The author is an associate researcher at the Raoul-Dandurand Chair, where his work focuses on the study and analysis of American politics.
For many, the holiday rhymes with Christmas movies. The same feature films come back year after year, and everyone has their favorite.
One of those films, perhaps less obvious than The tree has balls, on the other hand, would be more relevant at the time. This is the Frank Capra classic It’s a wonderful life (Life is Beautiful in French version), published in 1946.
In what forms the core of the story, the main character, George Bailey, after experiencing a series of profound misfortunes, claims that he wishes he had never been born. A life of setbacks, in a way reminiscent of President Joe Biden, who buried his first wife and his first daughter after a traffic accident, and one of his sons recently, who died of brain cancer.
In response to Bailey’s attitude, a benevolent angel shows him a glimpse of what his society would be like if he were not of this world. The local pharmacist is believed to be in prison for manslaughter because George was allegedly not present to prevent him from poisoning a prescription drug. His uncle would be institutionalized for not being able to rely on George’s help in the family business. His brother Harry, whom George saved from drowning as a child, is believed to be dead – as are Harry’s brothers-in-arms, who in turn saved them during the Second World War. And George’s wife, Mary, would be single.
The film is undeniably showing its age – the special effects to portray George’s angel are a far cry from Marvel productions – but its heart is timeless. “No man who has friends is a failure”, the main character finally understands.
This is completely contemporary thinking. Economist Bryce Ward brushed off the sides washington post last month the portrait of a society increasingly marked by its sense of loneliness.
Of course, when it comes to loneliness, confinements associated with COVID-19 are automatically pointed out. The impact on young people in the United States of the prolonged closures of their schools, in particular, was already discussed here at this time two years ago. I had called this situation “the American tragedy of 2020”.
The effects of the pandemic on older people, already evident in 2020, are beginning to be better documented: New York Times recently reported a more than 50% increase in opioid-related deaths among Americans aged 65 and older following the imposition of pandemic restrictions – lives lost often portrayed as “deaths of despair”.
But as Ward points out, the reality is much more complex.
The significant decline in Americans’ social relationships actually goes back much further than the pandemic, the economist noted. Ten years ago, people spent about as much time per week with friends as they did in the 1960s or 1970s. Then it started to decline in the early 2010s.
Across the population, time spent with friends is said to have fallen by 40% between 2014 and 2019 – the year before the first restrictions related to the pandemic. The average American teenager now spent about 11 hours less per week in the company of friends than 10 years earlier. It’s huge.
And according to Ward, this is due to a wide range of factors – he points to one in particular: 2014 was the year when the smartphone reached over 50% penetration in American homes…
To take the subway in Washington, as I was able to do shortly before the midterm elections in November, is to watch cars follow one another with more than 80% of passengers glued to their electronic device. Almost no one talks to each other. Almost no one looks at each other.
The more discerning readers may notice that the phenomenon is not so new. Wasn’t that, in other words, the political scientist Robert Putnam argued at the turn of the century in his classic. Bowling alone ? According to him, if Americans had abandoned the associative life that defined their collective existence since the first colonies, it was largely due to the advent of television…
The problem is beginning to resonate in Washington. About ten days before Christmas, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy published an opinion piece on American loneliness. His very first possible solution? Targeting web giants to push them to offer “products that bring happiness, rather than anxiety and loneliness”.
The United States is the world’s leading power, not only by virtue of its military strength, but by virtue of its power of influence. The latter can be observed both within culture… and technology.
This eternal land of contradictions has served to commercialize and popularize the tools that promise to connect us, while in reality they further isolate us; at the same time, it also gave us the great cinematic classics that remind us, if only once a year, of the importance of our loved ones.
And, as George Bailey teaches, our own importance, even when we may doubt it, to our loved ones.