Ed note: As this columns relates personal feelings of the writer towards our capacity as a culture to ignore human needs there is some strong language. Read with caution.
A discontented lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class! All because some starry eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas!
You might remember these words spoken from the villainous Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. To people inclined to Fox News talking points, this whole movie is probably viewed as liberal propaganda from the Hollywood Elite of the time.
Never mind that the film’s director, star, and even the guy that played old man Potter were life long Republicans. To be fair, the government doesn’t bail out George Bailey. I guess you could give some credit to “Thoughts and Prayers”. The rest was due to the community he loved giving love back. I suppose the bank inspector was a government worker but even he gave out of his own pocket.
Still, there is something different in the sentiment of this film. The words spoken by Mr. Potter pretty much echoes the tone of right wing media. We seem to believe that we owe no one… are responsible to no one or no thing… other than ourselves.
The moral of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is that a man who gave in kind would be rewarded in kind. “No man is a failure who has friends” the angel wrote him at the end. The inverse is that George had a lot friends and he stood by them… and got fucked over for it… at least until he was about to drown himself on Christmas Eve.
Perhaps some things do not change.
Bedford Falls was a sort of town you might find in the 1940’s. I think you would have a tougher time finding a community like that now. Too many of us have withdrawn to a community of screens. We relate to our screen community only as much as it pleases us. We scroll past the person posting about her depression. We pick a fight with the person whose beliefs offend us. We like or love the people who please us… the pretty people… the people who are good with posts… the people who say what we are saying… and the cats…
Mostly cats. Cats have never had it so good and yet they don’t know they have it so good…
because they’re fucking cats.
We do not have enough capacity for empathy for it to extend through screens. That person with whom you are in a comment flare up with over politics? You don’t know him. He might have had a terrible day. He might have been abused at work. He might be worried about paying bills and keeping his kids fed. You don’t know any of that. You only know he is wrong and you are going to make damn sure he knows it too.
People sometimes complain about how a tragedy somewhere in, let’s say Asia, doesn’t seem to concern people here. I don’t think that is surprising. Our empathy is as strong as our attachments. We bond most with ourselves… then maybe with our family… our lovers… then our close friends… our “family of choice”… then acquaintances… our bonds get thinner after this… people we know about… like movie stars… … people look like us… people who speak our language… everyone else is somewhere after that.
You don’t have to struggle to imagine where a Syrian refuge might fall on a list like this for many folks.
They are filed under “Fuck’m”.
They say humans can maintain relationships with about 150 people. That is our natural community. That is our Bedford Falls. Empathy beyond that is not natural. It is learned…
and even though such universal empathy is the core principle of most of our core religious and philosophical teaching, this crucial empathy is hardly universal.
In the late 1940’s, a lot of people came to a different understanding of their fellow man. There was a war in which people that looked like them tried to murder them and people who were very different than them saved them by covering a grenade. Everyone was all mixed up. This revealed that, not so secret, knowledge that we are basically the same no matter where we are from or what we look like. Even Jimmy Stewart was in that war. It is said that the trauma of watching his comrades getting blown out of the sky is the fuel that made his performance of George Bailey’s unraveling so harrowing.
So where are we now?
I think we are in Pottersville surrounded by walls. Instead of a “thrifty working class” we are becoming a nation of sociopaths. People who either do not have or cannot afford empathy. People who suffer quietly alone and are either too proud or too afraid to ask for help from their neighbors and the angels… even “Second Class” ones… never show up to save them from drowning.
It seemed such a grand thing when technology shortened the distance between ourselves and the world. Then it became too challenging. All this information. We found ourselves in a tribe of well over 150 people and so we started alienating each other. A culling was in order. It was impersonal, for the most part, but it was profound. We lost the great teachings just at the moment when it presented the most promise.
Baba Ram Dass died yesterday. He wrote a book I found highly enjoyable called “Be Here Now”. I think if we are to survive this age, however, we need to do better. We need to “Be Everywhere Now”.
Because that is where we are… everybody…every living thing…. this entire planet…
is Bedford Falls.