Saturday, December 20, 2008

Annual xmas post

"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’ a Wonderful Life."

It’s Christmas eve again, or Xmas eve as we say in our house. We strive to take the Christ out of Christmas.

Replacing Christmas with Xmas was, as you can probably imagine, a difficult battle. Like you, we live in a superstitious nation in which the airwaves are saturated with references to all the worst sorts of mumbo jumbo. And children, you know, are very susceptible to that kind of nonsense, especially when they see it on tv.

Also, kids like to argue with the parents and we actually encourage that. We are not the parental types who dictate their children’s beliefs. We require that they become educated on important subjects so they can make informed decisions rather than simply absorbing whatever nonsense happens to be wafting among the societal vapors at any given time. So Christmas didn't die easily in the chuckling household.

The children had a choice. If they wanted to celebrate Christmas instead of Xmas, well, that was their business. But I explained that Christmas is a solemn religious holiday, the reputed birthday of the God who would grant them an eternal life of bliss if they are willing to flatter it constantly; not some excuse to get a bunch of toys. I explained that it would be wrong, blasphemous even, to commercialize such a momentous occasion in the history of the universe.

Xmas, on the other hand, is mostly about the exchange of gifts, with a little family togetherness thrown in for good measure. If they liked Christmas so fucking much, we’d take them to church and then bloody well be done with it.

When presented with these simple observations, the children wisely chose Xmas over Christmas. But Xmas is not solely about hauling in loot. It also contains important lessons about the importance of societal bonds and giving to our mental health and happiness.

Of course most children will not thoroughly absorb those facts the first few times around. But as the years go by and their minds develop, repeated lessons in what makes life wonderful will often take root and grow. As adults, those with a well-developed understanding of what’s wonderful in life are able to project it beyond the immediate environs of their family and close friends. They can imagine a better society in which everyone is happier, not only due to what they are given, but also because of what they give.

That insight is a big part of what Xmas teaches and it is true. But unfortunately, our society is dominated by the spirit of Christmas. Unlike Xmas Christmas is all about getting something for nothing. Pretty much all you have to do is lie, if even that, and a supernatural being will shower you with gifts, both here and in the afterlife. For the individual, the spirit of Christmas is a prescription for poor mental health and unhappiness. For society, that same Christmas spirit is a blueprint for suffering and strife for far too many people.

Well, there’s not much we can do to save society from the evils of Christmas, but my own little family unit has developed some Xmas traditions that contribute to our own mental health and happiness.

This may surprise you, but one of our most important traditions is watching "It’s a Wonderful Life," the 1946 Frank Capra movie starring Jimmy Stewart.

You might think that poor chuckling would hate “It’s a Wonderful Life” because of the religious claptrap and overt sentimentality, but I am not opposed to the use of the supernatural as a narrative device. If angels help move the story along, then bring in the angels I say. And what's wrong with wallowing in sentimentality once a year? And what better time than XMas eve?

But it's not all about claptrap and sentimentality. Although it’s true that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a devastating critique of the spirit of Christmas and a nearly impeccable metaphoric representation of the spirit of Xmas, I wouldn’t watch it, much less subject the kids to the experience, if it were not a great movie on its own merit. The story is much deeper than it appears at first glance.

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. One of the big reasons for its failure was that many people felt that it was too political. That may surprise you, but it really was. Consciously so.

It still is.

"It’s a Wonderful Life" features nostalgic dancing and romance. Good triumphs over evil. The little guy wins. 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.

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. 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 social and political 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. European style socialism vs. unfettered capitalism. Capitalism comes out looking pretty bad. But the movie is hardly didactic. It shows rather than tells.

In Bedford Falls, freshly fallen snow blankets the town square. Patriot 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 decked in 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 can be had for a dime in any number of nightclubs.

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 apiring Capra could easily put together a montage of images depicting a Pottersville-like panoply of strip clubs, porno shops, casinos, bars, violent cops and mean drunks in just about any American city.

And if only the similarities between Pottersville and the America we know ended with the nightlife. We’re just waking up from a nightmare of corrupt capitalistic excess. We lived in a time of record setting prosperity that proved to be a Ponzi scheme. Opportunity is drying up. Businesses are closing and jobs are hard to come by. The stock market keeps going up, up, up until the next day when it goes down, down, down.

Then, as now, the rich, and the minority of people who participated in the stock market, are got a lot richer while those who had to work for a living stagnated. 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 governments of both eras exacerbated the disparity though regressive tax policies and loopholes for wealthy campaign contributor types. John D. Rockefeller was reborn as Bernard L. Madoff.

Then, as now, a technological revolution had provided more jobs. Back then skilled labor gave way to assembly lines, which in this era became customer service and teleservices jobs. Working in a phone center was the 1990’s equivalent of working on the assembly line in the 1920’s. Then the job was shipped overseas.

As wages for the majority stagnated or declined, consumer debt kept setting new records. The mailbox was full of easy credit. No more.

Just as the 1920’s ended with the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, the economy of the late 2000’s is mired in all the shit dropped by so many chickens coming home to roost. Once again it’s turned out that consumer spending and economic expansion couldn’t go on forever in conjunction with exponentially increasing income disparity and massive consumer debt. One rich family can have thousands of times more assets than thousands of middle class families, but they’re not going to buy a thousand times more washing machines. Business fundamentals eventually bring stock valuations back in line with reality. Funding dries up for all of the businesses that are making crappy products and losing money, or in danger of doing so. Those that manage to stay in business lay off much of their workforce.

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. Yet paradoxically, the great lie at the heart of "It’s a Wonderful Life" is that the life of anyone like George Bailey would have a significant influence on the life of a city like Bedford Falls.

The reality is that wars and recessions, boom times and depressions will come and go and Adam Smith’s "invisible hand" will continue to assure social results that are beyond the ability of a regular Joe to influence.

Ultimately, what separates the people in "It’s a Wonderful Life" isn’t their interest in accumulating wealth but their attitude towards it. For example, 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 as well. Plus he’s happy to help the community. Mr. Potter, on the other hand, tries to keep it all for himself. The result of that difference in attitude is that some people maintain a pretty good level of happiness while other become unhappy and bitter.

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 dearer than the value of money.

George Bailey will be the richest man in town in any era. Pottersville may be visible just outside the window, but we can all be good people. Doesn’t matter where we live.

That’s, ultimately, what makes “It’s a Wonderful Life” such an appealing film.

No one notices the underlying political messages and either wouldn’t care or would get angry if they did. But the progressive political message provides the foundation without which the story would not work.