Newsletter 70: Mattress Mack, Abstract and Concrete Charity, and What It Means to Be Good

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. Here is a newsletter from September 2017, about Mattress Mack, a Houston businessman who helped out thousands during Hurricane Harvey … but it’s a little more complicated than that. I think about the general thesis of this piece all the time. Why is it easier to be kind to people on a personal level than a macro one? It is as if we pretend to be tougher and more cruel in public than we really are in private. It’s very odd.

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?

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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.

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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