I used to watch ABC’s “Extreme Home Makeover” solely for the emotional fix it gave me. One look at the tears, the generosity and the grateful attitudes of the new homeowners and I’d cry. Week after week I’d watch the Extreme Home Team react with reddened eyes and widened smiles on cue after the poor, downtrodden, but now happy family first walked into the well constructed example of time and labor.
I’d watch just to cry and I’d cry just to feel alive. I was nothing more than a visual cutter. My arm wasn’t scarred with scratches; but my psyche was.
It got to a point where I could no longer watch Extreme Home Makeover because it was just too damn extreme.
There was something about that show and its subject matter in general that didn’t pass the smell test with me. The show always ended in smiles, but I wondered if the families’ stories ever did. As we learn more about the plight of the Harpers, we now know that’s not always the case. You can whitewash a bad situation, but invariably, the thin, watered down veneer chips away. That’s why news reports about the Harper family’s half a million dollar home being foreclosed upon didn’t come as any surprise.
Not to me, anyway.
When a family is chosen to receive a home that’s extremely made over, we the viewing audience, hear a lot about the back story. They all vary, but tragedy and loss are the underlying themes. Very often, Mama has eight children from nine different fathers and fell on hard times when she lost her job as a bagger down at the A&P. She’s also caring for her three grandbabies while their mamas (her daughters) finish jail time or that stint in rehab. Little Tina has the pluracy and can’t run and play with the other kids in class. Plus, she’s always wanted a room painted in smiling seahorses and puce stripes. Nothing would make her happier than that.
I don’t downplay the gravity of their situations nor is my intent to make light of them. The stories are sad and tragic and that makes “Extreme Home Makeover”, a contemporary version of the old show, “Queen For Day”. We watch today as our mothers and grandmother’s watched that show. There’s this humanistic part of part of us that allows us to feel sorry for the family. We pity them for their hard luck lives. But if we’re honest, there’s another part that prompts us to think, “thank God it’s them and not us”.
And if we’re really being honest, we realize that that is the same part of our collective gray matter that makes many of us angry when we read about the Harper family’s abject fiscal irresponsibility. They lost their house because they put it up as collateral for a sizable loan to start of construction company which failed. An industry in which, Mr. Harper (from an experience standpoint) was ill equipped to venture.
Another reason for our anger? Americans demand that our philanthropy and the generosity of our time and emotions spent, are well taken care of by our intended recipients. In this case, there was neglect. The Harpers “squandered” what the ABC crew and all those construction volunteers did. PLUS, that damn family squandered our sympathy. We spent 60 minutes engrossed in their story; pitying them. They abused that energy spent.
How dare they? What nerve!
Well, in reality, we have some nerve for feeling this way.
Make no mistake; this isn’t Laurie Kendrick becoming some bleeding heart liberal. On the contrary. Based on what I know about this story, the Harper family acted irresponsibly, but my point is–what else can we possibly expect?
The Harper’s story–before and after “Extreme Home Makeover” got involved–is a classic American tale. That they lost a lovely, half million dollar home that was given to them with the best intentions, makes the perfect coda, if you will. This is what happens when the American dream is provided and not earned.
The price for all this glory; this object lesson? It’s simple really–the family must demand (on cue) that a bus driver move his vehicle and then, once they lay eyes on their new abode, there’s the requisite shedding of tears; expressions of gratitude; histrionics, more tears and this must be done for the big dogs at Sears and for the benefit of millions of voyeurs in this country who tune in to feel better about their own sad, unfulfilled lives. If you think about all the parties involved, it really isn’t a bad deal for an hour’s worth of televised exploitation. And might I add, it’s mutual exploitation. ABC exploited the Harpers and make no mistake, the Harpers exploited ABC.
Here’s a family that’s lived right at or just above the poverty line for years; they barely had a proverbial pot to pee in. Hard times compelled them to submit their names and sad sack story to a TV network with the hopes of being selected to appear on a show that will result in their getting a big, beautiful new home built that’s given to them gratis. And not only that, they stand to get money, furniture and vehicles along with a mortgage that’s taken care of and sometimes, bought-and-paid-for college educations for their kids.
And in the course of one week and thanks to efficient digital editing, neatly condensed into a one hour TV show on Sunday evenings, they go from shack-dwellers to owners of a manse that merely to operate and live in with any degree of success, costs more than they make in a year, and we expect them to do just fine?
Network flacks say they “strongly encourage families to seek financial advice”, but once the show wraps and the lights and the cameras and action has moved on to some other lucky family, fiscal accountability is personal and private.
Well, so is what rendered them broke and virtually homeless in the first place. But conveniently, their pre-show plight was open season. The contract the Harpers had with ABC gave us all-access and what we witnessed fueled our pity. Three years later, their irresponsibility feeds our indignation. Our extreme, full circle emotions are courtesy of a family that didn’t really know any better. That said, what happened to the Harpers was nothing more than fate. Sadly, tragically…prophetically. And let’s get something straight: what we’re really talking about here is values and a lack thereof. This story is exemplary of the differences in values that exist between the classes; namely the lower and middle classes.
Generally speaking, the middle class works; they’re not afraid to toil; to labor and they love the relative freedom it gives them. They are their own people and make choices based on that fact. They want to achieve partly for the here and now, but mostly for posterity. They believe in social and fiscal continuity, especially within the family and that translates into survival.
By and large, the lower classes–especially those who’ve been mired in the welfare system for generations–often believe in entitlement because that’s what they’re told to believe. This life is all they know. Receiving is their legacy. Their “earning power” has been and always will be attached to that mindset because many believe it’s far easier to extend a hand than use one to grip an implement. To do so, could lead to self sufficiency and independent thinking–two things that defy lower class way of life. Because in the big game of social bureaucracy, the players are divided into those who give and those who take. Being self sufficient is what the givers do.
This allows them to be givers.
It doesn’t matter why the Harper family fell on hard times. It’s not important what color they are. Fiscal irresponsibility isn’t based on the amount of melanin in one’s skin. But the reality is that their role as takers was defined a long time ago. The Harpers could break free of these bonds, but obviously, they haven’t learned what every hard working American knows for a fact: you can’t get something for nothing. It simply does not work and besides that, ain’t nothing free. There’s always a price to the paid.
Now, I could make sweeping comparisons here to the Democratic party, the fractured welfare system which convinces these families to be beholding to the institution of partisan government, while being fed political pablum, then told when to swallow because well, that’s a part of life when you’re on the dole….but I won’t.
Instead, I’ll pity the Harpers for not demanding more of themselves and for their lack of self-respect and gratitude; then I’ll shame everyone who loved their “Extreme Home Makeover” story three years ago, yet ate a big, heaping breakfast of Harper resentment this morning.
Again, I ask; all things considered, how did we expect a story like this to end? . It ended the only way it could; it ended as it began.
And I’ll end this post with an old adage; you give a man a fish and he eats for a day. You teach a man to fish and he eats for life.
The Harpers didn’t even live near a pond.