Today is the birthday of Frank Capra. I know it’s not fashionable among the intelligentsia, but he’s one of my favorite directors — and precisely for the reasons that make him so unfashionable: he believes in the human spirit and he actually celebrates what’s right about America. I’m not very consistent on either score myself; I admire someone who can stick to his script.
I’ve been thinking about Capra a lot over the past year, mostly on account of two high-profile phenomena: Occupy Wall Street and the Republican primaries. Lately, it’s seemed like the political dialogue has gotten so polarized and hyperbolic that it feels like we are living a scenario being improvised by Lewis Carroll. Many have compared the financial crisis that started in 2008 to the Great Depression. I can’t speak to the economics, but culturally? Not on your Nelly. In the 1930s, there was a spirit abroad of pulling together, of everyone being in the same boat. The country may have been in dire straits financially, but there were prominent artists who took it upon themselves to speak to the nation’s ailing soul: John Steinbeck, Carl Sandburg, Woody Guthrie, and Capra, for example. The reason I’ve been thinking of Capra, in particular, was that he was a Republican.
“The devil!” shout my readers, “Have him drawn and quartered!”
Not so fast. There were once a lot of good things to be said for Republicans. For example, they were once the small government party. Capra was an Italian immigrant. His family was dirt poor. He came to America as an infant and with no other advantage but his brains and talent made a terrific life for himself. Meanwhile, starting in 1922, the folks back home in Italy were enjoying life with a nice, strong, healthy government — under Mussolini. (Oh, but that’s different, some say. No, not really. Mussolini began his political evolution as a socialist.) So Capra had no illusions about what terrific things the government was going to do for him.
Despite centuries of universal tyranny, abuse, incompetence and corruption by strong government, the phrase “small government” remains discredited in polite society — gives certain people the willies. And for good reason. For the past several decades, the most prominent people who go around spouting the phrase have been a pack of unprincipled scoundrels and liars. They have made “small government” the same kind of lie “socialism” became — a much shat-upon ideal more observed in the breach than in practice. Richard Nixon — he of the wiretaps and carpet bombing of Cambodia — he ran on it. Ronald Reagan — he of the hypertrophied military and world’s biggest deficit — he ran on it. George W. Bush — don’t get me started. And who did Republicans have to choose from in the most recent primary cycle? A rogues gallery of thugs, bullies, maniacs, zealots, flim-flam men, half-wits, and criminals who would have CURLED FRANK CAPRA’S HAIR. I’m not even talking about their policies. I’m talking about how they operate as people.
Listen to me: I come from a long line of small-town New England Republicans. I think the small businessperson is the holiest animal on earth (especially theatrical entrepreneurs). I also occasionally call myself a Christian. So it’s not as though the Republican party ought to have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO SAY TO ME. Yet, though libertarian by both instinct and principle, I invariably hold my nose, compromise and vote Democrat. Why? While I disagree with many of their policies, at least I see at least a genteel pretense of decency there. And our political conversation has gotten so debased that the Republican party apparently has had no one better to offer than naked, frank, top-hat-wearing villains as candidates for the office of the President of the United States.
As for OWS:
After several decades of living in a culture in which CEOs take home 7 figure year end bonuses while letting thousands of workers go; where the financial wizards of Wall Street gamble with the futures of others and then lose, at no cost to themselves…it seems to me that the 1% are powerful enough (and ought to be gracious enough) to stand there like ladies and gentlemen and take a little criticism. (A very little, all things considered). Are the lives of the rich so sacrosanct that no one is allowed to even express disgruntlement at their God-like power? As far as the mainstream press and public have supported OWS, this has been what it is about. Are some of the protesters idiots, naifs, political and economic illiterates, rich kids, nut jobs, and horn-dogs looking for a party? Absolutely. And so are some of the people working on Wall Street.
Why the diatribe? Because like Frank Capra, I actually happen to believe in free enterprise. And because like Frank Capra I also believe in fairness, goodness, decency, generosity and high ideals. Our entire national conversation today seems predicated on the premise that there’s an irreconcilable contradiction there and there isn’t. How about a little BALANCE? It shouldn’t be some kind of freaking heresy to say that “Greed is bad.” Nobody is saying pursuing the American dream of a nice, comfortable life is bad. Most of us aren’t even saying the profit motive is bad. It is GREED that is bad. Who conflated these things, who decided they were synonymous? The last time I checked, “greed” meant the excessive pursuit of wealth to the exclusion of all other human values. That’s what’s bad. Enriching yourself by throwing thousands of people out of work — that’s bad. (And it isn’t even remotely “socialism” to say so. It’s just common decency.) And just as it’s wrong to be that way, it’s equally wrong to accuse everyone who participates legitimately in the financial system of being that way, because they’re not. (Here’s one, and I wasn’t even particularly looking for him).
So I’ve been thinking of Capra. We associate him with the common man, the voice of the masses. But who are his heroes? Bankers (American Madness, It’s a Wonderful Life), an heir to a fortune (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), politicians (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, State of the Union ), and a Christian preacher (The Miracle Woman, with Barbara Stanwyck, which the Countess and I watched this morning). The question is not, should such people exist? If your answer is no, you need to move to some other planet, and much good luck to you there. The question is, at the end of the day, how should such people behave? How should a leader behave? How should you or I behave? Given the fact – – and it’s a fact — that the world is corrupt and horrible. Being decent and honorable and fair in such a world often (maybe always) takes bravery, idealism and self-sacrifice. Far from being above Capra’s kitschy, corny message movies, it appears to me, American leaders need to watch them again and again and again and again. And then, when they think they know how to behave, they need to watch them a few more times.
Certainly Frank Capra seems corny by some modern standards, though I think that can be partly chalked up to peoples loss of sincerity. While he had a strong moral compass he wasn’t without his flaws. Capra was extremely homophobic, but were we to judge the art by the artist then many of us would fall by the waste side. We all have our incongruities, thankfully that’s what makes us human. It occurs to me that greed should be viewed as a mental illness. Avarice was considered a deadly sin by religion in the West, certainly not a virtue the institution followed. By the Buddhists in the East Greed was considered to be one of the Three Poisons of the mind, followed by stupidity and anger. We live in very stupid times, what a rich soil that is for artists. To follow that metaphor further, the lotus flower blooms in the muddiest waters…perhaps if we follow that example we can truly have flower power.
Such a wonderful article! And how interesting–I work on Wall Street, and a couple of fleeting thoughts have flashed through my mind that there was a kind of “Spirit of Jeff Smith” inspiration in Zuccotti Park (though never in as thoughtful detail and analysis as you’ve just given us)! Your article poignantly speaks to the benefit of restoring ourselves as American first, partisan second.
Thank you so much!
BTW, I didn’t catch your byline at first, but I really enjoyed your book on vaudeville, NO APPLAUSE, JUST THROW MONEY – terrific!
EXCELLENT points on Capra and his championship of decency in his work. I agree that his films, particularly like Mr Deeds, You Can’t Take It With You, Meet John Doe, are exhilaratingly libertarian at their core. They’re also great movies, and why they still speak to us today.
Thank you, sir! And now I’m following your blog too!
Well said. Bravo.
Thanks, ma’am! I just looked at your blog — looks like my cup of tea!