As a younger man, when I considered books like Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead instructive, I recall the concept of gratitude playing a non-trivial role in my assessment of the political and social landscape. In particular, entities that were insufficiently grateful. For some reason, it bothered me that poor people were not grateful for the government assistance they received, black people were not grateful to northern whites for freeing them from slavery, European countries (especially France) that deigned to criticize U.S. foreign policy were not sufficiently grateful to the U.S. for freeing them from the Nazis.
Leaving aside for a second that I was misguided about who owed gratitude to whom and in what measure, it beats me why I thought the gratitude relationship involved me at all. As an adolescent or early adult, I had done bugger all to deserve gratitude from anyone. If anything, I was insufficiently appreciative of all my parents had done to support me. Apparently I fancied myself, in recent political parlance, a maker rather than a taker – despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s also evident that I thought my tribal affiliations entitled me to reflected gratitude. I was an upper middle class white male from the northern half of the United States. And for that, world, YOU’RE WELCOME!
So, I’ve drifted away from this mindset. And thank goodness. But I was hardly unique. A lot of that sort of thinking seems to fester on today. What’s behind it? I can guess. For starters, there is this assumption that there is a default status quo and any deviation from that status quo is a sign of benevolence. If I have acquired money or objects, then it must be mine. I must be entitled to it. It is, without discussion, just that I should retain it. If government removes this money from my possession and transfers it to the possession of someone else who has not managed to acquire as much money; well, that’s akin to robbery, and if I don’t complain too loudly, you better goddamn well appreciate my grudging acquiescence.
Similarly, there is a status quo where the United States is geopolitically ascendant in the world and white men are ascendant in the United States. Any shift away from that status quo demands respect.
An emotional need for respect, I think, underlies the desire for gratitude. One argument for favoring charity over government assistance is that those with money can choose the charities they like. But, I think another aspect of charity is that the recipient is compelled to recognize it as such – they are supplicants, they are not entitled to this money. (Entitlement being closely related to property and, as such, carrying a bunch of questions about who is entitled, why, under what circumstances, and for how long?) Makes me think of that Seinfeld bit about getting hand.
Jerry: I know, you told me you like her, everything is going good.
George: No everything is *not* going good. I’m very uncomfortable. I have no power. I mean, why should she have the upper hand. *Once* in my life I would like the upper hand. I have no hand– no hand at all. She has the hand; I have *no* hand…
George: How do I get the hand?
Jerry: We all want the hand. Hand is tough to get. You gotta get the hand right from the opening.