As we cruise into the holiday season – KOST 103.5 is already playing Christmas music 24/7 and I haven’t bought my turkey yet – it’s just about time for the annual airing of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the great film starring James Stewart as the selfless small town banker George Bailey in Bedford Falls, NY who goes up against evil town miser, Lionel Barrymore’s Henry Potter. The crux of the film is a parable about Stewart giving up hope of success beyond his hometown and making the mistake of wishing to an angel that “he’d never been born”. The angel (the irrepressible Clarence) grants this wish, to show Stewart that his little life has grand value.
And so for the third act we get to see what life would be like if George hadn’t been around to touch other lives, and what destruction would have occurred in the void (Potter takes over the town and renames it Pottersville). The film, which didn’t do well when it was first released in 1946, slowly, thanks to television, became an institution – a simple, sweet if not cornball story about how the human spirit, caring for one another, and selflessness can win over evil.
Well, in the spirit of the evil Potter, guess what right wing boob is trying to appropriate this bit of beloved Americana as a some sort of bizarre Beckspin about how the Communist/Nazi/Progressive government is out to get us? Yes, him.
Glenn has selected the small town of Wilmington, Ohio, from where he will do one of his live broadcasts, as a poster town for a latter day Bedford Falls which has resisted “becoming Pottersville” by being “self-reliant” against the government “takeover”.
Needless to say, none of this has anything to do with either the story of “It’s a Wonderful Life” film or reality. But that’s not a surprise. Beck is a fascinating dichotomy: is he merely a stupid liar, or an incredibly brilliant liar?
Accurately describing reality is of little concern to Beck or apparently his bosses at Fox “News”, or his loyal minions of the underinformed, misinformed and disinformed.
First off, Beck’s claim about the town being self reliant (i.e., without some federal government support) is, of course, wrong. It has received $6 million in stimulus money – a matter of public record. Does he not know this? Does he ignore it? Does he hope nobody will look it up? Of course he relies on this last part because clearly few Fox viewers care to “look stuff up” or they wouldn’t be viewers.
So on to the second part: the movie analogy. Also wrong. Again, did he see the movie or is he just ignoring, now the facts of a movie. I think you can rent it on Netflix, Glenn, for a refresher.
The federal government had no role in any aspect of “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Indeed some denizens may have gotten work or benefit via the CCC or WPA programs, and of course many of the town’s men served in World War II – notably George Bailey’s brother, Harry, who returns to Bedford Falls a hero.
A large part of “It’s a Wonderful Life” has to do with some arcane financial dealings, but basically it’s the battle between mom & pop savings and loan owner Bailey and the evil, greedy capitalist – quintessential Republican hero and modern day Scrooge Henry Potter who tries desperately either by threat or bribe to destroy the Bailey S&L. It is the one institution in town Potter doesn’t own. He has the bus lines, he has the bank, and he has a lot of real estate. He’s a one man Wal-Mart who is not regulated, and is sociopathic in his view of the town’s masses (he calls them “rabble”). All this sounds familiar – little has changed in 60 years - and I would think Beck would appreciate this Mr. Potter’s taking over hopeless liberal Bailey’s firm and indeed creating Pottersville – Republican haven! No health care, no liberal loan terms, foreclosures at the drop of a mortgage payment.
As I write this I am thinking, does Beck seriously want people to analyze “It’s a Wonderful Life”? It’s clearly a warning of what happens when the thin progressive lines against rapacious capitalists is taken down.
Bailey’s Savings and Loan is the one ray of sunshine for the folks of Bedford Falls, where they can get loans for affordable decent housing rather than one of Potter’s hovels. George is so empathetic of his customers that he even gives up his personal funds during a bank failure to keep his company afloat lest it and the people get swallowed up by Potter. He barely succeeds, thwarting Potter again.
At another point, Bailey is offered a dazzling payoff by Potter to “come work for me!” - a Faustian deal made on a daily basis in the halls of congress. It looks for a moment that Bailey is going to cave-in for the bucks – and he certainly is motivated, suffering as he does with his meager earnings and houseful of kids. But once he shakes Potter’s oily hand, he realizes Potter’s main motivation is not hiring him but scuttling the Savings and Loan. He realizes how close he has come to selling his soul. He refuses.
But eventually, events collude to defeat the do-gooder. Bailey, already in despair about not being able to leave the town and travel the world, and now facing a serious crisis thanks to his uncle’s incompetence, decides to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. (Potter in fact had stolen the money Bailey thought was missing. All’s fair in corporate takeovers!)
But the angel Clarence comes to his rescue. Trying to earn his wings, the angel comes up with a scheme to show Bailey what life would be life if he had never been born. Well of course, the immediate result is that everybody in the town, theretofore sweet and friendly, are bitter and unhappy. Indeed without Bailey’s help or guidance, the entire town has been gobbled up by Potter to become the Republican bastion of Pottersville: the non-nanny state, where one is self-reliant or dies. Instead of nice homes, people live in Potters’ dumps and the main source of income seems to be bars and strip clubs.
Bedford Falls’ fate, in Bailey’s nightmare, is truly a sweet Beckian wet dream, is it not? Pottersville, fka Bedford Falls, has simply evolved via the natural order of the free market. Far from a “government takeover”; if anything, the transformation to Pottersville is a result of little or no government intervention.
When Bailey has seen enough, he begs to be “born” again, and face his problems. But what he discovers is, of course, the magic of the movie – the grateful people he touched come together, and save him from ruin and, by extension, save their town from ruin. There is genuine affection for one another, especially in crisis. And there is a common threat – the evil of Potter’s runaway and unfeeling greed – and that has been averted. For now. Bailey’s Savings & Loan remains a slender thread.
That is the lesson, and the joy, of the film. People do not want harsh taskmasters depriving them of comforts, and punishing their misfortunes. But the Becks of the world would have us believe the “free market” is sacred, Potter doesn’t need “government regulations”, he needs a big fat tax cut.
We also realize that it’s not just Bailey’s life that touches others – each of our lives touches others, too. Perhaps ours is the only helping hand extended at any given time. If it wasn’t there, what would have happened? The angel, indeed representing what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”, doesn’t just show Bailey to think about what is important in life, but all of us.
Glenn Beck’s and his network’s thrust is for the Potters of the world to be glorified and unfettered, not “held back”, worrying about their tax rate. And generally the thin line between us and Pottersville is not George Bailey, but the federal government, which Beck/Fox consistently demonize. One again, Beck has it backward, but, unfortunately for his lied-to fans, that is by insidious design.
Certainly we could conjecture about the reverse of the “Wonderful Life” lesson: What would the world be like if Glenn Beck had not been born?
Now that is a real Merry Christmas fantasy.