All posts by Joshua Sperber

“Dr. Phil” TV Show VS. Reality

Phil McGraw is a whore, a bully, and a deeply crooked, unfathomably vile, individual. This doesn’t make McGraw unique among paid entertainers, and if there were nothing else to him he might not be worth mentioning. McGraw markets himself as “Dr. Phil.” The title “Dr.” is essential for what he does, because it is the basis for his perceived authority. He has gone through the accredited institutions (paid them a lot of money), fulfilled their requirements, and has earned an advanced degree in psychology, designating him an expert on the human mind. Since then, he has cultivated his role in the long line of history’s charlatans. Charlatanism of his sort has served a vital social function for thousands of years. This could be traced to the advent of food surpluses, which created the first non-productive classes. Invariably, these classes’ rulers utilize the charlatans – or merely encourage their existence, even if just by the default of persecuting those who question their authority – to psychologically manipulate and control the ruled oppressed majority.

Post-Enlightenment charlatanism of the McGraw type uses the language of science and reason, as opposed to traditional superstition. The meaning of their activity, however, is achieved not by their definition of reason, but by their application of it, with its attendant social functions and implications. In this sense there’s nothing unique about McGraw. Yet the particular character of his brand of charlatanism demonstrates some attributes of modern society. (Of course traditional superstition still abates. Adorno’s The Stars Down to Earth examines a year’s worth of LA Times astrology columns circa 1950. The mystical character of astrology wasn’t disputed as such, but largely stood in entertaining contrast when supernatural spirituality commanded being an obedient wage slave. Self-destructive and arbitrary social relationships are invisibly accepted and presented as natural givens of life).

Everything about the “Dr. Phil” television program bespeaks the construction of authority. In addition to his “expert” status, the man is “manly”, large, authoritative, and tough. He is a former linebacker, which supports his guise as all-American straight shooter. Thus the US mass audience is assured that he is a true anti-intellectual. His education suggests that he has learned what there is to know about scientific brain studies, and has assuredly internalized many of its truths. But, informed by a more universal and sound “common sense,” he is the one who goes beyond it, a village seer who has traveled far only to learn that the essential wisdom was home all the while. This is the meaning of his southern accent. While that accent typically connotes stupidity in the one-inch thin symbolic vocabulary of US understanding, combined with articulate authoritarianism it, negating suspicion of the intellectual, signifies truth.

“Dr Phil,” as a market-constructed individual cannot be separated from the meaning he acquires as a television symbol. Most people first encounter McGraw through watching television. That is, a deeply unilateral disseminator of propaganda, owned and operated by the ruling class, animates the relationship between viewer and McGraw. The inherent passivity of television watching perfectly complements the self-certain proclamations of McGraw. It makes no difference that he can’t listen to the viewer, because he doesn’t need to listen to anyone anyway, or at least only insofar as to point out in what way that they are wrong. While the program is popular for its own reasons it would not be on television in the first place if it – beyond being the product of mass commercial culture – did not fulfill the ideological demands of network owner and advertiser. For this reason, “Dr. Phil” exists partially by default. For there are innumerable shows that could not air in its place, and, as something needs to be on television, “Dr. Phil,” not challenging the prerogatives of its masters, is allowed to exist.

The program, like any other, fuses spectacle with ideological indoctrination. The viewer naturally allies with the show’s host, who they see five days a week. The guests are invariably people who are somehow “failing” in life, whether through drug addiction, mangled relationships, or simply being overweight. McGraw uses a blend of “home-spun” pseudo-wisdom, rank manipulation, and bullying to force his guests to succumb to the dictates of “common sense.” Lynne Murray challenges popular notions of weight, advocating for the aesthetic and political acceptance of heavy people, and writes of her experience watching the program on fat acceptance in Spin Dr: Phil McGraw vs. Fat Acceptance: Making Fat People Cry for Fun and Profit. This episode, according to McGraw’s formula, featured him paternalistically berating his guests for not accepting his and society’s standards regarding fat people.

He referred to health statistics as proof of the objective dangers of obesity, rejecting out of hand the contention that self-esteem need not be predicated on fulfilling arbitrary and unattainable social standards (dieting doesn’t work, though McGraw has written a dieting book and has a line of “Dr. Phil” weight-loss bars and such). For the only rule for McGraw, the personification of authoritative society, is what society commands. Murray writes that when one guest, Sally Smith, responded to McGraw’s chastisement by noting that ninety-five percent of dieters regain their lost weight, McGraw asserted that this is because the motivations of the dieters are flawed – engaging in speculation and thereby completely jettisoning the so-called scientific basis of his shtick, as Murray notes. That dietary habits correlate to work, time, city design, and profit-based mass production is invisible. likewise there can be no connection made between control of women’s bodies, the conceptualization of women as objects, and patriarchy. If any of this is mentioned in response to forcing women to change their bodies, the dragon of personal responsibility roars, destroying anyone who would dare place one’s experiences in a social-environmental-historical context, i.e. attempt to understand reality. That more people proportionately are overweight in the US compared to Europe can only indicate that “Americans” have less personal responsibility, at this point in time anyway.

But we never get this far, lest we make excuses. Nor can the truth be acknowledged that in the past heaviness was an aesthetic attribute, as it, then and now, is inseparable from class. Previously the wealthy and “attractive” were symbolized by access to food, whereas today’s first-world rich are designated by the leisure-time and money that allows the avoidance of fast food and ability to go to the gym. In both cases, wealth and class are interconnected with attractiveness. Indeed, it is not typically wealthy people appearing on “Dr. Phil,” nor are any Samoans, whose representation would less suggest the laziness and sloth that McGraw extrapolates from heavy, non-affluent, white women.

The ruling ideas are indeed the popular ideas, and McGraw gets people to cheer him through his astute sense and application of today’s ideological hegemony. I recently watched an episode where two parents tricked their son into coming on the show so that McGraw could “help” him with his alleged drug “problem.” The captive guest was proud, angry, and intelligent, and made a mockery of McGraw by noting that he had been deceived into coming on the show, and asking if the complexities of drug addiction are suitable for treatment on a forty-five minute talk-show. McGraw is a skilled rhetorician, and shamefully used the fallacy of the tu quo que to tell the man that since he had allegedly lied more than anyone present, it doesn’t matter that he has been lied to as well. In answer to the young man’s justified anger at the manner in which he had been treated, McGraw berated him for “being self-righteous.” The guest didn’t appear to have the experience or desire to overcome the rotten tactics McGraw uses, and was eventually coerced into submitting to a “drug-treatment program.” McGraw started out as an adviser to attorneys on how to manipulate juries, and everything about his debating “technique” embodies manipulation, dishonesty, and bullying of the most wretched sort. It is bad enough that ends justify his means, it is even worse when the ends amount to social control.

Perhaps the most obvious exhibition of McGraw acting as the cop of social control – his thick mustache, the type found on cops, firefighters, and rightwing baseball players evokes hyper-masculine authority – was when he had two “anti-war activists” in his feared “hot seat.” The guests, one of whom was former gubernatorial candidate Medea Benjamin, need to be deeply faulted for coming on the show in the first place. Under whose authority did they become the spokespeople for the “anti-war movement”? Moreover, agreeing to appear on McGraw’s ridiculously staged trials precludes any meaningful possibility of conveying one’s message. McGraw likely had them on to nominally consider their argument only in order to undermine it, inoculating his viewers to the growing idea that something was amiss with the US’s latest imperial butchery.

And this is what he did, savaging the mostly hapless Benjamin. When she did manage to break out a few points, lecturing the audience that there indeed was no connection between Al Qaeda and Hussein, McGraw excoriated her for “getting on your soapbox.” Even if Benjamin, who is more informed, articulate, and experienced than almost any other person McGraw could have gotten to come on his show, had been able to make her argument, he would have simply dismantled it in the editing room.

With cameras panning the pro-military audience’s solemn faces, nationalist music cueing the commercial breaks, and various other devices, McGraw guaranteed that the message that an anti-war attitude is treasonous would be delivered. While it is true that Benjamin didn’t have much of a chance that still doesn’t exculpate her dishonest attempts to use “Dr. Phil” speech to appeal to the audience’s perceived jingoistic sensibilities.

She is the real American because she cares more than anyone about our troops, and she’s tried to lobby her representatives and newspaper editors but they haven’t responded to the implorations of their constituent. Perhaps they know better than you, McGraw explained their dismissal, dismissing the nominal pretense of representative democracy. McGraw eventually hammered Benjamin for failing “to accept responsibility” for her “free” speech, which in this case placed “our troops” in harm’s way by boosting the morale of the “enemy.” Instead of noting the preposterousness of this ludicrous and blatant form of censorship, applying the lesson to German citizens under the Nazis, by noting that it is the government who puts the troops in “harms way,” or by noting that all the “moral support” in the world would not enable Iraq to defend itself against the US’s aerial onslaught, Benjamin pathetically tried to crawl out of the charge.

McGraw and audience shook their collective head at this possibly well-meaning but dangerous fool. But the point is not that Benjamin failed but that it was impossible in the forum, buttressed by all the dead wisdom of might makes right red white and blue we are good brainwashed stupidity, to “succeed.”

McGraw’s message, predicated on the belief “that which appears is good, that which is good appears” is reinforced by the mainstream media and culture industry. How could he be wrong when Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Anthony Robbins are saying the same thing? When it is, after all, common sense. The only ones who voice “subversive” views, like Mike Farrell and Michael Moore, are necessarily confused egomaniacs.

They are only listened to when the system can make use of their argument, explaining the popularity of Michael Moore, as his myopic attacks on Bush are supported by upper echelons of the military, intelligence departments, the State Department, old-style Republicans, the Democrats, and international financiers horrified that Bush the Maniac’s fanaticism is slaying the golden goose of international slavery. Much of the Left, notably the Counterpunch creeps (where, ironically, a furious open letter to McGraw responding to the Benjamin show could be found: “The Politics of Therapy” by Richard Lichtman, April 8, 2003), are so disgustingly desperate for any anti-Bush criticism that they kneel before sordid nationalism.

Like Moore, having no respect for the masses, they attempt to exploit – but create – the basest impulses, sacrificing lucid analysis for fascistic drivel seeking to go back to a “better time” in US politics, before foreign usurpers (namely the Israelis, and sometimes Saudis, or the British for their LaRouche cousins) “occupied” our beloved institutions. These themes are prominent on neo-Nazi websites. Faced with such horrendous bullshit from the self-proclaimed “opposition,” it is no wonder that the monster McGraw carries on. The popularity of McGraw is inseparable from the egregious shortcomings of the Left to articulate and maintain an honest and persuasive diagnosis of today’s historical, political-economic crisis.

Because they have no integrity they do not agree that it is better to be quiet and think than to foster false propaganda as a means to “fixing things.” And they do not see or care that it is no small part their false propaganda that has contributed to this desperate world condition in the first place.

Book Review : The Decline of American Power

Immanuel Wallerstein’s “The Decline of American Power” (New Press, 2003) is an insightful analysis of today’s global crises, their origins and their long-term trajectories. Wallerstein situates the 2003 US war on Iraq, global terrorism and the US “War on Terrorism” in a “capitalist world-economy that is in crisis as a historical system” (121). Though this crisis endangers the global economy as a whole, Wallerstein submits, it particularly imperils the US’s leading position within that system.

While suggestions of US decline have been made and defied for decades, Wallerstein argues a compelling case by employing a long-term view that examines several growing structural pressures that have halted global capitalist growth. For example, nearly total global urbanization of traditional rural populations, signifying the historic exhaustion of cheaper first-generation city workforces, is slowing the downward pressure on wages that has hitherto subsidized declining profits. Similarly, growing environmental ruination has led to increasingly higher taxes, raising costs of investment in an already strained economy.

Contrary to popular assumptions that wages and taxes are in overall decline, Wallerstein argues that the recent relative drop in those costs attempts to but fails at redressing their broader, long-term, increase. This long-term increase in the cost of investment had mattered less during unprecedented post-war economic growth. But with the eventual slowdown of profits in 1973-4, these contradictions have increasingly affected economic, political and social policies.

Thereafter, Wallerstein writes, rightist free-marketers, who had been abandoned to the fringes for their inability to predict and respond to the Great Depression, reentered mainstream discourse. Proven partially right by Keynesian capitalism’s unmanageable long-term costs, they were newly accepted for their insistence that the elimination of social spending would lower taxes and free up capital while simultaneously establishing new areas for investment through privatization. Artificially creating investment opportunities, however, did not resolve the underlying crisis in investment resulting from excess productive capacities, but merely extended capitalism’s shelf life at the expense of most people’s living standards.

Wallerstein writes that the failure of the so-called Old Left (the Communist Party, union-oriented Leftist organizations prominent from the 1930s-1960s) to create an alternative to the dominant world system is cause and effect of capitalism’s surprising resilience and is responsible for much of today’s Left defeatism.

For Wallerstein, however, the Old Left’s optimistic view, “this sense of deep hope in the future, this sense of certainty that there would be more equality and democracy… was paradoxically the most depoliticizing worldview possible” (111). Counseling patience based on inevitable improvement, the Old Left “served paradoxically as the most important guarantor of political stability of the world-system in the long run, despite their frequent calls for political turbulence” (111). The growing chasm separating actual Left achievements from its rhetoric led to the social outbursts of 1968 that rejected both the dominant ruling system and its self-professed opposition. We are living, Wallerstein argues, in that aftermath.

While viewing the defeat of the Old Left as a positive and essential prerequisite for reformulating critiques of the world system, Wallerstein also holds that the Left’s decline is responsible for the emergence of Islamic extremism. Noting that the retrogressive Islamist movement is but one expression of what has been occurring all over the “peripheral zones of the world system” (116), Wallerstein explains its rise as, in particular, the outcome of the collapse of Arab Nationalism.

Writing that Arab Nationalism’s inability to achieve promised social transformation led many Arabs to turn to alternative strategies, however, constitutes a rare example of Wallerstein using a simplified and monocausal analysis to explain a complex sociopolitical phenomenon. While Arab Nationalism indeed did not achieve its main objectives, its decline is still inseparable from concerted Western attempts at undermining it, culminating in Israel’s destruction of the Arab Nationalists’ militaries and prestige in 1967. Simultaneously, the United States and Israel played a pivotal role in funding Islamist movements as a counterweight to the secular, relatively progressive, Nationalists.

A particularly valuable aspect of the work is its rejection of the postwar notion that armed conflict between the major capitalist powers is a thing of the past. The underlying political-economic causes of imperialist warfare have not been eradicated with World War II, but rather have only laid dormant due to the US’s uncontested supremacy at the war’s end – resulting from the capital it had extracted from allies and its assumption of world political leadership, made possible with the destruction of its major competitors. Though Europe’s gradual return to power was partially obscured by its acceptance of US political leadership during the Cold War, the demise of the USSR has brought the latent imperialist rivalry out into the open.

This view informs Wallerstein’s interpretation of the US war on Iraq. For the first time in the history of the United Nations, Wallerstein writes, the US was unable to win Security Council support for a measure it badly wanted. Wallerstein goes beyond merely stating that the US’s failure in the UN indicates a political break between the US and Europe, but that the war itself constituted a US war on Germany and France – to the surprise of Iraqis, to be sure. Indeed, in Resurrecting Empire, Rashid Khalidi notes a Bush Administration official speaking of “containing” France and Germany after the fall of Baghdad. That foreign rivals were ignoring the US-led embargo by trading with Iraq while the latter was encouraging the switch of oil purchases from Dollar to Euro, further threatening the US’s economic position, further supports this line.

The historian Paul Kennedy anticipated this scenario in his 1987 work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Kennedy saw that US dominance in the post-war era was unsustainable since the intrinsic character of the world system insured the relative rise of new (or old) powers at the expense of the relative decline of the top power. For Kennedy, the question was how the US would respond to this change, whether it would graciously acquiesce, sharing power with other nations, or forcefully resist. Ironically, as Kennedy observed, US resistance to its inevitable movement toward equilibrium could lead to military overextension and economic exhaustion, hastening what was being fended off.

While George W. Bush’s aggressive unilateralism in Iraq suggests that the US has taken the latter route, Wallerstein understands that the political-economic equilibrium that Kennedy suggests the US embrace is itself unsustainable. Indeed, it was the unyielding desire to maintain the equilibrium characterizing Europe from 1815-1914 that led France and England to war to suppress German ascension. Here Wallerstein stresses that we no longer have the luxury of repeating past mistakes, arguing that there can be no returning to the policies that have led to today’s crises in the first place. Underlining the limitations of rightwing analyses, while noting the failures of historic leftwing alternatives, Wallerstein asserts that the cycle can only be broken with the establishment of a new world system. Restating that the capitalist world system has reached its breaking point, Wallerstein emphasizes that it is impossible to predict the character of its inevitable replacement.

Based on this fast-approaching future where anything is possible, Wallerstein optimistically suggests that deteriorating material conditions can further, paradoxically, eliminate conceptual limitations imbedded in obsolete Leftist presuppositions, unbridling vigorous popular movements creating change. However, because of the adaptability of ruling powers, as well as the dangers inherent in retrogressive movements from Fascists to Islamists, Wallerstein insists that those committed to change pursue lucidity over mobilization as its own end. The Decline of American Power is a good contribution to that end.