It's impossible to spend more than a few minutes online without encountering an inspirational story meant to brighten your day. Which is nice, because it's probably sandwiched in between a story about a church getting shot up and a story about a mall getting shot up. Maybe there's a cool new technology, maybe an animal is being adorable. But it's increasingly common to see a headline like "Michigan Grandfather With Cancer Takes Up Uber Driving to Pay Off Home for Family."
"But wait," I assume you're objecting for the sake of this rhetorical device, "that sounds so depressing that a bottle of cheap vodka has somehow appeared before me, as though it knows it will be needed." Ah, but if you read that very real article, you'll discover that it's "actually" an uplifting tale of love. This 69-year-old man, Kenneth Broskey, loved his daughter and grandchildren so much that when he was told he only had two to ten weeks left to live, he continued to drive for Uber to help pay off a mortgage that his daughter otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford.
Broskey was successful thanks to a GoFundMe started with the help of one of his passengers, who said, "His love for his family is limitless. This man is dying of cancer, and yet he's still out there driving an Uber cab just for his family every day. That's indescribable love." That's true, but what goes unmentioned in all the news on Broskey is how indescribably horrifying it is that a terminally ill senior citizen was compelled to spend his final weeks driving a fucking Uber. Maybe it would be more inspirational if the only thing standing between a couple of people getting kicked out of their home wasn't their dying grandfather working instead of being with them (or going into hospice care, as his doctors advised him to).
According to "Dying Grandpa Refuses To Listen To Doctors, Then SHOCKS His Family When He Does THIS," which is ironically filed under the "Life" section, Broskey did the "unthinkable." But the writer meant it in the sense that you'd declare someone shotgunning a six-pack on spring break despite their doctor advising them not to drink "unthinkable" before high-fiving them and pouring them a shot of tequila. Meanwhile, Business Insider declared it "touching" that the GoFundMe (complete with a hashtag promoted by Uber, which is what people get instead of functioning heath insurance now) got the job done. No one talks about how fucked up the situation was, because it's becoming so common that we no longer think of it as sad. The unspoken assumption is that this is the new normal, and we should feel inspired because we might one day have to do it ourselves.
This is part of a genre of news story that normalizes tragedy, papering over economic flaws and pathetic gaps in social services by looking up "inspiring" in the thesaurus. Here's a "feel-good story" about the internet raising $128,000 for a homeless man ... after a "YouTube prankster star" (which is the job title you have when you really want to get Satan's attention) gave him 100 bucks under the mistaken assumption that he would spend it on liquor. (What a hilarious prank!) Here's a man who paid off $85,000 of school and vehicle debt by living in an RV for years. He got his budget down to $400 a month by, among other things, not running his heater when temperatures hit -40. This was presented as an inspiring story of economizing that's now given him the freedom to do whatever he wants, like travel and maybe not freeze to death. Perhaps you too can pay off your debt, assuming you have no dependents and don't mind torpedoing your quality of life!
Behold a 15-year-old Puerto Rican raising money for solar lamps for his community while his family was still being forced to heavily ration food in the wake of Hurricane Maria, an eight-year-old using his meme fame to raise $90,000 for his father's kidney transplant, an 11-year-old working to save for college, a 19-year-old raising her two younger siblings, a 19-year-old whose co-workers bought him a used car so he doesn't have to walk ten miles a day while working to support his siblings and sick mom, a single mom who worked three jobs until she somehow managed to write a bestseller, and "5 Inspiring People Who Each Paid Off Over $100,000 in Debt." Their inspiring methods included not eating at a restaurant for 2.5 years, not celebrating holidays, and averaging "117 hours a week of billable time for eight months." There was no "5 Horrible Ways Exploitative and Predatory Systems Allowed People To Each Accumulate $100,000 In Debt" companion piece.
The variables keep changing, but the stories are endless. And they're always presented as an inspirational "If they can do it, so can you!" morality tale. It's taken for granted that everyone has medical problems, crippling debt, or three jobs, that the situation is implicitly their own fault, and that the only way out is to either literally work yourself to death or be so goshdarn adorable that the internet masses step in to crowdsource your rescue. The continued presence of a monolithic system that can kick you in the genitals so hard that they'll shoot out of your nostrils and then tell you that you created your own gaping groin wound is assumed, to the point where there's no need to even mention it.
It's great that these people were able to improve their lives, but that doesn't make their stories inspirational. These are problems that are desperately getting fixed, and that desperation is held up to us as an example of hustle and a hard-working attitude that we should all aspire to have. It's like congratulating someone for patching the holes in their rowboat with chewing gum while ignoring all the guns that continue to rip it apart, because we assume there's a good reason they're being shot at. Also, there are sharks circling. If this was a political cartoon, they'd be labelled "bankruptcy."
Most of those boats just quietly sink. Go look at GoFundMe's medical section, which accounts for half of all of its campaigns (the fact that so many people have to ask strangers to pay their medical bills is also somehow considered inspirational). The ones that fail don't look as inspiring, do they? The average amount raised ($1,126) is nowhere near enough to get someone an upbeat story in the news, or to accomplish much at all in the long term. So they just vanish without ever being noticed, contributing to the illusion that the day is always saved when needed. Maybe they didn't have enough hustle.
Now go check out "Here's How Parents Who Work 100 Hours A Week Get Everything Done," which includes tips for executive power couples like "Yes, you'll likely need a lot of paid help." Or go read literally any profile of a rich entrepreneur who works 80 hours a week but has a weakness for relaxing on their sex yacht in their spare time. The target audience is different, but the "inspirational" language is identical. Those inspiring people who paid off $100,000 in debt? Suggesting a 117-hour work week was on the same article that offered relatable, everyday advice like "Used a $40,000 inheritance to pay down debt, instead of taking a lavish vacation to Hawaii." We've equated multi-millionaires working on a new app called Cream 4 U (it delivers ice cream by paradigm-hacking the ice cream truck industry) with people trying not to wind up homeless or dead. Which is how society ends up with ads like this:
We demand that people always be working, regardless of whether it's productive or just a few more hours of futilely trying to barricade the door while the zombies break through all the windows (the zombies also represent bankruptcy). Work that goes toward a luxury vacation and work that goes toward paying off crippling medical debt are considered equally inspirational and equally necessary. If you want the vacation instead of the debt relief, you just need to get even more inspired and work even harder, you lazy debt-having cancer victim.
At the risk of copping out, it's beyond the scope of this column to singlehandedly solve America's complicated problem with debt and overwork which is compounded by a victim-blaming Calvinist streak. (I'll be solving that problem in next week's column.) But debt and medical costs are reaching dangerously unsustainable levels, while the "gig economy" (which we should instead be calling the hashtags for healthcare economy) skyrockets, and so far, our solution has mostly been to present it as a problem for go-getting individuals to solve by outworking everyone else. We've degraded from "Working extremely hard and making sacrifices will make you rich" to "Working extremely hard and making sacrifices will let you survive while others fall around you" and dressed it up like it's fun and rewarding. Want to pay off your crippling student loan? Go be a "Student Loan Hero!" Are you flat fucking broke? You've just got to follow your "Piggy Bank Dreams." We're trying to fix a rotting infrastructure by slapping a fresh coat of cheery paint on it, which is only effective until the house collapses on us.
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How did these hyper-specific tropes spread so quickly?
The Hollywood rumor mill has been playing games with celebrity deaths for at least a century.