If you've recently cheered the story of the enterprising young man so dedicated to his job that he ran twenty miles back and forth to his employer until some kindly boss gave him his old car; if you teared up to the tale of the young couple whose baby was born with a life threatening condition prompting a local community to band together and start up an enormously successful GoFundMe page; or you’re just in awe of the generosity of the coworkers who donated their own vacation time to allow a mother a few extra days with her newborn, please take a moment to reflect. While everyone loves the happy endings and admires the spirit of sacrifice these types of stories emphasize, there are countless other untold stories where the outcome is not nearly so rosy.
Jessica Goldstein, writing for Think Progress, captures what is inherently insidious about all of these feel-good stories: they try to put a positive spin on something which ought to be treated with outrage if not out-and-out horror.
Stories like this keep popping up on Twitter like zits on a prepubescent forehead: The sunshiney announcement about the GoFundMe for the guy with leukemia who can’t pay for his own medical costs. (He is employed by an organization whose owner has a net worth of $5.2 billion.) The dad who works three jobs to support his family saving up to buy his 14-year-old daughter a dress for an eighth grade dance. The college student who ran 20 miles to work after his car broke down and whose boss rewarded him for this effort by giving him his own car.
A common thread running through many of these “inspirational” vignettes is the existence of a seemingly impossible social dysfunction solved by the miraculous ingenuity and sheer generosity of others. The focus is always on the unique "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" solution rather than the underlying institutional problems that allowed the situation to exist in the first place.
In this way these stories serve to mask the reality of what Goldstein justifiably calls the "horror of late stage capitalism." By ignoring the fact that no other developed western country deprives its citizens of health care or maternity care, for example, these stories validate the dubious premise that everything can be "just fine" if ordinary Americans simply sacrifice a little bit more.
And that's dangerous because it creates a mentality where Americans are subconsciously taught by their own media not to expect anything better:
But the feel-good feel-bad story is different. It is a sneaky, insidious thing. It is a news item spun to you, the reader, by some ostensibly authoritative source — a serious publication, an official spokesperson — as an inspirational tale, but that, when you think about it for even like .02 seconds, you realize is depressing at its core.
No one of any means, wealth or power ever figures in these stories, except perhaps as an altruistic benefactor dispensing his largesse judiciously upon some poor unfortunate soul. But the existence of these saintly 1%ers is largely fiction. The harsh reality is that GoFundMe efforts for medical debt usually go unanswered because the people asking for money reside in a different social media universe than the rich.
And yet these stories continue to churn out of the media wurlitzer:
We don’t need higher wages; just have an amazing CEO give you his car! Who cares if you can’t support a family on one job? The fix is simple: Get two more jobs! Are you a college-educated person who is experiencing homelessness? Pick yourself up, dust your resume off, and grovel for employment on the side of a highway! Why fight for paid maternity leave when you can have colleagues who are willing to go without vacation — especially in a country where the average worker takes less vacation time than a Medieval peasant?
Goldstein calls these stories frankly “gross,” and she’s right:
These are dispatches from the darkest, dankest cesspools of late-stage capitalism, where a person enduring a financial hardship through no fault of their own — like, say, you have leukemia — must be wholly dependent on the charity of others, and the spotlight is thrust on the charity, not the circumstances that caused the dependence.
Americans are being carefully trained to accept a status quo and a dimished standard of living that is skewed to reward the rich and punish the poor. This is nothing less than a wholesale value system that conservative politics has imposed and encouraged, and the media are no less complicit in it.
But we deserve more. A lot more.