“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.