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.

Oct 212010

Samaritan SnareAny talk on poverty such as the one we had on our show last week will inevitably bring up discussion around compassion.  I received a note from Ralf, a loyal listener in Italy, who asked if “giving” is implied in the word compassion.  To this I would say no.

Compassion is an emotion akin to sympathy which arises out of a love of one’s own life.  We feel compassion for others who are suffering because we recognize that life has value and as you love your own life you can put yourself in the other person’s place and feel sympathy (or empathy as the case may be) for that other person.

Compassion may very well be accompanied by a desire to alleviate the suffering of the other person, but we have to ask ourselves if the person who is suffering worthy of our compassion.  Compassion is not unconditional.  We should not have compassion for criminals who are suffering because they are paying the penalty for their crime.  If we feel compassion for the victims of torture we should not feel compassion for the torturer.  To do so would be to negate the compassion we feel towards the victims.

Picture the Hollywood movie where the murderer is hanging from a balcony ledge and the good guy has a hold of him.  In most of those Hollywood pictures the good guy will take pity on the murderer and put his own life at risk by bringing the murderer up from the brink.  This would be an immoral act and rather than a display of compassion it is a demonstration that the so-called “good-guy” does not in fact love his own life.  He puts it at risk by letting the murderer live.  The murderer may try to kill him (as is often the case in these cheesy movies) or he may escape justice only to kill others.

Compassion does not mean that one should sacrifice their lives for the sake of strangers.  Nor does it give the sufferer a blank cheque on the largess of the man with compassion.  Just because someone is suffering does not give that person a right to be helped or the right for others to feel sympathy for him.

Giving is only moral if what you are giving does not constitute a sacrifice on your part.   If a hobo asks for some spare change and you have spare change you could easily part with no real loss to you it is fine to feel compassion for his helplessness and give him your spare change.  If your neighbour’s house catches fire and is left standing on the street with naught but the clothes on his back a person could easily put himself in that person’s shoes, feel compassion for him and help him out by perhaps offering him clothes, food and at least a place to stay until more permanent arrangements could be made.  If such acts constitute a sacrifice on your part then you should not feel obligated nor feel guilty that you cannot offer assistance.

In cases of emergencies such as floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and the like then it would not be immoral to offer aid to the point where normality is once again achieved.  The earthquake in Haiti is a good example.  Normalcy there was poverty at subsistence level.  While we may feel compassion for the Haitian’s before the earthquake taking them out of poverty was not an obligation nor would it be practical considering that their poverty was mostly a condition they brought upon themselves by suffering a corrupt political system.  When the earthquake occurred the situation became a temporary catastrophe.  In such cases giving personal private aid would be ethical as long as it was not a sacrifice to you.  Aid to strangers in emergencies should only be given to alleviate the emergency, to bring the situation back to normal.

Our capacity for compassion is often preyed upon by what I would refer to as professional sufferers.  Those among us who consider their lot in life to be poor and expect and demand that others help them.  These people have no self-respect and have no intention of trying to better their lot on their own.

Worse than these professional sufferers are the people who set up agencies to keep these people in poverty and need.  These are the agencies which turn to government to extract aid by the barrel of a gun.  They rely on people’s natural desire for compassion and use it as a weapon of guilt.

Private agencies who do not appeal to governments for assistance and who fundraise themselves to help others provide a service for those not only in need but for those who want to help and find these agencies a convenient way to do so.  The difficulty lies in trying to determine which agency is a legitimate agency for the poor and which is a parasite on both the government and the poor.

When guilt is used to extract aid from someone that person’s understanding of compassion is under attack and it can be difficult to understand that compassion comes from within and should not be forced from you.  Compassion should be an indicator of the level to which you love your own life.  It can be a motivator for decent acts of kindness.  We should learn to recognize it for these qualities.

(Originally broadcast on Just Right #174, October 21, 2010.)