A lively discussion erupted over at "No Left Turns" in response to my post on "It's a Wonderful Life." You can see what's been said there, including a strong critique by Julie Ponzi that disagrees with just about everything I said about the film. I've written a long-ish response there, and for convenience's sake (and since there's been a pretty lively discussion here as well), I post it here.
I guess it's fair to say that I couldn't disagree more with Julie (and some of Peter Lawler's sympathetic nods) - and that all of the redeeming qualities that I find in George Bailey (of which there are many indeed) are not the result of his "natural kingship," but a consequence a decent democratic soul that was the result of his upbringing in Bedford Falls. It is his less admirable inclination to radical individualism (perhaps a kind of kingship? Or is it tyranny?) that must be tamed, first by fate, but above all by his wife, Mary (remember, she is the one who wishes that he won't leave town when they are children. Perhaps she is the cause of all of George's "bad luck"). I couldn't agree more with Julie that his coming to terms with the house that he despised (much like the town itself) is a lesson in his being chastened and humbled, above all by Mary (is the name here coincidental?). His labors on behalf of the town (one can easily overlook the work he does as civil warden during WW II) is exemplary of his good democratic citizenship (much as his brother goes to war and becomes a military hero), one that derives from discipline and self-governance.
But Bailey Park is a disaster waiting to happen - a fact we should recognize certainly with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but which perhaps even Capra was acknowledging by showing it to have been built upon the cemetery (and, to Stuart Buck, Potter's assistant notes that he used to hunt out by the cemetery when he was a child, and the gravestones are old looking when George goes there, so the cemetery has been there for longer than George, and was part of George's reality. Indeed, you could say that "It's a Wonderful Life" is a kind of prequel to "The Amityville Horror" in which greedy developers pave over any land - sacred or otherwise - to make a quick buck, and disturb the souls of the departed). I have a copy of the script, which describes the setting in the cemetery thusly: "George and Clarence approach the tree from which the "Bailey Park" sign once hung. Now it is just a cemetery, with graves where the houses used to be."
Julie's effort to justify the paving over of the cemetery is creative, but strikes me as a bit desperate to justify the indefensible. I find it hard to imagine her or most anyone supporting such an act - no matter how symbolic - if it were your own ancestors, your own parents or grandparents, sisters or brothers or children - whose grave were plowed under to create a suburban subdivision.
We have legitimate and deep disagreements about the broader symbolic meaning of such an act. I understand the desecration of the graveyard to be more deeply symbolic of the way in which our suburban, mobile, individualistic and cosmopolitan lifestyles more broadly destroy our connection to the past and obscure our responsibilities to the future. For Julie and, it seems many readers (t)here, freedom of choice and ease of life is what it means to be a conservative. McDonalds and WalMart are defensible for the choices and convenience they offer to us. In the discussion of a more recent post (in praise of McDonalds) at "No Left Turns", no one raised the consequences of the form of farming, the degradation of our land, the agricultural monoculture, the inhuman treatment of animals (read the conservative book "Dominion" if you're interested in this aspect), the increasing unhealthiness of Americans (e.g., the rise of childhood diabetes) or the undermining of local businesses - really, a host of "externalized" costs - that accompany such cheap food and convenience. Travel in the part of the country where Bedford Falls is supposed to be - upstate New York? - and see what those downtowns now look like. Bailey Park was the first step in a process that emptied our towns of their residential and ultimately commercial base, the first moments of our automobile culture that has deprived us increasingly of local economies and in its place has made us deeply reliant upon the oil of foreign tyrants and the shipping of goods produced in China (often defectively or even dangerously so as to achieve lowest cost). Those are costs I don't hear extolled in our praise of cheap food and cheap goods and unlimited free choice.
There's a bill that comes with our choice for "choice" - a few my conservative friends here might consider. Betty Friedan ended up living in Bailey Park (of one kind or another) and "The Feminine Mystique" was written about the misery of isolated and alienated housewives living in pasteboard houses with machines that did the job of humans. Modern feminism was born of the suburbs - not as a result of felt inequality, as we are now told, but because of the uselessness and indignity that women experienced in the suburbs. From the Bailey Parks we'll begin to see the rise in divorce rates and the decline of birthrates. The character Viola is kind of a female version of George Bailey, and in the 20th century she does leave Bedford Falls and, I dare say, becomes Carrie Bradshaw of "Sex in the City" - a woman who wants to have sex like a man (without commitment). One could go on in this vein.
It's hard for me to understand how, on the one hand, the message of this film can be extolled - commitment to wife, family, and place - while also praising George's impulse ultimately to undermine all those commitments (first, in his despising of the town and his effort to flee, and then in his efforts to create a modern subdivision). Marriage means giving up certain choices - we forswear others in our commitment to one person. This is a loss of freedom, certainly, but something is certainly gained as well. In this sense, it also tells us why marriage is defensible on certain terms that have increasingly escaped us nowadays, inasmuch as it, like everything else, has become part of our personal self-satisfaction. Marriage is the blessing of the community on a couple who become fully a part of that community, who partake of its history and now will contribute to its future. Marriage is a commitment to a person, but also to a community and its full temporal dimension. One marries not only a spouse, but the people with whom one will live (hence why an announcement - "the Banns" - was posted outside the Church for weeks beforehand). Marriage, thus understood - as a marriage not only to an individual but to a community, past, present and future - could never condone the paving over of a graveyard for the sake of cheap housing. Metaphorically, such forms of marriage should also resist the decimation of the community in the name of our individual (or even, writ small, familial) convenience. To the extent that we have lost that connection and bond, all the things that conservatives often complain about are deeply connected to the very forms of consumer and personal freedom that they often extol. Until we figure out this deeper connection, we won't figure out how to begin doing some repair work.