Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Great American Hero (Part 2) - George Bailey vs The Modern World

George Bailey (the guy who does his duty) vs. Potter (the guy who follows his heart). Also, check out his threads! Even if you disagree with their ethos, you must admit they had style. 

Contrasting Conceptions of Virtue - The Greatest Generation vs. Generation Y

George Bailey is a powerful opponent of the modern ethos. I think the modern ethos has best been celebrated by the “Secular Prophet” Steve Jobs. In his lauded commencement speech he says:
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Follow your heart, your individual heart, uninfluenced by others. If George took Steve’s advice, he’d have been gone travelling and to college at his high school graduation, or one of the other hundred turning points in the movie. What is secondary to Jobs is primary to Bailey: one’s duty to others.

Another recent movie makes a point similar to Jobs’. “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011) describes a world where angels make sure people are on the ‘right path’ (apparently angels have again become permissible fictional creatures). The concluding line is this:

Most people live life on the path we [angels] set for them, too afraid to explore any other. But once in a while people like you come along and knock down all the obstacles we put in your way, people who realize free will is a gift you'll never know how to use until you fight for it. I think that's The Chairman's [God’s] real plan. And maybe, one day, we won't write the plan. You will.
It’s about “freewill,” not accepting the conditions life seems to give you. It’s about knocking over obstacles that keep you from doing what you really want. It’s not about patiently enduring a heavy load; it’s about throwing it off. It’s not about going along the path set for you with fortitude, it’s about setting your own path. George Bailey’s path was set for him to run the Building and Loan, and though he had a hundred chances, he never took any of them because of duty.

It seems that the modern ethos lacks an understanding of duty or any importance of sacrifice. The striking thing to me is that it is assumed that ‘individualism’ of the type promoted by Steve Jobs and The Adjustment Bureau is believed to be “American.” It is thought that the American thing is to be your own man, and so if people reject this idea, they believe they are rejecting “American values.” “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a spectacular example of this American virtue at its finest: sacrificial love. Americans, if we can do nothing else, can sacrifice for others.

The French observer Alec de Toqueville said in 1840, “I have seen Americans making great and sincere sacrifices for the key common good and a hundred times I have noticed that, when needs be, they almost always gave each other faithful support.” We often veer from this, but our finest moments are moments of sacrifice. Our history is defined by these moments, these little promises: the pledge of “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” at the end of the Declaration of Independence (a pledge that was redeemed by the British in most of their cases); the sacrifice of 300,000 Union soldiers for freedom and unity in the Civil War; a nation uniting to give up luxuries, gasoline and a generation of its youth to fight Fascism. Our heroes are suffering heroes: Washington freezing with his troops at Valley Forge; Lincoln pacing the White House with the Confederates within a day’s march torn inside by his country’s fortune; FDR ever standing in painful iron braces, speaking boldly so that Americans, too, might stand despite their pain. And let us not forget, George Bailey, a man who suffered day by day so that his family, his friends, his community might be strong.

Three cheers for George Bailey, a man who expresses the most American of virtues: sacrificial love!

Part 1 - Who is George Bailey
Part 2 - George Bailey vs The Modern World

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