Early in the movie Seabiscuit, trainer Tom Smith rescues an injured racehorse that is about to be put down, explaining "You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little." There's something deeply touching and profound in that statement. It reflects a reverence for all life - for humans and all the other creatures that fly, walk, crawl, and swim. Indeed, that spirit of compassion is one of the central themes of the movie and of the larger mythology about America that informs it.
Americans have long believed that their country is one that takes care of those who are in desperate straits or on the mend, both at home and abroad. Throughout Seabiscuit, the narrator, historian David McCullough, reinforces this impression as he walks us through watershed moments beginning with Henry Ford's creation of the Model T automobile, which due to assembly line production made faster transportation affordable to many people; through the Depression with its catastrophic consequences of financial loss and unemployment that wounded every class of society; to the Roosevelt Administration's New Deal programs to help the unemployed.
The lesson of this historical arc? In America, everybody has a chance to succeed. The response to bad times is to pull together and give the down-and-out a helping hand. Those are on the bottom are to be lifted up.
That was then. This is now. Seabiscuit speaks so loudly to our hearts with its celebration that underdogs can win back their dignity and have their day in the sun because it reflects an American Dream that is no more.
Today's underdogs stay on the bottom and each day are joined by others who have fallen into the depths of helplessness and hopelessness. Millions are unemployed or underemployed, and millions more have lost the nest eggs they had saved for retirement. Others are discovering that the pension programs they had assumed would support them in their old age will not be delivering them benefits at the promised levels, if at all.
Meanwhile, the poorest of the poor in the country's rural and city ghettoes are being blamed for their poverty. Jobs move out of their communities while toxic wastes come in. More than 40 million Americans have no health insurance, which often translates into no access to medical care. No one seems to care about the millions of homeless families and the legions of hungry children. These banged-up lives are no where to be seen on the news or on the political agendas of the major parties. Of even less importance to citizens of the United States are the tattered and shattered lives of thousands of animals that are put down every day because there is no one to love or to look after them.
It used to be that you didn't throw a whole life away just 'cause it was banged up a little. Now, life seems to be disposable, no matter whether walking on two legs or four. Some essential part of the American Dream has been lost, and we are all the worse for it.
It is for these reasons that Seabiscuit left such a bittersweet residue in our consciousness. We felt uplifted by the soaring story of some underdogs who banded together and became all they were meant to be. At the same time, we felt a deep sadness for the loss of reverence for life in America, and even more for the loss of care and compassion for the down-and-out.
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."