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Ayn Rand’s 1947 ‘Screen Guide for Americans’ (Part 2)

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.

Start with Part 1 here


Screen Guide for Americans

By Ayn Rand

Part II

8. Don’t Glorify Depravity.

Don’t present sympathetic studies of depravity. Go easy on stories about murderers, perverts and all the rest of that sordid stuff. If you use such stories, don’t place yourself and the audience on the side of the criminal, don’t create sympathy for him, don’t give him excuses and justifications, don’t imply that he “couldn’t help it.”

If you preach that a depraved person “couldn’t help it,” you are destroying the basis of all morality. You are implying that men cannot be held responsible for their evil acts, because man has no power to choose between good and evil; if so, then all moral precepts are futile, and men must resign themselves to the idea that they are helpless, irresponsible animals. Don’t help to spread such an idea.

When you pick these stories for their purely sensational value, you do not realize that you are dealing with one of the most crucial philosophical issues. These stories represent a profoundly insidious attack on all moral principles and all religious precepts. It is a basic tenet of Marxism that man has no freedom of moral or intellectual choice; that he is only a soulless, witless collection of meat and glands, open to any sort of “conditioning” by anybody. The Communists intend to become the “conditioners.”

There is too much horror and depravity in the world at present. If people see nothing but horror and depravity on the screen, you will merely add to their despair by driving in the impression that nothing better is possible to men or can be expected of life, which is what the Communists want people to think. Communism thrives on despair. Men without hope are easily ruled.

Don’t excuse depravity. Don’t drool over weaklings as conditioned “victims of circumstances” (or of “background” or of “society”), who “couldn’t help it.” You are actually providing an excuse and an alibi for the worst instincts in the weakest members of your audience.

Don’t tell people that man is a helpless, twisted, drooling, sniveling, neurotic weakling. Show the world an American kind of man, for a change.

9. Don’t Deify “The Common Man.”

“The common man” is one of the worst slogans of Communism — and too many of us have fallen for it, without thinking.

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It is only in Europe — under social caste systems where men are divided into “aristocrats” and “commoners” — that one can talk about defending the “common man.” What does the word “common” mean in America?

Under the American system, all men are equal before the law. Therefore, if anyone is classified as “common” — he can be called “common” only in regard to his personal qualities. It then means that he has no outstanding abilities, no outstanding virtues, no outstanding intelligence. Is that an object of glorification?

In the Communist doctrine, it is. Communism preaches the reign of mediocrity, the destruction of all individuality and all personal distinction, the turning of men into “masses,” which means an undivided, undifferentiated, impersonal, average, common herd.

In the American doctrine, no man is common. Every man’s personality is unique — and it is respected as such. He may have qualities which he shares with others; but his virtue is not gauged by how much he resembles others — that is the Communist doctrine; his virtue is gauged by his personal distinction, great or small.

In America, no man is scorned or penalized if his ability is small. But neither is he praised, extolled and glorified for the smallness of his ability.

America is the land of the uncommon man. It is the land where man is free to develop his genius — and to get its just rewards. It is the land where each man tries to develop whatever quality he might possess and to rise to whatever degree he can, great or modest. It is not the land where one is taught that one is small and ought to remain small. It is not the land where one glories or is taught to glory in one’s mediocrity.

No self-respecting man in America is or thinks of himself as “little,” no matter how poor he might be. That, precisely, is the difference between an American working man and a European serf.

Don’t ever use any lines about “the common man” or “the little people.” It is not the American idea to be either “common” or “little.”

10. Don’t Glorify the Collective.

This point requires your careful and thoughtful attention.

There is a great difference between free co-operation and forced collectivism. It is the difference between the United States and Soviet Russia. But the Communists are very skillful at hiding the difference and selling you the second under the guise of the first. You might miss it. The audience won’t.

Co-operation is the free association of men who work together by voluntary agreement, each deriving from it his own personal benefit.

Collectivism is the forced herding together of men into a group, with the individual having no choice about it, no personal motive, no personal reward, and subordinating himself blindly to the will of others.

Keep this distinction clearly in mind — in order to judge whether what you are asked to glorify is American co-operation or Soviet Collectivism.

Don’t preach that everybody should be and act alike.

Don’t fall for such drivel as “I don’t wanna be dif’rent — I wanna be just like ever’body else.” You’ve heard this one in endless variations. If ever there was an un-American attitude, this is it. America is the country where every man wants to be different — and most men succeed at it.

If you preach that it is evil to be different — you teach every particular group of men to hate every other group, every minority, every person, for being different from them; thus you lay the foundation for racial hatred.

Don’t preach that all mass action is good, and all individual action is evil. It is true that there are vicious individuals; it is also true that there are vicious groups. Both must be judged by their specific actions — and not treated as an issue of “the one” against “the many,” with the many always right and the one always wrong.

Remember that it is the Communists’ aim to preach the supremacy, the holy virtue of the group — as opposed to the individual. It is not America’s aim. Nor yours.

11. Don’t Smear an Independent Man.

This is part of the same issue as the preceding point.

The Communists’ chief purpose is to destroy every form of independence — independent work, independent action, independent property, independent thought, an independent mind, or an independent man.

Conformity, alikeness, servility, submission and obedience are necessary to establish a Communist slave-state. Don’t help the Communists to teach men to acquire these attitudes.

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Don’t fall for the old Communist trick of thinking that an independent man or an individualist is one who crushes and exploits others — such as a dictator. An independent man is one who stands alone and respects the same right of others, who does not rule nor serve, who neither sacrifices himself nor others. A dictator — by definition — is the most complete collectivist of all, because he exists by ruling, crushing and exploiting a huge collective of men.

Don’t permit the snide little touches which Communists sneak into scripts — all the lines, hints and implications which suggest that something (a person, an attitude, a motive, an emotion) is evil because it is independent (or private, or personal, or single, or individual).   

Don’t preach that everything done for others is good, while everything done for one’s own sake is evil. This damns every form of personal joy and happiness.

Don’t preach that everything “public-spirited” is good, while everything personal and private is evil.

Don’t make every form of loneliness a sin, and every form of the herd spirit a virtue.

Remember that America is the country of the pioneer, the non-conformist, the inventor, the originator, the innovator. Remember that all the great thinkers, artists, scientists were single, individual, independent men who stood alone, and discovered new directions of achievement — alone.

Don’t let yourself be fooled when the Reds tell you that what they want to destroy are men like Hitler or Mussolini. What they want to destroy are men like Shakespeare, Chopin and Edison.

If you doubt this, think of a certain movie, in which a great composer was damned for succumbing, temporarily, to a horrible, vicious, selfish, anti-social sin. What was his sin? That he wanted to sit alone in his room and write music!

12. Don’t Use Current Events Carelessly.

A favorite trick of the Communists is to insert into pictures casual lines of dialogue about some important, highly controversial political issue, to insert them as accidental small talk, without any connection to the scene, the plot, or the story.

Don’t permit such lines. Don’t permit snide little slurs at any political party — in a picture which is to be released just before election time.

Don’t allow chance remarks of a partisan nature about any current political events.

If you wish to mention politics on the screen, or take sides in a current controversy — then do so fully and openly. Even those who do not agree with you will respect an honest presentation of the side you’ve chosen. But the seemingly accidental remarks, the casual wisecracks, the cowardly little half-hints are the things that arouse the anger and contempt of all those who uphold the opposite side of the issue. In most of the current issues, that opposite side represents half or more than half of your picture audience.

And it is a sad joke on Hollywood that while we shy away from all controversial subjects on the screen, in order not to antagonize anybody — we arouse more antagonism throughout the country and more resentment against ourselves by one cheap little smear line in the midst of some musical comedy than we ever would by a whole political treatise.

Of all current questions, be most careful about your attitude toward Soviet Russia. You do not have to make pro-Soviet or anti-Soviet pictures, if you do not wish to take a stand. But if you claim that you wish to remain neutral, don’t stick into pictures casual lines favorable to Soviet Russia. Look out for remarks that praise Russia directly or indirectly; or statements to the effect that anyone who is anti-Soviet is pro-Fascist; or references to fictitious Soviet achievements.

Don’t suggest to the audience that the Russian people are free, secure and happy, that life in Russia is just about the same as in any other country — while actually the Russian people live in constant terror under a bloody, monstrous dictatorship. Look out for speeches that support whatever is in the Soviet interests of the moment, whatever is part of the current Communist party line. Don’t permit dialogue such as: “The free, peace-loving nations of the world — America, England, and Russia . . .” or, “Free elections, such as in Poland . . .” or, “American imperialists ought to get out of China . . .”

13. Don’t Smear American Political Institutions.

The Communist Party Line takes many turns and makes many changes to meet shifting conditions. But on one objective it has remained fixed: to undermine faith in and ultimately to destroy our American political institutions.

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Don’t discredit the Congress of the United States by presenting it as an ineffectual body, devoted to mere talk. If you do that — you imply that representative government is no good, and what we ought to have is a dictator.

Don’t discredit our free elections. If you do that — you imply that elections should be abolished.

Don’t discredit our courts by presenting them as corrupt. If you do that — you lead people to believe that they have no recourse except to violence, since peaceful justice cannot be obtained.

It is true that there have been vicious Congressmen and judges, and politicians who have stolen elections, just as there are vicious men in any profession. But if you present them in a story, be sure to make it clear that you are criticizing particular men — not the system. The American system, as such, is the best ever devised in history. If some men do not live up to it — let us damn these men, not the system which they betray.

Conclusion

These are the things which Communists and their sympathizers try to sneak into pictures intended as non-political — and these are the things which you must keep out of your scripts, if your intention is to make non-political movies.

There is, of course, no reason why you should not make pictures on political themes. In fact, it would be most desirable if there were more pictures advocating the political principles of Americanism, seriously, consistently and dramatically. Serious themes are always good entertainment, if honestly done. But if you attempt such pictures — do not undertake them lightly, carelessly, and with no better equipment than a few trite generalities and safe, benevolent bromides. Be very sure of what you want to say — and say it clearly, specifically, uncompromisingly. Evasions and generalities only help the enemies of Americanism — by giving people the impression that American principles are a collection of weak, inconsistent, meaningless, hypocritical, worn-out old slogans.

There is no obligation on you to make political pictures — if you do not wish to take a strong stand. You are free to confine your work to good, honest, non-political movies. But there is a moral obligation on you to present the political ideas of Americanism strongly and honestly — if you undertake pictures with political themes.

And when you make pictures with political themes and implications — DON’T hire Communists to write, direct or produce them. You cannot expect Communists to remain “neutral” and not to insert their own ideas into their work. Take them at their word, not ours. They have declared openly and repeatedly that their first obligation is to the Communist Party, that their first duty is to spread Party propaganda, and that their work in pictures is only a means to an end, the end being the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. You had better believe them about their own stated intentions. Remember that Hitler, too, stated openly that his aim was world conquest, but nobody believed him or took him seriously until it was too late.

Now a word of warning about the question of free speech. The principle of free speech requires that we do not use police force to forbid the Communists the expression of their ideas — which means that we do not pass laws forbidding them to speak. But the principle of free speech does not require that we furnish the Communists with the means to preach their ideas, and does not imply that we owe them jobs and support to advocate our own destruction at our own expense. The Constitutional guaranty of free speech reads: “Congress shall pass no law . . .” It does not require employers to be suckers.

Let the Communists preach what they wish (so long as it remains mere talking) at the expense of those and in the employ of those who share their ideas. Let them create their own motion picture studios, if they can. But let us put an end to their use of our pictures, our studios and our money for the purpose of preaching our expropriation, enslavement and destruction. Freedom of speech does not imply that it is our duty to provide a knife for the murderer who wants to cut our throat.

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