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At Christmas, remember it really is a wonderful life

SACRAMENTO – To answer the question that social-media commenters often ask this time of year: Yes, “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie – and a good one, too. But nothing compares to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” director Frank Capra’s classic about community bank president George Bailey (James Stewart). He was about to commit suicide, but then an angel gave him a glimpse of life if he had never been born.

I watched it for the umpteenth time this week. The movie is a bit hokey, sure. But it’s filled with subtlety and nuanced dialogue – such as when Bailey unfairly took out his frustration on his loved ones after his uncle misplaced $8,000 in bank deposits. That mistake threatened to destroy the small-town building and loan, cost Bailey his home and even land him in jail.

You know the ending. Because of Bailey’s life of kindness and decency, the townsfolk rallied to his side and pitched in enough money to keep the little bank solvent. After seeing a world without his family – and watching charming Bedford Falls turn into dystopian Pottersville (named after heartless banker Henry Potter) – Bailey begged to have his old life restored.

It’s a classic Christmas story – about love, forgiveness and appreciation. Released in 1946, the movie was initially a money losing flop. It didn’t become a staple until 1974, the year its copyright expired. As Digital Spy explained, the studio failed to renew it, which put the movie in the public domain. Content-starved TV stations could then run it without paying royalties. The rest, as they say, is history.

My fixation on the movie this year stems from a disturbing development. Americans of all political stripes have descended into a pit of pessimism – and not just because of our many obvious economic and cultural difficulties (inflation, looming recession, the aftermath of COVID-19 and its related shutdowns, a viciously divided politics).

Perhaps due to the dominance of social media, where snarky comments and doomsday theories drive readership, many Americans seem to believe that, perhaps, we’re not living such wonderful lives after all. Many people I read seem to think our nation is facing its most difficult times ever and America isn’t really a Shining City on a Hill – but a glorified Pottersville of avarice, greed, hate and degeneracy.

After attending a national conservatism conference last year, the Atlantic’s David Brooks summarized the tone of the Florida event: “The idea that the left controls absolutely everything – from your smartphone to the money supply to your third grader’s curriculum – explains the apocalyptic tone that was the dominating emotional register of this conference. The politicians’ speeches were like entries in the catastrophism Olympics.”

The Left isn’t any better. Progressives see a nation of poverty and deprivation, a world where billionaires and big banks – run by the likes of Henry Potter, of course – have destroyed our future. In their view, the American Dream is over, the world is in a climate crisis and misery is everywhere.

Here are a few data points to rebut the doom and gloom. From a New York Times report last year: “By 2015, the share of the world’s population living in extreme poverty fell to 12 percent from 36 percent in 1990, a steep decline in just two and a half decades. During a single generation, more than a billion people around the world climbed out of extreme poverty, surpassing the goal.”

Literacy, healthcare and life expectancy measures have been improving worldwide – and quite dramatically. As Vox reported, infant mortality has fallen one-hundred fold in two centuries. The number of people living in democracies (however flawed) has soared and the numbers living under authoritarian regimes has plummeted.

I needn’t remind Americans of the collapse of the Soviet Union’s evil empire, which cast a pall over our lives when I was growing up. Despite the horror in Ukraine, wars are less common. As Americans fixate on our irreconcilable red state v. blue state differences, they forget that this nation has survived far more divisive times (including a full-blown Civil War). These may not be the best of times, but they are far from the worst of them.

Yet surveys show American happiness levels at near record lows. This is the right season to ask ourselves: What do we expect from life? If we are looking for utopia – a world always at peace, freedom from sickness and disease, elimination of poverty and suffering – then we’ll never be satisfied given the human condition. But we have unparalleled opportunities to live fulfilling and, yes, wonderful lives.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” always had its critics. It at one point received the paranoid gaze of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Recent detractors even argue that Pottersville “actually looks way more fun” than Bedford Falls. But the movie reminds us to appreciate our great blessings – and not let our problems stop us from having a Merry Christmas.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute and a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

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