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Ayn Rand’s 1947 ‘Screen Guide for Americans’ (Part 1)

Rand’s sophisticated understanding of how Communist propaganda was injected into movies — and how to stop it — has enduring resonance.

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On October 20, 1947, Ayn Rand testified as a “friendly witness” before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Communist infiltration and influence in Hollywood were real problems, but in Rand’s assessment the hearings turned out to be largely futile. At best, the hearings were a means of raising awareness of what was going on in the film industry (for more on Rand’s engagement with HUAC, see Robert Mayhew’s Ayn Rand and “Song of Russia”). In contrast with members of the Committee, Rand had a sophisticated understanding of how Communist influence manifested in the film industry. In the essay “Screen Guide for Americans,” Rand writes that it’s a delusion to think “that political propaganda consists only of political slogans.”

Instead, the purpose of Communists in Hollywood “is to corrupt our moral premises by corrupting non-political movies — by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories — thus making people absorb the basic premises of Collectivism by indirection and implication.” The effect is pernicious: “a constant stream of hints, lines, touches, and suggestions battering the public from the screen will act like the drops of water that split a rock if continued long enough. The rock they are trying to split is Americanism.”

The essay, written for the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, goes on to describe “the more common devices used to turn non-political pictures into carriers of political propaganda.” It was meant for “all those who do not wish to help advance the cause of Communism.” Rand stressed that it was “intended as a guide, and not as a forced restriction upon anyone. We are unalterably opposed to any political ‘industry code.’” Since each individual “has to do his own thinking,” the guide was offered “to the independent judgment and for the voluntary action of every honest man in the motion picture industry.” Part of the enduring value of this essay is that it offers a window into Rand’s view of the unappreciated yet inescapable power of philosophic ideas in human life. And though addressing the film industry of the 1940s, the essay is replete with insightful observations of wider interest — for example, on collectivism, business, the “common man,” and human potential — that continue to resonate. New Ideal is pleased to reprint “Screen Guide for Americans” in two parts, starting with Part 1 below. Part 2 will appear soon after.


Screen Guide for Americans

By Ayn Rand

Part I

The influence of Communists in Hollywood is due, not to their own power, but to the unthinking carelessness of those who profess to oppose them. Red propaganda has been put over in some films produced by innocent men, often by loyal Americans who deplore the spread of Communism throughout the world and wonder why it is spreading.

If you wish to protect your pictures from being used for Communistic purposes, the first thing to do is to drop the delusion that political propaganda consists only of political slogans.

Politics is not a separate field in itself. Political ideas do not come out of thin air. They are the result of the moral premises which men have accepted. Whatever people believe to be the good, right and proper human actions — that will determine their political opinions. If men believe that every independent action is vicious, they will vote for every measure to control human beings and to suppress human freedom. If men believe that the American system is unjust, they will support those who wish to destroy it.

The purpose of the Communists in Hollywood is not the production of political movies openly advocating Communism. Their purpose is to corrupt our moral premises by corrupting non-political movies — by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories — thus making people absorb the basic premises of Collectivism by indirection and implication.

Few people would take Communism straight. But a constant stream of hints, lines, touches and suggestions battering the public from the screen will act like the drops of water that split a rock if continued long enough. The rock they are trying to split is Americanism.

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We present below a list of the more common devices used to turn non-political pictures into carriers of political propaganda. It is a guide list for all those who do not wish to help advance the cause of Communism.

It is intended as a guide, and not as a forced restriction upon anyone. We are unalterably opposed to any political “industry code,” to any group agreement or any manner of forbidding any political opinion to anyone by any form of collective force or pressure. There can be no “group insurance” in the field of ideas. Each man has to do his own thinking. We merely offer this list to the independent judgment and for the voluntary action of every honest man in the motion picture industry.

1. Don’t Take Politics Lightly.

Don’t fool yourself by saying, “I’m not interested in politics,” and then pretending that politics do not exist.

We are living in an age when politics is the most burning question in everybody’s mind. The whole world is torn by a great political issue — Freedom or Slavery, which means Americanism or Totalitarianism. Half the world is in ruins after a war fought over political ideas. To pretend at such a time that political ideas are not important and that people pay no attention to them, is worse than irresponsible.

It is the avowed purpose of the Communists to insert propaganda into movies. Therefore, there are only two possible courses of action open to you, if you want to keep your pictures clean of subversive propaganda:

  1. If you have no time or inclination to study political ideas — then do not hire Reds to work on your pictures.
  2. If you wish to employ Reds, but intend to keep their politics out of your movies — then study political ideas and learn how to recognize propaganda when you see it.

But to hire Communists on the theory that “they won’t put over any politics on me” and then remain ignorant and indifferent to the subject of politics, while the Reds are trained propaganda experts — is an attitude for which there can be no excuse.

2. Don’t Smear the Free Enterprise System.

Don’t pretend that Americanism and the Free Enterprise System are two things. They are inseparable, like body and soul. The basic principle of inalienable individual rights, which is Americanism, can be translated into practical reality only in the form of the economic system of Free Enterprise. That was the system established by the American Constitution, the system which made America the best and greatest country on earth. You may preach any other form of economics, if you wish. But if you do so, don’t pretend that you are preaching Americanism.

Don’t pretend that you are upholding the Free Enterprise System in some vague, general, undefined way, while preaching the specific ideas that oppose it and destroy it.

Don’t attack individual rights, individual freedom, private action, private initiative, and private property. These things are essential parts of the Free Enterprise System, without which it cannot exist.

Don’t preach the superiority of public ownership as such over private ownership. Don’t preach or imply that all publicly-owned projects are noble, humanitarian undertakings by grace of the mere fact that they are publicly-owned — while preaching, at the same time, that private property or the defense of private property rights is the expression of some sort of vicious greed, of anti-social selfishness or evil.

3. Don’t Smear Industrialists.

Don’t spit into your own face or, worse, pay miserable little rats to do it.

You, as a motion picture producer, are an industrialist. All of us are employees of an industry which gives us a good living. There is an old fable about a pig who filled his belly with acorns, then started digging to undermine the roots of the oak from which the acorns came. Don’t let’s allow that pig to become our symbol.

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Throughout American history, the best of American industrialists were men who embodied the highest virtues: productive genius, energy, initiative, independence, courage. Socially (if “social significance” interests you) they were among the greatest of all benefactors, because it is they who created the opportunities for achieving the unprecedented material wealth of the industrial age.

In our own day, all around us, there are countless examples of self-made men who rose from the ranks and achieved great industrial success through their energy, ability and honest productive effort.

Yet all too often industrialists, bankers, and businessmen are presented on the screen as villains, crooks, chiselers or exploiters. One such picture may be taken as non-political or accidental. A constant stream of such pictures becomes pernicious political propaganda: It creates hatred for all businessmen in the mind of the audience, and makes people receptive to the cause of Communism.

While motion pictures have a strict code that forbids us to offend or insult any group or nation — while we dare not present in an unfavorable light the tiniest Balkan kingdom — we permit ourselves to smear and slander American businessmen in the most irresponsibly dishonest manner.

It is true that there are vicious businessmen — just as there are vicious men in any other class or profession. But we have been practicing an outrageous kind of double standard: we do not attack individual representatives of any other group, class or nation, in order not to imply an attack on the whole group; yet when we present individual businessmen as monsters, we claim that no reflection on the whole class of businessmen was intended.

It’s got to be one or the other. This sort of double standard can deceive nobody and can serve nobody’s purpose except that of the Communists.

It is the moral — (no, not just political, but moral) — duty of every decent man in the motion picture industry to throw into the ashcan, where it belongs, every story that smears industrialists as such.

4. Don’t Smear Wealth.

In a free society — such as America — wealth is achieved through production, and through the voluntary exchange of one’s goods or services. You cannot hold production as evil — nor can you hold as evil a man’s right to keep the result of his own effort.

Only savages and Communists get rich by force — that is, by looting the property of others. It is a basic American principle that each man is free to work for his own benefit and to go as far as his ability will carry him; and his property is his — whether he has made one dollar or one million dollars.

If the villain in your story happens to be rich — don’t permit lines of dialogue suggesting that he is the typical representative of a whole social class, the symbol of all the rich. Keep it clear in your mind and in your script that his villainy is due to his own personal character — not to his wealth or class.

If you do not see the difference between wealth honestly produced and wealth looted — you are preaching the ideas of Communism. You are implying that all property and all human labor should belong to the State. And you are inciting men to crime: If all wealth is evil, no matter how acquired, why should a man bother to earn it? He might as well seize it by robbery or expropriation.

It is the proper wish of every decent American to stand on his own feet, earn his own living, and be as good at it as he can — that is, get as rich as he can by honest exchange.

Stop insulting him and stop defaming his proper ambition. Stop giving him — and yourself — a guilt complex by spreading unthinkingly the slogans of Communism. Put an end to that pernicious modern hypocrisy: everybody wants to get rich and almost everybody feels that he must apologize for it.

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'In judging a man’s character, poverty is no disgrace — but it is no virtue, either; wealth is no virtue — but it is certainly no disgrace.' Click To Tweet

5. Don’t Smear the Profit Motive.

If you denounce the profit motive, what is it that you wish men to do? Work without reward, like slaves, for the benefit of the State?

An industrialist has to be interested in profit. In a free economy, he can make a profit only if he makes a good product which people are willing to buy. What do you want him to do? Should he sell his product at a loss? If so, how long is he to remain in business? And at whose expense?

Don’t give to your characters — as a sign of villainy, as a damning characteristic — a desire to make money. Nobody wants to, or should, work without payment, and nobody does — except a slave. There is nothing dishonorable about a pursuit of money in a free economy, because money can be earned only by productive effort.

If what you mean, when you denounce it, is a desire to make money dishonestly or immorally — then say so. Make it clear that what you denounce is dishonesty, not money-making. Make it clear that you are denouncing evil-doers, not capitalists. Don’t toss out careless generalities which imply that there is no difference between the two. That is what the Communists want you to imply.

6. Don’t Smear Success.

America was made by the idea that personal achievement and personal success are each man’s proper and moral goal.

There are many forms of success: spiritual, artistic, industrial, financial. All these forms, in any field of honest endeavor, are good, desirable and admirable. Treat them as such.

Don’t permit any disparagement or defamation of personal success. It is the Communists’ intention to make people think that personal success is somehow achieved at the expense of others and that every successful man has hurt somebody by becoming successful.

It is the Communists’ aim to discourage all personal effort and to drive men into a hopeless, dispirited, gray herd of robots who have lost all personal ambition, who are easy to rule, willing to obey and willing to exist in selfless servitude to the State.

America is based on the ideal of man’s dignity and self-respect. Dignity and self-respect are impossible without a sense of personal achievement. When you defame success, you defame human dignity.

America is the land of the self-made man. Say so on the screen.

7. Don’t Glorify Failure.

Failure, in itself, is not admirable. And while every man meets with failure somewhere in his life, the admirable thing is his courage in overcoming itnot the fact that he failed.

Failure is no disgrace — but it is certainly no brand of virtue or nobility, either.

It is the Communist’s intention to make men accept misery, depravity and degradation as their natural lot in life. This is done by presenting every kind of failure as sympathetic, as a sign of goodness and virtue — while every kind of success is presented as a sign of evil. This implies that only the evil can succeed under our American system — while the good are to be found in the gutter.

Don’t present all the poor as good and all the rich as evil. In judging a man’s character, poverty is no disgrace — but it is no virtue, either; wealth is no virtue — but it is certainly no disgrace.

Continue to Part 2 here

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