We’re All Living in Pottersville Now
Blame it on my misadventures in the stock market, or a lingering upper respiratory infection, or even the recent effusions of ice, rain and slush that have chilled and saturated my neighborhood. Maybe I’m just suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.
I’m convinced that the massacre in Tucson had something to do with it, along with the fact that Arizonans turned out en masse to purchase semi-automatic pistols like the one used by the deranged assailant. The extension of Bush-era tax cuts for the rich probably didn’t help. And now the newly cocksure Republican majority in Congress has voted to dismantle the program that would have set up a healthcare safety net — however imperfect and full of holes — for all Americans. They won’t see their vote become law, but their amoral zealotry still disturbs me.
On top of that, I’ve seen none of the movies and TV shows that nabbed top honors at the Golden Globes. Worse yet, I have little or no desire to see them.
How do I describe the deepening sense of alienation that has settled over me this winter? Here’s how: I feel as if we’re living in Pottersville now.
You probably know about Pottersville. In the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Pottersville is where nice-guy George Bailey (played by the inimitable Jimmy Stewart) found himself during a nightmarish scenario arranged by his guardian angel — a lesson thoughtfully designed to demonstrate how desolate a place his hometown would have been without him.
Pottersville was George’s own Bedford Falls, an idyllic American small town, transformed into a seedy sinkhole of prostitution, boozing, indigence and general degeneracy. Why the transformation? Bedford Falls had fallen into the clutches of the merciless Mr. Potter, the local plutocrat (played with diabolical gusto by Lionel Barrymore). After all, George Bailey wasn’t there to keep Potter from wrapping his tentacles around every enterprise in town.
Aside from the honky-tonks and poverty, Pottersville still bore a striking resemblance to Bedford Falls. But something deeply disturbing had happened: its soul had died.
In my darker moments, I have to wonder if America’s soul has died. Plenty of Americans, at least on the right, still wave the flag, but the brand of patriotism on display today strikes me as ugly, arrogant, narrow and combative. A hefty slice of the left no longer even identifies with America, preferring a kind of boutique chauvinism — an allegiance based on race, gender, religion (or lack of it), educational attainment, sexual orientation or their preference in California varietal wines.
The American Dream, however you define it, is being crushed before our eyes; the virtuous George Baileys are losing out to the powerful corporatist Mr. Potters. Upward mobility is increasingly reserved for a happy few with the right connections or a knack for turning technological whimsies into IPOs. Individual hedge fund managers can score a billion dollars a year while the once-great middle class is melting like a snowman caught in the rain.
Corporations continue to downsize and outsource with reckless enthusiasm… banks charge up to 30% interest on credit cards while offering 0.5% on savings accounts… homeowners increasingly find themselves surrendering the house keys to their mortgage masters… big-money lobbyists have turned our congressional representatives into marionettes… our presidents make endless war against foes who will never surrender… our airports resemble the old checkpoints between East and West Berlin… more and more college graduates find themselves jobless, homeless or (if they’re lucky) living a sad shadow existence in the homes of their parents… illegal immigrants willingly add themselves to our burgeoning underclass… political correctness censors our speech and even our private thoughts… a generation of boys withdraws from academic life, effectively surrendering their futures while reveling in the soulless and often brutal dreamscapes of their video games. And I haven’t even mentioned the reality shows.
What happened to us? How did America become Pottersville? Can we bring back Bedford Falls? Should we? Jimmy Stewart is dead, and there’s no resurrecting him. We’re on our own here.
Just as Bedford Falls became Pottersville in George Bailey’s absence, the United States is declining because too many of us in the center of the political landscape have been morally absent. We need to speak up and band together when we see the extremists commandeering the ship. We need to care more about the rapacity of the Mr. Potters, the poverty spreading upward to the middle-class casualties of the system, the subtle war being waged against the center… against people like us.
Maybe we all need to be the George Baileys of our own communities — modest emissaries of decency, kindness, generosity of spirit, and old-fashioned American neighborliness. Our country needs us.
After the rampage in Arizona, President Obama rose to the occasion with a fitting and proper elegy for the dead. He called upon the better angels of our nature, imploring us to wash away the partisan rancor and restore an America true to its founding ideals… an America that would make our children proud.
Obama isn’t a Lincoln or a Churchill when it comes to coining deathless phrases, but his Tucson speech was an inspiration: a model of both sensitivity and good sense. Here was a former career leftist stepping boldly and unabashedly into the center, calling for an end to rancor and something more: the rebirth of the American soul we seem to have lost during our descent into Pottersville.
We still have a long winter ahead of us, at least in these parts. We’ll probably be residing in Pottersville until the George Baileys among us find a way to wrest control of the town from Old Man Potter. It won’t be a bloody struggle, but it might prove to be even more challenging: we’ll need to convince the vast, silent, dejected American middle that they matter, that they need to be present — that, in fact, their country is depending on them to lead us out of Pottersville and back into the light.