Dec 222011
 

One of Christmas’s perennial favourites is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart and Donna Reed.  What apparently makes this a classic is its underlying theme that one’s life, however ordinary influences many others like the ripples in pond.

While this might be a truism it does not in my mind make this a great film.  In fact, I would describe “It’s a Wonderful Life” as homage to the dominant philosophy of our time, that of altruism and certainly not a great piece of cinema.

George Bailey is the protagonist.  An ambitious young man with dreams of seeing the world, going to college and becoming an industrial engineer or architect.  He has planned out his whole life and can hardly wait for the day to leave his “crummy little town” of Bedford Falls.

George’s personal flaw, instilled in him by his father, who by everyone’s account is a poor businessman as the Chief Executive of Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, is both a sense of duty to others in his community and a personal hatred for the successful banker Mr. Potter.

Mr. Potter has a hard nose for business with little empathy for others.  It is this lack of altruism that riles the Bailey’s to the point where their hatred of Potter has made for very poor business decisions, giving loans to people the bank declines, which leaves the Building and Loan in a perpetual state of near bankruptcy.

George’s personal dreams are put on hold when his father dies and he ties up fathers’ dealings with the Building and Loan.  Potter, a member of the Board makes a motion to dissolve the company but George’s hatred for Potter gets the better of him and he persuades the Board to keep the business. They do so, but with the condition that George stays to run it.

George’s sense of duty to the down-trodden of the community and his personal hatred for Potter convince him to sacrifice (and I mean this in the strictest definition of the term) his life-long dreams and run the Building and Loan.  He marries Mary, they have four kids, and throughout the years the embittered man constantly regrets his decision to forsake his personal dreams.

Along comes the great depression and the Company narrowly escapes bankruptcy.  Potter tries to give George a way to escape his failing business by offering him a job at $20,000 a year.  This would solve many of George’s problems but once again his personal loathing for the banker causes him to refuse the offer with an onslaught of vitriolic, vulgar epithets hurled at his nemesis, Mr. Potter.

His deep-seated rage finally boils over when his absent-minded uncle loses the Companies deposit of $8,000.  With Mr. Potter and the Bank Examiner breathing down George’s neck he finally loses it.  He ruffs up his uncle, trashes his living room, frightens and yells at his wife and kids, tells off one of his child’s teachers, gets drunk, and drives his car (while drunk) into a tree.

Wonderful Life - Children 168x100Unsatisfied with his not so wonderful life and realizing that his life insurance policy will save the Company he prepares to commit suicide.

So far I have described the first hour and fifty minutes of this two hour and ten minute movie.  Up until this point George Bailey has undoubtedly hated his life.  It has been one disappointment after the other.  He never wanted to get married and yet he did.  He never wanted anything to do with his father’s company and yet he now runs it.  He never wanted to live in Bedford Falls but he has never left it.  None of his dreams have been fulfilled.  It has not been a wonderful life for George Bailey.

If you ask any who have seen the film this first part is often forgotten.  The last twenty minutes are what seem to matter to most viewers.

George’s guardian angel, Clarence, saves George from committing suicide in the most insightful way.  Knowing of George’s sense of duty to others, Clarence throws himself into the river first, thereby forcing George to save him, and thus himself.  So, even George’s desire to kill himself has been sacrificed for the sake of a perfect stranger.

While drying off from his dip in the river George tells Clarence that he wishes he was never born.  That’s how wonderful he thinks his life is.  Clarence grants his wish and shows George a Bedford Falls where he had never been born.  It is a town now called Potterville with nightclubs and gambling halls.  His wife, Mary becomes a spinster librarian, his taxi driver lives in Potter’s slums and the Building and Loan is closed down.

George becomes unhinged.  He tries to drink away his problem in a bar but gets thrown out.  He breaks into the house which was supposed to be his home. He punches a cop and gets shot at.  In utter despair he returns to the river where he was going to commit suicide and prays to God to return him to his real life.

His wish is granted and he finds himself surrounded by his friends who bail him out of his financial troubles.  The guardian angel leaves him a note saying “No man is a failure who has friends;” A nice sentiment to be sure.

The character of George Bailey is today’s everyman.  He believes his highest virtue is not himself but in helping others, while at the same time denigrating and hating the successful among us who do not share his ethic of self-sacrifice.

The end result of his philosophy is a life not worth living, a life of regret, disappointment, frustration, guilt and a mounting hatred for success.  At one point in the story George is deliriously overjoyed that he has just given away his life’s saving of $2,000 which was to go towards his honeymoon.

It is fitting, if not timely, that the villain in the story is Mr. Potter the banker, paralleling today’s Occupy Wall Street altruists who call for an end to capitalism, the destruction of the rich and the imprisonment of bankers.

Ayn Rand described the moral code of altruism thus:

“The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.”

This describes the motives of George Baily perfectly.

I’ll paraphrase Rand when I say that;

  1. George Baily lacks self-esteem – since his first concern in the realm of values is not how to live his life, but how to sacrifice it.
  2. He lacks respect for others – since he regards mankind as a herd of doomed beggars crying for someone’s help.
  3. He has a nightmare view of existence – since he believes that men are trapped in a “malevolent universe” where disasters are the constant and primary concern of their lives.

The movie is reminiscent of another Christmas favourite, “Scrooge,” based on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”  Scrooge is portrayed as a banker, or money lender.  The casting of successful, rich, corporate executives as heartless, selfish, unsympathetic villains has become commonplace in popular literature and film.  The latest Disney movie, “The Muppets” has as its antagonist, oil magnate Tex Richman.  His name says it all.

The real villain in “It’s a Wonderful Life” is not Mr. Potter.  It is George Bailey, a man who lives for others, forsaking his own selfish desires, plans, and hopes; a man of duty to the community; a man of altruism and sacrifice.  These are the attributes of a man who finds his own life distasteful.  So much so that suicide is his only escape.

Allow me to take some license to propose an alternative to Capra’s “It’s a wonderful Life.”  Let’s suppose we look at George’s life if had followed his dreams and left to explore the world, go to college and build bridges and airports.  What would have happened?  Could he have impacted as many lives as he did as the Executive Secretary of Bailey Bros. Building and Loan?

I’m reminded of Frederick Bastiat’s piece written in 1850 called The Broken Window, or “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.”  Don’t just see what would happen if George Bailey never lived but see what he would have accomplished if he followed his dream.

I suspect he would have influenced more lives in his travels, his adventures, his education and vocation as an architect or industrial engineer than as a lowly officer of a loan company in the dead-end town of Bedford Falls.

But that is not the point.  It is not as important how many lives you affect, what is important is how you live your own life, whether or not you follow your own dreams and desires.  You have but one life to live.  Cultivate friends of course, but not at the expense of fulfilling your own dreams and following your own path.

I don’t know if that would have made for a better movie to have Clarence show us an alternative world where George lived his life with his own self as the standard of his morality, but it certainly would have been a more honest treatment of the evil and morally destructive philosophy of altruism, and a much more uplifting film to view whether at Christmas time or at any time of the year.

Dec 082011
 

Cristian Fernandez 168x100There is an increasingly alarming trend in society today and that is the practice of punishment which is excessive to the crime.

The Canadian government’s Omnibus Crime Bill has passed third reading in the House and has moved onto the Senate for its rubber stamp approval.  One of the more disturbing elements of the Bill is the provision for mandatory minimum sentences to be meted out to cannabis users and growers; sentences which are longer in some cases than those given to child rapists.

Mandatory minimum sentences have the effect of rendering a judge impotent in his furnishing a sentence fitting to the crime and its circumstances.  With mandatory minimums in place a judge can basically only pass judgment on whether or not a person is guilty or innocent.  The punishment for many will be prescribed by law regardless of any mitigating circumstances which legislators cannot be privy to. They have determined that regardless of circumstance a criminal must serve a certain amount of time for a certain crime.

These mandatory minimums are a reaction to past lenient sentences handed out be liberal judges to hardened criminals.  On that face of it alone one could somewhat agree with the reaction.  But that is only one facet of the problem.  The particular offences our government has chosen to apply mandatory minimums to are non-violent offences such as growing, or possessing a plant, cannabis.

As offensive as these changes are to our criminal justice system it could be much worse.  Marc Emery, the Prince of Pot, a Canadian citizen turned over by the Canadian government to a foreign power, the United States, for selling cannabis seeds by mail to Americans, a crime punishable by a fine in this country, is serving five years in an American prison for his actions.  From his prison cell in the Yazoo City Correctional Institution in Mississippi Marc has posted to his blog several  examples of outrageously excessive sentences given to some prison-mates, most of whom, like Marc, are in jail for non-violent drug related offences.

Christopher Norman – sentenced to 21 years, 10 months for conspiracy to distribute five kilograms of cocaine.

First time offender, Jacob Esquibel – 21 years, 3 months for ‘Possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.’

Travis Rogers – 21 years for conspiracy to distribute 500+ grams of methamphetamine.

Antonio Andrews – 48 years – Convicted of being a felon in possession of firearms.  The guns were not used in any way and no one was harmed.

Cedric Jones – Conspiracy to possess and distribute crack cocaine. – Mandatory life sentence.  No drugs were ever found on his person nor were any amount specified in his indictment.

Nathan Carter – Possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine – Life without parole.

Bryan Jones – Conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine – sentenced to life without parole PLUS FIVE YEARS!

Billy Wheelock – life without parole for possession of 99.64 grams of crack cocaine.

Curtis Bell – Conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine – Life without parole.

Marc concludes his blog post with this warning:

“In Canada, the cruel mandatory minimums for cannabis and drugs soon coming into law will be augmented by the on-going appointment of Conservative judges to the courts.  This situation will produce much longer and harsher sentences, fill the jails, increase the debt, expand police powers, reduce the safety and freedom of the citizens, escalate the drug war, raise drug prices, increase the lucrative nature of the drug trade, and drain the taxpayers.”

One further and chilling example of an excessive punishment is the case of twelve year old Cristian Fernandez of Jacksonville, Florida.

This young boy, just into puberty, pushed his toddler brother.  The two and a half year old suffered a head injury which was ignored by his mother who only reported the injury after several hours.  The boy died two days later but doctors claim that he could have been saved had the mother acted quicker instead of taking time to download music on her computer.

While the mother is being tried for her negligence what is tragic is that young Cristian is being tried as an adult for murder.  If he is found guilty the mandatory sentence is life with no chance of parole for 75 years.  Did I mention that Cristian is only 12 years old?

My reaction to these sentences is in no way a comment on the serious nature of some of the crimes, nor on the fact that some of these people deserve to be punished for their crimes.  My reaction is strictly to the excessive and barbaric treatment these individuals are experiencing.

We often pass proper moral judgment on the behaviour of the governments of uncivilized countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or North Korea.  The stonings, beheadings, public amputations, and torture that so-called “criminals” receive in these countries go beyond the pale.  But given the current trend in Canada and the United States to increase sentencing for non-violent crimes and putting 12 year old children in jail for life we are not far behind these medieval countries and catching up.

Dec 082011
 

229 - Bibi Aisha 168x100In my writings and on my radio show I have continually passed moral judgment on the actions, writings, and sayings of others.  Although I do not judge indiscriminately, or lightly, I do not shy away from such judgments and I do not adhere to the biblical commandment “Judge not that ye be not judged.” Matthew 7:1.  Instead I adhere to the Objectivist principle “Judge and be prepared to be judged.”

It is common in our society today to think that we are not worthy of passing judgment on others.  This has been drummed into us from our not only our Christian upbringing which teaches us to be humble (as destructive as that is), but also from our secular public schools which teach us moral relativism, or more precisely, moral agnosticism.  The hypocrisy is of course for our priests and teachers to make the pronouncement that people should not judge they are elevating themselves into a position of moral superiority.

Two weeks ago I lambasted the Ontario public school system for their political indoctrination of children.  I stand by my assessment of the system but today would like to honour at least one teacher in that system, in this very city in fact who has come out and revealed a personal observation about the effect of such indoctrination on his pupils.

Dr. Stephen L. Anderson, a high school teacher in the Thames Valley District School Board, and a recent PhD in philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, has published an article called “Moments of startling clarity : Moral education programming in Ontario today” in the Ontario Secondary School Teacher Federation’s publication Education Forum. This is what he had to say:

            “…I was teaching my senior Philosophy class.  We had just finished a unit on metaphysics and were about to get into ethics, the philosophy of how we make moral judgments.  The school had also just had several social-justice-type assemblies – multiculturalism, women’s rights, anti-violence and gay acceptance.  So there was no shortage of reference points from which to begin.

“I needed an attention-getter: something to really spark interest, something to shock the students awake and make them commit to an ethical judgment.  This would form a baseline from which they could begin to ask questions about the legitimacy of moral judgments of all kinds, and then pursue various theories…

“I decided to open by simply displaying, without comment, the photo of Bibi Aisha.  Aisha was the Afghani teenager who was forced into an abusive marriage with a Taliban fighter, who abused her and kept her with his animals.  When she attempted to flee, her family caught her, hacked off her nose and ears, and left her for dead in the mountains.  After crawling to her grandfather’s house, she was saved by a nearby American hospital.  I felt quite sure that my students, seeing the suffering of this poor girl of their own age, would have a clear ethical reaction, from which we could build toward more difficult cases.

“But I was not prepared for their reaction.  I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got.  Instead, they became confused.  They seemed not to know what to think.  They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all.  They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture.  They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.”  One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.”  Another said (with no consciousness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”

This refusal to take a stand, to make a moral judgment on members of another society or on that society itself is the result of years of indoctrinating children into the cult of multiculturalism, into the dead-end, and I mean that quite literally, of moral relativism or as Dr. Anderson goes on to describe, ethical paralytics.

Moral judgments stem from a moral standard, an ultimate value, the survival of which determines our reasoning for judging something either good or evil.  Normally one would make moral judgments based on a standard or ultimate value.  For today’s educators and intellectuals this standard is the group or collective one belongs to.  Such moral standards are, for example race, gender, sexual preference, economic class, cultural, and religion.  If it is good for my race, my gender, sexual preference etc. then it must be good, if is bad for my group then it must be bad.  But who is to determine what is best for the group?  And what if I belong to several groups?  What if I was a Catholic, black, middle class, bi-sexual woman?  Who am I to make moral judgment for my group mosaic?

Obviously the answer paralyses the person into making no moral judgments at all and resigns the person to relying on the expert’s judgments on what is right or wrong.

In fact the only standard one should use to make a moral judgment is one’s own life and its survival.  What benefits the survival of one’s own life is the good what is detrimental to one’s own life is the evil.  When your own life becomes the standard upon which to make your moral judgments then you are standing on a firm ethical ground.  You are then in a position to place yourself in the position of another and judge empathically what is right and what is wrong.

In The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand responded to the question: “How does one lead a rational life in an irrational society?” thusly:

            “I will confine my answer to a single, fundamental aspect of this question.  I will name only one principle, the opposite of the idea which is so prevalent today and which is responsible for the spread of evil in the world.  That principle is: One must never fail to pronounce moral judgment.

“Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.

“It is their fear of this responsibility that prompts most people to adopt an attitude of indiscriminate moral neutrality.  It is the fear best expressed in the precept: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” But that precept, in fact is an abdication of moral responsibility:  It is a moral blank check one gives to theirs in exchange for a moral bank check one expects for oneself.

“…so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible.  To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims.”

Using one’s own life as the standard upon which to make a moral judgment and accepting Rand’s principle that “One must never fail to pronounce moral judgment,” the students in Dr. Anderson’s class should have responded to his challenge by saying that the family of Bibi Aisha were committing an evil act in siding with her evil husband by mutilating her and leaving her for dead.  The staff at the American hospital acted morally in offering her aid and protecting her.

The students could have gone one step further as I now will.  Any culture which permits, encourages, or abets in any way the subjugation of a woman or the mutilation of someone as a punishment for escaping an abusive pig of a husband is inherently evil.  To the extent that this is tolerated by the Afghani people is the extent to which they are all complicit to this evil.

Originally broadcast on Just Right #229 December 8, 2011.