I’ve always felt that short stories, really good short stories, have a way of getting inside of you. Where longer works get blocked by their own bulk, a short story can be just slim enough to slip through the cracks and become a permanent part of your psyche, even when it’s not obvious why.
I feel that way about lots of stories, but perhaps the most enigmatic yet politically relevant example is a little, almost-forgotten tale written by Shirley Jackson in 1943. Jackson, to the extent that she is remembered at all, is known for her horror works, especially the short tale “The Lottery,” which is still required reading in many a high school. “After You, My Dear Alphonse,” the story that I have been obsessing about ever since I read it, is not horror, merely a slice of suburban Americana, but it haunts me to the point where I think about it almost every day.
The plot concerns two young boys, Johnny and Boyd, who come in for lunch after a tiring morning of play. Johnny is white. Boyd is black. As Johnny’s mother serves the boys their food, she makes a series of offhand offers to his little friend. At first, she offers to give him some extra food to take home for his family. Then she suggests that he might like some of her son’s hand-me-down clothes.
Boyd is confused by this and explains that his family has plenty of food, and if he needs new clothes, they go to a department store and buy some. His father has a good job as a factory foreman.
The mother actually gets angry when it is revealed that her assistance is not required. After a series of these rejections, Johnny’s mother gets annoyed and storms out of the room muttering to herself about ingratitude. The boys shrug off her bizarre behavior and go back outside to play. And that’s the whole story.
While not explicitly moralistic, the story is unquestionably about race and the soft tyranny of low expectations. The mother assumes the black boy needs her help and is surprised to learn he doesn’t. The boys, being innocents, are oblivious to why she would make such assumptions. So far so good.
But I think what really made the story stick in my mind is the seemingly inexplicable fact that the mother actually gets angry when it is revealed that her assistance is not required. It’s a weird reaction, and yet it rings completely true. Having thought about this for some time, I realized that the implications go well beyond race and represent a broader critique of society and politics in general.
Needing to Be Needed
It is widely assumed that do-gooders — and they do nothing to contradict this assumption — engage in acts of charity, not just because they want to help, but because they want others to be helped. In other words, that the object of their actions is to affect an improvement on the status quo. Logically, the altruist who gives blood or money or time to a cause should be overjoyed when there comes a point when such gifts are no longer necessary.
It’s more than just virtue signaling; it’s a way of gaining actual power over others. Experience — and I’m sure we can all point to people in our own lives who bear this out — proves otherwise. For many people, giving itself is an end, not a means to an end, and nothing is more galling than being deprived of an opportunity to give.
This is not difficult to understand. When we help someone, we are making the implicit statement that we are in a position of superiority over them. We have something they do not, and we are in a comfortable enough position to surrender it without great personal harm. In a sense, then, when we give to someone, we put them in our power, signaling to the world that they are a dependent who could not get by without our magnanimity.
It’s more than just virtue signaling; it’s a way of gaining actual power over others. The recipient is implicitly and immediately placed in debt to the giver, and while it may never manifest itself materially, gratitude, at the very least, is expected.
It is easy to see why so many people reject charity for reasons of pride. Accepting help is a tacit admission of one’s own failure and a form of subjugation to the benefactor. No self-respecting individual wants to be in such a position, especially in public.
This Translates to Politics
This also explains why our political system functions in the way it does. Leftists who claim they want to help the poor are happy to vote for welfare, food stamps, and other handouts, but dig their heels in at the idea of reforming institutions that prevent people from becoming self-reliant. Minimum wages and occupational licensing laws were explicitly designed to keep minority workers down, and yet talk of even modest reforms to these programs is anathema to the supposedly charitable socialist.
We know how to alleviate poverty. Remove barriers to work and to opportunity while securing individual rights and equality before the law. The independent man is a threat because he owes no one. The man who can stand on his own two feet has no more need of borrowed crutches, leaving the lenders feeling unneeded and powerless. Indeed, the desire to feel needed, to help people without making them any better off, is what drives most of our social welfare policy, under the guise of altruism and love for mankind. Those who truly love their fellow man, however, would prefer a world where no charity was needed at all.
We know how to alleviate poverty. It’s no mystery. Remove barriers to work and to opportunity while securing individual rights and equality before the law. Yet, time and time again, we see these obvious solutions passed over in favor of more spending on entitlement programs that accomplish nothing except nurturing dependence and an imbalance of power.
Psychiatrists speak of a condition called “Munchausen Syndrome by proxy” in which a person induces or exaggerates the illness of another in order to assume the role of caregiver. For the patient to actually get well would thwart their entire sense of purpose. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that large chunks of our society, particularly those headed by those who wring their hands and cry that we absolutely must help the poor, are suffering from a similar syndrome.
I began by saying that Shirley Jackson’s story was not a work of horror, but now I am forced to reconsider. There are few things more sinister than subjugation’s fearsome visage veiled behind the mask of charity.