Reflection 1: Our Propaganda Saturated Culture

This Reflection series began with a movie I saw, while on vacation in Maine, several years ago: Extraordinary Measures, starring Brendan Fraser, Keri Russell and Harrison Ford.

At the end I had a sudden sense of clarity about what had just happened to me. I would sum it up as being seduced – and appalled at my own easy seduction.

The movie is about a father of two children both suffering from a debilitating disease certain to kill them by the time they are 10. He is our hero. A Harvard MBA, a rising executive at Bristol-Meyers, AND a patient and devoted husband and father who makes it to every recital.

Just for starters, how is that for a glib, unrealistic role model? The implication of this – and many other popular culture models like it – is that this is the standard for which we must strive: A hard charging professional who, by necessary implication, invests the enormous psychic energy and long hours needed to be a “winner” in that arena and, at the same time, is a devoted family person.

Since this ideal is so difficult to achieve, and even more difficult to maintain over time, it is not the positive, inspirational ideal it purports to be. Instead, in the real lives of real people, it is a prescription for frustration, shame, and a sense of failure. We are constantly measuring ourselves against impossible to achieve standards and – surprise, surprise – coming up short. Or, for the “lucky” minority that can maintain this juggling act, we exhaust ourselves and neglect more “optional” endeavors, such as community, leisure, study, speculative reflection, and simple down time.

But for me, the real kicker of the movie was its more specific messages. And again, they are messages that saturate our culture.

The first is that you can do anything if you try hard enough.

Our hero finds THE scientist who is on to a cure for his children’s “incurable” illness. He then quits his high paying corporate job, forms a start up to perfect this groundbreaking new medicine, sells the start up to corporate America to keep the project going, and then defies the corporation in order to give the miraculous cure to his two kids.  And, of course, the cure works!

Wow, what a message! Notwithstanding the enormous number of stories that permeate our culture, glorifying the heroic individual who defies impossible odds to “make it happen,” this is in fact a pernicious distortion of real life. In all but a statistically minute number of cases, terminal ill children die. Also, most startups fail. And most executives who heroically and emotionally stand up to their bosses get fired – never to be heard from again.

Which brings me to the second pernicious message of the movie: While corporate bosses may seem to be heartless and bottom-line oriented, in the end, they have hearts of gold. So, in this case, when faced with the father’s heroism and passion, the CEO’s essential humanity breaks through. Ignoring corporate rules and procedures, he allows our hero’s children to be part of the initial test for the new wonder drug.

The problem with this message? The great majority of corporations are not run by “good” people who, when faced with real life moral choices, are willing to sacrifice their profit-driven bottom line to “do the right thing.” To the contrary, the overwhelming majority of corporations fire people a without remorse and, far more often than we care to admit, condone environmental and employment practices, and public policy choices, that lead to injury, disease, and death.

The final message that jumped out at me is that disease, disability and, injustice all come dressed up in pretty little, socially acceptable, packages.

The dying children in this movie are adorable, feisty, funny, and charming.  And so is the dad, the agent of change. When I worked as a consultant for the Variety Club, years ago, I was struck by the staff member who complained bitterly about donors that wanted “pretty little white girls in wheel chairs.”

The reality: Disability and injustice are inflicted on real people and, disproportionately on the poor and uneducated. Often anger, ugliness, emotional imbalance, selfishness, etc., etc. are part of the package. And except in the rarest of cases, the people who seek real change are not saints either. So do we ignore “ugly” injustice and stop listening to obnoxious agents of change? That is, I submit, one of the implicit messages of this movie and so many other pieces of popular culture like it.

One final thought. In the moment, as I watched this movie, I was totally seduced:

  • By our hero;
  • By his family;
  • By the curmudgeon-y, unemotional, but ultimately soft hearted CEO; and
  • By the story itself.

In other words, this is not just propaganda. It is, if my instinctual reaction is typical (and I think it is) highly effective propaganda, with important consequences at both an individual and societal level.

It is humbling to think that it has taken it has taken me six plus decades of living to work through the obscuring and dense haze of this feel good propaganda to a deeper understanding of its pernicious effects. The work before us, if we hope to understand the many subtle forces that mold our lives – and to take effective steps to counteract them – is immense.

That is the challenge that Radical Decency seeks to address.