Tom Hanks is the highest-grossing non-superhero American film star. Hanks has received enough honors and awards to fill twelve Wikipedia pages. Hanks is related to Abraham Lincoln and he has played American heroes, real and fictional: astronaut Jim Lovell, Walt Disney, Sully Sullenberger, Ben Bradlee, and Mr. Rogers, as well as Sheriff Woody, Forrest Gump, and Santa Claus.
Hanks is not the most handsome man in the world nor does he have the buff body of a Chris Evans. His appeal is that of a genuinely nice guy, someone so exceptional that he can convince you that he is average. You feel that Hanks could be your next-door neighbor. You could sit down and chat with Hanks about successful lawn care treatments. In his everyman quality, Hanks resembles that star of yesteryear, Jimmy Stewart. And, in this, Hanks is anachronistic. It’s been decades since American film assumed that your next-door neighbor was a basically decent, All-American guy. So much more cinematically profitable to live next door to Norman Bates, Al Bundy, Tony Soprano, or the cast from Deliverance.
On June 4, 2021, Hanks published an op ed in the New York Times entitled “You Should Learn the Truth About the Tulsa Race Massacre,” that is, a 1921 event during which white Americans killed “between 100 and 300 people.” Hanks has a long history of activism for and donations to Democratic candidates and causes. Hanks’ call would appear to be above criticism, especially from his fellow leftists.
On June 13, 2021, tax-payer-funded National Public Radio published “Tom Hanks Is A Non-Racist. It’s Time For Him To Be Anti-Racist,” Eric Deggans‘ criticism of Hanks’ op ed. Deggans, a 55-year-old black man, has an extensive career focusing on race and social justice. “The toughest thing for some white Americans … is to admit how they were personally and specifically connected to the elevation of white culture over other cultures,” Deggans writes. “Baby boomer filmmakers have made fortunes amplifying ideas of white American exceptionalism and heroism … [Hanks] has built his career on stories about American white men ‘doing the right thing’ …It is time for folks like Hanks to be anti-racist.” “His work, so often focused on the achievements of virtuous white, male Americans, may have made it tougher for tales about atrocities such as Tulsa to find space.”
Deggans details how Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, and Steven Spielberg made it impossible for anyone to make films about black people facing discrimination, because they all made successful movies that didn’t feature black people facing discrimination. “Hanks and other stars need to talk specifically about how their work has contributed to these problems and how they will change. They need to make specific commitments to changing the conversation in story subjects, casting and execution. That is the truly hard work of building change.” Part of that work is to “dismantle” ideas of white American men being heroes.
Many were shocked by left-wing NPR’s publishing criticism of left-wing Tom Hanks. For scorched-earth totalitarians, though, there are no sacred cows. BLM rioters in the summer of 2020 made it a point to topple, denounce, and desecrate statues to abolitionists and whites martyred in the fight for black liberation. These desecrated targets included monuments to Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Hans Christian Heg, Abraham Lincoln, and the 54th regiment, the first black regiment of the Union Army during the Civil War. Desecration communicates to likely recruits: “Are you angry? Are you tired of parents, teachers, and cops telling you what to do? Are you pissed off at society for some perceived slight? Do you envy those who have more than you, including dead heroes who get more respect than you? Join us. You’ll get to smash things.” Desecration communicates to the conquered how utterly defeated they are. Both newly arrived Nazi and communist invaders in Catholic Poland got their message across immediately by publicly beating and shooting priests, and imprisoning them in concentration camps.
“The revolution eats its young,” as Jacques Mallet du Pan wrote. That even a leftist hero like Hanks is not above an attack from the left reminds leftists: you can never be too pure. You must always be on your toes; you must always watch your back. A moment’s deviation can result in a lifetime in the Gulag or an ice pick to the skull. The leftist revolution’s mandate is always to destroy, never to create. You may as well cut your teeth by destroying the comrade standing next to you, in the same way that newborn hyenas routinely bite their twin siblings to death.
“The toughest thing for some white Americans is to admit,” Deggans writes. Deggans can read white people’s minds. White people all think alike. And Deggans can speak for them. Any similar set of statements by a white man about black people would be taboo. Deggans, the White-Man Whisperer, says that “white Americans” can’t admit that Americans did bad things. That’s why we don’t know about the Tulsa Race Massacre. We only want to tell stories about heroes.
I have heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Those who haven’t have no one to blame but leftists. Leftists have dominated American education for decades. Americans are ignorant of history, period, including American heroes and atrocities committed against Americans. A 2020 survey of young Americans shows that sixty-three percent did not know that the Holocaust killed six million Jews. Almost half could not name Auschwitz as a concentration camp. “Americans’ Ignorance of History is a National Scandal,” reported the Washington Post in 2019. In a survey, “more Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’ than could identify the Bill of Rights.” “The most educated generation” may not know who won the Revolutionary War, but they sure know that socialism is good – even though, in follow-up questions, they reveal that they don’t know what the word “socialism” means. On D-Day’s fiftieth anniversary, only 27% of Americans polled even knew what D-Day was. On D-Day’s seventieth anniversary, more than half didn’t know that FDR was president on D-Day.
Deggans, like Kanye West in a famous quote, insists that Hollywood doesn’t care about black people, and the proof is that no one has yet made a film about the Tulsa Race Massacre. The Tulsa Race Massacre is a horrendous atrocity and it deserves to be spoken of with the utmost rectitude. The victims deserve our tears and our commitment to resist racism wherever we find it. Deggans’ cheap and misleading exploitation of this atrocity deserves no such consideration.
Here are some massacres that neither Tom Hanks nor Eric Deggans has ever heard of, and that no one is going to make a movie about. No one is going to make a movie about the 1813 Fort Mims Massacre, by Red Stick Creek Indians, of 400 white and mixed-race, white-and-Indian settlers, or the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre of non-Mormons by Mormons, or the 1897 Lattimer Massacre of striking Polish, Slovak, Lithuanian, and German coal miners, or the Lemont Massacre, and similar events in late nineteenth-century Chicago, in which black strikebreakers, armed with clubs and rifles, attacked and killed Polish striking workmen, sometimes by shooting fallen and injured men.
1917 saw Missouri’s “Hunky Riots.” “Hunky” is a slang word for Eastern European immigrants. “Wielding pitchforks, clubs, knives and guns … about 1,000 American miners rounded up men, women and children, anywhere from 700 to 1,500 … They beat many of the men in the process, ransacked their houses and stole their livestock.” Hunkies “were loaded onto St. Louis-bound trains … a man stood at the door and punched each foreigner in the ribs and kicked him … a fusillade of shots were fired into the roof of the car through the open door. Fifteen hours later, there was not a Hunky left.”
Mike McGraw, who wrote the above description, spent his childhood in the area. Growing up, he knew nothing about the Hunky Riots. Both victims and perpetrators chose to forget them. Yes, Eric Deggans, many people do choose to forget atrocities. The reasons are complicated and writing off amnesia as exclusively a problem of white skin or white privilege or white fragility or whatever the trendy racist term is this week is nonsense.
I practice amnesia. One of the best friends I’ve ever had is the son of two Nazis. Otto’s Nazi father won two Iron Crosses, one for service on the Eastern Front, where, my father told me, Nazis murdered his Polish family. My friends practice amnesia. Beloved friends Liron and Karen are Jews whose family members lived in Poland in the World-War-II era. Many of my fellow Polish Catholics were heroic, and many others harmed Jews. For us to love each other, we do practice amnesia. Like black conservatives, I recognize that America, my country, has done bad things, and I choose to focus on my country’s unique gifts and blessings, and a democratic system that makes atrocity less likely. Co-existence, and, indeed, personal happiness, require selectively applied amnesia. I know about the Hunky Riot and other atrocities. I don’t obsess on them. I don’t use the Lemont Canal killings to make invidious assessments of blacks I meet today. I don’t expect a black filmmaker to produce a cinematic reenactment of those killings.
A filmmaker would have to have a career death wish to make a film showing Indians at the Fort Mims Massacre torturing unarmed white civilians, or black strikebreakers shooting wounded Polish immigrants to death. The taboos one would break in creating such scenes would place a metaphorical price on the filmmakers’ heads. To make such a film would not benefit any powerful special interest group, and there is a limited audience for any film about atrocity. In any case, Hanks and Deggans create a false picture. The Tulsa Race Massacre has been the subject of many books, films, and television shows.
The insistence that Hollywood doesn’t care about black people is belied by numerous successful productions, going back decades. Roots, a 1977 miniseries on the very grim topic of slavery, “received unprecedented Nielsen ratings for the finale, which still holds a record as the third-highest-rated episode for any type of television series, and the second-most watched overall series finale in U.S. television history.” 1949’s Pinky, 1958’s The Defiant Ones, 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, 1970’s My Sweet Charlie, right up to 2013’s Best Picture 12 Years a Slave and too many other films to mention achieved fame, high box office, and critical recognition, depicting white supremacy, chain gangs, the police shooting of an innocent black man, the rape of slaves, and other difficult aspects of the African American experience.
Deggans uses the language and ideology of Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi writes, “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” It is this very language that indicates how accurately Deggans reflects the left’s rewiring of the Western brain. How we perceive reality, how we function, and indeed what new pedagogies and legislation we adopt are all changing to accommodate a distorted and destructive worldview.
The concept of “limited good” was always very difficult for many of my American-born students to understand. I would display a photograph of an entire pie. “This is the only pie at the party,” I would say. I would then show an image of the same pie after someone had cut out a piece. “A piece of the pie has been cut and eaten. Now, there are only five pieces of pie left. Because you had that piece of pie, no one else at the party can have that piece of pie. That is limited good.”
“You could just go to the store and buy another pie,” a student would say.
“You could bake another pie,” another student would say.
“Not everyone likes pie. They’ll have cake instead.” from a third student.
“Imagine,” I said, “that you are in a locked room. No one can enter or leave. The pantry is bare. All you have is this one pie. Now do you see that if one person takes a piece, everyone else has less pie?”
They would look at me as if I were crazy. As Americans, they just weren’t accustomed to looking at the world that way.
Between 1958 and 1963, George M. Foster, an American anthropologist, did his field work in Tzintzuntzan, Mexico. Back then, Tzintzuntzan was poor and rural. Foster noted that peasants viewed life through the lens of limited good, and that that lens informed the decisions they made about day-to-day life.
“The members of every society,” Foster writes, “share a common cognitive orientation which is, in effect, an unverbalized, implicit expression of their understanding of the rules of the game of living imposed up on them by their social natural, and supernatural universes.” “Peasants view their social, economic, and natural universes—their total environment—as one in which all of the desired things in life such as land, wealth, health, friendship and love, manliness and honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety, exist in finite quantity.”
In other words, everyone shares assumptions about reality with other members of the same society. You believe that you must stop at red lights, and if you don’t stop at red lights, you will get a ticket. These shared assumptions extend to the supernatural world, as well. You believe that you should not kill someone, and if you do kill someone, you will be punished by God.
“In limited good societies,” I would tell my students, “you believe that the good of life is limited by forces, including supernatural forces, much more powerful than you. If you have too much good, others can’t have that good, because good is limited. This is why you should never compliment a child in a limited good society. Your neighbors will think that your beautiful baby used up all the available beauty in that village, and their children will be ugly. Your neighbors will envy your child, and their envy may hurt or even kill the child. This dynamic is called the ‘evil eye.’ Supernatural forces will punish your child for having too much beauty. I have lived in villages where parents gave a particularly gifted child a name like ‘Stupid’ or ‘Ugly’ to keep punishment away.”
I would tell my students a joke from communist days. “Comrade, my neighbor has two cows and I have none!”
“Don’t worry, comrade, the benevolent Soviet system will take one cow from your neighbor and give it to you.”
“Comrade, you don’t understand! I want you to kill both of my neighbor’s cows!”
That joke relies on the envy and fear of success in limited good societies.
I would also tell my students about an African village where I lived and taught. Western development experts had been in the country for generations, advising on well digging, fish farming, and disease prevention. For the most part, locals ignored everything the Western experts said, and, for example, continued to drink unfiltered water, and contract schistosomiasis. An insight into why villagers resisted change, including change that might save their own lives, was provided by the fate of one villager, a man I knew personally. When development workers advised the locals on how to improve their agricultural output, he carefully applied every suggestion. His farm prospered and he enjoyed a much higher yield than any of his neighbors. His neighbors burned his farm down. That’s limited good. This man, by increasing his yield, had monopolized all the good to be had in that village, and his action would result, his neighbors believed, in their farms doing poorly.
In contrast, folklorist Alan Dundes said that Americans have an “unlimited good” worldview. Americans have traditionally believed that there is enough good for everyone to have his fair share. Dundes expressly links the unlimited good worldview with the Judeo-Christian belief system. “In the idealized afterlife … there is plenty of milk and honey — enough for an eternity of replenishment.” Many scholars relate the unlimited good worldview with capitalism. To put it crudely, under communism, you envy your neighbor’s cows, and, because of your envy and your conviction that another’s success inevitably equates to your failure, you want to kill your neighbor’s cows. You don’t want the cows for yourself, because then your neighbors will envy, and punish, you. Under capitalism, you believe that your personal ambition and hard work can result in your having multiple cows, even if, right now, you don’t have a single cow. The optimism inspired by the unlimited good worldview results in a large number of Americans becoming entrepreneurs, that is, opening their own businesses, going for their own shot at the brass ring, or, as it were, their own cow.
Woke is a limited good worldview. It is a zero sum worldview. In this, it is contrary to the traditional American, capitalist, optimistic, Judeo-Christian, “the sky’s the limit,” worldview. Deggans expresses this worldview in his attack on Tom Hanks, whether he, Deggans, consciously realizes what he is doing or not. Deggans is back to that limited good, zero-sum worldview that insists, falsely, that one man’s success equates to the next man’s failure. If Tom Hanks has two cows, Eric Deggans can’t have any cows. If Hanks’ farm is doing well, Deggans’ farm will wither. If Hanks’ baby is attractive, Deggans’ baby must be ugly.
Deggans writes that Hanks’ “work — so often focused on the achievements of virtuous white, male Americans – may have made it tougher for tales about atrocities such as Tulsa to find similar space.” Hanks was “personally and specifically connected to the elevation of white culture over other cultures.” A paraphrase of Deggans’ limited good worldview: “Hanks made movies about heroic white men. Because Hanks made those movies, no one could make movies about heroic black men. Because Hanks made movies that featured white heroes, blacks were lowered.”
For Hanks to atone, he must lower himself, and elevate black people in the place he previously occupied. That’s being an anti-racist. That’s Ibram X. Kendi. That’s the “8 White Identities” chart that says that the only good white is a white who participates in the abolishment of whiteness. And it is a Maoist struggle session. Deggans calls for “Hanks and other stars to talk specifically about how their work has contributed to these problems and how they will change.” This is the self-accusation that occurred during Maoist struggle sessions. The less successful, fueled by their envy, publicly humiliate the more successful.
Do cold, hard facts back up Deggans’ and Kendi’s limited good worldview? No. Saving Private Ryan is one of Hanks’ most celebrated films depicting a white, male hero. Among the top ten box office films of that film’s same year, 1998, was Rush Hour, featuring two non-white heroes: Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. The year before Saving Privat Ryan, Steven Spielberg, another white man Deggans criticizes, produced and directed Amistad, an historical drama about a slave ship uprising. Captain Philips is another Hanks white male hero movie. The year it was released, it did not make the top ten box office hits, but Fast and Furious 6 did. That film featured multi-ethnic leads, include Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, and Dwayne Johnson. Tom Hanks played white male hero Mr. Rogers in 2019. That year Parasite, about poor people in South Korea, won the best picture Oscar. It also produced Jordan Peele’s Us, a meditation on race, featuring a mostly black cast, as well as The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Hanks played white male hero Walt Disney in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks. That year Twelve Years a Slave won the best picture Oscar. Hanks played a baseball manager in A League of Their Own. That year, 1992, saw Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Hanks played Ben Bradlee in The Post in 2018. That year Black Panther smashed box office records.
There is no evidence to support Deggans’ limited good assertion that Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Ron Howard, simply by being white men, diminish black men. There is no evidence that their films have made it impossible for black producers and directors or anyone else to make good films about black heroes.
A rising tide raises all boats. Black filmmakers like Spike Lee, Steve McQueen, Jordan Peele, Tyler Perry, and Shonda Rhimes are the direct descendants and heirs of D. W. Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford. White men made films that thrilled, enraged, and inspired. White men blazed the trail that was later extended by international, multiracial filmmakers like Andrzej Wajda, Melvin van Peebles, and Bong Joon-Ho. Rather than bashing Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, and Steven Spielberg for their spectacular creations, Deggans could be thanking them for providing a model of how to move an audience. To tell Hanks, Howard, and Spielberg that they must dim their light so that others may shine dampens the bold creativity that serves us all.
I have lived in limited good villages, in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. This worldview lowers the horizon. It darkens the sun. It thwarts innovation, humiliates winners, shames the beautiful, and punishes the exceptional. No one wins, including those demanding that others make themselves small so that they can feel big.
“The sky’s the limit,” and “there’s more where that came from:” two American phrases that Alan Dundes said encapsulate the unlimited good worldview. We should not silence these phrases, we should pass them on. These phrases should not intimidate; they should inspire. What others have done, we can do, too. And we can thank them for inspiring us.
Author and activist Marianne Williamson penned a profound meditation on the limited good worldview. She dubbed it “playing small.” “We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you … We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us … as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” Eric Deggans, in their successful films celebrating what you insist on calling white, male, American heroes, and what many of us think of only as “heroes,” no different from heroes played by Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, and Chadwick Boseman, the filmmakers you criticize, Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, and Steven Spielberg, were not diminishing you. They were offering you, and everyone else in their audiences, a chance to expand to your full self. Accept that invitation. The sky’s the limit.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.