What is it that makes the holiday movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” feel so ancient? It’s the relationships, but which ones?
Not George Bailey’s warm and loving family. We have close families today. It’s not the far-off relationships, as with long-lost school friends. We have more of them than ever, thanks to Facebook and other digital communities.
The relationships they had in Bedford Falls that are often missing today are those between the very intimate and the quite distant. Townspeople like Gower the druggist, Ernie the cabdriver, Bert the cop – George knew them all by name, and he knew their stories.
George’s family, owners of a building and loan, was fairly prosperous. But the Baileys remained tightly woven with people of varying incomes, education and ethnicity. Each of them was an individual, not just a useful provider of a good or service.
This is society’s middle ring, so strong in the Main Street America of 70 years ago but much weakened since by several forces. One is the clustering of like-minded people from similar backgrounds in the same neighborhood. Another is the migration of social life and shopping from in-person to the Internet.
Marc Dunkelman writes of the fading town-based model of society in his book, “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.” The middle ring, he says, was “where communities of people with different skills and interests, disparate concerns and values, collaborated with their neighbors in the pursuit of the common good.”
“It’s a Wonderful Life” wallows in sentimentality, but it does not sprinkle sugar on the stresses of middle-ring relationships. A key theme is George’s ability to deal humanely with the town’s flawed human beings. For example, he treats the local floozy, Violet, with unfailing kindness, even lending her money so she doesn’t have to sell her furs.
There’s a harsh scene in which a drunken Gower slaps young George around. George responds with tearful sympathy for the grief he knows the druggist is suffering.
Today the parents might sue the druggist for assaulting their child. And Gower’s reputation would have been shredded beyond repair on social media.
The Facebook generation would probably unfriend these needy or difficult people in two minutes. But in the social matrix of Bedford Falls, these connections are for life.
Sacrifice for others is another theme. George gives up his dreams of adventure to protect his neighbors from the evil banker Mr. Potter. Gratitude for his good deeds, however, does not flow freely.
When there’s a run on the bank, angry depositors ignore George’s assurances they’d eventually get their money back. He has to remind a man named Joe that when he was behind on house payments, the bank let his family keep its home.
Some want to take Mr. Potter’s offer of pennies on the dollar. George implores them: “We’ve got to stick together. … We’ve got to have faith in each other.”
In a nightmare sequence, George sees what Bedford Falls would have become without him. It’s Pottersville now, a hellish place where malice is the default, the vulnerable are humiliated and seedy bars, strip clubs and pool halls expel their neon nastiness onto the streets. (The jazz is good, though.)
As our relationships move online, this dark vision is looking awfully familiar. There’s “flaming,” the spread of false personal attacks. And doxxing, the malicious disclosure of private information. Hacking into private accounts has become commonplace. Stolen personal photos are posted on anonymous websites. And adults are using false identities to traumatize children.
This is what happens when middle-ring relationships are replaced by an outer ring crowded with strangers. Is it all Pottersville from here on? Let’s hope not.
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