I realize that it’s likely the height of sacrilege to be writing a political post on Christmas Eve. But I’ve just had an unexpectedly unsettling reaction to that most wholesome and uplifting all-American yuletide film, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’.
You see, when I watched it as a young child, I understood the whole I-wish-I-was-never-born conceit, and how it was foolish to wish that, and how we all touch innumerable peoples’ lives in ways we can never possibly know. But, being a young child, I never quite got why George Bailey was all suicidal in the first place (it might also be because I’ve only ever watched it on Christmas Eve, in bits and pieces, amidst the madness of Christmas-present-wrapping, and Christmas-treat-baking, and so on…).
At any rate, I began to see a whole new side of the film tonight — one that had probably registered before, but never with such disturbing clarity.
We all know that George is the hero, and Mr. Potter the villain. This is because George lives a life of quiet dignity, silently sacrificing his dwindling hopes and dreams for a life outside of Bedford Falls in order to fulfill the duties and responsibilities life has placed on him. While, by contrast, Mr. Potter enjoys a life of great, though presumably miserable, wealth, putting business, profit, and greed above all else.
What I realized tonight, and what I found so unsettling, is that this movie could never be made today. No, the Mr. Potter’s of our time are the heroes — revered as “job creators,” their immense wealth protected from progressive taxation by politicians who decry all taxes as “legalized robbery.” The rest of us, the residents of Bailey Park, are lazy, entitled, socialist-commies just looking for a hand-out.
Now, the reason the film is so uplifting, of course, is that despite Potter’s incredibly criminal act of holding onto the Savings & Loan money Uncle Billy was to have deposited, George’s friends come through with more than enough cash and credit to make up for it. Lesson learned: if you’re a good person, and treat everyone with kindness and generosity, you will be taken care of in your time of need. All of us in Bailey Park, we’re like family. And we look after our family.
That’s all well and good. But what about justice?
Left inexplicably unresolved at the end of the film is the fact that Potter is still holding onto the eight thousand dollars that rightfully belongs to the Bailey Savings & Loan. As far as we know, that fact never even comes to light. We’re simply left basking in the glow of family and friends singing “Auld Lang Syne”. Good, decent, hard-working people, who’ve got each others’ backs, pooling their resources to help a friend in trouble is beautiful and inspiring, sure. But, to be perfectly Frank (Capra… get it?), it’s ultimately a distraction from the fact that Mr. Potter has committed a serious crime (the very kind of fraud he was all set to accuse George Bailey of!) and, to our knowledge, is never held to account.
Okay, I promise I’m not getting this worked up over a work of fiction. I’m getting this worked up because this story is, in many ways, our reality. The vast majority of us have paid for this recession — in jobs lost, homes foreclosed, and opportunities diminished. But we have yet to see a single major figure from the world of finance brought to justice for the gross mishandling of mortgages that led directly to this situation in the first place. At the very least, chief executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are facing serious charges from the SEC. But that bit of news just makes me think of that old joke about a lawyer at the bottom of the ocean — it’s a good start.
I guess, ultimately, I just want our story to be one where we can happily sing Christmas hymns and still throw Mr. Potter in jail. Something along the lines of what Saturday Night Live so insightfully suggested here —
Joy to the world, with liberty and justice for all.