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Friday, May 21, 2010

Mundt on Movies: No Friend of Free Expression

SDSU historian John Miller called in to Dakota Midday's conversation with Chuck Raasch about the Dust Bowl yesterday with an interesting story about Karl E. Mundt. Miller recalled that Mundt devoted his first floor speech in the U.S. House of Representatives to decrying a movie, The Plow that Broke the Plains. Mundt felt the movie cast South Dakota in a bad light. He said in 1939 that the Dust Bowl was over, South Dakota was green again, and the film was an inaccurate insult to our state. He worked to get the film pulled from distribution and trumpeted his success in suppressing the film as a big reason to re-elect him in 1940. The public didn't see the film again until 1961.

Now the documentary did include some inaccuracies and apparent skullduggery (or is that skull-movery?). But to bury a film and celebrate that censorship as a victory makes me queasy. Combine denying history with Mundt's Red-hunting and "loyal support" of Joe McCarthy, and you get a picture of a South Dakota politician who'd have fit right into today's media climate... on Fox News.

Senator Mundt also went ape twenty years later over North by Northwest, perceiving some insult in the climactic chase scene on Mount Rushmore and argued the film should be "recalled and corrrected."

I’ve said good things about Madison icon Karl E. Mundt. He’s one of Madison High School’s most prominent alumni and an important part of South Dakota history. He was a good speech teacher and debate coach and helped start the National Forensic League, which is near and dear to my heart. But his support of censorship as a politician call into question his commitment to the First Amendment.

Of course, thank to the Internet, now we can all watch The Plow that Broke the Plains. Here's to you, Senator.

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