One of the many Thanksgiving traditions we have in our family is watching "It's a Wonderful Life." After the fudge is made (that’s another story) and the kitchen is (mostly) cleaned up, the page is turned from Thanksgiving to Christmas and we settle in to watch what is arguably the greatest Christmas movie ever made. Filmed and released in 1946, "It's a Wonderful Life" is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film was No. 1 on the American Film Institute's list of the most inspirational American films of all time and was named 20th on AFI’s Top 100 greatest American films of all time.
For the uninitiated, "It's a Wonderful Life" is the story of a character named George Bailey who is at his wit’s end on Christmas Eve of 1945. Frustrated by his circumstances, he contemplates taking his own life. Intercessory prayers of his friends and family members are heard and God sends a guardian angel, Clarence, to attempt to save George in an effort to gain “his wings”. Clarence saves George first by jumping into the river (knowing that George will attempt to save him) and then saves George again by showing him what his town and friends and family would have become without his lifelong acts of sacrificial love and unrelenting dedication.
It’s a powerful tale of what one man’s devotion to his family and the truth can have on his community. His town, Bedford Falls, succumbs to a dystopian fate because George isn’t in it. Without George, his younger brother dies, his employer goes to jail, his uncle is committed to an insane asylum, his mother is a pauper, and his wife is lonely and childless. That is because, in life, George saves his brother’s life, endures physical abuse to save his employer’s reputation, honors his parents by staying home to save the family business after his father’s death, and invests in his family and town instead of seeking temporal successes in business.
Watching the movie with my family this year, it struck me anew that George Bailey is the lone man in his town willing to sacrifice his life to stand against the powerful monied interests regardless of consequences. Without George, unfeeling and unyielding corporate greed reigns over the town, renamed Pottersville after the wealthiest and meanest man in town, Mr. Potter. Though George made personal material sacrifices by standing up to Mr. Potter throughout his life, it was the steady maintenance of his personal integrity along with a steadfast dedication to his extended family and friends that exemplified what it means for a man to be honorable, virtuous and courageous.
It wasn’t just that he resisted the soft totalitarianism of corporate control in his life and on behalf of his family and town, it was that he was constantly building something better. George didn’t simply resist - he saw the intrinsic value in himself and others in his community; his courage gave others the courage to stand alongside him in his resistance to their brush with tyranny.
When good men do nothing, evil prevails.
It occurred to me that Bedford Falls is a microcosm of American society as we’d like to remember it to be. However, we seem to be spiraling toward Pottersville at an alarming rate. A devolved value system filled with unfettered materialism, sleazy entertainment, crime and callous people. Sound familiar? Too much so. If the film was made today, it is easy to see which modern-day vices would suffice to make the point.
There is a particularly poignant moment in the film when there is a run on the town’s bank and George uses his honeymoon money to, yet again, save his family’s business and the town from capitulating to Potter. He appeals to the members of the Bailey Building and Loan and explains that their money isn’t there in the safe, but has been invested back into the town and into building each other’s homes. However, Potter - the wealthy miser, sees the crisis as an opportunity to gain more control. Never let a crisis go to waste - that one sounds familiar as well. When panicking customers tell the others that Potter is willing to buy their shares for fifty cents on the dollar, many of Bailey’s customers are easily convinced. But George says wisely, “Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling, Potter is buying. And why? Because we’re panicky and he’s not, that’s why.”
Well. That hits close to home. Too close. Current-day corporate and government misers are all too successful at keeping us mired in a steady stream of panic. Constant corporate media accounts of horrible conditions due to COVID-19, Ukraine, monkeypox, flu, food shortages, ESG, cancel culture and runaway inflation distract us into making irrational decisions. They keep the masses moving seamlessly from one thing to be fearful of to the next. Fear is their weapon of choice and, ironically, they’re not afraid to use it. Fear keeps people from spending time building families and lives and communities that would serve in opposition to their dictatorial schemes. Fear turns our eyes to the temporal, rather than the eternal. We continually give up our freedoms and God-given rights for just a smidge of security, comfort, rest or convenience. Corporatists and globalists are benefitting because we’re panicky and they’re not.
While our American ethic drives us toward individualism (the individual is the smallest minority after all), we must stop short of the denial of the power of God-given gifts of life, family and community. Hyper-individualism overlooks the practical necessity and spiritual blessings of mutual obligations to others.
The soft totalitarianism we’ve allowed to seep into our society is on the long march toward its destructive end. However, in America, God has mercifully given us a measure of freedom to resist and to rebuild. There is still time to reclaim the shining city on a hill, but there must be a multitude of George Baileys willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary to stand up to the monied bullies and honorably tell the truth despite the worldly consequences.
Benjamin Franklin wisely stated, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Most Americans deserve neither liberty nor safety.
It is hard work to find individuals willing to seek sacrificial commonality. It is harder work to consistently be someone willing to sacrifice personal comfort and material wealth to tell the truth so that others may also see and benefit from it. We should all search our souls and ask God to give us the daily strength to be that person.
When we have the opportunity to speak the truth, we should.
When we have the opportunity to fulfill our duty, we should.
When we have the opportunity to serve others before ourselves, we should.
When we have the opportunity to resist tyranny, we should.
In order to truly live abundantly, we must live boldly. In order to live boldly, we must first embrace truth. However, it’s not enough to understand it but keep it to ourselves in an act of self-preservation. We must proclaim the truth to have a truly wonderful life.
Stephanie Holden Smith is an experienced policy analyst, political commentator, and public speaker. Smith has worked and volunteered in Governmental Affairs in Alabama since 1997, including lobbying for a Fortune 500 company and serving as Deputy Director of Finance for the State of Alabama. She is currently the principal of Thatcher Coalition LLC. To contact Stephanie, please go to http://thatchercoalition.com.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information Commentary@1819News.com.
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