Against Extreme Makeover Home Edition

A while ago, my wife got into the unfortunate habit of watching Desperate Housewives each Sunday night at 9.  (I would always go hide in the other room from 9 to 10.  I used to do a lot of my blogging then.)  This meant that we would both often catch the last five minutes or so of the previous show:  Extreme Makeover, Home Edition.  My strong dislike of Desperate Housewives is as nothing compared to my white-hot hatred of Extreme Makeover.    Those of you who aren’t familiar with this show will need some explanation.  You see, every week the Extreme Makeover crew finds some poor family in need, and it proceeds to publicly humiliate the father.  Of course, that’s not how the crew see things; as far as they’re concerned, they’re just doing good deeds for the deserving poor by building them houses.  Perhaps the people who watch the show will even think that they must be good people themselves to enjoy watching good deeds being done.

The makers of this show forget one thing that every poor man knows, whatever his education.  Perhaps the Extreme Makeover folks aren’t real men themselves, and so they don’t know what their doing.  More likely, they don’t see poor people as real people with honor and dignity, but only as passive recipients of other peoples’ charity.  In case they belong to the first category, let me explain the code.  Every man knows in his gut that it’s his duty to provide for his wife and kids, and that if he can’t put a roof over their heads, then he’s not a real man.  This isn’t just a moral duty; it’s an absolute duty.  Morality only demands that a man try his best.  An absolute duty demands that he succeed.  Consider the example of a man who, through no fault of his own and despite superhuman effort on his part, cannot support his family or arrange for them to be supported.  Perhaps there’s been some economic or political upheaval, perhaps a drought or other natural calamity.  The father must now watch as his children suffer hunger and cold.  What does he feel?  Pity for them, certainly, but not only this.  He also feels shame.  I’ve failed them, failed my own children.  I am dirt.  Morally, this is an error–the father is not to blame.  Perhaps society is to blame; perhaps no one is.  The father’s shame is unjust, and yet it is glorious.  We admire him for feeling it, and we would find something wrong, something unmanly, in a father who could simply blame society and then feel his conscience clear.  The father’s protector role is also absolute and not merely moral.  To be overpowered and thereby fail to protect one’s family is shameful.

Now some television producers come to the father.  They offer to rescue his family and give them a nice new place.  All they ask in return is to ritually castrate him in front of millions of American viewers.  First, his failure must be abjectly admitted to the audience.  Then, when the new house is done, he has to cry like a woman and tell them how grateful he is.  (This always happens in those sickening last five minutes.  I’m sure it’s part of the prearranged deal.)  What is the father to do?  His duty to see his family sheltered is absolute, so he does the manly thing and publicly sacrifices his manhood for our entertainment.

Our Lord tells us to be discreet in our good works.  Partly, this is for our own good, to keep them from becoming means for us to advertise our own virtue.  Partly, it also reflects a concern for the feelings of the recipients of our charity.  Dependency itself is, as I’ve said many times, not evil and not shameful.  Sometimes a small-scale dependency network is overwhelmed, as in this case of a father who can’t support his family.  This is always a misfortune.  In such cases, the larger society must intervene, but it must do so as quietly and unobtrusively as possible.  Quitely give your poor neighbor money or supplies, but never do it in front of his children.  Let him still be in their eyes the breadwinner he should be and would be in a just world.  Have a thought for his own feelings as well.  If he wants to call your gift a “loan”, even though you know you’ll never see that money again, let him.  The pain he feels over accepting “hand-outs” does him credit; it shows that he still sees himself as a father, a bearer of absolute duties, and not the passive victim of society to which Marxist belief would reduce him.

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