Saturday, December 23, 2006

Sympathy for the conservative in us all

I’m a generally happy guy. I don’t remember ever getting pissed off about anything concerning Christmas. There were a lot of years when I didn’t give a shit one way or the other, but since having kids of my own I’ve always enjoyed it in a traditional way. Every Christmas Eve we have the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, etc., with a bottle of wine and a Port for a digestif in a good year, then the kids are allowed to open a present or two and we all watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Then Xmas morning we open the rest of the gifts, have a nice breakfast, and spend most of the day playing with the kids' new toys. This is, for the most part, as it was in my childhood. I’ve replaced church with the movie, but otherwise have maintained the tradition

But today I turn into a seething conservative-like maniac. My wife’s family never celebrated Christmas and she usually does well to tolerate my insistence on tradition. Can we have lobster instead of turkey for once? No. Do we have to watch It’s a Wonderful Life again? Yes. Can we open half the presents on Xmas Eve? No. And so on.

Anyway, this year her nephew invites us to a Christmas Eve party in Jersey. Being from a family that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, and young to boot, he apparently has no idea that people with kids don’t generally trudge off to Jersey on Christmas Eve to go to a party with a bunch of strangers. Beyond the mere fact of trashing my lifelong Xmas tradition, it would require us taking three trains and a bus. We would be lucky to get home by 1 am. I was shocked that she would even consider the idea. She was shocked that I would be disagreeable about the issue. Each was seriously disappointed with the other. You really would not believe how rare it is for us to have a disagreement of any magnitude. It was not a good way to start the day.

And while this internal discord is going on, the landlord is having work done on the eave outside my window. Three Mexicans are on the roof blasting Cumbias and operating power tools.

Then I go out to get the Turkey and the fixins. The supermarket is a horror show. It’s packed, taking 10 minutes to navigate any one of the narrow aisles. Everybody is in a nasty mood. I make the mistake of getting in line behind an Asian with a nearly empty shopping cart and predictably the rest of the family arrives with three more carts and cuts in front of me.

And it’s like 80 fucking degrees outside and sunny. There’s a Cadillac Escalade with ghetto hop going thumpa thumpa, niggah niggah. The Jews are bickering and the Muslims haggling over pirated DVD's on the sidewalk. Dueling eastern Europeans with cheap Casio’s are blasting horrible Christmas music on opposite sides of the street. People are speaking Polish, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Albanian, Arabic, Hindu, whatever the fuck they speak in Bangladesh and Pakistan and who knows what else. I feel the Edward Norton character in 25th Hour. I just want to cuss them all.

And more than that, I just want a traditional white Christmas. I want to be sitting in a lonely farmhouse on a hill, looking out a frosty window at snow covered hills, hearing the ring-a-ling of approaching sleigh bells in the distance. Or in a small town with carolers and Christmas lights and a fresh dusting of snow unmarred as yet by tire tracks. But no, it ain’t happening. It just ain’t.

Of course I realize that the problem is me and I pick up a liter of Kentucky straight medicine in the hope of changing my perspective. My kid’s sitting under the Christmas tree shaking every gift, constantly scheming to open a present or five before the traditional time and this is as irritating as the heat and the noise and the foreigners and I know that I am wrong. The kid shaking the presents, the excitement in his eyes, this is what our Christmas tradition is about. I forcibly unclinch my teeth and try to soak up some of his spirit. A couple shots of medicine and I’m almost there.

So I take him out to see Night at the Museum, the season’s Ben Stiller comedy. The sun is setting. Now the people, their different dress and language, the dueling eastern European keyboardists and their music are all beautiful. The Muezzin is calling the faithful to prayer and there is a crescent moon. It’s all so beautiful I would probably weep if I were a sissy.

And the movie wasn’t bad. We walked home through the old Irish neighborhood and looked at the elaborate Christmas decorations. The wife was happy again when we returned. A little more medicine and a nice meal and hear I sit, the holidays lookin good again.

So I got a little feel of what it's like to be a conservative. The tradition part is nice, but that's not the property of conservatives. It's the hate that separates them and it sucks. It really does.

So happy holidays, whoever you are.

It's a wonderful life in pottersville

"When we consider the character of any individual, we naturally view it under two different aspects; first, as it may affect his own happiness; and secondly, as it may affect that of other people."

-- Adam Smith, famous Free Market Philosopher

"Remember, no man is a failure who has friends."

-- Clarence, 2nd Class Angel in "It’s a Wonderful Life."

It’s the holiday season again. Millions of people will watch It’ a Wonderful Life, the 1946 Frank Capra movie starring Jimmy Stewart.

It's a life affirming movie with wonderful characters and a happy ending. There’s dancing and romancing. Good triumphs over evil. The little guy wins. It’s even got angels. In short, it has the kind of plot elements that appeal to the masses, but would normally make people like myself want to puke.

Yet "It’ a Wonderful Life" has somehow managed to transcend that angel sodden sugar plum plot synopsis and become an integral part of the holiday tradition, not just for those who believe in angels, but for others as well, including my own family.

Our eyes grow moist at crucial points throughout the movie. George saves his brother from drowning, saves the druggist from a tragic mistake, saves Uncle Billy from the mental institution, saves Violet Bick from becoming a drunken harlot, and ultimately saves Bedford Falls from becoming Pottersville. Tears flow freely when we learn that George Bailey, not Mr. Potter, is the richest man in town.

When the movie was released in 1946, few could have guessed that it would attain the status of timeless masterpiece. "It’s a Wonderful Life" was a box office flop and financial disaster that bankrupted its studio. Although nominated for several Academy Awards, it didn’t win in any category. It may seem strange to us now, but people felt that the movie was too political. And it is a very political movie. But with the passing of time and collective education, It's a Wonderful Life has become like This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie. Rabble rousing art turned patriotic blather for the masses. Everybody knows the words, but their meaning has been lost in the ether.

George Bailey is a child in the years immediately following World War I. He’s a teenager in the Roaring Twenties, a young man during the Great Depression and a middle aged family man through the end of the Second World War. Those years span momentous eras in the history of the United States. From the general economic well-being of the war years through the record setting prosperity of the 1920’s to the Great Depression of the 1930’s, society was rocked by wild mood swings and extreme changes in fortune and financial well-being. Radically different philosophies were embraced to explain the times. Each new era seemed to prove false the philosophy of its predecessor.

It’s a Wonderful Life presents those philosophical arguments just beneath the surface. George Bailey’s struggle with Mr. Potter for the soul of Bedford Falls pits the individualistic moral universe of the Roaring Twenties against the community oriented struggles of the Great Depression and war years. The arguments pitting the good of the community vs. the greed of the individual are not only illustrated by the parallel lives of George Bailey and Mr. Potter, but also by the parallel universes of Bedford Falls and Pottersville.

In Bedford Falls, freshly fallen snow blankets the town square. Patriotic buntings deck the walls and buildings. Main Street is empty at night save for a few parked cars and some lonely tire tracks in the snow. The trees are bedecked with Christmas lights. Precocious little boys sled down a hill onto an icy pond. Little girls in ribbons and bows twirl on soda fountain stools. People treat each other with respect. The cops and the cab drivers are nice, happy people. Christmas wreaths and glowing candles in the windows of classic American homes appear warm and inviting.

In Pottersville, nothing is warm and inviting. Certainly not its Main street panorama of nightclubs and bars that serve "hard liquor to people who want to get drunk fast." Blinking lights and cold neon signs garishly advertise the Blue Moon, billiards and fights every Wednesday night, the Indian Club, cocktails, pawn brokers, dancing at the Midnight Club and gorgeous girls who will jitterbug for a dime a dance.

The same men who are warm, fun loving guys in Bedford Falls – Bert the cop Ernie the cab driver, Nick the bartender; are angry wrecks living in broken down shacks in Pottersville. Women like Mary and Mrs. Bailey who were safely ensconced in the warmth of family and friends in Bedford Falls are lonely, cold and afraid of strangers in Pottersville.

The message was clear in 1946. George Bailey’s community spirit resulted in a better society than Mr. Potter’s relentless pursuit of financial self-interest.

Judging by the box office, people didn’t want to hear it back in those days. But somehow in our own time, that message has much more resonance.

It’s a bit ironic, because, let’s face it, we’re living in Pottersville.

An aspiring Capra could easily put together a montage of images depicting a Pottersville-like panoply of strip clubs, porn shops, casinos, bars, cops, and mean drunks in any decent sized city in the USA. The necessary footage is all too easy to come by.

And the similarities between Pottersville then and USA now do not end with the nightlife. Like the 1920’s that Pottersville depicts, we live in a time of record setting prosperity and technological revolution which is creating, or at least further entrenching, a class of super wealthy and a government that exists to protect their interests.

Then, as now, the rich, and the minority of people who participate in the stock market are getting richer a lot faster than those who have to work for a living. In 1920’s Pottersville the wealthiest 1 percent' controlled a statistically inordinate amount of the nation’s wealth and that number was compounded daily by the inexorable march of interest. Today, the top 1 percent of Americans own more than 35 percent of the nation's wealth, and one half of the population has less than $1000 in net financial assets. The government of both eras exacerbates the disparity though regressive tax policies and loopholes for wealthy campaign contributor types, John D. Rockefeller has been reborn as Bill Gates.

Then, as now, a technological revolution has provided more jobs. Back then skilled labor gave way to assembly lines that have now become customer services and teleservices and shipping and handling. Working in a phone center in Tucson or an IT department in Manhattan is the 1990’s equivalent of working on the assembly line in the 1920’s. No serious education is required.

As wages for the majority stagnate or decline, consumer debt keeps setting new records. The mailbox is full of easy credit.

We know that the 1920’s ended with the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. To the great surprise of conservatives everywhere, it turned out that things such as ever increasing income disparity and massive consumer debt that could not go on for ever didn't. One rich family could have thousands of times more assets than thousands of middle class families, but they didn’t buy a thousand times more washing machines. Not then, not now. Business fundamentals eventually brought stock valuations back in line with reality.

Although It’s a Wonderful Life deals with these grand issues, what sets it apart from other political message movies is its focus on the value of an individual life.

And paradoxically, that is the great lie at the heart of the movie - that the life of anyone like George Bailey would have any significant influence on the life of a city like Bedford Falls, much less the country.

Wars and recessions; boom times and depressions will come and go. Adam Smith’s "Invisible Hand" will continue to assure social results that are independent of individual intentions.

Ultimately, what separates people in It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t their interest in accumulating wealth but their attitude towards it. George's life long friend Sam Wainwright pursues wealth with the same single-minded intensity of Mr. Potter, but he wants his friends to get rich too, unlike Mr. Potter who tries to keep it all for himself.

Like the great majority of Americans, George Bailey never becomes inordinately wealthy. But, like most of us, he learns that the value of family and friends is more dear than the value of money.

George Bailey will be the richest man in town in any era. Although Pottersville may be just outside the door, that’s not an entirely bad thing. If one is so inclined, what’s so wrong with enjoying a jitterbug with a pretty girl in a gin joint from time to time? We can still be good people, even here in Pottersville.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Make your holiday complete

A quick programming note. On Christmas Eve, I will publish my annual review of It's a Wonderful Life. It's a holiday classic you won't want to miss.

A surge in obsequiousness

Has anyone else noticed how the media so readily adopted the latest Orwellian term coming out of the white house, to write "surge option" instead of "increase the number of troops?"

I know we've seen so much of that over the past six years, and perhaps I just wasn't paying attention, but I've never noticed it being so total so fast. The first few stories I read put "surge option" in quotation marks on the first reference, but since then that's all they use.

A glance at the British papers, on the other hand, shows that they only use "surge option" when quoting someone. Otherwise, they use the accurate words, "increase the number of troops."

Why, oh why, does no one call the press out on this? I havn't seen a single word of complaint in any of the major papers or intelligent blogs. I know, I know, the bullshit and lies fly so fast and furious, it's just overwhelming.

Unfortunately, they see that the "surge option" is so effective with bullshit and lies that they think it will work with armies and lives. Tehy'll get a surge all right. A surge in death and destruction.

Another day in hell

I climb 13 flights of stairs in the subways on my regular daily commute, six on the way to work, seven on the way back. On many days, due to the impeccable timing of the MTA, I have to sprint up four particularly steep flights if I don't want to miss a connecting train.

Overall, I consider this a good thing. I am old and fat and climbing the stairs is usually the best, and certainly the most consistent, intense cardiovascular excercise I get, so if I don't keel over, it is probably good for me.

Another little known fact about New York is that there are homeless people. Not very many, by west coast standards, or even D.C., but although ours are few, they often smell much worse than the more numerous homeless folk in other towns.

These two facets of life in the big cesspool came together for me today. After sprinting up four flights of stairs, grabbing the subway doors and using all my strength to keep them open until the conductor relented and let me in, I found myself huffing and puffing in one of the smelliest cars I've ever had the misfortune to ride in. The eau de homeless was so strong it was almost as bad at the far end of the car as it was next to the poor soul from which it emanated, who was right next to me when I entered. Gasping for breath after the sprint, I'm sure I inhaled several decades worth of eau de homeless before the train got to the next station. Then when I got off the train, I set my bag down in a puddle of piss.

Otherwise, things are swell with the holidays coming up and, lacking smelling salts, I'm waving a glass of rum under my nose to make it all better. Soon I won't be smellin a thing.