When Accepting Charity Was Embarrassing: The Lessons of Fibber McGee And Molly

Fibber McGee & Molly
Update New & Improved Title! (I hope.)

I’m a fan of old time radio, where voice and imagination were everything. Box 13 with adventurer Dan Holliday (Alan Ladd). Duffy’s Tavern, where Duffy ain’t in. Johnny Dollar, Jack Benny, and of course Fibber McGee and Molly, a homey “sitcom” about a man and wife (are we still allowed to use that phrase?).

The running gag had McGee opening his overstuffed closet, with obvious consequences. I can’t tell you why that’s funny, and maybe it isn’t, but it is comfortable, if that’s the right word. Anyway, the only thing important for us to understand about this popular show was that it ran from 1935 through the 40s and 50s.

Much of course was different then than now. Nobody wants a return of those days; at least, I don’t. But boy is it interesting to compare. Take this snippet from one show in 1949:

Fibber: I wonder how much it would cost to rent the Wistful Vista country club for the day?

Molly: Ohh…

Fibber: Yeah! We can take old Harry out there and tell him that was our house, see.

Molly: This is Tuesday. It’s Ladies Day at the Country Club.

Fibber: (Disappointed) Ahhh…

Molly: Gonna be 50 or 60 women sitting around.

Fibber: So what? I told Harry you entertained a lot. That makes it even better.

Molly: Yeah, but how will you explain away the cigar counter and the magazine stand?

Fibber: Huh? That’s a cinch. I’ll tell Harry I gave the magazine and cigar concession to a poor relative on account of he wouldn’t accept any charity. I’ll tell him that I fixed it up…

Well, it isn’t a hilarious premise, but sitcoms are always scratch affairs. But did you notice the penultimate line? It was not emphasized; indeed, there was no reason to stress it. The idea was commonplace. The words were there merely to justify Fibber’s ridiculous scheme.

It used to be an affront to pride to accept charity. A man would rather suffer than take a handout. He would rather pull himself up the hard way than accept a hand from strangers. He would look to his family, of course, but not to outsiders. He would fix it himself. And even if everybody didn’t feel that way, most did. What I’m telling you must have been so, else that line would not have appeared in the show. Besides, we all know it’s true.

Moms used to say, “Life isn’t fair.” Now they say, “There’s a form to fill out.” The cliché used to be “teach a man to fish”, now it’s “Long John Silvers accepts W.I.C.” It used to be the height of embarrassment to let it be known that one was forced to accept charity. Now one is feted, Sandra Fluke style, at the DNC convention, for agitating for government to force businesses to dole out charity.

But of course, forced charity isn’t charity at all. It’s something worse. Now we gonna get an Obamaphone. “Free” medical insurance. “Free” unemployment money. Who remembers “free” cheese?

It wasn’t just pride that kept a man from accepting a handout. The man knew handouts came with a price. That price was control, rules, regulations, and worst of all, dependence. This doesn’t just hurt the man in all the obvious ways. What’s little understood is that it hurts the dispenser of handouts, too. In all but those possessed of the very strongest of wills, it builds in the bureaucrat who holds the purse an ineradicable sense of superiority.

“There must be a reason it is I in this position,” he says to himself. “It must be that I know what is best. Let me act upon this revelation.” And so we have, to pick one dismal example, Mayor Bloomberg banning soda pop in sizes Mayor Bloomberg personally finds an affront. He is full of self-righteous indignation when questioned about this small, really trivial thing. He knows these questions are not arguments about pop, but about his infallible judgment. “How can I be wrong?” he like many a government apparatchik reasons. “I am in charge.”

We thus have two classes. The largest are the takers, always asking, “Why doesn’t the government do something about ______?” where the blank can be anything. And then there are the givers, who come to feel it is their birthright to give. Give till it hurts.

And it will.


  1. Ken

    Also, religion used to guide values…and there was the parable about the three servants given bags of money to caretake, with the two with the largest shares rewarded for their industry in investing them & the one that merely saved it was punished.

    There was (still is, really) a clear message there…and its amazing (to some/many/droves of us) how that message has been corrupted, by numerous pastors/churches, to lead the congregations to embrace very different, diametrically opposite even, values.

    Religion just ain’t what is used to be…and many people are falling in line with modern interpretations there….

  2. Speed

    A famous man once said, ” … the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

    He also said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” I think he was a Democrat.

  3. Carmen D'Oxide

    Don’t worry it will all sort out. Sort of like the situation in Greece where the government “charity” has run out and roving gangs of thugs are beating up on whom they perceive to be unworthy recipients.

    How rare is this? I know of a woman who decades ago needed to receive public assistance for a while. She not only put herself through college, raised a child alone, but also paid it all back to the government!

  4. David

    Government welfare is to charity as rape is to consensual sex.

    Charity and consensual sex both have two willing partners.
    Welfare and rape are both based on force by one side.

  5. rank sophist

    I agree. But we also didn’t have as much unchecked corporate excess back then, screwing over the average man. And communities and families and churches were stronger, so that people had support structures if they fell. And we actually had jobs to go around, before they all went overseas. The entire country is in ruins, and the government isn’t the only thing to blame.

  6. Briggs


    True: we must blame ourselves. The government is just us after all, just people.

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