"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Citizen Kane: A Virtue Hearst Never Had

In Citizen Kane (1941), Charles Kane is not a replica of William Randolph Hearst. As a young, wealthy man running a newspaper, the character embodies a politico-economic ideal in both word and deed that Hearst only used as a campaign slogan. As per Kane's Statement of Principles, the young publisher is willing to diminish his own wealth held in stock in other companies in exposing the exploitive and corrupt money-bags in big corporations and trust who prey on the otherwise-unprotected working poor and presumably consumers too. For his part, Hearst merely published a daily oriented to the poor man.  As Kane's early ideal is a principle recognizable to, and even resonating with, virtually any audience, Welles' inclusion of the ideal in the film contributes to its endurance as a classic.

Hearst papers twice called for someone to put a bullet into William Mckinley.  When the U.S. president was fatally wounded on September 6, 1901, the American people turned on Hearst, even burning him in effigy. He ran for mayor of New York City, Governor of New York, and even for president, and lost all of those races. He did get elected to serve a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, but hardly ever showed up on Capitol Hill. His passions lied elsewhere than in listening to floor speeches, attending roll-call votes, and questioning witnesses at Congressional hearings. He found he had more power using his newspapers to shape public opinion.[1] I suspect he had very little regard for the public good, and thus any true interest in politics as a means.

Even though Hearst advocated the eight-hour work-day and an income tax, his purported intent to be the servant of the immigrants and working poor would be discredited by his vehement opposition to unions, including firing his employees who were members of the guild, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt raising the income tax rate on incomes over half a million. Antipodal to his earlier support for an income tax, he called the income tax system “intrusive, despotic, discriminatory, and perhaps revolutionary.”[2] Repealing the tax would be better for “the honesty, the industry, the wealth, and the welfare of the whole [population] of Americans.”[3] Facing demands from his creditors at the time, Hearst was actually looking out for the wealth, his appeal to the public good being a mere prop, or trope.

Charles “Citizen” Kane, on the other hand, was willing to use his papers to attack corrupt companies even in which he himself held stock. Speaking with his ex-guardian, Walter Thatcher, about the paper’s crusade against the Public Transit Company, in which Kane is one of the largest individual stockholders, the newspaper editor/company stockholder delivers the following as an explanation for his apparent willful disregard for his own financial interests.

“Mr. Thatcher, the trouble is you don't realize you're talking to two people. As Charles Foster Kane, who owns eighty-two thousand three hundred and sixty-four shares of Public Transit prefer, you see, I do have a general idea of my holdings. I sympathize with you. Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel, his paper should be run out of town and a committee should be formed to boycott him. You may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a contribution of one thousand dollars.”[4]

In other words, Kane knows that he is doing real damage to his financial position in going after the company. This point is essential, and warrants an explanation. So he continues,

“On the other hand, I am the publisher of the Inquirer. As such, it is my duty, I’ll let you in on a little secret, it is also my pleasure—to see to it that decent, hard-working people of this community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just because they haven’t anybody to look after their interests! I’ll let you in on another little secret, Mr. Thatcher. I think I’m the man to do it. You see I have money and property. If I don't look after the interests of the underprivileged, maybe somebody else will, maybe somebody without any money or property and that would be too bad.”[5]

Kane is wearing two hats, one of which he readily admits can indeed work against the other. He appeals to his duty as a journalist (and a wealthy man)—a duty that he enjoys (which is Kant’s ideal)—to, as Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) was fond of saying on the floor of the U.S. Senate, “fight for the little guy.” I suspect that the secret behind Kane’s motive here lies in the powerlessness that he had as a boy when his mother made him leave her and his beloved sled, Rosebud. As his dying word attests, Kane never got over being forced to leave his boyhood home; but he could get some vicarious satisfaction exposing commercial cases of exploitation and corruption at the expense of the powerless. The virtue, Nietzsche would say, is actually the instinct to power overcoming obstacles in order to feel the pleasure of power. Poised against the robber barons, Kane thus has a passion for going after corruption at the expense of the innocent even if Kane’s own stock portfolio takes a hit in the process. His passion for justice is greater than his greed. Translated by Nietzsche, the will to power the main human instinct, and thus motive.

To be sure, Kane doubtlessly wants the power in politics; after all, he runs for governor (as Hearst did).  Even so, not many candidates for public office actually go after corrupt fat cats who scrape off even more off hardened sweat off the backs of the hard-working laborer, or knowingly rip off consumers. Precisely for this reason, the practice is not a bad political investment. Had Hearst actually watched the film (he claimed later he had not), he might have learned a valuable political lesson. Sacrificing one’s private interests for the public welfare can reap tremendous political benefits. Not many wealthy individuals are willing to expose injustices by speaking truth to power. Typically, they conclude that they have too much on the line to risk going after the bad guys. Hence, being one of the few to do so—knowingly taking a financial hit in the process—is a valuable political commodity.

In cinematic terms, putting an ideal such as justice above the vice of greed, a feat that even a flawed person like Charlie Kane can accomplish, is a timeless principle audiences through the centuries will be able to appreciate.[4] Hence, like Rick’s willingness in Casablanca to sacrifice personally not only for Elsa, but also for the larger anti-Nazi cause, Kane’s principle can be expected to contribute to Citizen Kane continuing on as a classic.

1 For this and the preceding points in the paragraph, see “The Battle Over Citizen Kane,” The American Experience, WGBH Educational Foundation, 1996.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Script of Citizen Kane.
5. Ibid.
6. To be sure, the virtue in a person being willing to diminish one’s overall financial position by using it for a larger cause necessitates having sufficient assets. In this sense, this virtue is like munificence, which differs from liberality in that the amount of money given is much larger. Even though not every viewer of Citizen Kane will not be able to identify with such virtues personally, everyone can value the sacrifice of private interest for public good, and thus have an emotional connection to the movie.