“Tis the season,” they say. And so, no matter whatever else is currently besetting the world — government sanctioned torture, police brutality, sexual violence — we are offered the soft landing of sentiment.
Without sentiment, which Merriam-Webster.com defines in part as, “refined feeling: delicate sensibility especially as expressed in a work of art…emotional idealism,” our so-called better angels would be missing in action. Instead of raising a glass to “auld lang syne,” we’d just be raising a glass — and then another, and another.
I remember one Christmas, many years ago, that was bluer than most. I felt beat, broke and more than a little strung out. I was far from home and out of luck.
And then I saw Frank Capra’s movie masterpiece, It’s A Wonderful Life. That film’s been trotted out so often since then I suppose it’s lost some of its edge. But it was new to me at the time.
It’s the story of George Bailey, a modest guy, with a modest life in a modest town. George has a conscience; he looks out for other people and often puts their needs ahead of his own. He has a loving wife and kids and makes a solid living as head of a local savings and loan.
But when George is wrongfully accused of bank fraud, every choice he has ever made suddenly seems wrong-headed or naïve. He feels like a sap. It takes an angel to show George that the essential decency with which he’s lived his life has actually added up to something truly wonderful.
Capra made the film in 1946. It picked up where previous Capra films, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe left off. In all these movies, Capra seemed intent on creating a distinctly American mythology, one that gave form and expression to what it was that made this society like no other. That’s why these films still work: though their language and imagery may at first seem dated, they are actually timeless.
One thing that these movies never fail to show is just how vulnerable the American idea of trust and fair play can be. When you trust other people and try to do the decent thing, you leave yourself open to being cheated or taken advantage of. You can look like a sap. Nobody likes that.
So there are always big men, smart men, rich men, who are ready to take over. They say they have a better idea. They claim to be tougher, more realistic. Freedom to them means getting what they want, when they want it.
The scary thing is that these guys make a certain kind of sense. They see the world as a cold and unforgiving place — because that’s the world they’ve made.
These are the guys that tell us that torture is necessary, that cops who kill unarmed civilians have no other choice, that rape victims must have been asking for it.
The world, to them, is a dangerous place. Anybody who disagrees is a sap. Or just sentimental.