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America: Once It Was ‘a Wonderful Life’

Like quite a few others, the old James Stewart/Donna Reed movie ‘It's a wonderful life' is one of my Christmas traditions, with this year having been no exception.  The film recalls many things for me, especially the best of what so very much of America once was, the endless reasons we had for our national pride, our seemingly boundless optimism.  But this Holiday, as I watched something that's always seemed to me more of a Christmas homily than a Hollywood film, I saw this tradition of my Holidays through different eyes.

PottersvilleProbably like most, I had always focused upon the overwhelming ‘goodness' exuded by the vast majority of the film's characters, characters almost impossible to conceive of as genuine given the reality of today, but yet existing in the kind of world I and many of my contemporaries had grown up in.  It was a world which existed in many small towns, but also in big cities; it was a world defined by the simple decency of those in it, the bonds of community they shared.

Not so many years ago, the film's mythical Bedford Falls did exist, in spirit if not name.  And while I was raised in New York City - with New York State's Seneca Falls supposedly being the town director Frank Capra modeled Bedford Falls from - Bedford Falls could have been any number of other American towns of that time, or even some neighborhoods in New York City, or elsewhere.

We have changed, America has changed, and strangely, it was only this year that I saw the film's very simple, very unsettling, illustration of how and why.  Perhaps Capra's already long acclaimed work may find further recognition.

There is a scene, one where an anguished James Stewart runs through what had been his town, but is no longer.  He had been granted a wish of simply not existing, but in horror he ran through a place where his absence from the community had allowed it to become a loathsome caricature of itself, a place marked by cheap vulgarity, the casual cruelties so often bred by it.  The Bedford Falls Stewart had left was replaced by the nightmarish ‘Pottersville', its name derived from a sadistically ruthless businessman, one whose mercenary presence moves through the film as the viper in his community's garden.

Funny, until this year, I never took a moment to examine Mr. Potter, to see how Capra had portrayed what seems like a simple, modern day, laissez faire neoliberal.  Of course,  Capra did so decades before the term neoliberal even existed, decades before neoliberalism became synonymous for so many with societal pain.     

Gone from Bedford Falls' main street were the prosperous shops and civil society's local landmarks, disappeared were those people that seemed more like part of ones extended family than neighbors.  But the film's vision of Mr. Potter's progress did include the harsh glare of too many bars' cheap neon, the light itself casting an almost demonic haze over Main Street. 

The Main Street of Pottersville was one filled with the promises of cheap liquor and cold sex, promises offered as ‘the rewards' for those lacking any alternative but to believe in them...the rewards for tortured souls in a contemporary ‘Inferno'.  But still, one could see the traces of the benevolent Bedford Falls that had been, but only perversely, as if the town had been savaged by a rabid dog, Pottersville being the name of the now equally rabid entity that remained. 

Today, in too many of our small towns, and our cities, it is Pottersville, not Bedford Falls, which is too readily found.  And some indications suggest that our own ‘Pottersville' has been evolving for the last thirty years, beginning in the 1980s.

In 1991, a campaigning Bill Clinton charged: "The Reagan-Bush years have exalted private gain over public obligation, special interests over the common good, wealth and fame over work and family. The 1980s ushered in a Gilded Age of greed and selfishness, of irresponsibility and excess, and of neglect."  He was right, at least about that, and a quick glance at the state of our Nation readily shows it.

Today, with our once great manufacturing base all but completely exported, with the fountain of Wall Street's ‘funny money' increasingly known to be toxic, our economy's dim outlook is approaching dismal, our future a matter for considerable concern.  Our leaders provide an endless stream of delightful words, but sorrowful actions - unlike FDR, President Obama sadly bailed out Wall Street, not Main Street.  And then there's the perpetual war on ‘our distant frontiers', even though those ‘frontiers' are the countries of others.  I won't mention the status of our once vaunted civil liberties, nor the toothless efforts of those societal groups that were once the proud champions of them, but I will say that ‘we, the people', have seen better days. 

At the end of Capra's film, the citizen's of Bedford Falls rally, together saving Jimmy Stewart and themselves from Mr. Potter.  Rich and poor, immigrant and native born, democrat and republican, etc  - nothing mattered except to do what was right, to build a bridge of solidarity over the yawning abyss of Pottersville.

Today, it's said that America's political landscape has never been so partisan, its people so divided; but, while we have been so busy supporting leaders that haven't supported us, what's occurred?  ‘Divide and rule' was the way the British Empire maintained a world where the ‘sun never set' upon it, and perhaps it's also the way that our own Mr. Potters have ensured that the sun has indeed set upon us.  But across the political spectrum, ‘we, the people' know something is indeed wrong, with what we do about that yet being up to us, despite the power of skilful manipulators in seeking to take that from us too.  At the moment, we have but one certainty - it will be a terrible shame if we continue to fight each other instead of those that are profiting by our doing so. 

Perhaps ‘solidarity' is more than a word, perhaps it's an answer, and the only one.  I'm not saying Democrats should become Republicans, or vice-versa, but I am saying ‘we, the people' have no one but each other.  Too much of our Nation's leadership has become as toxic as Wall Street's funny money, their very existence having long been nurtured by it.  Today, we don't face a political contest, we face a struggle for our future, the future of all we hold dear.  Perhaps it's time we stopped being Democrats or Republicans, and once more became simply Americans - a people joined by a new awakening as to what indeed once made us so great, a new awakening as to how so much that has been taken from us can be reclaimed.

Just as trade unions were once organized, maybe we must reach out to others that are near us to form a new union of the people, by the people, and for the people.  In Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, he spoke of a time that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth", but every day suggests it has, and unless we organize as our forebears once did, I fear we shall perish too, the empty souls of ‘walking dead' being all that may remain.

Some may say the ‘Tea Party' movement is an effort to address a portion of the issues I've cited, and while - despite aspects of its agenda - I don't doubt the sincerity of some of those in it, the Tea Party's financing suggests hidden hands continue to use people as pawns.

Perhaps it's time to shake the hands of those next to us, and in our neighborhoods, our cities and our towns, to together begin to build a genuine bridge over the abyss too many have already fallen into.  While there will always be things which ‘we, the people' won't agree upon, the imperative of a better future isn't one of them.

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