Great Determination in the Great Depression

Charles Payne
Posted: Mar 29, 2012 12:01 AM

My main reason for resenting the current administration and leading Democrats can be explained in the pictures of Dorothea Lange. Lange was born Dorothea Margareta Nutchorn in Hoboken, New Jersey. At age seven, she contracted polio. At age twelve, her father abandoned the family so she dropped her middle name and assumed her mother's last name. After college, Lange moved to San Francisco where she operated a successful portrait studio. At the onset of the Great Depression, she became curious and began to take photos outside.

Eventually, she divorced her first husband to marry an economist at University of California Berkeley, Paul Schuster Taylor, who worked with her and formed her opinions on society and economics.

In the five years she and her husband worked for the Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration, she took countless photographs that captured the angst and pain of the Great Depression. Her most famous photo, "Migrant Mother," was somewhat controversial later as the subject (Florence Thompson) never made any money on the photo and never even got the promised copy. Moreover, her story was told incorrectly.

Lange on Florence Owens Thompson:

"I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that 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."

Thomson on Lange:

"There's no way we sold our tires, because we didn't have any to sell. The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don't believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn't have."

Even as the photo captures pain and angst and maybe hopelessness, Thompson's daughter, Katherine McIntosh, would later recall her mother was a very strong lady and the backbone of the family. Even though the family never had a lot, Thompson always made sure they had something even if it meant she didn't eat sometimes. There is no doubt the photographs Lange took and commentary that accompanied them sought to illicit sympathy and not the notion of individual strength and determination, which is not unlike dueling narratives of today.

Even in her own life, Lange either found a kindred spirit or a Svengali in her second husband. Her first husband was a painter, whose focus was the culture of the American West. He loved the idea of individuals in command of their own destinies and shaping their realities. Her America, however, became lonely people that according to one biography were bereft of any heroizing vision because they were lost, trapped and enslaved by poverty. It really is amazing how long these philosophies have been pitted against one another, and now it's the central theme of this year's presidential election. I agree with Lange's first husband, Maynard Dixon, that the nation was built on rugged individualism and a can do spirit.

It is a comment on Lange's work that I think should be the cautionary tale for those seeking to promote poverty as honorable and big government assistance as the only way to reach a good life in America. Sally Stein, in a recent essay, wrote this about the photographer:

‘Viewed the trials of the Great Depression as something registered and grappled with first and foremost in the body'

I think these happy ads about food stamps and deflecting the notion of accountability and blaming all personal failures on someone that works on Wall Street opens the pores of Americans to allow poverty to seep into the circulatory system and bone marrow of their bodies. The etched expression of pain seems to be the goal of the liberal left that continues to promote the collective over the individual. I think this is what the nation is fighting right now in the courts of the land and the court of public opinion. I can only hope America takes its cue from the subject and not the photographer.

Dorothea Lange had a storied career while Florence Thompson went on to live in the Modesto Mobile Village and needed $25,000 in donations to pay for medical care when hospitalized in 1983. She died a month later and was buried next to her husband. Her gravestone reads:

Florence Leona Thompson Migrant Mother- A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood

Her daughter said the photo made the family feel both ashamed and determined never to be poor again.

The country is going through a tough time, but we have the right stuff to make it through this rather than selling our souls, legacy and unique position in the world. Our faces must be of determination, not surrender. A migrant mother of three kept moving and kept living and now serves as a symbol of strength, not despair.

Fast Forward

I saw yesterday that home prices in Chicago have hit an eleven year low. Coupled with gasoline in the shadow of $5.00 along with all the debt, welfare and food stamps and you have an idea of how poverty could seep into the body and never escape.

Obama's Healthcare Plan Looking Shaky

Opponents of Obamacare weren't as ebullient as they were on Monday, but there is a general sense that the individual mandate could be struck down. By the close, saw the likelihood the individual mandate would be struck down leap to 61.5% from 35.0% the day before.

While everyone focused on early comments yesterday from Justice Kennedy that allowing the government mandate would "change the relationship" between the government and its citizens, I thought an exchange that included Justice Ginsburg was even more telling. Kennedy is the swing vote and his comment related to the individual mandate was, "Do you not have a heavy burden of justification to show authority under the Constitution?"

When Justice Ginsburg jumped in to save a floundering Solicitor General Verrilli, I think it was an important moment. He Struggled to explain the market when Justice Scalia posed an example that everybody has to buy food sooner or later, so you define the market as food, therefore, everyone is in the market; therefore, you can make people buy broccoli.

(Broccoli was mentioned nine times yesterday.)

After stumbling for the right answer and almost drowning a life line was thrown in by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (see sidebar).

Although the right wasn't gloating, the left was fuming as Mother Jones called the hearing Obamacare's Supreme Court Disaster. Frustration with Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. began with his first months where the magazine said he stammered, coughed, cleared his throat and took a drink of water. It went on the say he sounded less like a world-class lawyer and more like a teenage giving an oral presentation for the first time. The piece noted Obamacare is liberalism's biggest domestic accomplishment since the 1960's, and Verilli's apprehensive legal defense may have doubled as its eulogy.

I think the individual mandate was indefensible, although I admit the frustration of the left is justified. When Supreme Court Justices have to jump in and save the day, it's not a great sign for the argument or the person presenting the argument. I'm sure most minds are made up, but you don't sway the swing vote trying to use the curve system to win the day.