The Idol Disease

A recent post touched upon the power of television advertising. The industry analyzes and divides viewers into demographic categories based on age, race, economic class, gender, and more. People think the entertainment is the product, and the ads are only momentary annoyances. The fact is, the viewers are the product, and there is not a moment when the tube is not selling. The viewers are not free; they are products created by media so that their attention, the time in their lives, can be subdivided and sold for money to advertisers. The genius of our culture is this: Market trumps everything. Market absorbs everything. Market turns everything to Market’s use. Market defines us to ourselves in lockstep with what we buy. Some of the dynamics behind this are technological. After all, we still do not have a very good understanding of the effects of television in our culture. We are just now able to look back the length of a generation.

The personal-psychological cost of this transaction—or to say it straight out, its spiritually destructive effect—is hidden from view. It takes its toll from all of us whether we watch or not. Whatever is broadcast becomes the reality, and whoever does not see him or herself there is lost to view, in effect dehumanized.

The effects of this show up in our most susceptible neighbors; the ones who show up in mental health clinics, correctional facilities, and social service centers. They are the canaries in the coal mine we all inhabit. They have almost no vocabulary to describe themselves, beyond that which is offered by mass media. Evidently its terms are inadequate for them, for they are, as we say, not well adjusted. We would do well to read the message in their disasters. This is what it says: The market does not sustain life; its version of identity, of virtue, of salvation, is a travesty against life.

My career in the social service system showed me a sample of these people, those with medical problems. One can generalize fairly confidently about the rest, because people who have one major life problem soon accumulate the rest: substance abuse, divorce, poverty, and general fecklessness. They live at the low end of several human spectra. They are very commonly depressed, which means they have less imagination than others for inventing meaningful projects, and less energy for carrying them out. They have little ability to articulate feelings or anything else in words, or to benefit from experiences of whatever kind. They are therefore bored, while they have less money than most of us do for the ordinary distractions from boredom. To compound the problem, their attention is constantly brought back to misery, because they watch more television; and since they don’t have jobs, this is daytime television.

Such people are susceptible to just about any voice that offers them a sense of identity. The identity need not be flattering; any recognizable label is enough. At the Rehab office, we give them diagnostic labels. Thirty years ago, there was a stigma of such labeling; those days are over. Now people positively insist upon diagnostic labels; very few things will make them angrier faster than to question the label they have embraced. Devotees insist on the proper pronunciation, as some religious people do upon the right way to say the divine name.

Ironically, this goes on under the label of individualism. But for the mass of folks, after a few years individualism becomes unimaginable. The media are like a fast food menu from which one makes one’s choice, taking a certain satisfaction from knowing that many other people do the same. Identity with a crowd, an audience, a family of viewers, takes its place. From the beginning (remember Queen for a Day? Doctor Kildare?), Disease, in the guise of pharmaceutical ads and as a plot theme is one of the most pervasive themes on the box. And if that is not enough, sufferers can leave the house and join a support group to help them script it still more minutely. They can make a full time occupation out of it.

It should not surprise us, then, when we get susceptible people in our office, expecting deference to be paid to this or that disease. It should not surprise us either, when they positively cultivate symptoms before our eyes. Dr. Charcot’s public displays at the Saltpêtrière, Paris, showed in the 1870s that diseases can be scripted and taught to people. People learn from such exhibitions, and their symptoms are, as they insist, truly present, painful, and debilitating. “’People love diseases,’ shrugs Alyssa Robinson, who operates the ‘Wonderful World of Diseases’ Web page.” (Ann Carrns, “On the Internet, Diseases Are Rampant, Playing to Worries of Hypochondriacs” Wall Street Journal, October 5, 1999.

We ought to detest the romanticization of physical or psychological aberrations; the popular notion that hardships and neuroses make the artist. The truth is, if someone succeeds despite illness or pain, it is an act of overcoming and courage, not a charming display of personal quirks. Those are commonplace; spirit is something else.

The elemental structure of the problem is very ancient: Again—or still—we are confronting the Deuteronomic dilemma between life and death (Deuteronomy 30:19). We are the kind of creature that needs to be told, Choose life.

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