Beware of Christmas Stories


Alternet has a sobering followup to the heartwarming story about the NY City policeman who gave the homeless man a pair of boots. As reported in the New York Times, the object of the policeman’s generosity, a 54-year-old army veteran named Jeffrey Hillman, was shoeless again within days, the $100 pair of boots either sold or about to be. He is grateful for the cop’s generosity but bitter that his celebrity came so cheap: “I was put on YouTube, I was put on everything without permission. What do I get?” he said. “This went around the world, and I want a piece of the pie.”

Alternet’s takeaway is that we should be reminded that “charity can only go so far. The only real cure for a skyrocketing homeless rate and inequality that produces people like Hillman are political solutions that seek to put people before profit.” I can’t argue with that, but my takeaway is a little more complicated. I think we should be chary of feel-good stories, especially during the holiday season. Not because the police officer isn’t truly a mensch (he obviously is), but because most of us aren’t remotely as caring as he is. The story gives us a vicarious jolt of complacency that is completely unearned.

I know I said I’d never link to him again, but the headline at Glenn Beck’s The Blaze makes my point perfectly: “Let This Viral Picture of an NYPD Cop Giving a Homeless Man Winter Boots Restore Your Faith in Humanity.” My response is, what does humanity have to do with it? The cop in the video isn’t “humanity”—he is 25-year-old Larry DePrimo, who, as far as I know, also isn’t getting anything out of his 15 minutes.

Fortunately for him, he has a job; fortunately for the citizens of the city he serves, he’s not on the make. He’s a good soul whose selfless act garnered as much attention as it did because it was so special.

A story like this one goes viral because people in general want to believe that by virtue of their common humanity, they too participate in it, that the Larry DePrimos of the world somehow redeem them. If anything, it seems to me, they should shame us, by reminding us of how poorly society–and most of us as individuals–measure up to our supposed ideals. The vast majority of us are anything but Christlike or DePrimo-like when it comes to charity.

Glenn Beck touts the story because it serves his selfish political agenda. Who needs “social justice” or “social welfare” when the man on the street can be relied upon to step up and do the right thing?

As for Alternet’s moral, I would add that this is more than a story about poverty and income inequality; it’s about brokenness too. There was a time in Jeffrey Hillman’s life when he was able to earn a living. For whatever reason, he can’t now—even if charity emanating from the private sector sees to it that he is properly shod. As the Times put it:

Mr. Hillman said that he was honorably discharged after five years and that before he became homeless he worked in kitchens in New Jersey.

He has two children — Nikita, 22, and Jeffrey, 24 — but has had little contact with them since a visit three years ago, Mr. Hillman said.

He was reluctant to talk about how he ended up on the streets, staring blankly ahead when asked how his life went off course.

After a long pause, he shook his head and said, “I don’t know.”

To make matters even more complicated, it turns out, according to this Daily News article, that Hillman is eligible for a lot of benefits and services that he doesn’t take advantage of. He has friends and family who want to help him; he even has an apartment in the Bronx that he doesn’t use. Some of the commenters at the News site seize on those revelations as reason to hold both Hillman and DePrimo in contempt: “This bum’s cash intake will probably go up 15-25% per day. He’ll be raking in some nice walking around money with this shoeless routine”; “This Police Officer walked in on the perfect scam and fell for it himself.” All I can say to that is that anyone who believes that Hillman is living large is as crazy as he is. The only thing more offensive than cheap sentimentality is moronic cynicism.

As Congress argues about how deeply to cut social services, as Republicans fret about how liberal programs disincentivize work, we need to recognize that some kinds of poverty have deeper causes than economics or politics can either explain or solve. But for all that, a country that permits any of its people to die on the streets—even lazy, improvident people, or delusional sick people who believe that they can take care of themselves—is a cruel place. Even Scrooge acknowledged that poorhouses and asylums served a purpose.

I’m not a Christian, but I do sometimes dip into the New Testament, especially the King James version. This morning, I was reading Corinthians 13, which, it seems to me, makes a magnificent case both for charity and against complacency. I will quote it as my own contribution to the Christmas spirit.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

Originally published at Arthur Goldwag’s blog.

Arthur Goldwag is the author of The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah (Doubleday, 2005), Isims & Ologies (Vintage, 2007), and Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (Vintage, 2009). A contributing editor at Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, he also writes for children.