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If I See Another 'Heartwarming' Story About American Capitalist Hell I'm Gonna Lose It
I’m so tired of this garbage.
Ah, life’s certainties: Death, taxes, and the bleakest stories imaginable being repackaged into candy-coated, bite-sized poison pills. Gather round, everyone. Let’s see what the little news gremlins have conjured up for us this week.
Please don’t bother spending a full two minutes and 22 seconds of your life watching that video, and allow me to simply tell you in my most mocking CBS presenter voice that the segment is about the shortage of ambulance volunteers in Sackets Harbor, New York (a shortage that’s happening nationwide), but it’s okay!!! Because teenagers—look how cute they are!!—“stepped up,” “resuscitated the department,” and “saved the day” by “sacrificing much of their free time and surrendering some of their innocence”!! D’aw. That’s right, “Desperation led to inspiration” and now people in Sackets Harbor can take comfort in knowing that they’re less likely to die because literal high schoolers are now manning EMS posts.
I’m not saying these teens are incapable—from the sound of it, they are in fact quite capable— or that choosing to serve their community during an incredibly strained time is anything less than kind, generous, and honorable. But when correspondent Steve Hartman asks one of them why they’re doing it, he replies: “Who else is there to do it if we don’t? Someone needs to.” Who indeed. The piece then ends with a wistful, “American youth to the rescue, once more.”
What??? Look, this kind of story is nothing new. These “HEARTWARMING:” tales are so persistent that they’re a genre unto themselves at this point, and are often referred to as the feel-good misery story or the feel-good feel-bad story. They’re so common that people regularly go viral on Twitter by dunking on them, so common that they’ve quite literally been memed and Clickhole-d to death.
So yeah, the palpable sense of ~dystopian wasteland vibes~ that these stories produce is not new. I’ll admit that I didn’t dig into the archives of actual print publications to prove just how old they are, but I’ve no doubt that they’re as old as news itself. They’re a journalism tentpole as sturdy as the obits and the classifieds. And while it’s long been a stale and frustrating device, as we limp to the finish line on year two of a pandemic that’s further devastated our already-dilapidated, late-capitalist social systems, these kinds of stories are threatening to explode every blood vessel in my hobbled brain.
There are several recurring themes in the arena of “perseverance porn,” and you can spot them immediately: high school principal works a second job to help students; dad works three jobs to buy his daughter a $200 dress for her school dance; healthcare workers donate their sick days to help their coworker who’s battling leukemia; teachers donate their sick days to a fellow teacher with colon cancer; customers give a 60-year-old McDonald's employee a car after finding out she walked 12 miles to and from work; child pays off lunch debts for entire school; 9-year-old does the same!; student raises money to help teacher living in his car; parent buys teacher a car so she can get to work; 89-year-old pizza delivery driver gets $12,000 tip; homeless child gives backpack to person sleeping on the sidewalk; coworkers donate vacation time to new mother. After a while, it all starts to feel like a deeply sinister mad lib.
One such theme is the noticeable absence in these stories of the very systems that theoretically exist to provide support: schools, governments, employers, etc. Occasionally, a particularly immoral category of this story pops up that actually serves as free positive advertising for patently evil entities. Take this one: “KFC surprises single mom who walked 3 miles to work daily with a brand new car.” A billion-dollar company that doesn’t pay enough for a woman to buy her own car buys one for her, but just her and not the other employees, and definitely doesn’t give them raises?? Wow, I am really feeling all the feels here. And don’t even get me started on when these stories involve cops (they often involve cops). The examples and all of their sick iterations are truly endless.
Another menacing throughline in these stories is the way in which they function as American ideals propaganda, using morality and hard work as clear avenues for success. The language of the stories and the quotes within them often treat the subject as someone who should be proud—and should be grateful. Subjects are often painted as someone who didn’t complain, who was entrepreneurial, who had fortitude, who was the “right” kind of person in need, who is deserving of pity. (I await the day that someone smarter than me writes a whole book on the villainy of pity.) And all the while, no one ever asks why basic necessities are only afforded to those who “do good deeds.”
“Why” isn’t the point because these stories are not about that. Systemic failures and societal collapse don’t get clicks or shares, and they don’t make people feel good. When I’m queen, people will be suspicious of news that’s designed to make them feel good. In the meantime, healthcare workers, teachers, fast food employees, factory workers, bus drivers, and others who are being exploited by the system will be used to sell it back to all of us in the form of inspiration.
If there’s any kind of silver lining, it’s that the pushback to these stories has grown louder and more frequent, though the CBS Sackets Harbor piece is proof that this kind of framing is absolutely alive and well. In 2022, capitalism remains as cruel as ever, but a lucky few in desperate situations get coverage or go viral, and the goodwill of fellow citizens saves them. And don’t worry about the rest of the people in need who didn’t make the news until it was too late. Perhaps another silver lining, albeit a less direct one, is the increasing presence of labor coverage. The existence of labor reporters (or working-class media) and labor coverage is not a direct antidote to the feel-good misery story, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
These stories are never going away, they’re a product of circumstance. The bad coverage is a trend, and so is the ruinous state of societal support systems and our apparent collective desire to gloss over the wreckage with stories of neighbors helping neighbors. My optimistic side wants to believe that someday (maybe someday soon) all that false compassion and desire to warm hearts will instead induce a greater sense of heartburn, and those small flickers will grow into a rage-filled fire that will put an end to deeply sad stories masquerading as inspiration. Until then, the message these stories perpetuate is clear: Help each other out, because no one else will.