Our political discourse is afflicted with a disease. The disease has been called neurotic displacement, displaced pain and sometimes just plain displacement. Before I explain how this country has succumbed to this malady, I think it makes sense to first describe this ailment in individuals.
The disease is present in both medicine and psychiatry. In bodily disease, this condition manifests itself when Organ A will hurt even though Organ B is the actual organ suffering from disease. In psychopathology, a patient may complain that A is his problem when in fact B is the issue that is truly troubling him. The rationale for this condition seems to be that since it would be too painful for the diseased organ to bear the full brunt of the agony, it is shifted or displaced to another organ. Sometimes it is described as something that arises because people simply cannot stand to face the truth of what is bothering them and so establish fictions to distract them from realities they cannot endure to ponder.
Certain cases of appendicitis offer a dramatic example of this process. Although the appendix is in the lower right quadrant of the abdomen, sometimes a patient’s pain is displaced to regions of the abdomen far from the appendix. (Tens of thousands of Americans die each year from appendicitis that is mistakenly brushed off as gastritis). In psychiatry, the condition presents itself in truly remarkable ways. In hysterical blindness, a condition in which a patient genuinely cannot see but no defects in the eye or optic nerve are apparent, the patient often expresses only scant concern for her failure to see and will profess to be very much upset about relatively picayune matters.
This phenomenon is evident in the nation’s political discourse, particularly as it exists on television. The titans of the television news media, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, spend a truly inordinate amount of time talking about things that are, relative to what is really important, infantile drivel. We hear about all sorts of stupid, silly stars getting into stupid silly scrapes over drugs, significant others and the police. This nation decided it would have a national nervous breakdown when a young intern with a loud and brazen beret had oral sex with the president. When a boy named Elian Gonzalez was brought to the country, and his Cuban father wanted him returned to Cuba, large portions of the country seemed ready to go through the Cold War all over again. Very recently, a ferry collided against a pier in Lower Manhattan. No one was killed. I have been told that for the next five hours, New York One (which broadcasts television news in New York City) and CNN spent in excess of ninety percent of their coverage on the ferry accident.
Of course, such inane news programming might make sense if we lived in some Eden-like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood where nasty things are a rare occurrence. But that is not where we live. Sometimes I think a Hades on earth is more like it.
I can think of so many sheer and utter scandals, large and small, that are hardly touched upon. The war in Afghanistan is now in its 12th year, and most of the American people are blithely and happily oblivious to its carnage—it is no wonder when the media is busily attending to such earth-shattering matters as Paris Hilton’s petty, narcissistic heart. In the United States, banks have evicted millions of people from their homes through fraud and chicanery while the media concentrates on the lovely homes inhabited by the mental midgets on Real Housewives from Atlanta.
Medicine is one of my obsessions, and the media’s coverage of medicine is truly horrendous. Consider this story which, to my knowledge, got no attention on the evening news: in America, two of the most promising drugs for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Zevalin and Bexxar, were not being used because of insufficient demand. Of course, there were plenty of dying people who needed these drugs, which I must concede have very serious side effects, but market forces condemned them to disuse. Why? These drugs were radioactive and could only be administered in hospitals. However, most doctors don’t have their offices in hospitals and so cannot dispense these drugs. But doctors love to administer drugs in their offices because they are reimbursed at a fantastic rate (roughly $500) when their nurses stick a needle in a patient on the premises.
According to the New York Times, most patients were getting inferior drugs, because they could be administered in a doctor’s private office, to boost a doctor’s earnings—and while the doctors got richer, the patients often died. (Of course, according to the intellectual bimbos on Fox, the only bad thing about medicine is what the government might do to it, and the rapaciousness of some doctors, and the death ensuing from their greed, does not exist).
So what does the news media talk about when it opts to discuss medicine? First, it concentrates on the immaterial audio-visuals: the TV screen shows film footage of long lines at clinics and babies crying when they get a shot. And then the narrator relates his grave and gripping news story: We are in flu season, and it is rough.
I live in New York City, which imagines that it is the utter apogee of journalistic excellence. In New York, millions of people are spending upwards of half of their income on rent, and are living in rat-infested and dilapidated conditions, and the local television news is telling us about the aforementioned ferry accident which resulted in no deaths, a bake sale at a parochial school, and, if they are in a particularly moronic mood, a lead story will consist of a lot of moaning and groaning because a storm had the temerity to deposit a mere two inches of snow on the ground.
Obviously, this pathological coverage means that important stories are ignored. However, there is another way in which we suffer because of the dearth of coverage of important stories. When the television news concentrates on dog shows and other such nonsense, people assume that little is really wrong with society or that if there are problems they are not the result of malfeasance or negligence on the part of big business or government. Surely, if bad things were happening, they would be reported upon, ordinary folk assume. For example I remember an allegedly bright woman telling me in 1988 that AIDS “was no longer a problem.” I asked her what made her come to this conclusion, and she responded, “Well, they talked about it a lot on TV, back in 1985, what with Rock Hudson and all, and I don’t hear that much about it anymore.” Of course, things were much worse in 1988 than they were in 1985. (The infection rate was going up like a parabola on a Cartesian plane. There were 1000 cases in 1982; 10,000 cases in 1984; and by 1988, about 1,000,000 people in this country were infected—and in those days our medicinal arsenal was virtually empty). That woman’s views had nothing to do with reality and were nothing other than the neutered version of reality she had imbibed from her tame and lame television.
This problem has always been with us but now it is only getting worse. Yes, in 1964 the government fabricated a crisis in the Gulf of Tonkin to broaden our involvement in Vietnam, and the media was sold on the lie, but the media did not smile too much. Walter Cronkite reported the news in his gravelly voice, did not behave as a mouthpiece for government propaganda, and showed us the villages we torched as part of our Orwellian “pacification” program. But today the media behaves like fawning fools of the government, and when Bush declared in 2003 —all dressed up in military drag—that his mission In Iraq was accomplished, the television announcers ran their brushes through their blow-dried hair and smiled wide and told us that the president was a very virile man. And so we have our bread and circuses, our Lay’s potato chips to give us type two diabetes and our network and cable news to lead us inexorably towards senile dementia.