I’ll let Derb explain the plot (such as it is) of the movie, but I want to focus on the same lesson to which he’s calling our attention. Briefly, the American ambassador (Ethel Merman in a typically larger-than-life performance) and representatives of Congress are proposing a massive aid loan to the tiny country of Lichtenburg. However, General Cosmo Constantine (George Saunders), the foreign minister and prospective prime minister, stands against the Americans and members of his own parliament in opposing the loan:
“I am convinced,” he says, “that the people of Lichtenburg can and should help themselves without foreign aid.” . . If my country is on the verge of bankruptcy it is because very drastic reforms are needed. Now, with [sic] outside help, these reforms would be impossible. You must not lend my country one penny!"
When the loan goes through anyway (the Americans reward him for his honesty by doubling the amount), he angrily resigns as PM, with the memorable line, “Lichtenberg is not for sale!”
Now, It just so happens that we caught this movie ourselves on TV last week, so even before Derb’s column it was on my mind. Notwithstanding my affection for Holiday Inn, The Music Man and 1776, I’m not a big fan of musicals, so I wouldn’t rank this up in the pantheon of Hadley’s Top Ten, but I remember at the time remarking on its politics. Imagine a country refusing foreign aid because it would prevent that country from being self-sufficient. Imagine anyone, for that matter, refusing a grant or a loan or a handout of some type because it wouldn’t allow them to solve their own problems. Clearly, I remarked to Judie, Constantine was a political conservative. Had he remained prime minister, Lichtenberg might have been well-positioned to avoid the economic upheaval that accompanied the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War. Without that economic turmoil it might have bypassed the social turmoil of the 60s. Or maybe not - after all, we didn’t. But to paraphrase Franklin, Constantine would have been dead by then anyway, so what would it matter?
For a frothy musical, the story contains a potent political message, one that we’d be well-advised to consider today. (See, for example, the remarks by Kenyan economist James Shikwati I linked to yesterday.) Not only is truth stranger than fiction, truth can often be found in fiction - and in the most unlikely places. As Derb concludes,
Instead of broadcasting artistic atrocities like Live 8, try showing Call Me Madam to the folk down there. Who knows - you might inspire some patriot of the Cosmo Constantine stripe to step forward and lift you up out of the moral pit of dependency, corruption, and guilt-mongering that you have dug yourselves into.
It’s a superior solution in all respects - including the music