Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Will it ever be a wonderful life?

Patrick Deneen responds to the conversation we had here.

I posed a couple of questions in a comment on his site, basically boiling down to this: if "Bedford Falls" requires something like despotism, how likely is it that it will be ruled by a "benevolent despot"? And is Bailey Park necessarily antithetical to community. The argument in Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Lost City suggests that the suburban form itself isn’t the problem, though the sense of freedom without responsibility might be.

Discussions - 6 Comments

I think Deneen is reading way too much into elements of that movie.

"And is Bailey Park necessarily antithetical to community."

I wouldn't think so. Community is what the people choose to make of it. The placement of houses on a street does not ultimately affect that.

Here's a question in return -- is it possible we're romanticizing life in the era before suburbanization? Was the sense of community really that much stronger? Or, that much better? (I'm not speaking of the agrarian life of the 1820's ... I'm speaking of the urban life of the eastern U.S. era dating roughly 1900 to 1940.)

My guess is the common problems of humans -- envy, pride, petty strife -- were present then as they are now. And to the extent a sense of community was present, it was held together by the lack of modern-day things like cars, telephones and the Internet.

Such community could have existed in a suburban setting, but suburbs didn't exist. They didn't exist because suburbs were, in large measure, a product of those modern-day things.

This is an great topic. It sparked a good conversation with my dad who was rasied in a smaller version of Bedford Falls and raised me, he thought for the better, in a suburb.

Joe K--Where does the need for enlightened despot come in? Please say more.

Don in AZ -- Great questions raised! I agree that the Deneen-Lasch-Wendell Berry-McWilliams critique of modernity's "progressive" vision runs the risk of romanticization and nostaglia. However, the work should not be judged by standards we communly use. Rather, as I understand, they seek to move our vision beyond the currents in which we swim.

One element that emerges in this portrait is a recognition of an "alternative" tradtion in American life in which self-creation is harmonized by communal commitments. See Daniel Elazar's work on geography and US poitical culture for additional scholarly resources. Elazar adds some details to your historical questions about cities, suburbs, technology and community in US history.

Also, I am thrilled their work identifies surprising similarities between certain left-wing and right-wing factions. For example, the "right-wing" home schooling movement and back-to-the-earth enviros both challenge modernity's progressive vision while State-centered multiculturalists and social reformers align with corporate interests in their fight over the better way to move society "forward."

Perhaps Deneen's writing on "It's a Wonderful Life" unduly burdens one film, one full of lovely seasonal memories, and one man, our dear George, with destroying that cherished something called "community." It also may be unwise to use one of the few widely revered icons of our contemporary age to extract us from our "progressive" world-view. Even Julie P's thoughtful appreciation of George's virtues, valuable conservative values no doubt, seemed unduly constrained by both her love of Capra's story, and of, dare I say, a certain type of conservative accomodation to the "progressive" vision that Bailey Park represents. The effect of these attachments by Julie and Don perhaps obscures the breadth of Deneen's insight.


See my comment on Patrick's post here.

Joe -
I added this response at my site too:

At this point I'm beginning to agree with the many interlocutors who have rightly pointed out that all this discussion of "It's a Wonderful Life" may be putting too much weight on a few scenes from one movie. Still, it is in fact a window to a larger important set of issues that speak to many of the major challenges of our time.

I can't say that I agree with the premise of a question that seems to pose the choice between a benevolent or wicked oligarch. I think that the aim ought to be democracy rightly understood, that is, democracy as a form of mutual self-governance - what Carey McWilliams called "The Discipline of Freedom." Of course, the very language of democracy has been wholly appropriated by thinkers who understand it to be a defense of choice and/or the wholesale liberation of the human will. In some senses the film - and, I dare say, many NLT readers - present us with a false choice between the slums or suburbs. My own choice would be more Bedford Falls: if there's a need for more housing, let it be built on the scale, with the density and layout of actual towns. Let our proud independence refuse to be undermined by the temptations of economic choices that lead to a loss of our ability to see the connection between our activities and their benefits for our community, and to favor local businesses like George Bailey's Savings and Loan. It should strike us that, were this movie made today, George would have sold all those mortgages to "investors" as bundled securities (no doubt not a few subprime mortgages among them), and would have had no ability either to avoid foreclosing on them or persuading them not to "run" on his bank. Having the option to sell them all to strangers would relieve him of any fundamental responsibility to the people in that town and to the unknown investors. It's amusing that many NLT readers should rise to defend George Bailey when in fact he was in reality put out of business a long time ago by the actual Mr. Potters of the world (or, he did end up signing that contract to work for him in one way or another. At the very least his kids, who probably all went to good colleges, ended up working for the equivalent of the Potter Investment Firm). Who's the nostalgic one here?

I mentioned Ehrenhalt in relation to a discussion of Taylor's book "A Secular Age" here - it might be worth re-reading: 2007/11/giving-damn.html I don't really address your question of why people abandoned communities like Bedford Falls for subdivisions. Clearly there were economic incentives - it was cheaper, and continues to be cheaper, and we live in an age which increasingly can only measure worth in terms of "the bottom line." Part of what made it cheaper were a whole host of relatively uncalculated financial supports and incentives, such as the Eisenhower interstate highway system (some "free market"!). But we should also note that those choices only SEEM to be cheaper - I and others have been arguing that there are a whole host of attendant costs (often externalized) that are going unpaid by this generation and are being gathered as an enormous bill for future generations. Already parts of that bill are coming due (oil, water, food, topsoil, etc., not to mention broken families, the degradation of our culture, the evisceration of the content of our universities, etc.), and more is coming. As the saying goes, you can't get something for nothing, despite how we've been living the past 50+ years.

The point of my piece on Bailey Park was not that the community is instantly destroyed by George - far from it - it's that he sets the community on a course for destruction even as he personally relies on and benefits from all of the virtues of that community which he ultimately will undermine. This is the true and sad story or liberalism writ large: relying upon the virtues of civic life and moral institutions like family and church, nevertheless its logic of voluntarism and the valorization of the human will and choice in all things came to undermine the very institutions and habits that made liberalism viable in the first place. Of course you don't see the community of Bedford Falls or even Bailey Park dissipate immediately. Yet we know what the future looks like and should not be so sanguine that we can find a technological fix for the declining lived virtues of family and religion, any more than we can invent a new source of energy to replace all the oil we've burned the past 150 years. Once you've spent an inheritance, it's a hard hard task to build it back up and it's seldom done by the profligate. I fear we have yet to face this hard but very real fact of life, all of us prodigal children who have left the homes of our fathers behind.


I remain quite sympathetic to your critique, and also regret the losses and costs associated with being "pro-choice" on community.

My point about "despotism" is that a community like Bedford Falls requires defense from predators like Mr. Potter. "The people" don't automatically defend themselves, but rather need their own lions and eagles, whose relationship with the communities they defend will always be somewhat vexed.

This view is perhaps more "republican" than "democratic," but smarter people than I have thought it possible to have a democratic republic or a "liberal democracy" as a mixed regime.

I posted this comment under the original post but it got lost in the server trouble we had a few days ago. It is in response to Patrick Deneen’s response to my critique of his review of It’s a Wonderful Life and some other comments that were on the thread but, unfortunately, are now lost.

Stuart, this is also from the transcript. [Stuart Buck had tracked down and quoted from the movie script and provided a link to it here.
He pointed to a part in the film that he thought showed that Bailey did, in fact, build over that cemetery. There was some questioning about whether that was clear from the film . . . I remain unpersuaded that it is . . . ]


In front of one of the miserable shacks that line the street are two vehicles. One of them is George Bailey’s rickety car, and the other is an even more rickety truck piled high with household goods. The Martini family is moving. The family consists of Martini, his wife and four kid of various ages, from two to ten. George and Mary are helping the Martinis move. About a dozen neighbors crowd around. Martini and George, assisted by three of the Martini children, are carrying out the last of the furniture. As they emerge from the house, one of the neighbors, Schultz, calls out:


Martini, you rented a new house?


Rent? (to George) You hear what he say, Mr. Bailey?


Whats that? [Remember, he cant hear well because of saving his brother, the hero . . .]


I own the house. Me, Giuseppe Martini. I own my own house. No more we live like pigs in thisa Potters Field. Hurry, Maria.

I might also add that the first thing the Italian (and presumably Catholic) family does upon entering this new home of theirs is to bless it with bread, salt and wine (to promote the absence of hunger, the prosperity of its inhabitants, and joy to all who enter their home . . .) Then, very significantly, Mr. Martini tells the visitors: Enter the Martini castle! And they all cross themselves . . .

Further, I am not at all certain from what I’m reading here [in the transcript] that Bailey Park is built ON TOP of the cemetery. It may be near it--but so was Potter’s Field . . . the "graves where houses used to be" reference may indicate that MORE graves went into the undeveloped bits of the cemetery in the world without George Bailey--his own brothers, for instance, and maybe all the other folks who might have died without his help or intervention (those his brother saved, the kid who might have been poisoned if Mr. Gower hadn’t been prevented from filling the prescription incorrectly . . .). It looks to me from the transcript (I’ll have to watch the movie again to be sure) that the real project of George Bailey is a kind of pre-gentrification improvement(or urban redevelopment) of the place. He’s improving and expanding a neighborhood that was already there and doing so at a price that is affordable--in all ways. Still, the script is very clear that the homes should not all look alike. All the "castles" have certain elements in common (perhaps they don’t have front porches?) but they all are built with an individual character that will accommodate the individual characters of their respective kings and queens.

Deneen’s discussion of marriage is illuminating and his questions about the rise of feminism and its relation to the rise of the suburbs is interesting . . . but the fundamental problem from the movie (in response to his suggestion that the suburbs led to feminism and the breakdown of morality) is the presence of Violet in the film. Like George Bailey, she was already there in Bedford Falls. If she was rebelling against anything, it was more Bedford Falls than Bailey Park. Deneen faults the suburbs for failing to make the Violets of this world behave. But Bedford Falls failed just as miserably on that score. I suppose he might say that at least Bedford Falls had the effect of (eventually) driving Violet off to the city. And there is, no doubt, something to that. She’d have a hard time corrupting the citizens of Bedford Falls from that distance. But that’s a rather severe and sacrificial posture to espouse. George Bailey took pity on Violet throughout his life--as Christ did on Mary Magdalene and other women of wayward habits. Bailey even endured whispers about his association with Violet and did not dignify them with response. But he continued to help her. Perhaps he saw a bit of himself in Violet. He saw that she was, like him, something of a misfit in a town so small and (seemingly) so little to enrich a big soul.

But something more bothers me in Deneen’s discussion of the connection between feminism and the rise of suburbs and that is his embrace of Freidan’s thesis of boredom and uselessness in the suburbs. Perhaps Freidan and her cohorts were bored in the suburbs . . . but if they were bored there imagine what they would have felt in Bedford Falls?! Does Deneen mean to suggest that the answer to the problem of feminism and the decline of the family is to put women back into a state of drudgery? Should we, like the Amish, be so skeptical about the impact of all technological improvements that move us away from inconvenience and drudgery that we eschew washing machines and the like so that women don’t have time to worry their pretty little heads about questions of greater meaning than how best to eliminate a stain? Or might there be a way to accommodate these new devices and greater stain elimination techniques that still embraces the central purposes of family life and allows women the full enjoyment of their families--not merely as handmaidens to them--but as full and active participants in the higher aspects of family life. That drudgery cannot (and should not), at every turn be avoided, is certainly true. But a soul can be organized and ordered to the good without over-burdensome testing by fire. Violet was, indeed, a logical outcome for a woman of modest means who, in those days, might not have been able to embrace washboards and tenements as readily as her more stout-hearted counterparts. But surely there were others who found that washing machines, suburbs and other conveniences made it possible for them to do the job of wife and mother better. Surely there were women who were persuaded, because of these conveniences, to eschew the ways of Violet. Perhaps they saw that their world need not be forever closed off from higher things if they accepted the mantle of middle class housewife because now, they might still have time for other things (like reading a good book or composing music or painting or volunteering at her children’s school or teaching her children Latin or talking with girlfriends over coffee about the meaning of life). The Mrs. Potters of this world never had to worry about their world seeming too confining. They had money enough to hire servants and certainly did not live a life of drudgery. What is wrong with middle class people being able to afford homes of their own and the conveniences that afford them the leisure necessary for a good life? Shouldn’t these wide new vistas lend themselves to the strengthening of the community? People take more pride in things that they, themselves, own. A man--who gives so much of himself to work and supporting his dependents--must feel like he owns his own home. A woman--who gives so much of herself to the needs of others--must be able to feel like she still owns herself!

Back to Violet. If, on the other hand, Violet had had the good fortune of landing George Bailey (as was her childish design) and together they had created a beautiful family needing her devoted attentions, Violet probably still would have been Violet--suburb or no. I do not think she could have been reformed and brought around to a position of gratitude as Bailey was in the movie. Even in the suburbs, where her vistas would be more open and she would have more privacy, she still would have been unhappy and wanted more. The problem would have been that she would have expected George Bailey to get it for her . . . and she would have had no idea how to get it herself. Her problem was that she had a hole in her soul--vague wants with no direction and no prospect of providing fulfillment for herself. She was better for having known George, but as his wife she would have made him miserable. George Bailey could not have humbled her in the way that Mary humbled him because she was not, in the end, just the female version of George Bailey. She may have been the direction George Bailey was headed (and the allusions to his helping her with money--though stemming mainly from a Christ-like sense of pity--suggest he, a mere mortal, was thinking about it) but he did not and could not go down that path because he discovered that his vistas were not really limited in Bedford Falls. He had found what he was looking for and didn’t even know it. He discovered that one need not travel the world to find adventures and meaning, they are all around us and in us. No, Violet was no George Bailey and George Bailey, as Patrick Deneen rightly points out, was no Mary. Violet was that day’s version of Carrie Bradshaw. But Carrie Bradshaw is not today’s version of Mary if only she had grown up in the suburbs. What we might say is that Carrie Bradshaw is today’s version of Violet . . . still with a hole in her soul, but one that she tried to patch with a college degree.

And that leads me to my biggest problem with Deneen’s view of the movie and of the centrality of community in general . . . it isn’t as powerful an explanation of human behavior as he’d like to think. Saying that community or the lack of it leads to certain types of behaviors is no different, in the end, than saying that education or the lack of it leads to certain types of behaviors. There is an element of truth in both statements, of course. But both are, to use a Churchillian turn of phrase, too easy to be good. Bad behavior comes from bad souls. Bad souls come from a whole host of complicated things that no single theory can explain. We can do our best to address the needs of the soul and set up communities that seek to foster good ones . . . but just as good families often raise bad children, we (like George Bailey) ought to learn some humility.

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