Like millions of Americans, one of my holiday pleasures is to watch Frank Capra's incomparable It's A Wonderful Life. This year, I've found it less pleasurable to watch because whenever the evil money-grubbing Mr. Potter entered a scene, I saw Newt Gingrich rather than Lionel Barrymore. Maybe it's just me, but I find their expressions quite similar. Newt Gingrich, of course, isn't in a wheelchair, but he and Mr. Potter could be brothers. What's more, they seem to share a similar worldview. The big difference between Mr. Potter, a fictional character, and Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, of course, is that Mr. Gingrich could be elected our next president.
In the film Mr. Potter represents the ever-present forces of American Social Darwinism. He believes that people get what they deserve and that rich people deserve more than poor people. If you have bad luck or get sick, that's tough luck. If you believe in helping those who are less fortunate or sick, like Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey, then you're a chump. Let the poor live in Mr. Potter's slums. It's okay to let children work -- that's a good deal. Mr. Potter has no real sense of value -- other than extracting as much money as he can from the "hapless" members of his community who in the film are mostly poor whites and immigrants.
Newt Gingrich is the Mr. Potter of our times. He says child labor laws are stupid and that children from poor neighborhoods should work as assistant janitors in their schools. This work, Mr. Gingrich believes, will teach these poor kids to be industrious, a belief that assumes that poor children, "have," to use Mr. Gingrich's words, "no habits of working and nobody around who works."
Like Mr. Potter, Newt Gingrich knows little about the poor whom he, at least according to his statements, considers indolent and untrustworthy.
In a recent blog Travon Free, an African American a comic, writes an open letter to Mr. Gingrich. He says that Mr. Gingrich's ignorant comments are
an insult to me as a black man who grew up in one of those 'really poor' neighborhoods you spoke of, but it's an insult to my mother. And it's an insult to many other black, brown and white children, adults, and hard working parents (often single parents) who get up every single day to try to provide a better life for their children in poor neighborhoods.
As a child who grew up in Compton in the early 90′s, one of the most dangerous
neighborhoods in America at that time, I watched my mother work tirelessly, sometimes juggling multiple jobs to provide for myself and my sister. Day in and day out like many other parents in poor neighborhoods, she did what she had to do in order to provide for us. You know what that turned into Mr. Gingrich?
A son who received academic and athletic scholarship offers from three Ivy League schools and countless other universities, a son with a college degree in Criminal Justice who graduated with honors from every school he attended, and a daughter who not only
attended a Gifted and Talented Education high school, but is one year away from
completing a degree at UCLA...
The industriousness of Travon Free's mother, of course, is the rule rather than the exception in poor neighborhoods. But Newt Gingrich, like Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter, knows little, if anything about the poor in the United States, who now comprise, according to US census figures, a staggering and shameful 48 percent of our population. Like Mr. Potter, Newt Gingrich seems to think that it would be good for poor children to "tough it out" as they did in the era of the Robber Barons.
Can our contemporary Mr. Potter sell his rather reactionary vision to the American voter? You would think that it would be a tough sell. It's a Wonderful Life remains a classic American film because it appeals to a powerfully mythic world in which good, represented by Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey, always triumphs over evil, embodied by Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter. In the best of all possible worlds, we admire and celebrate the good hero, a person who willingly sacrifices his or her own time and treasure to help others who are less fortunate. The stories of contemporary George Baileys are routinely profiled on network news broadcasts or highlighted in the annual CNN Heroes competition.
Beyond the feel-good illusions of myth, however, the Mr. Potters of this world, including, of course, Newt Gingrich, have always had their supporters. Are times so bad that we could possibly elect the contemporary equivalent of a Mr. Potter to the American presidency, an office of mythic dimensions? Aren't American presidents supposed to be "for" our fellow citizens -- even hard working poor people?
Will the power of myth save us from ourselves?
If the glut of corporate money continues to poison our political system, it is possible that we could elect Newt "Mr. Potter" Gingrich to the presidency.
How would someone who seems to know and care so little about poor people govern our country?
It would be as frightening as George Bailey's vision of Pottersville, a very bad place to live.