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Jay Walljasper: Not So Wonderful Life?

August 10, 2010

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By **Jay Walljasper**

In the movie, George Bailey embodied a commons-like vision for Bedford Falls. But is the miserly Mr. Potter prevailing in American life today?

Right now I’m celebrating the completion of a new book, All That We Share: How to Save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities and Everything Else that Belongs to All of Us, which I hope will serve as a bracing, inspiring introduction to the promise of the commons as a new (well, actually old) way of looking at the world. It’s due out in November from The New Press.

But after the elation, comes the second guessing. Since it’s too late to change anything in the book, I am now pondering everything in it that may not be exactly right.

“Corporate America and its many media operations have painted the George Bailey role model as a fool…Profit is the only value in Pottersville. It’s surprising how many otherwise thoughtful, decent people have agreed to make Pottersville their new reality.”

Probably the biggest nagging doubt is one entry in the Commons Canon—a list of the best books, songs, movies and art that captures the spirit of the commons. What’s on my mind is the inclusion of It’s A Wonderful Life—the beloved holiday movie by Frank Capra starring Jimmy Stewart. I have been fretting that including this Hollywood classic looks like a gratuitous effort to associate the emerging commons movement with everything popular and All-American in U.S. Society.

But after reading a blog from Eric Hanson, an astute political observer who has the best grasp of historical pop culture of anyone I know, I now feel confident that it belongs on the list. Eric is an illustrator, humorist, and author of A Book of Ages whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeny’s, and the New York Times.

Hanson links It’s A Wonderful Life and our ideas of the common good in his critique of an article this week in the New York Times about how many corporations are posting huge profits without hiring back any workers. Here’s what he says.

“I sometimes judge events and behavior on what I call a Pottersville/Bedford Falls model:

“In which universe would these things happen? In which mythical town would such behavior be applauded and rewarded? How would this or that leader behave in a crisis? Would he help out? Or would he help himself?

“Over the past thirty years we have been building our own Pottersville, owned and run and benefiting the selfish banker or corporate type played with rasping nastiness by Lionel Barrymore. Of course Potter has made himself more attractive since 1948. In a remake of the movie he would be played by an affable Ronald Reagan.

“Most Americans would rather live in a Bedford Falls world, led by the example of George Bailey. Sadly, George Bailey is dead and buried. Corporate America and its many media operations have painted the George Bailey role model as a fool and his Democratic/Progressive/Liberal/Sermon on the Mount values as quaint and irrelevant. Profit is the only value in Pottersville. It’s surprising how many otherwise thoughtful, decent people have agreed to make Pottersville their new reality.”

Copyright 2010 Jay Walljasper

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This essay originally appeared at Onthecommons.org.

Jay Walljasper is an editor at On The Commons. He is a writer who covers urban, community, environmental, cultural, international, and travel issues. His most recent book is the The Great Neighborhood Book, a guide to how people can change the world on their own block. He is a senior fellow at Project for Public Spaces and senior editor at Ode magazine and writes a blog on green cities for the National Geographic Green Guide and covers sustainable travel for National Geographic Traveler. For many years Jay was editor of Utne Reader.

To read more blog entries from Jay Walljasper and others at GUERNICA click HERE .

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