Friday, December 28, 2007

It's a Wonderful Discussion

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.


Anonymous said...

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.

Here is one conservative who agrees with everything you are saying.

Chesterton said it best: The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.

Anonymous said...


I'll link to this post over at NLT once the site is back up (it seems to be down at the moment--early Saturday evening).

I do, however, have a couple of questions for you. First, the movie presents our alternatives as being Bailey and Potter. Left to his own devices, neither would leave Bedford Falls as it was (and as you'd apparently like it to remain). The one liberates individuals at the expense of community. The other weakens community for the sake of his self-aggrandizement. I can imagine a more benevolent oligarch/despot than Mr. Potter, one who doesn't simply exploit those who pay him rent or work for him. But such an oligarchy/despotism--dependent upon the character or, if you will, the whim of the powerful man--is unstable. It can't last, but can perhaps be controlled by the existence of a countervailing power, one that "liberates" individuals so that they're no longer subject to the oligrach/despot. Of course, that gives us Bailey Park, the "ownership society" with its attendant pathologies.

But are those pathologies inevitable? In THE LOST CITY, Alan Ehrenhalt describes suburban Elmhurst, Illinois in its earliest incarnation. Community was rampant, so much so that shy or withdrawn people would have found it oppressive. His description suggests that it's not the residential or neighborhood form itself that killed community, but something else--perhaps some combination of the worship of choice, increasing heterogeneity, and the "compulsion" women felt to enter the labor force.

I'd note as well that in the movie the denizens of Bailey Park remain gratefully communitarian, with a VERY functional communication system. Whatever the status of George Bailey's sentiments, those he helped are more satisfied with life in Bedford Falls after he's done his deeds than before (and clearly more than in the absence of any action on his part).

I appreciate very much your thoughts on the movie and on the challenges posed by both the Potters and the Baileys of the world.

Have a happy New Year!

brierrabbit said...

Very well put. Our whole culture seems oriented around what we want "now". Our culture has no idle, or dare say, reverse. Just forward. I read those comments at "No Left Turn", and like you, nobody seemed to think of anything but "convenience, and "choice". Everything must bow to the Baal god of "what I want, now, this minute", I should have. The whole society is becoming atomized, lonelier, and unable to reach some state of serenity in life, because of constant moving around and disruption of everything in a persons enviroments. nobody lives with the same family friends and neighbors more than a few years, we always have to move somewhere else. Our built enviroment is constantly being rebuilt, landscapes replaced with new development, I'm a groundskeeper, and one symptom of this I've noticed is that nobody develops a garden and it's outbuildings over time like people used too. Gardens take time and observation to develop into something unique and special to regions natural history and climate. Now, people just call up a nursery, and tell them to "plant" the yard. They don't, afterall plan to be there very long. What you get, of course is one of those suburban yards that look like a million others down to the same plantings, and designs. Horticultural monotony from suburb to suburb across the country. It's like our lives are made of particleboard, instead of real wood. sigh.

Patrick Deneen said...

Joe -
At this point I'm beginning to agree with the many interlocutors who have rightly pointed out that all this discussion of "It's a Wonderful Life" may be putting too much weight on a few scenes from one movie. Still, it is in fact a window to a larger important set of issues that speak to many of the major challenges of our time.

I can't say that I agree with the premise of a question that seems to pose the choice between a benevolent or wicked oligarch. I think that the aim ought to be democracy rightly understood, that is, democracy as a form of mutual self-governance - what Carey McWilliams called "The Discipline of Freedom." Of course, the very language of democracy has been wholly appropriated by thinkers who understand it to be a defense of choice and/or the wholesale liberation of the human will. In some senses the film - and, I dare say, many NLT readers - present us with a false choice between the slums or suburbs. My own choice would be more Bedford Falls: if there's a need for more housing, let it be built on the scale, with the density and layout of actual towns. Let our proud independence refuse to be undermined by the temptations of economic choices that lead to a loss of our ability to see the connection between our activities and their benefits for our community, and to favor local businesses like George Bailey's Savings and Loan. It should strike us that, were this movie made today, George would have sold all those mortgages to "investors" as bundled securities (no doubt not a few subprime mortgages among them), and would have had no ability either to avoid foreclosing on them or persuading them not to "run" on his bank. Having the option to sell them all to strangers would relieve him of any fundamental responsibility to the people in that town and to the unknown investors. It's amusing that many NLT readers should rise to defend George Bailey when in fact he was in reality put out of business a long time ago by the actual Mr. Potters of the world (or, he did end up signing that contract to work for him in one way or another. At the very least his kids, who probably all went to good colleges, ended up working for the equivalent of the Potter Investment Firm). Who's the nostalgic one here?

I mentioned Ehrenhalt in relation to a discussion of Taylor's book "A Secular Age" here - it might be worth re-reading:
I don't really address your question of why people abandoned communities like Bedford Falls for subdivisions. Clearly there were economic incentives - it was cheaper, and continues to be cheaper, and we live in an age which increasingly can only measure worth in terms of "the bottom line." Part of what made it cheaper were a whole host of relatively uncalculated supports, such as the Eisenhower interstate highway system (some "free market"!). But we should also note that those choices only SEEM to be cheaper - I and others have been arguing that there are a whole host of attendant costs (often externalized) that are going unpaid by this generation and are being gathered as an enormous bill for future generations. Already parts of that bill are coming due (oil, water, food, topsoil, etc., not to mention broken families, the degradation of our culture, the evisceration of the content of our universities, etc.), and more is coming. As the saying goes, you can't get something for nothing, despite how we've been living the past 50+ years.

The point of my piece on Bailey Park was not that the community is instantly destroyed by George - far from it - it's that he sets the community on a course for destruction even as he personally relies on and benefits from all of the virtues of that community which he ultimately will undermine. This is the true and sad story or liberalism writ large: relying upon the virtues of civic life and moral institutions like family and church, nevertheless its logic of voluntarism and the valorization of the human will and choice in all things came to undermine the very institutions and habits that made liberalism viable in the first place. Of course you don't see the community of Bedford Falls or even Bailey Park dissipate immediately. Yet we know what the future looks like and should not be so sanguine that we can find a technological fix for the virtues of family and religion, any more than we can invent a new source of energy to replace all the oil we've burned the past 150 years. Once you've spent an inheritance, it's a hard hard task to build it back up and it's seldom done by the profligate. I fear we have yet to face this hard but very real fact of life, all of us prodigal children who have left the homes of our fathers behind.