Red states have a long history of complaining about “blue state bailouts” while sucking up far more blue state money that blue states get from red, (Urban areas, the nation’s major income generators, generally vote Democratic.) Red state Congress members are also famous for denying disaster relief to blue states (think Ted Cruz on Hurricane Sandy in 2012) while insisting upon it for themselves, as we saw first with Hurricane Harvey and again last month the power outage. Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin made such points recently when wondering why the federal government should be bailing out Texas for its reckless Covid behavior.
While today’s post is about what Thackeray’s Vanity Fair teaches us about ingratitude, one of the funniest passages about people claiming to be self-sufficient while raking in federal money appears in Catch 22. I’ve included only a snipped here, but you read the extended passage in a post I wrote about Clive Bundy, who in 2014 launched a mini-insurrection when the federal government tried to bill him for grazing his cattle on federal land:
Major Major’s father was an outspoken champion of economy in government, provided it did not interfere with the sacred duty of government to pay farmers as much as they could get for all the alfalfa they produced that no one else wanted or for not producing any alfalfa at all. He was a proud and independent man who was opposed to unemployment insurance and never hesitated to whine, whimper, wheedle, and extort for as much as he could get from whomever he could.
But back to Thackeray, whose discussion of ingratitude has stayed with me ever since I read Vanity Fair in 1974. John Osborne, formerly a struggling merchant but now, with the help of stockbroker John Sedley, a wealthy man, turns on his former benefactor when the market tanks (caused by Napoleon’s escape from Elba) and Sedley goes bankrupt. Thackeray explains why Osborne, whose son is to marry Sedley’s daughter, is so bitter:
When one man has been under very remarkable obligations to another, with whom he subsequently quarrels, a common sense of decency, as it were, makes of the former a much severer enemy than a mere stranger would be. To account for your own hard-heartedness and ingratitude in such a case, you are bound to prove the other party’s crime. It is not that you are selfish, brutal, and angry at the failure of a speculation—no, no—it is that your partner has led you into it by the basest treachery and with the most sinister motives. From a mere sense of consistency, a persecutor is bound to show that the fallen man is a villain—otherwise he, the persecutor, is a wretch himself.
And further on:
Then Osborne had the intolerable sense of former benefits to goad and irritate him: these are always a cause of hostility aggravated. Finally, he had to break off the match between Sedley’s daughter and his son; and as it had gone very far indeed, and as the poor girl’s happiness and perhaps character were compromised, it was necessary to show the strongest reasons for the rupture, and for John Osborne to prove John Sedley to be a very bad character indeed.
In other words, it is because people feel a sense of obligation that they blacken the name of their benefactor. They deal with their guilt about their betrayal by going on the attack.
Osborne’s subsequent behavior resembles the way some Trumpist politicians demonize Democrats. I particularly appreciate Thackeray’s point that “you must tell and believe lies against the hated object…to be consistent”:
At the meetings of creditors, then, he comported himself with a savageness and scorn towards Sedley, which almost succeeded in breaking the heart of that ruined bankrupt man. On George’s intercourse with Amelia he put an instant veto—menacing the youth with maledictions if he broke his commands, and vilipending the poor innocent girl as the basest and most artful of vixens. One of the great conditions of anger and hatred is, that you must tell and believe lies against the hated object, in order, as we said, to be consistent.
When the great crash came—the announcement of ruin, and the departure from Russell Square, and the declaration that all was over between her and George—all over between her and love, her and happiness, her and faith in the world—a brutal letter from John Osborne told her in a few curt lines that her father’s conduct had been of such a nature that all engagements between the families were at an end.
Ungrateful though Osborne is, he’s an amateur compared to the emperor of ingratitude, Milton’s Satan. Satan first complains about “the debt immense of endless gratitude”—how can we ever thank God enough?—only to then concede that it’s actually not a burden. After all, feelings of gratitude are themselves gifts, with the grateful “at once indebted and discharged.” Satan’s awareness of this makes his behavior all the more criminal since he knows better:
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burdensome, still paying, still to owe;
Forgetful what from him I still received,
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and discharged; what burden then?
Rather than resenting Sedley for the obligations he owes him, Osborne could simply express gratitude, which opens the heart and soothes the spirit. And rather than railing constantly at the blue states from which they receive disaster relief, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid payments, etc., etc., red states could be grateful that all will benefit from the efforts of those who work hard to enrich society.
Further thought: To apply ingratitude to Biden’s Covid relief bill, Washington Post’s Greg Sargent explains the politics of why the GOP may profit from their universal opposition to the measure, even though it is the most popular bill in years:
Indeed, I would add that after this is over, GOP lawmakers might be seen by their voters as having railed merely about phantom excesses in the bill that were invented for the base’s consumption. As Media Matters documents, right-wing media have wildly hyped such invented excesses.
And so, even as GOP voters pocket stimulus checks and get vaccines more quickly, the story in that information universe will become that GOP lawmakers rightly called out all these crazy socialist schemes brought to you by the Democrats who want to burn down your cities and cancel your children’s books.
Ryan Cooper calls this the “Republican grievance perpetual motion machine.” And as the Times reports, this might resonate with GOP voters more than the niggling matter of who supported sending that check.