Industry

A mini-industry has grown up around this photo and the legend of the Dust Bowl seems to gain strength each passing year.

The Weed Patch Camp where John Steinbeck gathered ideas for ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ has been turned into a Federal shrine, with a periodic ‘Dust Bowl Festival’ and the opportunity to sponsor a brick to restore this ‘vital piece of America’s heritage’.

One of the Migrant Mother’s grandsons has a web site on which civic groups and women’s clubs can book a presentation and slide show.

In 2003, the HBO special, 'Carnivale', continued to spin the legend of the Dust Bowl to ever more fanciful realms.

The Migrant Mother story is worth telling at length because it shows how the New Deal catered to the economic interests and personal goals of university professors, artists, and the press to form the powerful, hypocritical left-wing fellowship that sanctified the socialist ideology that permanently altered American society.

Until the 1990s, most Americans thought that the gray, sad picture of a migrant mother and her brood of children represented a factual portrayal of a Dust Bowl farmer – a real life Mother Joad – a picture proving the accuracy of John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize novel, Grapes of Wrath, and the veracity of Henry Fonda’s representation of the ‘down trodden’ in Darryl F. Zanuck’s and John Ford’s film version.

The photograph was proffered as evidence of the need for Big Government, without which the American people would be reduced to abject poverty.

New Dealers Concoct History

In a set of five pictures, Dorothea Lange, a New Deal photographer, snapped ‘Migrant Mother’ in March 1936 along the road to Nipomo, California. Lange later recalled(1),

“I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me.”

In a day or so, the pictures appeared in the San Francisco News with the headlines, “Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squalor(2)” and “What Does the New Deal Mean to this Mother and Her Children?(3)” The publicity resulted in ten tons of food being sent to the migrants in Nipomo.

Lange noted further ‘facts’ about these photographs in the official government records – specifically, that the people involved were “destitute in a pea picker camp, because of the failure of the early pea crop”, that “these people had just sold their tent in order to buy food”, and that the “father is a native Californian”.

More than fifty years later, in a catalog for an exposition of Dorothea Lange’s photographs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, curator Sandra Phillips asserted that the migrant mother’s “life [was] most likely saved by Lange’s photo.

What was true in all this is that Dorothea Lange did take the photograph and that she herself was handsomely rewarded for so doing. The rest was propaganda designed to sell New Deal social programs, newspapers, and advance the career of Lange’s husband, Professor Paul Schuster Taylor, a left-wing labor economist at the University of California at Berkeley.

The picture also served the personal interests of Lange and Taylor’s friend, George P. West, an associate editor at the San Francisco News.

The facts behind the picture were hidden for decades

The facts behind the picture were hidden for decades, but in the 1990s, with the advent of the Internet, Migrant Mother’s children and grandchildren began to tell the true story.

Paul Taylor’s own ‘oral history’ of his involvement became available online from the archives of the University of California (4).

An excellent detailed account of the events has been written by Geoffrey Dunn for the Santa Maria Sun, also published online(5).

The Real Migrant Mother

Florence Thompson (Migrant Mother’s name) was not living in the pea picker camp in Nicomo, California; she had not sold the family tent or the tires on the car to buy food; and her family had not been living off of frozen peas from the surrounding fields or birds that her children killed.

She was merely waiting by the side of the road for her husband and sons to come back from town where they had brought the car’s radiator for repair after it had been punctured accidentally when trying to fix a timing belt.

Soon after Dorothea Lange took her picture and left, Florence’s husband returned with the repaired radiator and the family drove off to the next town and found work, never receiving any of the food later sent to the camp in Nicomo.

The Migrant Mother and her family were never saved from starvation by the picture as suggested by the curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Even the suggestion that she was a refugee from the Dust Bowl was untrue – she had been in California for ten years, living in her own house, her husband working in local saw mills.

If Roosevelt had not attacked capitalism and had allowed the economy to recover normally from the financial panic of 1929, as it had many times during the previous one hundred years, Florence probably would have never become Migrant Mother with her picture engraved for all time on the visual histories of the 1930s.

In fact, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and American businessmen decided to swallow their disgust of FDR in order to protect the country, Florence’s economic status improved. After the war she married a government employee and once again had a home of her own.

The Truth Revealed

Although Florence and her children were clearly without much material wealth during the 1930s, struggling hard to get by, as had the millions of American migrants that had streamed across the continent for two hundred years, life was not entirely without sunshine.

Florence Thompson’s daughter, Norma Rydlewski, later told the writer, Geoffrey Dunn (6) ,

Mama and daddy would take us to the movies a lot. We’d go to the carnival whenever it was in town, little things like that. We listened to the radio. If they had any money at all, they’d get us ice cream. In Shafter, we had friends and relatives visiting. We also had our fun.
Mother was a woman who loved to enjoy life, who loved her children. She loved music and she loved to dance. When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me. That’s not how I like to remember her.

Florence’s grandson, Roger Sprague Sr., has published on the Internet an account of how Dorothea Lange took the picture, which is useful in understanding the look on Florence’s face (7) .

He tells how Lange, a ‘well-dressed women’ got out of a ‘shiny new car’ and started taking his grandmother’s picture, moving closer and closer. After the last picture, and before getting into her car to drive away, she said,

"Hello, I'm Dorothea Lange. I work for the Farm Security Administration documenting the plight of the migrant worker. The photos will never be published, I promise."

Florence, herself, corroborated several times that Lange had promised never to publish the picture.

As we learn more about Florence Thompson and the circumstances surrounding the photograph, it becomes clear why she had such a grim look on her face when approached by an affluent government photographer who was taking her picture without permission.

Her son, Troy Owens, recalled that,

Her biggest fear was that if she were to ask for help [from the government], then they would have reason to take her children away from her. That was her biggest fear all through her entire life (8) .”

Essay: continued >

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