It's Still a Wonderful Life in Spite of Potter
It's a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie. I have watched it so many times I have lost count. A few nights ago, in celebration of Christmas Eve, I watched it again. As I felt my "Christmas Spirit" reviving from the drain of the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it occurred to me how odd it is that I have not exhausted this precious resource of personal spiritual renewal. Frank Capra's idealistic portrayal of the triumph of the "common man" over the greed and avarice of America's plutocracy has yet to wear thin with me.
It's a Long Way Down, But It Doesn't Take Long to Get There
Despite its exaggerated nature, Capra's film captured some fundamental truths about humanity and the dynamics of America's social and political structure. When I was a naive, confused, and very depressed freshman in college at the University of Missouri in 1985, I discovered It's a Wonderful Life when a friend taking a film studies course took me to see it. For reasons which evaded my consciousness at the time, the movie buoyed my sinking soul. Despite having found that life preserver, the powerful undertow of my bipolar disorder eventually sucked me deep into a sea of self-destruction and despair. I completed three years of school before dropping out of the university and out of my relatively privileged lower middle-class life. Through my spiritual and emotional crisis, I made choices that lead me to financial bankruptcy, a serious industrial accident which left me with severe chemical and thermal burns, chemical dependency, abandonment of my family and responsibilities, temporary homelessness, six years of "servitude" in menial manufacturing jobs with poverty level wages and pathetic benefits, and an emotional pain so profound that I seriously contemplated suicide.
The Valedictorian of his high school class and Eagle Scout had hit rock bottom. And what a blessing it proved to be!
Starting in the early '90s, under the tutelage of one of the finest humanity had to offer, I learned to manage my bipolar condition. Lynn Barnett, my counselor, gave me the tools I needed to reclaim my soul and my life. Guided by Lynn's compassionate tough-love cognitive behavioral techniques, and the principles of the Twelve Step programs, little by little I scaled the face of the cliff toward the plateau of spiritual and emotional stability. I repaid my child support arrearage, regained joint legal custody of my twin boys, quit drinking (1991) and smoking (1997), found decent employment, found a beautiful and decent human being with whom to begin marriage anew, completed a degree in liberal arts (by taking classes while I was working), read and studied voraciously, taught myself Spanish (the language of the poor and oppressed), adopted my new wife's son, and became an activist writer on behalf of social justice, human rights, and intellectual freedom (while continuing to work to help support our family). Plumbing the depths of despair and striving to return from the "underworld" gave me the gifts of humility, appreciation, independence, and determination to pursue my goals. It also endowed me with insight and empathy, which were sorely lacking in my character before my "fall."
Aside from the obvious personal challenges arising from the manifestations of my bipolar disorder, it has become quite apparent to me that my spiritual crisis (and subsequent epiphany) was also rooted in the collective cry of a metaphorical flock of thrushes which flew into my subconscious and decimated the hologram of the Simulacrum Republic (click on this link for a "must read" article by Joe Bageant which explains the metaphor of the thrushes and the hologram). As is often the case in the human psyche, my unconscious mind was several steps ahead of my conscious mind as my inner being vigorously rejected the American Nightmare of violence, militarism, instant gratification, over-consumption, bigotry, insularity from other cultures, short-sightedness, xenophobia, hubris, and avarice force fed to us as the highly palatable "American Dream" by our government, text-book manufacturers, corporate-controlled media, Madison Avenue, and corporate America. In short, I take responsibility for my choices and their consequences, but understand that I made them in the context of having a disorder with which I had few tools to cope effectively, and that my self-destructive, irresponsible acts were in part an unconscious rebellion against the perverse psychological and economic oppression of America's corporatocracy. I am not letting myself off the hook for what harm I caused, but I understand my motivations, have made amends, and have forgiven myself.
Once Again Inanity Dominates the Public Consciousness
During this holiday season, as Fundamentalist Christians clash with secular forces over the petty issue of the appropriate way to express one's Yuletide greetings, I pose the question,
In light of the myriad challenges facing humanity today, why are people wasting their time and energy on this absurd "War on Christmas?"
While people feud over the appropriate words to use at a time of year which means something different to almost everyone, the Mr. Potters of the world, embodied by amoral and immoral corporations which have attained the rights of personhood, continue in their steady march to squelch human rights and enslave humanity.
You Mean They Don't Really Have Our Best Interests in Mind?
Retailers like Wal-Mart give us "Always Low Prices." All they demand in return is that Americans look the other way while they continue to: compensate their "associates" with sub-standard wages and benefits; crush the economies of the towns and communities where they locate; run their competitors out of business; and import $15 billion worth of goods from China each year. Energy titans like Exxon keep us dependent on fossil fuels, spend millions "debunking the myth of global warming," plunder the resources of other nations, and keep the prices of gasoline artificially high by limiting refining capacity. Monsanto and their ilk poison our bodies and the environment as they work religiously to fatten their bottom line without regard for humanity or the Earth. Obscene entities like the Carlyle Group, which derive their profits from murder, beat the drums of war to lead both soldiers and innocent civilians on a lemming-like march to their deaths.
Campaign finance, lobbying, think tanks, advertising, propaganda blitzes, the rights of corporate personhood, and so-called “free trade agreements” coalesce to enable these and many other repugnant corporations to act with callous indifference toward human rights and environmental concerns. During the Christmas/Holiday season, the efforts of individuals to embody and advocate truly meaningful values (like those depicted by the character of George Bailey) are too often drowned out by the Potters of the world joining together in cacophonous calls for spending, consuming, and pursuing one's narcissistic desires. Projected to spend $435 billion during the holidays, US consumers will do their part to ensure the perpetuation of the fiscal empires of the embodiments of Lionel Barrymore's despicable character.
Thomas Jefferson gave us a prescient warning about the power of banks (recent deregulation has significantly blurred the line between banks and other types of financial corporations) and corporations:
I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.
-- Letter to the Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin (1802)
Robber Barons: of Yesteryear and Today
In his book Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, Harvey Kaye (the Rosenberg Professor of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay) discussed the extent to which the power of America's corporatocracy and plutocracy had grown by the time of the Gilded Age (about 100 years after Jefferson's admonition):
The concentration of wealth and power and the growth of large, hierarchical corporations fundamentally denied America's eighteenth-century republican ideal of small producers and independent citizens and the belief that political equality would engender economic equality. With its new extremes of rich and poor, it seemed the United States was coming to resemble Europe, the only difference being that whereas aristocrats ruled Europe, "plutocrats" -- a far wealthier and more vigorous breed -- ruled America.
Despite the valiant struggles of the muckrakers, the women's movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement of the Twentieth Century, Old Man Potter is alive and well. Today, America's plutocrats are more avaricious and powerful than the Rockefellers or the Carnegies. America's plutocrats' deeply incestuous ties with the government (and the media) coupled with their carefully honed images of corporate benevolence afford them the power to manipulate "We the People" to a degree that would even have shocked a man like John Pierpoint Morgan.
As I continue to work, to parent, to write, to maintain my blog (Thomas Paine's Corner), to engage in my activism to advance social justice, economic justice, human rights, and intellectual freedom, I will celebrate the Yuletide season as a time to focus on peace, goodwill to fellow humans, giving and family. I give thanks to my concept of the Higher Power for the many blessings bestowed upon my family and me (in spite of the fact that my wife and I are amongst Potter's so-called "rabble" who do "most of the working and paying and living and dying"). My spiritual journey through the chaos and pain of bipolar disorder has been arduous, and is far from over as I work each day to manage my condition, but the character and spiritual freedom I have earned enable me to joyfully exist in the less appealing, but much more fulfilling reality which lies beneath the corporate-manufactured hologram of the Simulacrum Republic.
In 1947, the FBI mentioned "It's a Wonderful Life" in its investigation of Communist infiltration into America's film industry. In the United States, it was, and still is "Un-American" to portray the plutocracy in a negative light. Instead, our sick mainstream media glorifies hollow men like Donald Trump, while tantalizing the masses with the incredibly remote possibility that they could have what "the Donald" has by completing courses at "Trump University." Meanwhile, our information gods mock and demonize people like Ralph Nader, a man who has diligently fought for consumers, the common people, and the environment for years.
George Bailey could just as easily have been talking to Lee Scott, Wal-Mart's CEO, when he said: “You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn't, Mr. Potter. In the whole vast configuration of things, I'd say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider.”
Thanks to the efforts of "Communist" labor unions on behalf of working people, my grandfather (a man of strength and integrity who only had an eighth grade education) provided a decent living for his family by working at a General Motors assembly plant for 25 years. As I grew up listening to him decry the injustices in the world and watching him shun opportunities to better himself financially when they would have violated his principles or jeopardized his family's security, my powerful sense of justice and affinity for integrity were forged. I thought of my grandfather when Harry Bailey proclaimed: “A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town.”
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hanukkah, and a Joyous Winter Solstice to you!
Jason Miller is a 39-year-old activist writer with a degree in liberal arts. When he is not spending time with his wife and three sons, researching, or writing, he is working as a loan counselor. He is a member of Amnesty International and an avid supporter of Oxfam International. He welcomes responses at: firstname.lastname@example.org or comments on his blog: Thomas Paine's Corner.
Other Articles by Jason Miller
for the Many Manifestations of Bigfoot