Monday, August 25, 2008

Immigrants, Movies, and Labor Discipline

The values of nineteenth century America were largely white Anglo-Saxon values that stressed Protestant self-reliance and Victorian respectability. Men worked and subdued the frontier (both literally and figuratively), while the woman’s domain was religion (moral uplift) and the home. Education, self-cultivation and upward mobility were the hallmarks of Anglo Saxon values. The central theme of this value system was Progress (expressed in terms of material progress) versus primitivism.

According to Larry May in his book Screening Out the Past, immigrants presented a disorganizing element into American society because they brought with them other (less restrictive) value systems. In the view of the white Anglo-Saxon majority, immigrants needed to be Americanized in order to, “make no trouble for the right minded” (May, 15). The workplace was one area in which the immigrant must be bent to (industrial) discipline. The other area was leisure. The middle class wanted to control immigrant leisure, and as Roy Rosenzweig points out in Eight Hours for What We Will leisure became a battleground between groups with different value systems.

For immigrants, amusements constituted an important counterweight to the rigors of industrial discipline. Movies were particularly appealing to multi-lingual immigrants. Because movies were silent, they were universally available as an outlet for romance and adventure and formed the ground pattern of social life for the young (May, 38). The movies provided immigrants with a form of acculturation into American life (Mayne,33). Although the middle class frowned on the low themes of the earliest movies, in general movies were much less of a threat to industrial discipline than were other amusements such as drinking in saloons. Immigrants carved out leisure (and especially movies) as a public space apart from work where they could indulge hopes, dreams and aspirations. In embracing the culture of the movies ( and its concomitant consumerism) so enthusiastically, the immigrant movie go-er accelerated the breakdown of old ethnic norms and the development of a more homogeneous society based on mass culture and consumerism. Consumerism offered the image of a homogenous population pursuing the same goals of living well and accumulating goods. The emergence of consumerism served to mask the transformation of the immigrant from person to commodity and tempered resistance to labor discipline (Mayne,34).

The development of the movie industry itself was a tremendous social safety valve. The movie industry, in which immigrants were heavily represented, demonstrated that success could be had without a long laborious submission to the Anglo Saxon value system (May, 196). Success was democratized in the persona of the movie star who by talent and imagination could become an overnight success (May, 233).

In Eight Hours for What We Will, Roy Rosenzweig talks about alternative ethnic worker cultures as opposed to oppositional cultures. Rather than directly challenging the economic elite, the alternative culture passively resists. Initially immigrants found strength to passively resist industrial discipline within the traditions and norms of their ethnic communities, to paraphrase Rosenzweig’s book, “they found a different way to live and wished to be left alone with it” (Rozenzweig, 64). Mass culture appears to have taken the place of the immigrant neighborhood. The modern American citizen passively resists labor discipline by immersing in consumerism and the products of mass culture. Meaning is found in conspicuous consumption.

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