George, I am an old man, and most people hate me.
But I don’t like them either so that makes it all even.
—Mr. Potter. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946).
Because someone I love had never seen it, I rewatched Frank Capra’s 1946 It’s A Wonderful Life the other night. To most people, the film is the story of how one George Bailey comes to perceive the value of helping “a few people get outta [the] slums” of the “scurvy little spider” of the film, the wealthy banker Mr. Potter—but to some viewers, what’s important about the inhabitants of Bedford Falls isn’t that they are poor by comparison to Potter, but instead that some of them are black: the man who plays the piano in the background of one scene, for instance, or Annie, the Bailey family’s maid. To Vincent Nobile, a professor of history at Rancho Cucamonga’s Chaffey College, the casting of these supporting roles not only demonstrates that “Capra showed no indication he could perceive blacks in roles outside the servant class,” but also that Potter is the story’s villain not because he is a slumlord, but because he calls the people Bailey helps “garlic eaters” (http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/1846). What makes Potter evil, in other words, isn’t his “cold monetary self-interest,” but because he’s “bigoted”: to this historian, Capra’s film isn’t the heartwarming story of how Americans banded together to stop a minority (rich people) from wrecking things, but instead the horrifying tragedy of how Americans banded together to stop a minority (black people) from wrecking things. Unfortunately, there’s two problems with that view—problems that can be summarized by referring to the program for a football game that took place five years before the release of Capra’s classic: the Army-Navy game of 29 November, 1941.
Played at Philadelphia’s Franklin Memorial Stadium (once home of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and still the home of the Penn Relays, one of track and field’s premier events), Navy won the contest 14-6; according to Vintage College Football Programs & Collectibles (collectable.wordpress.com [sic]), the program for that game contains 212 pages. On page 180 of that program there is a remarkable photograph. It is of the USS Arizona, the second and last of the American “Pennsylvania” class of super-dreadnought battleships—a ship meant to be, according to the New York Times of 13 July 1913, “the world’s biggest and most powerful, both offensively and defensively, superdreadnought ever constructed.” The last line of the photograph’s caption reads thusly:
“It is significant that despite the claims of air enthusiasts, no battleship has yet been sunk by bombs.”
Slightly more than a week later, of course, on a clear bright Sunday morning just after 8:06 Hawaiian time, the hull of the great ship would rest on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, along with the bodies of nearly 1200 of her crew—struck down by the “air enthusiasts” of the Empire of the Sun. The lesson taught that morning, by aircraft directed by former Harvard student Isoroku Yamamoto, was a simple one: that “a saturation attack by huge numbers of low-value attackers”—as Pando Daily’s “War Nerd” columnist, Gary Brecher, has referred to this type of attack—can bring down nearly any target, no matter how powerful (http://exiledonline.com/the-war-nerd-this-is-how-the-carriers-will-die/all/1/). (A lesson that the U.S. Navy has received more than once: in 2002, for instance, when during the wargame “Millennium Challenge 2002” Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K. Riper (fictionally) sent 16 ships to the bottom of the Persian Gulf with the creative use of, essentially, a bunch of cruise missiles and several dozen speedboats loaded with cans of gasoline driven by gentlemen with, shall we say, a cavalier approach to mortality.) It’s the lesson that the cheap and shoddy can overcome quality—or in other words that, as the song says, the bigger they come, the harder they fall.
It’s a lesson that applies to more than merely the physical plane, as the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift knew: “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after,” the author of Gulliver’s Travels wrote in 1710. What Swift refers to is how saturation attacks can work on the intellectual as well as physical plane—as Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein (who, unfortunately for the warmth of my argument’s reception, endorsed Donald Trump in this past election) argued, in Partisan Review in 2001, American academia has over the past several generations essentially become flooded with the mental equivalents of Al Qaeda speedboats. “Clear-sighted professors,” Bauerlein wrote then, understanding the conditions of academic research, “avoid empirical methods, aware that it takes too much time to verify propositions about culture, to corroborate facts with multiple sources, to consult primary documents, and to compile evidence adequate to inductive conclusions” (http://www.bu.edu/partisanreview/books/PR2001V68N2/HTML/files/assets/basic-html/index.html#226). Discussing It’s A Wonderful Life in terms of, say, the economic differences between banks like the one owned by Potter and the savings-and-loan run by George Bailey—and the political consequences therein—is, in other words, hugely expensive in terms of time and effort invested: it’s much more profitable to discuss the film in terms of its hidden racism. By “profitable,” in other words, I mean not merely because it’s intrinsically easier, but also because such a claim is much more likely to upset people, and thus attract attention to its author: the crass stunt once called épater le bourgeois.
The current reward system of the humanities, in other words, favors those philosopher Isaiah Berlin called “foxes” (who know a great many things) rather than “hedgehogs” (who know one important thing). To the present defenders of the humanities, of course, such is the point: that’s the pro-speedboat argument noted feminist literary scholar Jane Tompkins made so long ago as 1981, in her essay “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of American Literary History.” There, Tompkins suggested that the “political and economic measures”—i.e., the battleships of American political discourse—“that constitute effective action for us” are, in reality, merely “superficial”: instead, what’s necessary are “not specific alterations in the current political and economic arrangements, but rather a change of heart” (http://engl651-jackson.wikispaces.umb.edu/file/view/Sentimental+Power.pdf). To those who think like Tompkins—or apparently, Nobile—discussing It’s A Wonderful Life in terms of economics is to have missed the point entirely: what matters, according to them, isn’t the dreadnought clash of, for example, the unit banking system of the antebellum North (speedboats) versus the branch banking system of the antebellum South (battleships) within the sea of the American economy. (A contest that, incidentally, not only did branch banking largely win in 1994, during Bill Clinton’s administration, but a victory that in turn—because it helped to create the enormous “too big to fail” interstate banks of today—arguably played no small role in the crash of 2008). Instead, what’s important is the seemingly-minor attack of a community college teacher upon a Titanic of American culture. Or, to put the point in terms popularized by Silicon Valley: the sheer BS quality of Vincent Nobile’s argument about It’s A Wonderful Life isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.
There is, however, one problem with such tactics—the same problem described by Rear Admiral Chuichi (“King Kong”) Hara of the Imperial Japanese Navy after the Japanese surrender in September 1945: “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor—and thereby lost the war.” Although, as the late American philosopher Richard Rorty commented before his death in his Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America, “[l]eftists in the academy” have, in collaboration with “the Right,” succeeded in “making cultural issues central to public debate,” that hasn’t necessarily resulted in a victory for leftists, or even liberals (https://www.amazon.com/Achieving-Our-Country-Leftist-Twentieth-Century/dp/0674003128). Indeed, there’s some reason to suppose that, by discouraging certain forms of thought within left-leaning circles, academic leftists in the humanities have obscured what Elizabeth Drew, in the New York Review of Books, has called “unglamorous structural questions” in a fashion ultimately detrimental not merely to minority communities, but ultimately all Americans (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/08/18/american-democracy-betrayed/).
What Drew was referring to this past August was such matters as how—in the wake of the 2010 Census and the redistricting it entailed in every state in the Union—the Democrats ended up, in the 2012 election cycle, winning the popular vote for Congress “by 1.2 per cent, but still remained in the minority, with two hundred and one seats to the G.O.P.’s two hundred and thirty-four.” In other words, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives got, as Katie Sanders noted in Politifact in 2013, “50.59 percent of the two-party vote” that November, but “won just 46.21 percent of seats”: only “the second time in 70 years that a party won the majority of the vote but didn’t win a majority of the House seats” (http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2013/feb/19/steny-hoyer/steny-hoyer-house-democrats-won-majority-2012-popu/). The Republican advantage didn’t end there: as Rob Richie reported for The Nation in 2014, in that year’s congressional races Republicans won “about 52 percent of votes”—but ended “up with 57 percent of seats” (https://www.thenation.com/article/republicans-only-got-52-percent-vote-house-races/). And this year, the numbers suggest, the Republicans received less than half the popular vote—but will end up with fifty-five percent (241) of the total seats (435). These losses, Drew suggests, are ultimately due to the fact that “the Democrats simply weren’t as interested in such dry and detailed stuff as state legislatures and redistricting”—or, to put it less delicately, because potentially-Democratic schemers have been put to work constructing re-readings of old movies instead of building arguments that are actually politically useful.
To put this even less delicately, many people on the liberal or left-wing side of the political aisle have, for the past several generations, spent their college educations learning, as Mark Bauerlein wrote back in 2001, how to “scoff[…] at empirical notions, chastising them as ‘näive positivism.’” At the same time, a tiny minority among them—those destined to “relax their scruples and select a critical practice that fosters their own professional survival”—have learned, and are learning, to swim the dark seas of academia, taught by their masters how to live by feeding upon the minds of essentially defenseless undergraduates. The lucky ones, like Vince Nobile, manage—by the right mix of bowing and scraping—to land some kind of job security at some far-flung outpost of academia’s empire, where they make a living entertaining the yokels; the less-successful, of course, write deeply ironic blogs.
Be that as it may, while there isn’t necessarily a connection between the humanistic academy’s flight from what Bauerlein calls “the canons of logic” and the fact that it was so easy—as John Cassidy of The New Yorker observed after this past presidential election—for so many in the American media and elsewhere “to dismiss the other outcome [i.e., Trump’s victory] as a live possibility” before the election, Cassidy at least ascribed the ease with which so many predicted a Clinton victory then to the fact that many “haven’t been schooled in how to think in probabilistic terms” (http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/media-culpa-the-press-and-the-election-result). That lack of education, which extends from the impact of mathematics upon elections to the philosophical basis for holding elections at all (which extends far beyond the usual seventeenth-century suspects rounded up in even the most erudite of college classes to medieval thinkers like Nicholas of Cusa, who argued in 1434’s Catholic Concordance that the “greater the agreement, the more infallible the judgment”—or in other words that speedboats are more trustworthy than battleships), most assuredly has had political consequences (http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/politics-international-relations/texts-political-thought/nicholas-cusa-catholic-concordance?format=PB&isbn=9780521567732). While the ever-more abstruse academic turf wars between the sciences and the humanities might be good for the ever-dwindling numbers of tenured college professors, in other words, it’s arguably disastrous, not only for Democrats and the populations they serve, but for the country as a whole. Although Clarence, angel second class, says to George Bailey, “we don’t use money in Heaven”—suggesting the way in which American academics swear off knowledge of the sciences upon entering their secular priesthood—George replies, “it comes in real handy down here, bub.” What It’s A Wonderful Life wants to tell us is that a nation whose leadership balances so precariously upon such a narrow educational foundation is, no matter what the program says, as vulnerable as a battleship on a bright Pacific morning.
Or a skyscraper, on a cloudless September one.