The war for America’s soul

One of the fascinating dynamics of 20th century American history is the determined, generations-long effort to change its nature — but discussion of this is often considered off-limits. The most obvious forecasts of consequences ot public policy changes are derided as “slippery slope” arguments (although why this is even considered a rebuttal eludes me). Clear statements of beliefs and intent are dismissed as just theory or (even better) just kidding.

Every week’s media gives its crop of examples. Here are a few, topical for the season.

Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life“, Wendell Jamison, New York Times, 18 December 2008

All hail Pottersville!“, Gary Kamiya, Salon, 22 December 2001 — “The ‘bad’ town in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ jumps and jives 24/7 with hot bars and cool chicks — while ‘wholesome’ Bedford Falls is a claustrophobic snooze.”

Both strike similar notes. Here’s an excerpt from the first.

In Capra’s Tale of Two Cities, Pottersville is the Bad Place. It’s the demonic foil to Bedford Falls, the sweet, Norman Rockwell-like town in which George grows up. Named after the evil Mr. Potter, Pottersville is the setting for George’s brief, nightmarish trip through a world in which he never existed. In that alternative universe, Potter has triumphed, and we are intended to shudder in horror at the sinful city he has spawned — a kind of combo pack of Sodom, Gomorrah, Times Square in 1972, Tokyo’s hostess district, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast ca. 1884 and one of those demon-infested burgs dimly visible in the background of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

There’s just one problem: Pottersville rocks!

Pottersville makes its brief but memorable appearance during that tumultuous scene when George, who has just been bounced from Nick’s Bar and is beginning to seriously freak out, rushes down the main street. A large neon sign — the first of many — announces “Pottersville.” As sirens sound in the distance and a big band wails jazz, George staggers on, into an unfamiliar nightlife district that has replaced the town he knew. In a rapid montage, we see a neon bar sign saying “Blue Moon.” Another announces “Fights.” Yet another blaring “Midnight Club — Dancing.” There’s a pool and billiards joint and a pawnbroker shop. A large marquee announces “Girls Girls Girls — 20 gorgeous girls — 3 acts.” The “Indian Club” gaudily sports a kitschy neon sign depicting the face of a brave. The “Bamboo Room” promises a more Oriental setting. As the disbelieving George stares at the teeming entrance of the “Dime a Dance” joint (“Welcome jitterbuggers”), a scuffle breaks out — some floozy is resisting being thrown into the paddy wagon. “I know every big shot in this town!” she shrieks as the gendarmes manhandle her. In horror, George recognizes the floozy — it’s Violet, the town flirt from his previous existence, now apparently turned full-fledged professional. After his protests almost land him in the pokey too, he stumbles off in shock and grabs a taxi.

George’s confusion, even dismay, is understandable — it’s always a shock when the laws of space and time cease to apply. But if he’d hung out for a while, had a few drinks in the Indian Club, dropped a couple dimes in the dance hall, maybe checked out the action at the burlesque, he would have gotten a whole new take on the situation. Pottersville has its problems — its bartenders can be undeniably ill-humored, for example — but compared to the snooze-inducing Bedford Falls, it jumps. In the immortal words of Jeffrey “Janet Malcolm” Masson, it’s a place of “sex, women, fun.”

The gauzy Currier-and-Ives veil Capra drapes over Bedford Falls has prevented viewers from grasping what a tiresome and, frankly, toxic environment it is. When Marx penned his immortal words about “the idiocy of rural life,” he probably had Bedford Falls in mind. B.F. is the kind of claustrophobic, undersized burg where everybody knows where you’re going and what you’re doing at all times. If you’re a Norman Rockwell collector, this might not bother you, but it should — and it certainly bothered George Bailey. It is all too easily forgotten that George himself wanted nothing more than to shake the dust of that two-bit town off his feet — and he would have, too, if he hadn’t gotten waylaid by a massive load of family-business guilt and a happy ending engineered by God himself.

We see the author’s view of women at work in these review. Mary (Donna Reed) is an “”oppressively perfect wife” in Bedford Falls, while “rocking” Pottersville has hot women, like dime dancer and prostitute Violet (Gloria Grahame) — a “professional” to Kamiya (go girl!).

Folks like the authors of these two articles fight to mold America to match their vision. Will those who have different visions fight as strongly?

If so, who will win?


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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:

Posts about the American spirit, the American soul:

  1. Diagnosing the eagle, chapter IV – Alienation, 13 January 2008
  2. Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
  3. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  4. A philosphical basis for the Batman saga, 23 July 2008
  5. The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
  6. We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
  7. The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008
  8. Symptoms of a fever afflicting America’s culture, 5 November 2008
  9. The corruption of a nation is usually hidden, but sometimes becomes visible, 21 November 2008

16 thoughts on “The war for America’s soul”

  1. Line 2:
    “forecasts of consequences >to< public policy”

    I’m totally in line with Hanson and Heath on this one:

    As Hanson concluded here [subscription required], :

    “History tells all of us that nobody gets a pass. Your [country’s] perpetual existence is not guaranteed. If you do not believe in yourself, and believe that you’re better than the alternative, and have the educational skills to come to that empirical judgment, then there is no reason for you to continue, and often you won’t.” –Victor Davis Hanson

    We enjoy a cultural banquet. The fruits are perishable, and decay abounds.

  2. Pottersville: my kinda town! REGRETTED growin’ up like a geek. Shoulda joined gangs & BRAWLED or somethin’. Missed out on all the fun.

  3. I suspect there is some degree of irony in the pieces you’ve pointed to.

    First, they’re poking fun of how heavy-handed the morality of the movie is. And they’re doing this in a relatively standard way: “The bad guys in this actually seem like normal people. I’d rather hang out with them.”

    They are also pointing out that, as piece of storytelling, the movie utterly fails. It’s supposed to be a vindication of small town life. By idealizing small town life so intensely, however, it ruins any chance of achieving that vindication. Bedford Falls ends up feeling like a movie set, rather than a town anyone lives in. Ultimately, God has to intervene in order to make life in Bedford Falls seem worth living. (Which, Kamiya is not-so-subtly pointing out, is the most damning sort of criticism one could make of small town values.)

    There is also just something very funny about depictions of vice from that era, in much the same way that educational documentaries from that era are funny, or chances to see old Ronald Reagan (as governor) utter the words “Rock Music” with obvious distaste.

  4. There you go being a Christianist again! America doesn’t have a soul. When we die; it just gets really quiet.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This comment is wrong on so many levels it is barely worth a reply. Christian doctrine does not attribute souls to nations — only to individuals. And what is your basis for this confident statement about the hereafter? Religious belief? Experimental evidence? Poorly adjusted meds?

  5. I’m not sure what to make of this. Every century is met by a generations-long effort to change what was. The United States was vastly different 1899 than it was in 1801. Rome was different in 99 than it was in 1.

    The chief fallacy of conservatives, and often shared by libertarians, is a bizarro insistence that we go “back” to an early era of the nation in terms of governance and behaviors. It’s a charming idea and entirely ungrounded in reality.

    I usually quite strongly disagree with the “left’s” vision for the nation, infused as it is with grand ideas of enforced equality. But the “right” has yet to enunciate anything other than a desire to return to early 1900s government and mid 900s social standards.

    A cave in the woods is sounding better and better.

  6. “Folks like the authors of these two articles fight to mold America to match their vision. Will those who have different visions fight as strongly?”

    Well let’s see… over the last 80 years or so the people who have opposed sex, drugs, jazz, rock and roll, racial minorities, and homosexuals have used murder, violence, incarceration, political corruption, disinformation, the Bible, and endless fearmongering polemic at every opportunity…so as rhetorical as it may seem, the answer to this one is clearly Yes. I suppose we are all fortunate that for some odd reason they also set themselves against those in the current world scene who agree most with them on both morality and methodology… the Taliban and al-Qaeda. One assumes their core difference is as that between Coke and Pepsi, about market share and who gets the money.

  7. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is not about the virtues or failings of small-town America. It’s about the impact that George has on other people, and about him recognizing that impact, and living in a river of thankfulness, instead of a stagnant pond of bitterness for what might have been. Or how weak he considers his influence. The two towns are merely contrasting backgrounds.

    True, this is also a way to illustrate different visions for society. But BF and Pottersville are both prototypes that can, and did, co-exist. That’s the brilliance of liberty. Who says we have to have one-size fits all for Wasilla and Chicago? And if you don’t like one, move to the other.

    The government grows and grows and becomes more oppressive, the ultimate busy body, telling people how to live. People have less and less say in how they want their communities to evolve. In a nearby town, the busybodies won’t even let you smoke in a bar. How’s that for a modern version of puritan BF?

  8. Why must everyone have a vision of what we want America to be? What’s wrong about having a vision of whta I want my life to be and letting you have your vision about yours?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Because societies are forged by those with visions. You might as well ask why the sun rises tomorrow. That is the natural order of things. You can wish otherwise, but the universe neither hears nor cares.

  9. Potterville should have been depicted as a dangerous place, not a fun place. First, George would get mugged and then stabbed for not having a clue. When the street walker dares to even look at the men beating and stabbing George, they beat and rape her too. As the girl lies bleeding next to George’s body, she cries out,”Someone help me, call the police”. A stranger whispers fearfully,”No, if you do, they’ll kill you for being a trollop”. This was unimaginable to Americans of Capra’s audience, but not for today’s. This is the loss we should be grieving for.

  10. A very good post. My wife and I discuss this often. The media and acadamia are dominated by people who have certain vision of what they want America to be and many people have rejected that vision but have gone to the other end of the spectrum against it. The solution is somewhere in the middle but it’s hard to get people motivated to defend a “mind your own business” attitude. Roe v. Wade is a fine example. You have the group who wants to overturn it to ban abortion and then you have the opposite that want’s it to be legal every where! In reality Roe v. Wade is a huge overreach of federal power. Each state is supposed to have the flexibility to deal with these issues on state by state basis but we are so wound up in telling others what to do that we need to have the Federal government to do it.
    One minority group win over the other and the majority, who just want to live their lives, feel alienated. How to motivate that silent majority is the problem and the solution to defining where America needs to go.

  11. In economic parlance, Pottersville stands for urban/commercial life, and BF for small town/agricultural. Obviously we’ve been on the former path for 150 years. There would be no way to maintain agricultural society values (family-based, communal, traditional) in an industrial/commercial society.

    In contemporary parlance, Pottersville is Thomas Friedman, or Hank Paulson (untrammeled free market economy), while BF is Volker (strict discipline of the market.) Somehow, I see Volkerism in our future, a year or two from now.

    Both of the movie towns are as irrelevant to the actual lives of Americans as the Lone Ranger is to the history of the West.

  12. In like manner, we could do a satirical version of A Christmas Carol portraying Scrooge as a worthy, diligent, principled man whom someone has slipped a mickey which causes him to hallucinate.

    Following this, he turns into a driveling sap who doubtlessly dies a wastrel.

  13. America is supposed to offer all of the above in abundance: Pottersvilles, Bedford Falls, NYC, Chicago, San Diego, Denver, Ely, Auburn, Ithaca, Sioux Falls, Missoula, Santa Fe, Miami, San Francisco, Springfield, and on and on … Only idiots, academics, journalists, and pundits try to mold an entire country into the shape of their own distorted minds.

    The joke is on the left which as become far more hyper judgmental and vindictive than the right ever was, except in the minds of the above set of miscreants.

  14. New satire:

    Rudolph, a “nosey,” has been excluded from traditional reindeer society.

    In a fit of political correctness, Santa, citing “snowy evening” as a pretext, institutes affirmative action program that displaces Donner and Blitzen.

    Enraged, out to restore “traditional reindeer values,” Sarah Palin, at the head a a well armed Alaska National Guard, invades the North Pole. Reindeer greet her with flowers. Thanks to global warming “snowy evenings” are dispelled.

    Santa is tried as a war criminal, and Sarah -keeping a sharp eye on the Russian border – returns to Juneau to a well-salted venison meal

  15. To anyone interested in what America used to be and what it will become, the following book recommendation may be useful. The late author and professor William Manchester was a Marine NCO in the Pacific Theater during WWII; he served in combat and was severely wounded at Okinawa (near Shuri Castle, for those of you familiar with the battle). Forty or so years later, Manchester retraced his steps and those of the Corps., island-hopping across the Pacific, ending up at Okinawa where he nearly lost his life. Manchester puts to rest some questions, some personal demons, and tries to make sense of what he and so many others suffered.

    What makes the book relevent to this discussion are the final few pages of the book, when Manchester tries to explain that the America he and his fellow soldiers went overseas to defend no longer existed when they came home. In very few pages, Manchester describes how our culture, values and institutions changed so very rapidly, into something his parents would not have recognized, and that he himself had trouble recognizing.

    As a young man, he could not foresee what his beloved nation became; as a wiser, much-older man he knows change is inevitable, but still can’t seem to quite believe what has happened in the years since his youth. You needn’t be a Marine to understand that feeling of surprise at the rapidity of time’s passage, and the disappearance of the world of your youth.

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