July 3 (Bloomberg) — Would I be ready for that? That's the question most of us have when we hear about a family facing a home foreclosure in, say, Ohio.
The question of readiness is the latest line in a conversation that the U.S. has been having with itself for the past few years. It's the discussion about the possibility of a serious economic slump today. What can the Great Depression tell us? What about the New Deal?
Such chatter is happening on two levels. One is political. The other is cultural — as in the film about the 1930s, "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," released nationally this week. The conclusion to the conversation isn't always the same.
On the political level, the logic is pretty straightforward. It starts with the premise that it is time for a "surge" at home, collective domestic action on the economy. And who led such a surge in the past? Franklin Roosevelt, when he created the New Deal.
In this argument, the New Deal is the most important part of the 1930s story. The Great Depression, for its part, is the backdrop, the period that is important because it is when we learned we needed broad federal programs.
The emphasis is on pulling through collectively, as a national team led by politicians who change laws. Last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for a "First 100 Hours" of legislative activity by the new Democratic Congress, a play on Roosevelt's "First 100 Days" in 1933.
This past spring, the FDR presidential library in Hyde Park, New York, hosted an exhibit on the 100 Days, "Action, and Action Now." One cartoon featured FDR at the engine of a national train ready to speed ahead — with Uncle Sam waving a cheering fist from the platform.
This past week, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama also evoked the collective aspect of the New Deal when he presented a new official seal for his campaign. The image on the seal was an outsized eagle, similar to another in-your-face fowl, the Blue Eagle, which was the emblem of FDR's National Recovery Administration.
The Obama seal provides its own answer to the question about being ready to handle trouble. The Obama answer comes in the plural: "vero possimus" — "yes, we can." That's "we," not "I."
On the cultural plane, however, the Depression discussion flows a bit differently. There are dutiful references in the "American Girl" movie to New Deal institutions, but they are the voiceover, the background. Then the movie gets going, and it is all about the individual.
'No Longer Alone'
Take the film "Seabiscuit," which appeared in 2003, well before the foreclosures in Ohio, where the character Kit lives. When the New Deal came, the "Seabiscuit" narrator recalls, "for the first time in a long time, someone cared. For the first time in a long time, you were no longer alone."
But the actual plot of "Seabiscuit" was worthy of Calvin Coolidge, so much did it emphasize the fortitude of two individuals — horse and jockey. Seabiscuit was an "undersized crooked-legged" stallion with idiosyncratic eating habits who outshone Roosevelt in 1938, when the U.S. was as down as it has ever been.
"Cinderella Man," the Depression-era film of 2005, had a similar philosophy. Has-been boxer James J. Braddock fights his way off the soup lines. Cinderella Man may not have voted for Herbert Hoover, but he personifies the rugged individualism that Hoover was mocked for honoring.
"Kit Kittredge" offers a girl-power version of the same theme. Kit and her family are in danger of losing their Cincinnati home. She's terrified of the humiliation of seeing her family demoted to selling eggs, not to mention wearing dresses made of chicken-feed sacks. Hobos camping outside town talk about it and agree that Robin Hood had the right idea.
But generally the "together" in "Kit" is more of a local, community togetherness than a national and political one. The hobo community with its blankets and sign language is the model the rest of Cincinnati learns from. Americans do best when they combat trouble "side by side," just as in the Harry Woods song that opens the movie. Kit prevails when she lands work — in her case, getting a feature story accepted by the local newspaper.
After the adversity of the Depression, Kit is stronger — as an individual. She puts her motto in the singular: "no matter what life had in store, I was ready." "I," not "we."
I'm sure that in viewing this movie many parents won't be seeking historiography. They will be simply looking to show their kids that Abigail Breslin can have fun doing things like cutting pieces of bread into triangles, so the sandwich lasts longer. Or that she can enjoy play without IMing or Webkinz.
Their favorite moment will come when the utility company cuts the Kittredge family off, and Breslin asks in disbelief: "No phone?"
Still, this kind of 1930s nostalgia suggests that political culture is to the left of our general culture. The political consumer may be saying he likes — or at least doesn't mind — those New Deal references. But the cultural consumer, who is often the same person, prefers hearing about underdogs who pull ahead, stomachs that growl, and hobo resourcefulness.
If its box office numbers are even decent this weekend, "Kit Kittredge" will be the most successful 1930s product of this year. That alone tells us which aspect of the Great Depression that Americans find most relevant.
(Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression," is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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