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The Uncivil Servant: The “It’s a Wonderful Life” Fallacy

Mitchell Abidor
December 5, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor

IT'S THE TIME of year again when you can hardly turn on the TV without stumbling on Frank Capra’s great It’s a Wonderful Life. Part of the reason for its omnipresence is the fact that it’s in the public domain, but there’s no escaping the fact that, for all the sentimentality of the film’s ending, it is a beautiful, sincerely felt ode to a certain vision of America in which the middle and little folk are the defenders of our virtue, under attack by big bankers.

It is also, and perhaps foremost, a film about our value as individuals, about the million and one ways we are connected, often without our being aware of it, and this message has consoled many a soul in dark times. I know it did me when I was at a low ebb the first time I saw it about forty-five years ago.

As George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) sees Bedford Falls had he not been born -- his wish when he is about to be unjustly accused of bank fraud -- he realizes how vital a role he played in both the life of the town and that of the individuals who make it up, as his quiet, bucolic town, without him there defend it, has become a dive full of honky-tonks, and no one who lives there is even remotely similar to the way they were when George was around. Some he knew are dead, some are incarcerated, some committed to asylums, without his having been born to inflect their lives.

While watching the film this all makes sense, but as the decades have gone by I’ve come to realize that the movie gets it all radically wrong -- that its message of how essential George is (and thus we are) actually flattens life, and is dead wrong. It suffers from what I have come to call the It’s a Wonderful Life Fallacy.

LET US START with a key element of the story, George Bailey’s having saved his brother’s life during a sledding accident. With George not being born, his brother dies in the accident, and so the GIs he saved during World War II also died. George’s not having been born thus leads to dozens of deaths, because there was no George to carry out the fundamental act, the saving of his brother.

But the reason no one else saved George’s brother is because George saved his brother. However tautological this might sound, it is significant. We can’t know that no one else would have done the same precisely because George did rescue his brother. Had he not been there, someone else happening by that day might have done it just as well. Or perhaps his brother would not even have gone sledding that day, lacking the brother who made it all so much fun. The notion that only George could have saved him is based on a false premise that pervades the film: that any act that occurs had to occur, simply because it occurred. In reality, the fact of its occurrence simply cut off other possibilities latent in the situation, ones that were equally possible until that which actually occurred occurred. Every event, in other words, is tied in a web of events so vast and so tightly bound together that the omission of one step leads to incalculable consequences, not simply linear ones, like the inevitable death of George’s brother in his absence.

The most striking example of this in the film, and the most obviously false, is George’s encounter in the alternative Bedford Falls with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), his wife in the world in which he was born. In his guardian angel-induced alternative universe, George wasn’t born, thus his wife never wed -- and is now a dour, fearful spinster. Really? Capra’s vision of love is that of a world where there is only one person for us, one bashert, and had that person not been born, we’d go through life alone.

But Mary, when we first see her at the high school dance, is a lovely, lively, popular young woman. Are we to believe that no one in the course of her George-less life would have fallen in love with her and she with him? Perhaps even Alfalfa Switzer, who plays the wiseacre who opens the gym floor to reveal the pool the dancers fall into, would have had the space he needed to win her heart. Perhaps someone later on would have. Again, it was precisely because Mary married George that she married no one else.

This flaw in the film is one all of us can see by reviewing our own lives. My wife Joan and I are the happiest of couples, and we recognize the unlikeliness, the near-miraculous set of circumstances that led to our meeting, falling in love, and getting married, all within just a few months. But however happy we are, I’ve never for a moment thought that had Joan not met me she’d be a bitter old spinster. Beautiful, charming, talented, she’d have met someone else sooner or later. Maybe even someone at the dinner where we met. And I, had I gone out as planned that night with a couple I seldom had the chance to see, and not gone to the dinner Joan was hosting, might have met someone at the restaurant we were headed to when I veered off and met Joan. Or maybe not. All of us have stories of how we met our beloved, and all of them are based on improbable chance to one degree or another. In this, as in so much else, chance might have led us elsewhere, and not necessarily to eternal solitude.* It’s a Wonderful Life again reduces life to a linear series of events that is simply inverted when George is absent, rather than guided onto another track.

CAPRA PRESENTS GEORGE, and by extension all of us, as absolutely essential, which is a touching notion. But though this seems to exalt our existences, it actually diminishes us and life. We are all absolutely essential and absolutely contingent: Once we are in a situation we change it forever, but had we not been in it, it would have continued quite well without us. We’ve all had jobs where we thought we could barely dare taking a day off for fear the place will fall apart in our absence. Ultimately, we leave that job, and though people say, “It won’t be the same without you,” the fact is they get on quite well without you once you’re gone, and in no time it’s as if you never existed. We were necessary for the moment we were there, but in the great scale of things, we’re not. This applies to all we do, for good and ill. There are lives I’ve touched in ways that perhaps no one else could, as was mine by certain individuals. Those of them who are gone from my life left a void, but I didn’t fall into one with their departure. For Capra, without George all is lost. In life, the loss of George would simply have led to gaining someone else.

Another, less positive view of the motivating idea behind It’s a Wonderful Life would see embedded in it a small-scale version of Thomas Carlyle’s "Great Man Theory of History," George Bailey playing the part of Frederick the Great, the irreplaceable figure who bends events to his will. After all, if George’s absence turns the town into a heathen hellhole, what does that say about its other residents? Was there really no one else in the town with the backbone to stand up to Potter? It seems not.

If it is, indeed, a wonderful life, it’s wonderful not because things are as foreordained and binary as the film says, but precisely because there are countless possible lives we might have lived, perhaps even lives that, as the great French revolutionary Auguste Blanqui postulated in his L’Eternité par les astres, we actually are living, where every fork in life’s road is taken by a different, equally valid version of ourselves as we ramify out into eternity. But even without this speculative universe, our possibilities at almost every moment are infinitely varied, and Capra’s classic misses this entirely.

IN SOME OTHER universe, I’m not writing for Jewish Currents and you’re not reading this. But you’re still reading Currents, and perhaps enjoying the article you’re reading in its stead more than you are this one. Or maybe not.

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*Of course, reducing our meeting to the chance of a dinner gathering misses all the other links in the chain. Joan is from St. Louis, so she had to move to New York for me to meet her. I had to have failed to live up to any of my dreams and move to any of the places I’d hoped to settle -- Paris, Israel -- and remain in Brooklyn. For Joan to even be, her parents had to meet, meaning that her Chicago-born father and St. Louis-born mother had to be introduced by her father’s cousin at Northwestern University, while my parents had to meet on a blind date in Brooklyn. But this omits the fact that world history, not just our personal history, plays a key role in the path our lives take. In our case, our families had to leave Russia to get to the U.S., which required pogroms. Thank you, Petliura. Shortening this all a bit, Jesus and to be crucified, serving as the basis for Christianity and anti-Semitism and, centuries later, the aforementioned pogroms, for Joan and I to meet. Thank you, Judas and Pontius Pilate.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books include Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society. His translations of the poetry of Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems and Others, published by NYRB Poetry.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.