As I sit here on a glorious Saturday after turkey in New York City, I am inundated with images of bad behavior in pursuit of what we Americans think of as the “Holiday Spirit of Giving”.
Story after story on the morning news is of people fighting, rampaging, stealing, and ultimately getting arrested, hospitalized, or both. The one thing these stories have in common is that they all take place during “Black Friday” sales. As I watch with a mix of disgust and fascination (think Jerry Springer), I cant help but wonder if is this something isolated or something more symptomatic of a decline in the social fabric of America.
Some of you, especially those of you who are younger or not Americans may be wondering about my comparison to Pottersville. This is a reference to the iconic 1946 film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” directed by the legendary director Frank Capra, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Stewart plays an honest, hard working, generous, but unlucky local banker who always puts his community, Bedford Falls, above his own needs and interests. After a string of mishaps he is driven to attempt suicide believing that the world would have been better off if he had never existed. Just as he is about to commit the act, an angel intervenes (yes a bit hokey but this was 1946!) and shows Stewart what the world would have been with out one precious person, him!
In this world, Bedford Falls is now Pottersville, the town named for its owner, the miserly Mr. Potter. Potter controls all of the economic activity in Pottersville. Instead of owning nice homes, people rent tenements from Potter. Instead of bookstores, restaurants, clothing stores, and houses of worship Pottersville is dominated by bars, second run movie theaters, liquor stores, and the dreaded dance for a dime dance halls. Public safety is maintained, not, by the community but by a strong police presence. It is in essence every man, woman, and child for themselves. The people are perpetually divided by the power, in this world, Mr. Potter.
Think of the state of our lives in America today. While many of you may disagree, it seems to me that our sense of community is at an all time low. To many, life seems to be harder than ever and as a result we are less charitable and tolerant of our neighbors. I have taken to reading the comments sections of articles in online newspapers. I am shocked at the lack of caring and tolerance that I see. Recently, when reading articles about anti-Walmart protests the comments were at least 20-1 against the protesters and many people stated that people should be thankful that they could get jobs and that it was their fault that people wouldn’t pay them a living wage. I read similar comments (with similar distribution) about working conditions at McDonalds. Again, the people who worked there were essentially blamed for being losers and were told not to complain as they were lucky to have any job. Now these aren’t people who are sitting home collecting welfare. These are the working poor. It seems that their fellow citizens just don’t care. In many ways it betrays a spirit of meanness that i thought wasn’t part of America.
Mr. Potter seems to me to be a euphemism for today’s corporate America. Short sighted, seeking every advantage in pursuit of current profits. Potter is always seeking ways to limit competition and thereby choice for the people of Pottersville. He wants them to be beholden to him for their lives. Does that sound familiar?
As far as the towns that we live in, those of us who live in affluent sections of New York, Boston, or San Francisco spend our days amidst Starbucks, Banana Republic, and three different Private Wealth offices. Yet, just a few miles or blocks away, residents are met with a steady diet of liquor stores, bars, pawn shops, pay day loan providers, and grocery stores without healthy options. Do any of us believe that this doesn’t send a statement to the people who live in these areas?
Let’s not forget about our personal freedoms. Maybe we don’t have the physical police presence that existed in Pottersville. Have any of you heard of stop and frisk? Also, how many of you are aware of the widespread use of government controlled security cameras in your area. We have them in Brookline, a town in which not curbing your dog is considered a big crime. Does anyone other than me think that this is an infringement on our privacy or are we all so afraid that we want to be spied on to find the criminal in our midst? Lets not even mention how all of our online activity is watched and tracked by governments and corporations.
Then there are the social indicators. High rates of prescription drug abuse. High incarceration rates. Did you know that life expectancy for females whom are below the top income quintile is declining? This is the first time in American history that this has happened. There are many reasons for this including increased, smoking, alcohol abuse, and obesity. Maybe it’s also the fact that if you are born poor, your children and their children are likely to be poor too.
Maybe I am so deep in the bubble of my own life that I am misinterpreting the things I see around me. After all, most of the people I know ARE hard working, caring, and generous people. It’s just that I can’t escape the fact that I feel that America has become a much harsher place than I remember.
Heck, even the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life has been impacted. Once upon a time it was shown 100’s of times a year. Then the rights to the movie were bought by NBC (read Comcast, a large monopolistic corporation) and now it gets shown only once per year.
When I was in high school, we used to worry about living in a world like the one in 1984. Maybe we should have been afraid of Pottersville.
I really want to be an optimist about my country. What I am saying is that this holiday season, we all need to take stock and think about what kind of community we want to spend our lives in. I know that I will.