Welcome Back, Potter

Several years ago, aided by the wonders of modern technology and the principle of fair use, a number of people independently produced remixes of It’s a Wonderful Life as a horror movie.  That this worked brilliantly is really no surprise, since the dystopian world of Pottersville in Frank Capra’s masterpiece foreshadowed such later classics of horror and suspense as Don Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Jack Finney, the author of Siegel’s source material, was as fascinated as Capra was with the breakdown of community in the United States in the 1940’s and 1950’s—decades that many of us now regard as a Golden Age from which we have since been engaged in a long, but accelerating, descent.

It has become commonplace to blame the destruction of community on the rise of technology, and even fast-food giant KFC jumped on the bandwagon during the most recent holiday shopping season with a clever viral marketing campaign for a KFC-branded “Internet Escape Pod”—a dome-shaped Faraday cage with a larger-than-life-sized Colonel Sanders draped over its apex and an Original Recipe drumstick serving as its door handle.  Gather the whole family (assuming it’s no larger than four people) inside to sit Indian-style on the floor around a bucket of Extra Crispy and a couple of sides, and the Colonel will take care of the rest, blocking all wireless signals and rendering our ubiquitous iPhones useless.  To point out that an eight piece of the Colonel’s Finest is as emblematic of the underlying problem as are those pictures we’ve all seen of groups of teenagers sitting in the stands at high-school football games with their heads bent toward their Samsung Galaxies seems as pretentious as the conservative essays on how the destruction of community didn’t start with Steve Jobs, since the iPhone was preceded by the personal computer, which followed the television, which was a natural evolution from moving pictures and the radio and Thomas Edison’s phonograph.

And yet, pretentious or not, it’s true.  By the time when family psychologists and cultural critics began to preach about the importance of sitting down for dinner as a family at least once a week—even if the exigencies of modern life mean that the menu must consist of unidentifiable cuts of fast-food fried chicken and muddy gravy on top of boxed mashed potatoes—something had gone horribly wrong.  And both our use of technology (intentionally or unintentionally) to isolate rather than to unite and our treatment of the Colonel’s greasy offerings as a treat rather than a necessary but unfortunate convenience reflect far deeper and more disturbing trends that Capra and Finney saw clearly some 70 years ago.

George Bailey, as I noted last month, was, in an important respect, very similar to Mr. Potter.  Before Uncle Billy absentmindedly placed control over the savings-and-loan’s future in the hands of Mr. Potter, setting up the sequence of events that would lead George to contemplate suicide, George had endured another temptation at the hands of Mr. Potter.  And it was a temptation most of us would find hard to resist: Come work for me, and you will be set for life.  Earn as much in one year as you currently do in ten.  Give your wife and family everything they could ever want, and travel the world.  All you have to do is cut all meaningful ties to Bedford Falls—even though you’ll still be living here.

We can see the struggle in Jimmy Stewart’s eyes as George undergoes his temptation, and we can feel his desire to say yes.  Every time I see the movie, I half-expect George to stand up, shake Potter’s hand, and yell (in Stewart’s inimitable way), “It’s a deal, Mr. Potter, sir!”  One could even make a putatively conservative case for accepting Potter’s offer.  Materially, Mary and the children would be better off if George joined forces with Potter than they would likely ever be if he turned Potter down.  In the morality of everyday life, my first obligation (beyond that to my Creator) is to my family.  Mr. Potter may not be the best of employers, but many men have, like modern-day Bob Cratchits, put up with far worse in order to provide far less for their wives and children.  The Baileys could at least have had a comfortable life, if not a wonderful one.

And yet, outside of the odd libertarian, everyone who has ever watched It’s a Wonderful Life knows instinctively that George makes the right decision in putting Potter behind him.  The quest for community is part of human nature, even when we, in our sinfulness, do everything we can, actively and passively, to undermine the conditions that make community possible.  The family is the first community from which all others grow; but pulling back from our obligations to the broader community for the sake of one’s family in a way that puts one’s family in opposition to that community is the devil’s bargain.  That is the true trial that George faces in Potter’s offer.  Overcoming that trial not only reveals George’s character with regard to his obligations toward the community of Bedford Falls but prepares him for the later trial, when he is tempted, out of self-pity, to deprive his wife of her husband and his children of their father.

There are limits, of course, to how far community can extend beyond one’s family—geographical and cultural limits chief among them.  But the danger for us today lies less in extending the concept of community too far than it does in accepting Potter’s bargain, and trading a wonderful life for a comfortable one.

First published in the March 2018 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Freedom From Obligation

For many Americans at or near the mid-century mark of their lives, Frank Capra has shaped their understanding of the meaning of Christmas in a way that only Charles Dickens could possibly rival.  Of all of his films, It’s a Wonderful Life was Capra’s personal favorite, but even though it was nominated for Best Picture in 1947 (as well as four other Academy Awards), it owes its influence on my generation to a clerical error that let the copyright on the film lapse in 1974.  For almost 20 years, until Republic Pictures figured out a way to assert copyright once more, It’s a Wonderful Life was shown as frequently from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day as A Christmas Story is today.

It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol share roughly the same premise: Through supernatural intervention, a man’s heart is changed on Christmas Eve.  Yet there are significant differences.  George Bailey is seeking death, while Ebenezer Scrooge is deathly afraid of dying.  George has made the lives of those around him better, while Scrooge’s influence on others has been minimal at best, and more often negative.  And the endings of the two tales reflect these differences: George changes his mind and embraces the life he has been living because, well, it’s wonderful, while Scrooge discovers that the only way to cheat death is to begin to live life.

Before their respective Christmas Eve encounters, Scrooge and George could hardly have been more different.  Scrooge is the living paragon of Manchester School get-what-you-can-while-forsaking-all-others liberalism, while George Bailey repeatedly denies his own desires and wishes for the good of his community.  Small wonder that, every year, libertarians proffer tiresome essays on why pre-visitation Scrooge is the true hero of A Christmas Carol, while Mr. Potter is the only man in Bedford Falls worthy of emulation.

Yet how did Scrooge and Potter become the men they are, and why are they so different from George?  Most would probably answer “greed,” and both Dickens and Capra would likely agree with that assessment.  But there’s more here than meets the eye, as both tales transcend their Christmas settings and become broader lessons in the realities of human life.  Because modern man—no matter what his economic state—has shaped his life more in the mold of Scrooge and Potter than in that of George Bailey.

Bailey has spent his life living up to obligations—to his brother, his father, his uncle, his employer, his town, his friends, his wife, his family.  Scrooge and Potter have relentlessly shed those same obligations.  They have employees, but they have reduced their connection to them to the purely transactional.  This isn’t simply a function of greed; it’s possible to be greedy and yet still surround oneself with friends and family and treat employees with the respect they deserve.

What Scrooge and Potter have done is to retreat into themselves, to become individuals rather than full-fledged persons.  George Bailey is, in many ways, no less self-centered than they are; he has plans, big plans, that don’t involve Bedford Falls or anyone, with the eventual (and even then, somewhat reluctant) exception of Mary.  His despair on Christmas Eve has less to do with fear that he has let his family and community down than with his sudden realization that his impending arrest means he’s never going to leave his obligations behind and travel the world.  While Potter puts the thought of suicide in George’s mind by telling him he’s worth more dead than alive, George entertains the thought as a means of escaping his responsibilities rather than living up to them.

But George would have lived up to them, and if we pay close attention we know that, even before Clarence shows him what life in Bedford Falls would have been like if George hadn’t been born.  When Clarence jumps off the bridge, George shows his true character and dives in to save Clarence’s life.  No one would believe that Potter or Scrooge, sans-apparitions, would do likewise.  It’s far from clear that Scrooge would have done so even on Christmas Day, because, while the last two paragraphs of A Christmas Carol present a future Scrooge who has become much more like George Bailey, on Christmas Day itself the change is only beginning, and Scrooge’s initial attempts at turning his life around amount to throwing money at the problem.

What Clarence’s intervention shows George is not just that the people of Bedford Falls would be worse off for the lack of George, but that he would be worse off for the lack of each one of them.  George on the bridge is Scrooge in his bed and Potter in his wheelchair.  He’s modern man, seeking freedom from obligation, not realizing that true freedom comes from living up to our obligations—to spouses and to children, to family and to friends, to our communities and, ultimately, to our God.  Yet George comes through in the moment when he is most needed, because his character—unlike Scrooge’s, unlike Potter’s—has been formed by his embrace, however reluctant, of the people around him.

For George Bailey, it truly is a wonderful life, not because living up to his obligations has kept him from becoming the man that he wanted to be, but because doing so has made him the man that he is.

First published in the February 2018 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.