Last week, MSNBC aired a story of a 9 year old who raised $6,000 in two hours by selling lemonade to help pay for his younger brother’s medical bills. It was meant to be a feel good story of a young kid who used his ingenuity and savvy to solve a problem while putting a happy face on the dilemma of skyrocketing healthcare costs that impact the lives of most Americans. The newscast did not mention that the amount Andrew Emery collected is a drop in a bucket that will barely pay the cost of one doctor’s visit let alone cover the tab of his brother’s medication. Nor did the MSNBC clip go into detail about the ordeals his parents are facing as they struggle to finance their infant’s treatment. Instead, a family’s tribulations was reduced into an infomercial as the anchor Craig Melvin ended the clip by saying “so there’s your smile”.
There is something insidious about these feel good stories that goes undetected by many who consume the drivel of mainstream media. Instead of leading a discussion about the excesses of a health care system that would make it necessary for a child to raise money through lemonade stands and forces parents to start GoFundMe account to take care of their children, we are treated to smiling faces and happy endings. One offs and anecdotes are stitched together to present an alternative story far different than the reality most Americans are facing.
We live in a culture where hardships have become abstractions. The gnawing issues that beset our nation and the vexing problems of the world are distilled on a regular basis to hashtags and memes. Instead of being introspective and asking tough questions that could in time lead to solutions, we just skip from one narrative to the next as human suffering is neatly folded into 60 second segments. The age of social media has inured us to these iniquities; it’s almost as if we have accepted the hoarding of this world’s resources by a few and the pittances the rest are given as a human cost of doing corporate business.
This is the natural outgrowth of being a cult of personalities. The burdens millions feel are packaged and projected into actors we can follow and root for or against. Thoughtful deliberations are dispensed with for the sake of blurbs to be discussed and discarded. We are fed manufactured outrages and counterfactual episodes as if we are watching one big reality show—the whole of humanity turned into plot lines. The travails of Andrew and his brother will just blur into the recesses of our collective minds as soon as the next human interest story comes into focus. The establishment would rather we gaze at outliers instead of inspecting the connective nature of these social afflictions.
What better way to keep us distracted than with the catnip of media created celebrities. Yesterday afternoon, news was buzzing with Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian uniting to right a wrong. Alice Johnson, who was serving a life in prison for a first time charge of drug possession, had her sentence commuted after Kim took up her cause and pleaded for a presidential intervention. The White House was quick to jump on board and use this narrative as an example of Donald Trump restoring decency. Kim tweeted an article that detailed Alice’s ordeals and how Kim’s efforts to redress a judicial infringement led to a happy ending. All is well that ends well! Token gestures stand in for substance as we get to pretend that one person's restoration makes up for the repression of millions. #InsertHashtag Click To Tweet
This is no different than when Obama visited a Federal prison in 2015 and used that occasion to commute the sentences of 46 inmates. The same way the this administration used Trump’s clemency of Alice Johnson to boast about his deeds, the previous administration likewise advertised Obama’s actions as a giant leap towards equality. It’s like we are in the Medieval Ages where the serfs are reminded to be thankful for the benevolence of the aristocracy. The rich and famous advertise their noblesse oblige as the elixir to the blights that gash society, in this way we are distracted from the disease as we applaud the debased (I refuse to call them elites) for championing symptoms they helped to create.
This is nothing short of managing national crises and social issues by exception. Urgent matters that demand action and require serious conversations are reduced to soundbites, photo ops and characters. On cue, the usual suspects of demagogues and phony activists line up to demand justice. In the end, all the hues and cries conclude as they started: we are either moved to temporary indignation or we are lulled into permanent inaction. After the news cycle ends, our collective attention shifts to the next outrage. Remember Flint? Remember Dakota Access Pipeline? Remember Parkland, Florida? Who has time to seek out root causes when we are busy paying attention to the blathering of the rich and famous.
For every child who raises $6,000, there are hundreds of thousands of families who will be driven to their financial graves by a healthcare system that puts profits above patients. For every Alice Johnson who receives clemency, there are millions who languish in jails as assets on the balance sheets of the prison-industrial complex. We have been conditioned to scroll through transgressions as if we are swiping iPads only to pay attention when luminaries use their star power to bring light to an issue or when the scale of suffering reaches epidemic levels. We are stuck at the intersection of indignation and inertia. Through it all, we are treated with warm fuzzy stories and personality driven narratives as if symbolic gestures are replacements for meaningful actions. As for those who despair but don’t capture the attention of the gentry? Let them drink lemonade! So there’s your smile.
The trappings of authority have become shackles for humanity::
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Check out my previous Ghion Cast where I discuss how we can address issues that vex society not by treating each other as abstractions but by listening to one another.
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.
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