Dr. Phil in the Trenches

It is a well established thesis that contemporary American “culture” melds together the spectacles of advertising, war, sport, and the electoral process. It is often overlooked, however, that the therapeutic mentality is a constant ingredient in the mix. On April 4 one had the opportunity to view a particularly distilled instance of this phenomenon as “Dr. Phil” hosted two anti-war guests, (the better known being Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange) for a discussion of the validity of the anti-war movement and the manner of its protest. You all know “Dr. Phil” of course; he was Oprah’s guru and now plays a therapist on his own television show.

The program was so corrupt and portentous that I was moved to send “Dr. Phil” the following letter. But first a warning message from our sponsor, the commitment to truth: Therapy likes to present itself as a neutral, objective practice serving only the client’s best interests. Of course this claim is designed to wrap itself in the mantle of science, thereby enhancing its status and hiding its own agenda. But the truth is that every therapy is inherently normative and political, not because of some defect in the therapist, but because therapy is a practice, and as such, is directed toward some end and away from others. So it chooses values to guide it. And in the process of its realization it assigns causal agency to the individual, a social group such as the family, a social structure such as gender identity or class, or the society at large. This is its politics. Now, with this proviso in mind, we can proceed to the letter:

Dear Dr. Phil,

I recently watched one of the most manipulative programs I have ever seen. (April, 4, 2003.) I don’t know how self conscious or ignorant you are of the techniques you used to pressure the two visitors and appeal to the worst inclinations of the audience. Here is some of what I observed in the last half hour of the program that I witnessed.

First, you dishonestly, or quite ignorantly, vacillated back and forth between claiming ignorance of the really important issues that are essential to this debate, such as whether the war is right or wrong, on the one hand, and extraordinary knowledge of matters nobody really has any particular right to claim knowledge of, such as the view that the protests will be used by the Iraqis to strengthen their own morale and weaken the moral of American soldiers, on the other.

You took the standard line of liberal manipulation by continually staking out the high ground, claiming that you agreed with the protesters’ right to free speech, only to immediately denigrate their right to free speech. You told them that they could write letters to congress, as though they weren’t already aware of this possibility, and when they responded that congress did not speak on their behalf, you glibly noted that perhaps the congress did not represent their position. But we know that at least 30% of the population is against the war, so how do you account for the fact that 30% of congress is not representing them? Shouldn’t you perhaps consider the possibility that the primary factor motivating the congress is fear, craven fear of being considered unpatriotic, of going against the regressive sentiments of the population that feels it needs to come together in support of authority, one of the most reactionary sentiments that a people can experience, and one that has fueled every great political disaster from the rise of Hitler to tribal genocide in Africa. And let us not overlook that this “tribal,” regressive patriotism is precisely the sentiment that your program was designed to encourage.

Furthermore, by your own logic, why would you think that strongly protesting the war to Congress could not also be used against the troops? So, given the fact that any kind of protest could be used by Iraq to bolster its morale and weaken the resolve of American soldiers, the only reasonable thing to do is not exercise the right of free speech at all, a policy in contradiction to the lofty idealism you originally claimed to support, but that now has been revealed as hollow. One wonders if free speech is really of any importance to you at all.

In your defense of the right of democratic protest you never once referred to the fact that Americans such as Lincoln, Thoreau and Mark Twain severely criticized their government for what they believed were unjust wars. Nor, of course, did you ever refer to the right of civil disobedience, the strategy of Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, a practice that probably produced distress for large numbers of people, but that in hindsight can only be regarded as politically progressive, having constituted a great advance for civilization. Do you not realize that the strikes and boycotts called for by Gandhi had unhappy consequences for British laborers, who lost work and income in the process? Should he have desisted then in consideration of their grievances?

You referred to the fact that Saddam is an evil man, another standard ploy in the liberal arsenal, not because he isn’t evil, (whatever that term is supposed to mean) but because you completely overlooked, by willful design or ignorance, that we originally brought him to power and provided him with chemical and biological materials that he used to produce the arsenal that we not cite as one of our excuses for invading his country. You have absolutely no knowledge of our imperialist position in the world, or if you do, chose to say nothing about it on your program. It has probably never entered your mind that this country can be “evil,” as witness Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chile, Guatemala, Brazil, Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua and a long list of other American imperialist ventures in recent years. We killed hundreds of thousands of people during these “exercises.” This silence on your part is either the manifestation of a terrible lack of awareness of things that matter and that you should know something about, or a sign of corruption. In either case you are deeply culpable.

You concluded in a most terrible fashion, basically repeating again that you do not know enough to evaluate the war but urging people to support it. If you do not know that nature of this war, how can you possibly support it? Your position is nothing finally but craven submissiveness. That is what your “my country right or wrong” appeal comes to. We have to support the troops. Why; did you ever ask yourself why we have to support the troops. Did the “good Germans” support their troops? Should they have? Is this war just? But you claim not to know. Then it is possible, as many thoughtful people maintain, including the Pope and Nelson Mandella, that the war is unjust, that it is a violation of the United Nations Charter, that it is a war crime, that it is immoral. Why did you not raise any of these issues. All you could do is wallow in the most despicable jingoism. To those Germans who opposed Nazism would you have argued that they were hurting their country? But that is exactly what their country needed, to be damaged in its war and stopped in its inhuman march to barbarism and catastrophe. And that is what the United States needs now, because its imperial venture is immoral and profoundly destructive.

You are probably suffering from the enormous adulation that comes with television “stardom,” and that may well have led you to believe that because you assume you know something about therapy, you must know something about morality and political justice. What you displayed on your April 4th program is a most terrible unwillingness to exercise your moral responsibility by studying the nature of American oppression in the world. It was far easier for you to harass the guests with the standard admonition that rights demand responsibility. But they are exercising their responsibility by thinking through their position, while you limped along on the crutch of ignorance. And by the way, though you kept demanding that they answer your questions, and despite the fact that they attempted to ask you questions, you never gave them the opportunity. (Watch the program again and note how you refused them the opportunity.) Of course. the final touch was bringing in military personnel, mothers with exposed children, and a largely pro-war audience to fuel a regressive sentimentality. You rally ought to feel thoroughly disgraced by your corrupt and disingenuous performance. Someone who exercises great influence with the public, shares a commensurate responsibility, and not merely the opportunity to chide others on their supposed lack of responsibility. “My country right or wrong” reverberates to childhood and the equally pathetic “my parents right or wrong,” which is its origin. But at least in childhood one is incapable of critical reflection and so must be excused for the identification with power and the threat of punishment. As an adult one has the responsibility to examine the slogans that a massive propaganda machine has employed to permeate consciousness.

Finally, and perhaps most obscenely, your reference to various family members of yours who served in the military should certainly have raised questions for you about your own tendency to identify with those who played crucial roles in your childhood development. Had you done so, you might have taught the audience a small lesson in the practice of self-critical reflection, one of the ingredients in any genuine therapeutic procedure. You might have examined your own tendency toward reflexive “patriotism,” and in the process revealed something of its irrational roots in your own life. That would have been difficult, no doubt, but a wonderful opportunity to explore the vagaries of authoritarian sentiment. Instead, you avoided confronting yourself and your audience, and went for the “cheap tear,” a device which, like any mawkish presentation, leaves the audience with a momentary feeling of comfort and a deeper immersion in a world of tragedy and needless suffering.



Such was the letter I wrote to “Dr. Phil.”

It is a useful practice to criticize the “information” media; its newscasts, interviews with military and policy “specialists,” designers of war stratagems, and all varieties of presentation of supposedly factual material, as the left community has been doing. It is also crucial to keep a constant critical eye on programs of mass, popular appeal. For embedded in the typical sitcom or talk show is the same appeal to collective apathy and chauvinism, the same subordination to authority, the same willingness to sacrifice for the sake of accumulation. But most of all, beware of savants, religious or therapeutic. They are particularly dangerous in an age in which a large alienated population wishes nothing more than to subordinate its critical intelligence to cosmic powers beyond and psychological process within. Nothing flourishes so much as the appeal of an “escape from freedom,” and no freedom so much as the freedom to inquire, criticize and confront and destroy established authority.

Dr. RICHARD LICHTMAN is a philosopher who specializes in the relationship between the social and psychological dimensions of human life. His books also indicate the range of his interests: Essays in Critical Social Theory covers a broad range of topics in economic, social, and political theory, while The Production of Desire is a detailed analysis of the works of Marx and Freud.

He can be reached at The Wright Institute, 2728 Durant Avenue, Berkeley, CA. 94704 or via email at: rlichtman@counterpunch.org.