It's A Wonderful... Lie

On this, the one-year anniversary of Big Hollywood, it is fitting that ‘One Pissed Off Dude’ should mark it with a proper lambasting of one of America’s favorite films ever: “It's a Wonderful Life.” I’ve intentionally held off until after the holidays. I didn’t want to be a Grinch Who Attempted to Steal Christmas…or a Scrooge Who Wallowed in Contrariness… or worse, a Reid-Pelosi Christmas Eve Douchebag.

I am a huge fan of Frank Capra. And whereas it pains me to do so, I must call a proper spade a spade. In my (what I presume will be ‘lonely’) opinion…this single movie has done more to undermine America than any other in memory.

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And yes, I realize I’m about to infuriate both the Left and the Right… Christians and Atheists… Socialists and the ACLU… Jimmy Stewart fans, movie buffs, my entire readership, and my mother…but I have to say it: There is an insidious lie placed smack dab within the heart of this otherwise exquisite movie. And the strange thing is – along with hundreds of millions of people worldwide -- it is still one of my favorite movies of all time. And therein lies the rub.

The most dangerous and injurious of falsehoods is the one that is shuffled in with the Truth.

Let me back up. I first saw this movie sometime around the early eighties, and since then one of my most anticipated traditions has become watching “It's a Wonderful Life” on Christmas Eve. I love the humor, the performances, the depth of character, the twists and turns, the entire story. And mostly, (the part that really gets me in the gut) is the central theme of two of the greatest human attributes known to man: humble gratitude and self-sacrifice. The nobility of George Bailey forfeiting his plans and dreams for his father, his wife, his family, his neighbors…and his eventual ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment of epiphanic appreciation of how truly rich he is…leaves me choked up every time I watch this timeless classic.

“So why, Gary Graham, are you so hell-bent on disparaging this fine work?”

Because it attacks, denigrates, demonizes and attempts to dissemble one of the main ingredients to the American experiment – Capitalism.

Picture the Baileys. A fine, upstanding family working to make the American dream a reality for themselves and their community. But hold on, there’s a major obstacle in everyone’s way – the Rich Guy – Henry F. Potter. Seems he owns pretty much the entire town. And he seems to delight in squeezing his patrons. Business is hard and brutal and has no place for ‘sentimental hogwash’ dontcha know.

Mr. Bailey puts it like this: “This town’s no place for any man unless he’s willing to crawl to Potter.” His son, George, fidgets from the specter of returning to work in his father’s savings and loan association, and of sacrificing his dream of college and creating ‘something big’ with his life. And the father’s answer is, “You know George, in a small way I think we’re doing something important here…supplying a need …[for a man] to have his own roof, and walls and fireplace…” But nonetheless his father urges him to escape from the ‘dreary’ town of Bedford Falls and go off and get an education. George leans forward and says, “Pop, you want a shock? I think you’re a great guy.” (Side note to Capra’s ghost: The line “I think you’re a great man” would have had tons more power. But I digress…)

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Ask yourselves this: What was preventing Mr. Bailey, Sr. from being not just a great guy…but, in fact, a great man?

Attitude, for one.

“This town’s no place for any man unless he’s willing to crawl to Potter.” What a loser attitude! I mean, come on… What if instead of a building and loan, Mr. Bailey owned an NFL team. And on that given Sunday you’re playing the reigning Superbowl champs. What do you tell the team pregame in the locker room – “Dudes…we don’t stand a chance. Let’s just slip out back and get on the plane.”

Had Mr. Bailey, Sr. had more tenacity and drive, (and most importantly, belief in himself) he could have built his business into a standing success; and instead of scuttling about in desperation, helped hundreds, maybe thousands more to realize their dream of owning their own home. (And without all those Fannie-May/Freddie-Mac shenanigans.) Had he used more God-given ingenuity and creativity he could have taken on Potter in the arena of business competition and kicked butt, undercutting Potter’s prices and gaining market share. As his clientele grew, he could expand, hire more people and build more houses cheaply (and finally put that alky moocher Uncle Billy in a home … ha -- just kidding!).

You take my point. Capitalism is what advances not only the practitioners, but the entire community, radiating out with ancillary benefits as far as the mind can see. Just because one rich guy buys up the town doesn’t keep someone else or a bunch of someone else’s to come in and throw up their shingle and compete for the business. I mean…it’s not like Potter was the government.

“It's a Wonderful Life” depicts capitalism as a system in which only the jackals can excel…only the crooks prosper…and only evil can flourish. The system is fatally flawed and the only hope we the people have…is to rely on the good nature and charity of our friends and family.

It’s a complete and total lie.

It burns me that so many fine artists…and politicians…don’t have a clue about what makes our system of Capitalism work…and how you build a business. Sadly, these well-intentioned framers of public opinion – and policy – are the ones who insinuate themselves dead center in the middle of private business.

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FDR (and Woodrow Wilson before him) perpetrated the myth and passed it down to generations of ‘progressives’. Self-gain is evil. Self-interest is a sin. If one person can’t get ahead, then no one should. And tragically -- government’s heavy-hand solution to this is to tear down those getting ahead in the misguided attempt to advance those who are not. (Or at least convince you that that’s what they’re all about when, in fact, they are all about securing your vote and building their personal political power. But…again …I digress.)

We still hear the echoes of that latest most popular catch-phrase, “creating jobs”. But a job is not created by government fiat, wishful thinking, praying, or an angel named Clarence. Jobs are created by a business owner looking to fulfill a business necessity.

Self-interest drives an economy; not government bailouts, laws, restrictions, taxes or Congressional committees.

I was always fond of exclaiming, while watching the TV show, “The West Wing” – “Amazing! Liberalism works like a charm every time…in fiction.

But what about the main antagonist in Bedford Falls, what about this figurehead of evil, this personification of greed and selfishness? The image of Mr. Potter and his sniveling, smirking cratchityness (Is that a word? It is now!) is forever indelibly ingrained within our corporate memories as the ‘typical rich guy’. Mr. Potter – the archetypal money-grubbing, tight-fisted, cruel, conniving, plotting, scheming, twisted old wretch of a geezer -- such a stereotype as to have been crafted by either Beelzebub or Dr. Seuss. The poster boy for Class-Envy…the paragon of non-virtue…everything to ensure that our kids grow up resenting, even hating, ‘the rich’.

Ya see how they treat the little guy? The man be keepin’ us down.

Rubbish. Yeah, of course you get the occasional Howard Hughes…the ‘he-was-a-genius-‘til-he-became-a- nut-job’. And then there’s the twisted saga of the Koch brothers. But these specimens are the exception, not the rule.

In my experience, what we call ‘rich people’ are hard-working and creative individualists who rely on themselves and their wits and ingenuity to survive and build their enterprises up into organizations that make innovative products and provide invaluable services that enrich all mankind.

And oh yes – along the way they create tens of millions of jobs.

This is America. Accept no substitute.

I grew up hearing, and believing, all the old lies about rich people. “The rich get rich and the poor get poorer.” Can I have a show of hands – how many have ever been hired by a poor person? “It takes money to make money.” How many famous industrialists started as poor immigrants with less than $500 in their pockets? I don’t know either, but I know there have been many.

As I’ve grown and experienced, I’ve realized that a man having money is no sin. It’s what he does with the money that defines his character.

Riches have corrupted those who are not up to the responsibility of their money. And those who have cultivated misguided notions of what that fabric is of a full and rewarding life tend to chase excess, hedonism and desperate reflections of their own bloated significance.

I am a big fan of those beautiful commercials that run these days… ‘commercials’… that are selling nothing more than human goodness. They’re done by The Foundation For a Better Life. In one, a new student can’t find a seat in the cafeteria, is rebuffed by ‘the populars’ and sits lonely…until a brave student reaches out in friendship. In another, a youngster has wandered up onto an empty concert stage and embarrasses his parents by playing ‘Chopsticks’ on the concert grand piano…until the maestro approaches…and joins him in an impromptu and beautiful rendering, to everyone’s delight. In still others…people playing, smiling, families loving, living, and giving…the goodness of life. At the end of these beautiful vignettes a single word appears… CharacterRespectEncouragementGenerosity…and then …Pass it on.

These little spots run for barely 27 seconds. But in that brief time, they often move me to tears. Some common note is struck, some universal chord resounds. Some beautiful reminder about what it means to be truly alive.

The man responsible for these spots is a multi-billionaire named Philip Anschutz. He seeks no publicity, hasn’t done an interview in 35 years, gives millions to many, many charities, goes about his business quietly and efficiently and values his family’s privacy.

The next time you’re tempted to look upon all rich folk as Henry F. Potter… think twice. You just may have been sold a bill of goods.

It is possible to build a wonderful business…in a wonderful America…and have a truly wonderful life.

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