“Heartwarming” stories reveal societal agonies

08/30/2018

By Ollie Gratzinger | Opinions Editor

“Teachers donate 100 sick days to colleague with cancer.”

“Best baby shower gift: Paid time off for new parents.”

“Watch a mother and her child reunite after 55 days.”

“HEARTWARMING: A teacher breaks down in tears after the mother of a student buys her a car so she can get to work every day.”

We’ve all seen the headlines, and chances are, we’ve all had the same warm-and-fuzzy gut reaction. Human nature never ceases to instill upon us a sense of wonder. The kindness that can come from bleak dejection, hopelessness or despair serves as a steady reminder that, no matter how bad things get, there are still people out there willing to make someone’s day a little bit better. Hope and happiness still persist. Now more than ever, it’s important to remember mankind’s genuine, if sporadic, capacity for goodness. In the words of Mr. Rogers, “Look for the helpers.”

With that being said, it seems like these heartwarming headlines hide something sinister behind them, something that points to a marked failing of the social structures aimed at keeping people safe. In an Aug 21 GQ article, author Mari Uyehara describes a retouched and softened narrative, writing that “the cruel, calamitous symptoms of Koch capitalism [are] reframed as the human capacity for generosity.”

Yes, it’s wonderful to read about the colleagues and friends that pulled together to help a man with stage-three colon cancer finish treatment, but the fact that his employer didn’t offer enough paid time off for such a vital, life-saving treatment is disturbing to say the least.

At first, the trendy uptake in companies gifting expecting mothers paid time off seems like a quirky and lighthearted bit of soft news, but when you consider that American parents are never guaranteed paid time off to bond with their new babies — the U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t mandate this, according to the Washington Post — the story feels a little different.

Consider, too, the viral video of a mother reunited with her child nearly two months after being separated at the border. It was the story of an eight-year-old girl’s homecoming into her mother’s arms, but it was also a poignant and dismal reminder of the cataclysmic horrors happening right beneath our noses. What looks like the end of a trauma is really just the beginning of a recovery that could span a lifetime.

Networks are less keen to show the images of children in cages crying beneath a mural of Donald Trump, toddlers with thousand-yard stares or parents ending their own lives after losing their babies in a foreign land. But that’s the whole frightening truth, isn’t it?

Kindness is epitomized by the mother who bought her child’s teacher a car, but in more than half of America’s states, teachers don’t make a living wage. It’s strange to think that the people tasked with such an important job — teaching the children who will become the future of our pale blue dot — struggle to make ends meet. Especially when Education Secretary Betsy Devos can afford a boat priced at $40 million.

The wealth discrepancy in America is as broad as it is vile. Uyehara cites Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, as an example.

Being “the richest man in modern history,” Business Insider estimates that Bezos makes more money in one minute than the average millenial makes in a full year (about $36,000). With a fortune of more than $100 billion, Bezos could make strides in the fight against homelessness, hunger and extreme poverty, while still maintaining more than enough income to live an objectively lavish lifestyle. But instead, he employs mainly temps to whom he generally fails to offer healthcare, education or other benefits that could change, or at least simplify, countless lives.

The irony, as hinted at in a February Rolling Stone article by Ed Burmila, is this: How many rich people have donated to hospitals, earning their name on a wing or atrium, while the empire that made them rich in the first place was a business that didn’t offer health insurance to all its employees? How many scholarship funds bear the name of rich folks who didn’t pay their own employees enough to send their children to university? How many “charitable” individuals were only charitable when the cameras were turned toward them?

America, as a culture, is infatuated with the wealthy, from sports heroes and movie stars to Wall Street wolves and celebrity CEOs. In the same breath, we obsess over the less fortunate, with the tales of heartwarming heartbreak to remind us that after all, we’re still human.

While welfare recipients are demonized, lumped into the broad falsehood of addiction and exploitation, the one percent are idolized under the myth of the “self-made” mogul, values and challenged and perceptions are skewed. Jeff Bezos’ parents gave him $300,000 to start Amazon. Kylie Jenner grew up in a family that made riches on reality TV. Donald Trump’s father gave him a “small loan” of $1 million. The prestige of bootstrapped billionaires doesn’t belong to them, and the idea that the poor simply “don’t work hard enough” unfairly equates productivity to worth, all while forgetting to account for privilege. Or, for that matter, the lack thereof.

Heartwarming stories are often tales of grief and a poverty left unaddressed. There’s almost always more to the story, a deeper burden, a denser problem, a hidden truth. The lionhearted valor of the working-class hero shines in a display of raw compassion, but dare to dream of a world in which it isn’t necessary to protect each other from governmental shortcomings and systemic failures.

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