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Barbara McClintock died on September 2, 1992, at the age of 90.

September 2, 2017

A writer I’d never read before named Micah Fields wrote a piece in The Baffler on Monday about his hometown of Houston and, specifically, a man named Mattress Mack. Mattress Mack has become a local hero in the week of Hurricane Harvey, opening up his store for those who have lost their homes, feeding them, giving them shelter. (He was a useful contrast with Joel Osteen.) But Fields was on this story earlier than CNN was. He had watched Mattress Mack’s commercials as a kid growing up in Houston, knowing Mack as a local TV personality huckster who was also an avid anti-government-assistance Tea Partier, one famous for demanding his employees stand at attention when he would, without warning, play the “Star-Spangled Banner” over the loudspeakers of his stores. Fields noted his initial surprise when he learned that Mack was being so helpful, supposed cold-hearted capitalist as he was. Why does he feel the sudden urge to help now, while being so resistant to do so while building his fortune?

But then Fields thought it over. He turns it into a conservative-vs.-liberal issue that seems perhaps a little too simple — I have seen just as many conservatives out doing social and volunteer work as I have seen liberals, though from my experience, nobody out helping thinks to ask anyone’s political persuasion, or to even care — and is a little too cynical about people’s inherent compassion, which I believe (still, somehow) to be a signature human trait, at least in the day-to-day rather than the theoretical. But his overarching point is dead-on. I’ll quote him:

Once imagination’s not required, once the consequences are real and close to you, the answers get easy. What do you do? Help. Contribute. Share. Why is that so hard to grasp in the abstract? Why must it be tested in the extremely, life-threateningly tangible to prove essential? Why is it so easy for some to fabricate and fixate on the image of the lazy citizen, the government parasite, but alternatively difficult for them to imagine the Houstonian grandmother standing on her roof, drenched in rain?

I’m less interested in this as a conservative-liberal issue — though I see his larger point — as I am the idea of the abstract vs. the concrete. I think we run into this all the time, particularly when you contrast the digital world with the physical one. One hour on Twitter is all it takes to convince me that the world is an angry, stupid place in which everyone who doesn’t see the world exactly like the person who happens to be speaking at that particular moment is an asshole, liar or a crook. If the real world were like the way we have become online, we would never stop punching each other in the face.

But it’s not like that. When I walk outside, I see simple, dumb, pointless kindness all the time. Whether it’s something as small as keeping the door open for a stranger after you walk through it, or as large as a group of people who have never met each other all gathering around someone who has fallen from the heat and trying to find a way to help ... I just don’t think people are as mean to each other, as inherently suspicious and resentful, as it seems. When we are just in the realm of the theoretical, we can assign the worst qualities to those who disagree with us. We give them sharp teeth and gnarled claws and the worst possible intentions. Because we don’t know them, and they’re saying something we think is wrong, we assume they are a monster. We treat them like the enemy.

We don’t treat people like that in our regular lives. (Exception: People in traffic.) Our first instinct is not to think the worst of people, to reflexively distrust someone we don’t know, to believe that everyone is out to get us. We smile and shake hands when we meet someone. We try to make polite converation. We don’t assume someone is an asshole until proven otherwise. I’m sorry, but we just don’t. There is a performative, look-at-me I’m-so-wise-because-I’m-onto-them cynicism that has invaded our discourse, but I am not sure it has invaded our actual lives. Not yet.

Mattress Mack, in political discussions, may be, as Fields notes, a hard-liner against assisting the poor. He may believe that those who don’t have a lot of money are in that position because they are lazy, or not assertive enough, or just not Mattress Mack enough. But it’s all abstract: It’s all theory. When push comes to shove, he helps someone who needs help, just like the CNN reporter pulls the guy out of the car or people riding around in boats rescuing people from their roofs, because that’s just what you do. Not everyone does it. But most people do. We are kind to each other all the time, when the stakes are a lot lower than Harvey. It’s hard to demonize someone when they’re standing right in front of you. So we don’t. In real life, we treat each other people well because we want to be treated well ourselves. We cut people a break in real life. Not all the time. But most of the time. People want to be good. It’s the other stuff that gets in the way.

Now we just need to get people to realize that people need help and shelter and food when there aren’t natural disasters. We don’t hesitate to help someone displaced or disadvantaged by a storm because we know it wasn’t their fault. But the thing is, it’s rarely their fault. And even if it is: They still need help. It has been heartwarming to see everything people have done to help their fellow man this week. But I think it can be heartwarming all the time. We just have to remember. But mostly: We just have to look.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. (This is an attempt to have an objective look at the value of my work in a way that I suspect will be difficult to sustain.)

1. This Brewers Team Has Been Fun to Watch, Sports On Earth. This is the last week of August, the most exhausting week of the year. How can one month be SOOOOO LOOOONG? Anyway, I don’t know if I did the best stuff this week, but this piece turned out all right.

2. USMNT World Cup Qualifying: A Primer, Sports On Earth. Get excited! USA! USA!

3. Ranking the Last 10 MLB Septembers, Sports On Earth. If a ranking piece ends up No. 3 on here, you know it was a breather week.

4. Your AFC East Preview, Sports On Earth. Dirty secret: I kind of like the Patriots. I know. I know.

5. Your NFC North Preview, Sports On Earth. These are space fillers the last week of August, but they’ll serve the purpose.

6. Dive Dive Dive, Sports On Earth. I’m gonna start making Illini and Georgia predictions in this space moving forward, just to keep me interested.

As I say every week: If you are the sort to subscribe to a weekly newsletter, I would have to think it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to subscribe to one of the three podcasts I do. You don’t even have to listen to them! Just download them. Here they are:

Grierson & Leitch, we wrapped up the 2017 Summer Movie Season and then looked at “After Hours” and “Starship Troopers.”

The Will Leitch Experience, talked to Alyson Footer, live from Houston.

Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, big season preview show, plus a look forward to this week’s Appalachian State game.

The Cardinals are essentially done for this year, but I’m still gonna show off my T.Pham Players Weekend jersey and William’s old-school Cardinals throwback every chance I get.

Enjoy the start of college football. Right after I send this, I’m off to watch Illinois-Ball State and then drink heavily before heading over to Sanford for Georgia-Appalachian State. Have a great weekend, all.


Best,
Will