Philalawyer and Dr. Rob: Is America Psychologically Devolving? – Part 1

It’s been a little while, but my friend and colleague Philalawyer decided to talk a bit about Americans and their fascination with fame and reality television. As you can imagine, it’s not a flattering portrait we paint here.

Philalawyer (PL): Unless you’ve been in a cave on Mars for the past few years, you’ve probably asked yourself, “Is America beginning to unravel?” Has this nation finally gone mad? Drooling and staggering ahead like some lost ward of a sanitarium – its faculties all but destroyed, crushed under the weight of a society defined by its sloth and ignorance… its greed, envy and mendacity?

This is a dumb, rotten age, and allusions to Rome aren’t extreme. Imbeciles and thieves at every turn, stalking us in all the headlines. Wall Street a gentrified dog track, television filled with common fools and Washington driving the Republic headlong straight off a cliff. And as the flames get higher and higher, the fiddling only gets louder. Self-help pimps rule our literature, mega-churches swell with frightened masses and the “MySpace Nation” soldiers on, blissfully unaware as it consumes its diet of Kardashians, Ritalin and low carb Mango-tinis. A country “doped,” as Lennon sang, “with religion and sex and TV.” Welcome to the New Dumb, the United States of Decline.

It’s said these times test faith. But that misses the crux of the issue. Other than possibly laughing, God’s nowhere to be found in this mess. This is a scientific matter, better addressed to Darwin, and the question at the center is simple. Is the cause of our failure and embarrassment a medical, clinical regression? Is America Psychologically Devolving?

1. The Reality TV Phenomenon/Cult of Celebrity Culture

PL: Warhol said in the Sixties that everybody would get 15 minutes of fame. Sadly, his prediction’s proving more than overly-conservative. From Nicole Ritchie to that horrid Gosselin family to the pathetic wretch pushing his kids into the “Balloon Boy” hoax, it appears every piece of celebrity garbage with a parent rich enough to hire a publicist for them, or piece of white trash with an interesting enough drug addiction or willingness to embarrass himself for a camera is getting what feels like 15 months of fame. We know why the producers give us Reality TV. It’s cheap as hell, allowing studios to pump out programming at 1/5 of the cost of scripted material. The issue is why people like it. Are we losing our imaginations? Are we losing our capacity to appreciate art? What on earth is interesting about watching the Gosselins drag their kids from school to Wal Mart to soccer practice?

My personal suspicion is that people like watching this crap for two reasons. First, for the 100 I.Q. audience who takes it non-ironically, it brings the concept of “celebrity” down to their level. They can live vicariously through the Gosselins – “They’re just like me! Ergo, I’m a celebrity! Undiscovered, but every bit as fascinating!” For the rest of the audience, it provides a classic guilty pleasure, wrapped in a comfortable reinforcement of their elite position – “Look at these pathetic rubes dancing for the camera. How utterly provincial. Thank God I’m elevated enough in society that I’d never have to stoop to this.” What do you think?

Dr. Rob: I definitely agree with the whole concept of Identification. We connect with those people because we are led to believe they are like us. But they aren’t, at least not on camera. They’re whatever characteristic we have taken to 11, especially our negative qualities. They’re coached to be over-the-top, a persona. The bitchiest, the douchiest, the sluttiest, you name it. They’re just not as good-looking or wealthy as Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt; therefore we erroneously think there’s no “acting” involved.

The “elevated” people certainly love to spin the idea about being above all of that, but why is it that they need to have those thoughts every week? To me that’s often just a defense mechanism or justification, which is worse in so many ways. I appreciate the guy who says he likes seeing a version of himself on TV much more than the intellectual snob who’s getting off on the same idea but won’t come out and say it.

I don’t know if there’s all that much interesting about the Gosselins dragging their spawn around town. What is interesting is the conflict, the pain, our need for Schadenfreude. If Kate isn’t bitching about Tom’s new skank or screaming at the kids or crying about how hard her life is, we don’t care as much. We don’t stop to watch two people on the street talk about the Yanks/Sox, we stop when they throw punches about Game 7, 2004. We don’t stare at cars as they drive down the street, we keep our eyes on them when they’ve crashed into a brick wall going 85 M.P.H. People may give a shit when two reality contestants get together for a brief tryst, but we really pay attention when one cheats or slaps the other around. People love watching pain, plain and simple. That’s been the case with art for centuries and that fact won’t ever change. So we haven’t lost our appreciation of art, we just want the dirty details amped up as much as possible.

PL: Generally, I have no problem with people consuming garbage art. It’s comfort food for the brain, and if you like it, have at it. The problem is, a lot of people seem to be obsessed with becoming part of this new “celebrity.” Look at all the aspiring microcelebrities on the Internet, and the “inside baseball” thrust of shows like Entourage. The idea of being a celebrity – of anyone becoming a celebrity, regardless of his or her utter lack of talent – is the new focus. Nobody remembers that people like George Clooney or Meryl Streep became celebrities because they had a skill. In a world where something as vacant as Paris Hilton can shoot to stardom and wind up the equivalent of Angelina Jolie in many people’s eyes, the gullible everyman is going to grab for his moment in the limelight with increasing frequency. That means many more “Balloon Boys” in the future, more narcissistic oversharing and more inane micro-celebs like Julia Allison polluting the web. Society reflects art as much as art reflects society, and I’ve a sense our elevation of the common is a dangerous lowering of the bar. A society reveling in exhibitionism and the basest, least challenging forms of entertainment seems to me a society on the decline, a country beginning to regress.

Dr. Rob: Uh oh, are you also talking about you and me? Are we polluting the web? We have some talent…don’t we????

I would agree with you about consuming garbage art if it stopped there. And for many it does. I want to punch my friends in the heart when I see them watching it because I simply hate the idea of giving the Hiltons and the Kardashians exactly what they want: adulation in exchange for raging idiocy. But I think you’re spot on. The Balloon Boys are just getting started. And I don’t care if Bruno had to interview 1,000 parents to make his point, he still got at least three to basically agree to throw their kids into a pit of fire. If you’re hot, rich, or simply willing to dance around like a monkey, there will always be a society that will throw quarters at you.

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28 Responses to “Philalawyer and Dr. Rob: Is America Psychologically Devolving? – Part 1”

  1. bhovenga says:

    “Self-help pimps rule our literature, mega-churches swell with frightened masses and the “MySpace Nation” soldiers on, blissfully unaware as it consumes its diet of Kardashians, Ritalin and low carb Mango-tinis. A country “doped,” as Lennon sang, “with religion and sex and TV.” Welcome to the New Dumb, the United States of Decline.”

    Hahahaha, you gotta love PhilaLawyer. As for the debate itself, I have a roommate who is a reality television addict. Name a show, whether it be Love Of Ray J or Ghost Hunters or Real World Road Rules season three hundred and twenty five, the kid watches it and would prefer it over actual TV shows with real writers and actors. Now, I agree with PL that if this kind of stuff is your comfort food for the brain, then go for it (hell, I’ll admit I’ve watched shows like the Hills from time to time). But still, it’s hard to accept that some people waste such significant portions of their days zoning out on such garbage. There’s that statistic that the average American watches more than twenty hours of television a week while spending less than two hours reading books. Or that something like 50% of Americans will never read a non-fiction book after high school. Definitely doesn’t reflect well on the direction of our society.

  2. […] Philalawyer and Dr. Rob: Is America Psychologically Devolving? – Part 1 « Shrink Talk. […]

  3. […] kinda long, so from now on I’ll refer to it as ‘Simulacrum Culture’), comes this excellent conversation/rant from the always-on-point Philalawyer and ShrinkTalk’s Dr Rob. It’s one of those […]

  4. Joe says:

    I’m inspired. I refuse to go look up who Julia Allison is. If I hear one more chick say “Guess who’s following me on Twitter!” I might snap. Morons.

  5. Bob Roberts says:

    “Society reflects art as much as art reflects society, and I’ve a sense our elevation of the common is a dangerous lowering of the bar. A society reveling in exhibitionism and the basest, least challenging forms of entertainment seems to me a society on the decline, a country beginning to regress.

    Dr. Rob: Uh oh, are you also talking about you and me? Are we polluting the web? We have some talent…don’t we????”

    Physicians/Professionals –heal yourselves. Most consumate professional psychologists/lawyers are not blogging on about their personal and confidential relationships and then lamenting the fall of polite society. Both of you tried to glam onto the fame of a sad pathetic little rich boy who was basically doing a TJ Donkey Show in real time. As Winston Churchill once said” “we know what we are, we are just quibbling about the price.” The only difference between you two and the reality vampire celebrities is that you both are pikers with less fame. If Dr. Bob could sign a deal like Dr. Drew or Phil and parade the pathetics out for the amusment of the audience followed by a few dime store quips about treatment, he would do so in a second. And, it’s a shame that there is no OJ trial going on for PL to blabber nonsense on a Court TV show.

    So, yes, Dr. Bob: “Uh oh, are you also talking about you and me?’ Yes, you are talking about yourselves. PL: Atticus Finch wasn’t appearing on talk shows to talk about what kind of shoes the female prosecutor was wearing. . or blogging about it. And Dr Bob: the only difference between you and the celebrity shrinks is that they probably look better on TV and have real publicists.

  6. Robert says:

    Wow, am I the only one here that really feels for Bob Roberts?

    Bob, you are clearly a bright fellow, but soooo much anger…..let us help. Tell us all about your mother? Did she give the other children cookies, but not save one for you? Perhaps not breastfed….and still upset?

    Come clean Bob… is time to start the healing process. Help us help you.

  7. Bob Roberts says:

    “Wow, am I the only one here that really feels for Bob Roberts?

    Bob, you are clearly a bright fellow, but soooo much anger…..let us help. Tell us all about your mother? Did she give the other children cookies, but not save one for you? Perhaps not breastfed….and still upset?”

    Ah, we have a Freudian in our midst. Why does Mom get all the blame? I’m more of a CBT proponent, but if you get your view of therapy from Hollywood or Woody Allen, I could see how you blame everything on mom; the Woody Allen/Ordinary People stereotype. Or, you get get on board with the Good Will Hunting therapy model–all troubled people need is a good buddy who gets them and can help them with their anger. It seems so easy in Hollywood, Conrad or Will cries in the arms of a caring therapist, and they are cured of all that anger that is supposedly causing them to be self-destructive. Dr Phil gets it done in an hour. And, Drew will get it done in 30 days provided you are pretty or a d-list celebrity.

    And that brings us to our current bloggers Dr. Bob and PL. I’m sorry, but I am a hopeless rationalist when it comes to psychology. We can’t blame Dr. Bob or PL’s mom for thier willingness to take an “end justifies a means” approach. They chose to affiliate with Tucker and rationalized it with their positive message would outweigh the negative baggage that Tucker brought. It was a conscious choice. It’s the same rationalization that Dr. Drew or Dr. Phil makes. “I’m not exploiting people, I’m helping them.” OK, but where is the peer reviewed research that suggests that any of their “patients/contestants” get better in the long run. They will just tell you that they know that they help people. Where is any research that suggests that a blogging psychologist helps people that read his blog. His evidence for the blog is self-justifying. People read it so it must be helpful; if I associate with Tucker more people will read it and it will be more helpful. But science requires more than the professional saying: I know I am doing good and other people say they are being helped. Am I angry that people are utilizing mental health and treatment as a stage act or blogging material? Probably. But, we don’t need to blame mom for it

    The question raised by our good professionals is that people desire fame so much that they are willing to exploit and be exploited to get it. At a minimum, they turn a blind eye to the exploitation or rationalize how they are really not a party to it. It’s a worthwhile question. And professionals, from lawyers to psychologists, have an obligation to look at the Dr Phils, Dr. Drews, Nancy Grace’s and the other celebrity helpers; and say: OK, we’ve been doing this act for more than 20 some years now, are people getting better. As I said, it is an open question for Dr. Bob until it is answered.

    And that is: Is there any evidence that his blogging activities with Tucker promoted evidence based therapy that actually helped his patients ? IOW, did the ends justify the means. Unfortunately, this is where we get into the weakness of therapy in the first place, which is the measures of success are so subjective and there is little follow up. But it is a question worth asking.

  8. Tracie says:

    To some degree, I think the viewing of reality TV has a vicarious appeal for some people in a slightly different way than PL mentioned. Most people can’t whoreify themselves and drape themselves over a washed-up star without consequences. However, they can watch someone do that and get just a smidge of the illicit thrill. It’s not that the viewer necessarily feels that they are a celebrity as well, but that they want to have certain experiences without actually going through them. Reality TV is TV after all, so all the pesky details of life are handled by a production crew and the audience is free to participate in escapist fantasies.

  9. Hokestuff says:

    Bob Roberts: you are an idiot.

    I don’t know about Dr. Rob, but I’m pretty convinced that Philalwyer does not blog in order to help other people or make himself famous. If anything, he writes because it helps himself escape his shitty job/lifestyle. Judging them on whether or not they help other people (something neither claims to do) makes no sense.

    Additionally, I don’t understand how you lump TM into the reality tv – celebrity category. Most of his antics occurred before he was famous, his funniest stories are of his epic failures (law intern, respectable person, etc.) before he was published. He was a degenerate before, and continues to be. Your argument that Dr. Rob and PL latched onto TM does nothing to disprove the point of their article. Add to the discussion or go home.

    PL, congrats on the new site. I’m glad to see are continueing to collaborate with Dr. Rob Any chance of more work with other former Rudius contributors?

  10. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by DrRobD: Why are people obsessed with reality TV and becoming a celebrity at any cost? Philalawyer and I give our thougths…

  11. Catherine says:

    Mostly, this website is entertaining. Dr. Rob is kind of a funny guy.

    Mr. Roberts, it seems that in your opinion Dr. Rob has some sort of professional higher calling that prevents him from ever being associated for personal gain with anyone who behaves in a morally questionable way.

    So, Mr. Roberts, if you undergo psychotherapy, choose a therapist other than Dr. Rob – choose one whose apparent moral values are the same as yours.

    I’m not sure what the goal of your diatribes are, but at some point, don’t you feel like you’re tilting at windmills a little bit?

    Entertainment comes in from various sources. I threw my television away five years ago and haven’t missed it. I read quirky blogs by talented writers instead.

  12. Adam says:

    As I remember it, Dr. Rob has always been skeptical at best about the positive effect (or any effect for that matter) that his blog has. His opinion of the matter always seemed to be something like “I like writing this stuff, people like reading it and hey, maybe it’s helping someone.”

    On the topic of celebrity status, it could be said that it is following an arc of evolution that is similar to that of a new media (Newspaper, books, radio, etc.) That is, starts with only the elite (or in celebrity’s case talented), becomes available for the common person, then further diversifies into niche audiences. Movie stars (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, etc) would be the elite, those who actually have “talent” and used this to get celebrity status. The advent of the reality show brought celebrity status down to the common man, suddenly anyone could be a celebrity, though it did still require things many people aren’t willing to give (acting like a nutcase, for example.) These days, with the internet and all that, we now have niche celebrities, people like Dr. Rob and PL, or others on websites like Youtube or Deviantart. These people are far from what we traditionally think of as famous, but among their preferred niche they are quite popular and certainly could be thought of as minor celebrities. I don’t really know how relevant any of that is, I just thought it up while I was reading the post.

  13. Guillermo says:

    I’m one of the few people my age with an optimistic view of my generation, so I have this argument a lot. I don’t think society is devolving or getting more stupid, I just think we have more tools in place to make us aware of how how stupid and shallow we are. I don’t think we’re any more shallow or stupid than we’ve ever been in history, and probably less, but it seems like we’re more stupid and shallow because of how aware we are.

    How can you say society is worse now than in the 50’s, where black people couldn’t drink at water fountains, gays were shunned, and many people were so out of touch with their basic emotions it was astounding.

    People love to reminisce about “the good old days” as if Ginnsberg played on every radio in America and The Velvet Undergrounds were churning out number one records. People forget about all the shitty art that was popular back then when they complain about today.

    If you look at the Nielsen ratings for 18-49 year olds (I don’t think old people process what they watch), it actually has a lot of pretty good shows, and they match up pretty well to even classic shows like Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels, and certainly require more intelligence from the viewer. Some one wrote a book about how modern TV is infinitely more complex than older shows in terms of number of interceding plot lines and points made implicitly. On top of that, you have really brilliant shows like The Wire and Mad Men that don’t quite top the ratings but are still very popular.

    The medium has changed. There are less novels but more movies. We are in the golden age of comedies. Compare The 40 Year Old Virgin to Back to School and it’s astounding how much better the it is terms of having a believable story, being well produced and well acted.

    As for reality TV, it’s fun to watch a car crash. That’s human nature and it will never change. People in the 1800’s went to hangings as a form of entertainment for God’s sake. William Randolph Hearst had the best selling newspaper in America. People have gossiped about royalty for as long as there has been royalty.

    My biggest critique of today’s culture is that I think a lot of people are abusing their sexual freedoms. I think a lot of people have cheapened sex by removing any emotional or intellectual component. That being said, I’ve had way more sex than I would have had I been born in 1945, and there’s no fucking way I would ever want to change that.

    If you only list that bad you can make it seem grim, but I really believe there’s more on the bright side. We just elected a black president. SuperFreakanomics is on the best seller list. Evangelists are only so rabid because it’s painfully apparent that they’re on the wrong side of history. Radiohead is the most popular band in the word. Jay-Z is the most popular solo artist. Society is disgusting, but it’s impossible to find a time period where it was less digusting.

  14. Logan says:

    My personal opinion is that mankind is going through a very intense introspective period. Our civilization has been around for about 5,000 years, and I feel that we are hitting some sort of cultural adolescence. Look at how gossipy and voyeuristic most media has become. I find it annoying, but I also feel that it will pass. Hopefully it will lead the way to a deeper understanding for all of humanity.
    One can only hope.

  15. Millar says:

    I’m with Guillermo. Is right now really the best time to be complaining about the quality of TV? The bottom of the barrel might be terrible, but there has never been a better period of television shows in terms of quality and choice than the past decade. The shows are better written, smarter, and facilitate discussions about society, culture, etc. better than anything we have seen in the past.

    Just look at the list of great shows: The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome (a personal favorite), Mad Men, Lost (minus seasons 2-3), Battlestar Galactica, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, Dexter, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock (overrated, but still good), The Office, Party Down, etc. Have you seen (or at least tried) all of these? If not, stop worrying about crap like The Hills and Jon & Kate and fire up your DVD player. I obviously haven’t seen them all, but between the shows I have watched from beginning to end and the reviews I’ve read of others, this is a fantastic time to be watching TV.

    In addition, DVR, DVD players, and sketchy internet sites have made it possible to start watching these shows at any time and at your own leisure. No excuses.

    Don’t get sucked into the media compex that makes shitty reality shows seem more important than they are. The importance of these shows has been dramatically inflated due to the coverage they get in magazines like Us Weekly and websites/shows like TMZ. What people don’t realize is that these are all the same beast. TV creates “celebrities” like Kate Gossling, Us Weekly puts her on the cover and validates her importance, TMZ and others now treat her as though she is an actual celebrity, which makes more people watch her show, which makes more people read the magazines… Rinse and repeat. The symbiontic relationship between the shows and the tabloid media makes perfect sense. People have always failed to distinguish between actors and the roles they play. Reality TV breaks down the barrier between the two and provides the perfect “circle of celebrity.”

    The British tabloids have been doing this for years. Read The Sun. Half the “news” in the paper are fake stories that have been planted by their reality shows. (I lived in London in 2007 and every week while I was there Jade Goody or Shilpa Shetty, stars of Celebrity Big Brother, were on the cover of all the tabloids. There was a controversy that captured the nation when Jade was accused of racial bullying against Shilpa. The whole thing was basically fake story by CBB and The Sun. The story, and pretty much all The Sun’s stories, were fed to the paper by show producers and succeeded in driving up viewership for both). That doesn’t mean that they actually matter. Just because you know who Kate Gossling is, doesn’t mean you have watched a second of the show or given her more than a passing thought (compared to the hundred hours I have spent thinking, reading, and talking about the 3rd Season of Mad Men).

    My big point is that the imporance of the reality TV craze is completely overrated. I don’t think people are any dumber today than they were 40 years ago. The influx of new technology and expansion of free time have given us plenty of avenues for entertainment (including some truly great TV shows, I would put The Wire and Arrested Development up against ANY drama or comedy every made) and some people choose to wallow in the lowest form. I doubt most of them would be reading great novels or anything like that had they been born in a different era. Hell, look at the baby boomers. They were a generation that mattered, man. They were active, they fought the system, they cared. And yet, they are the fucking idiots in charge right now who are driving our country into the ditch.

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