Sunday, August 22, 2010
On the Human Blight that is "Dr. Laura"
Good riddance to Dr. Laura, our generation’s most dangerous radio host.
* Jesse Singal
* August 20, 2010 | 12:00 am//TNR
Dr. Laura wouldn’t countenance Dr. Laura, that’s for sure. If the radio talk show host—who has written a slew of best-selling books and who regularly encourages her readers to “do the right thing”—got a call about a bullying, abusive friend who has an instant, headstrong opinion on everything, who views patience and compassion the same way Sarah Palin views science, it’s easy to imagine her response. She’d quickly adopt her incredulous lilt—a combination of “I can’t believe I’m wasting my time with this” and “I can’t believe you’re this stupid”—and tell the caller to cut her friend off immediately. If the caller persisted with a “But Dr. Laura...” or, worse, a “But maybe...”, she’d upbraid her for being so damn weak.
If Dr. Laura’s career isn’t over, it’s close; in the wake of a bizarre, n-word-laden rant, she announced on “Larry King” Tuesday that she’ll be retiring from the radio after more than 30 years on air. Still, it’s not as if she’d avoided controversy before this week. In 2000, her TV show didn’t last due in part to the uproar caused by some anti-gay comments she’d made earlier, such as calling homosexuality a “biological error.” Her biography, a whirlwind of naked photos and divorce, also clashes violently against her proclaimed on-air values. Yet for the most part, she hasn’t gotten quite the attention she deserves given her popularity and reach. She gets around eight million listeners a week, which is on par with Glenn Beck’s and Michael Savage’s radio shows, according to Michael Harrison of Talkers magazine. Liberals regularly work themselves up into a lather over the steady stream of invective spewed by the likes of Beck, Savage, and Rush Limbaugh, but have tended to give Dr. Laura something of a pass—all she does is give lame, retrograde advice, the thinking seems to go. At least she doesn’t misinform about politics.
This view is understandable. While in one sense the Becks and Limbaughs of the world are merely telling their audiences what they want to hear, they’ve also shown a nefarious ability to shape the political discourse simply by broadcasting any crazy rumor (Obama’s a Maoist! Death panels kill!) to millions. Still, though, Dr. Laura is worse. She spits a different, more powerful sort of awful. And it all has to do with the bizarre psychological dynamic between her and her audience.
Other right-wing hosts have a very simple, superficial relationship with their audiences—one couched in a comfortable sycophancy. Rush fans proudly proclaim themselves “dittoheads,” since they agree with everything he says. Sean Hannity’s fans greet him on the air by calling him a “great American.” When liberals call in to these shows, they yell at the hosts and the hosts yell back. It’s all sport: everyone knows her part and no one goes home with scrapes or bruises.
Dr. Laura’s show is another thing altogether. Her callers are sycophantic, yes, but also desperate and masochistic. They wait breathlessly to seek her wisdom even though they know she is likely to yell at or humiliate them. She’s erratic. Sometimes she’ll let callers fully tell their stories. Other times she’ll get immediately impatient. During one recent, surreal sequence, she told a caller with stepmother issues to sum up her problem in a single sentence, then, a minute later, told her to stop being so vague. Then she told her again to sum up her problem in a sentence. And then again she excoriated her listener for being too vague. “I’m not gonna get anywhere here,” she sighed, and one can’t help but think the hapless caller felt the same way.
The awfulness of Dr. Laura’s advice is proportional to the severity of the caller’s problem. A young woman named Jamie called in last week, thoroughly broken-sounding. She choked through her first words, thanking Dr. Laura for taking her call and thanking God for letting her get through. When her husband does certain things in bed, she says, sentences dissolving into tears, “it reminds me of being molested when I was young.” She wants to get past it, to live a healthy life with her husband.
Dr. Laura has a question: “Why are you still crying about it?”
“Because it still bothers me, because I...” she starts to say before Dr. Laura interrupts.
“Oh whoa whoa whoa whoa!” she says. “Don’t give me the usual nonsense here.”
Over the course of the next six and a half soul-eating minutes, Dr. Laura explains some things to Jamie. She needs to just get over being molested. God gave her sexuality, which she’s wasting “because some jerk did something evil. Makes no sense to me. To me that’s affronting God.” It’s foolish for Jamie, at 29, to spend time thinking about what happened when she was 8. “It manipulates a man real good,” Dr. Laura says, and that’s what Jamie’s doing to her husband with all her whining about being molested. She convinces Jamie that she’s mad at her husband and is using this whole molestation thing to punish him. When Jamie explains that she wants her husband to hold her more, Dr. Laura says, “You’re emasculating your husband so he’ll be a father, because you don’t have sex with your father.” She has a solution: “Tonight, you’re gonna seduce your husband, and you’re gonna have a damn good time.”
That’s it. That’s her advice: Don’t worry about it. Seduce your husband. “Stop with the crying, stop with the sniveling, stop with the whining.” I sent the clip to Dr. Bruce Perry, an expert on child trauma. He wasn’t amused: “She was insensitive and distorted what this woman said,” he wrote in an email. “She bullied the caller into affirming some detailed, overly-simplistic interpretation of the caller’s problems with minimal information. In sum it was an unprofessional and uninformed way to respond to the problem this woman presented.” Then, in his next email: “[H]opefully the woman will seek real professional help.”
But that’s the problem: There’s no reason to think she, or the vast majority of Dr Laura’s callers, will. There’s some brutal self-selection at work here: Dr. Laura’s callers are, by definition, the people who will call into a nationally syndicated talk show to attempt to resolve, in five or six minutes, oftentimes major problems. A mostly over-35, female crowd, according to Harrison of Talkers. Most of the callers are big fans. They listen every day and read her books and internalize her shallow advice. They call in either in spite of or because of the fact that she will strip them down, bully advice into them, toss aside nuance like unwanted fat on a steak.
Her appeal to this demographic is less mysterious than it appears at first. They call in with problems that appear life-sized, and Dr. Laura turns them into Post-It-sized caricatures that can easily be folded up and tossed away. So what if they have to endure some paper cuts to get there? For all they know, they deserve it—or why else would their lives be such messes?
And because her callers seem to yearn for punishment, Dr. Laura provides it in the form of sweeping pronouncements and dire predictions. “Well, they’re not really your friends,” she says to a woman whose close friends made plans that conflicted with her schedule. “You’re going to have a miserable life,” she says to a young bride-to-be with future-mother-in-law issues. When a woman calls in asking for advice on how to help her two-year-old son adjust to the impending deployment of her military husband, Dr. Laura tells her that he might be OK, but “you, on the other hand, will be a basket case.” It sounds playful at first, but it goes on: “Yes, you’re going to be wrecked. You’re going to be messed up.” There’s a thrill to her voice as she delivers the prediction.
An obvious theory bubbles up out of all this anger and pessimism and naysaying: Dr. Laura hates her callers. But that’s not quite it. It’s more that she hates human foibles, the complexity and gray areas and awkward, unwieldy social and familial arrangements that make homo sapiens such a simultaneously fascinating and infuriating species. This comes through clearest whenever, during the awkward silences she generates with the same efficiency with which China produces portable electronics, a caller laughs nervously. “Why are you laughing?” she’ll ask, like a robot who simply can’t understand the human behavior she’s observing. And the callers eat it up. Tune in. Come back for more.
There’s a real risk that Dr. Laura could become a footnote, mostly forgotten and mentioned only in reference to her bizarre, career-ending diatribe. This would be a shame, because although she may not foment asinine theories about Obama’s citizenship or encourage Tea Partiers to protest the government programs they themselves benefit from, she nonetheless deserves a space in the pantheon of radio antiheroes. Yes, for her sheer focused damage to individuals and for potentially life-ruining advice delivered to millions, we should erect a big statue of Dr. Laura, her aging Barbie Doll rictus grin glaring down at visitors and always judging, judging, judging.
Jesse Singal writes for The Boston Globe‘s opinion pages. He can be reached at email@example.com
Since I live abroad, I haven't had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Laura on a regular basis. But I did have the good fortune to watch the CNN interview as well as a Larry King interview while I was stuck in the airports waiting for my flight back home. I see the Dr. Laura phenomenon as a sort of hybrid between Ann Landers on steroids and reality TV: people pour their guts out looking for advice, and the listening audience gets to sneer or empathize while waiting to see how the Expert will respond.
People used to write to Ann Landers to ask about etiquette and manners, not about how to live. It would be almost funny to see Dr. Laura playing Virgil to the souls in the inferno if their suffering weren't as real as it is. It's tragic, or at least pitiful, that so many people have no one to turn to in times of need and are reduced to calling a pop radio guru for help with serious issues.
As for her rant, I agree that she used her caller's issue insensitively as a vehicle to launch into her own pet peeve issue. But all the fuss around her use of the "N-word" is a form of collective insanity. She did not call anyone a "nigger". She said that the word is used frequently by black comedians in their schtick and that it's not a big deal in that context. Her comment was not necessarily persuasive in arguing against hyper-sensitivity about race, but it was certainly offered in that spirit rather than with any intent to insult.
Jesse Singal may be right that she's a mean-spirited, judgmental dispenser of bad conservative advice. That's a good enough reason to not listen to her show, but no reason at all to shut her down. I find myself far more disturbed by her lynching in the name of political correctness than by her comments. Lenny Bruce must be turning over in his grave.
Who could put Lenny Bruce together with this moralizing, judgmental simpleton, from any perspective, or in the same breath?
I have listened to tid bits of her and have seen her interviewed a few times: it's like watching a train wreck. Jesse Singal is right on about her abusive, pillorying, hectoring mode of operating.
The argument may be that Lenny Bruce is apt to mention because he was a champion of free speech.
But the slight nod to Lenny Bruce is inapt from any point of view.
My speculation is that Lenny Bruce would have been appalled by her and understood that freedom of speech had nothing to do with anything concerning her. Bruce's rejection of repressive mores, of sheer conventional hypocrisy, his argument for a little more leeway for the id--"let's put the id in yid and the oy back in goy"--his hip liberalism, as far as it went, would have set him, I speculate, directly against her all across the board.
Lenny Bruce would have understood, because he had a direct, no nonsense, concrete intelligence, the very absurdity of a radio show hosted by a "Dr. Laura" giving people harsh, moralizing, simple minded advice--replete with her trade mark hectoring and bullying--for complicated problems not amenable to her time compressed, quick fixes, which usually boiled down to: "get over it", "get on with it", "roll up your sleeves" and other meaningless bromides. The hypocrisy of trading on human misery for radio profits under the guise of helping people is rank dishonesty, the kind of thing Lenny Bruce thrived on skewering.
Two other brief points:
The critical rejection of her kind of trash radio doesn’t require much nuance. She's flat out and obviously a terrible public thing, a blight on the culture of America.
Finally, it's wrong and way too binary to let this embodiment of grotesquerie off any moral hook just because people choose to call her. The latter is unrelated to the moral status of someone such as her who takes their calls and does what she does with them—generating, as I say, psychological blood money by trading on human misery under the pretense of ameliorating it, while only deepening it.
She does have Sarah Palin on her side, mind you, wading in irrelevantly about the First Amendment. With that, I'm supposin', the circle of asininity is complete.
I don't understand basman's lamentation here. The only point where Lenny Bruce and Laura Schlessinger meet is in relation to her use of the N-word. The question is not whether he would have liked her morality but whether he would have condoned the assaults upon her for that particular use of the N-word. My guess is he would have actually scolded her for that apology she published after the incident. In that apology she practically agreed with all those who attacked her that her use of the word was wrong and irresponsible. So in effect she stands in opposition to everything Lenny Bruce tried to impart. My guess is Bruce would have applauded the use of the N-word by African-Americans and wou ... view full comment
I don't understand basman's lamentation here. The only point where Lenny Bruce and Laura Schlessinger meet is in relation to her use of the N-word. The question is not whether he would have liked her morality but whether he would have condoned the assaults upon her for that particular use of the N-word. My guess is he would have actually scolded her for that apology she published after the incident. In that apology she practically agreed with all those who attacked her that her use of the word was wrong and irresponsible. So in effect she stands in opposition to everything Lenny Bruce tried to impart. My guess is Bruce would have applauded the use of the N-word by African-Americans and would encourage the spread of the N-word to all other segments of American society.
Al Sharpton wants the complete eradication of this word from everybody's lexicon. Lenny Bruce would have wanted the word to be used by all. My feeling is that they are both aiming for the same result. It's the current convention that the word can be used by some but not others that creates the bad vibes.
One more thing: Marty's use of "Jewboy" was different. He used it as a Jew to smear another Jew. That is, he used it in its malicious antisemitic meaning, albeit subversively. When African-Americans use it about one another, as I understand it, it is in some kind of affection and intimacy, of a shared joke about shared experience, something benign. Maybe that's where Schlessinger's error was. She commented about something she simply did not understand enough, or at all.
Noga1--Your posit that Bruce would have not distinguished between her execrable hypocrisy generally and her particular use of the N-Word tells me that you don’t understand him very well. Bruce tore into things according to his lights. What he tore into proceeded from his Liberalism. I’d call it, if I might, a Hefnerian Liberalism: an assault against culturally established repression that bred overarching and deeply entrenched social hypocrisy in sexuality. He was also deeply committed to civil rights and would tear into and tear up bigots.
So he was discriminating about what sacred cows he milked by tearing into them. His values privileged racial equality, which in his time found most moment in civil rights battles. He was not for the license to say N… indiscriminately. And to think he would have championed Schlessinger's use of it, or, more precisely, her right to use it, not only inverts what he stood for but also conflates his views about what performers, comedians, whomever, could say to hip, sophisticated audiences in night clubs and the like and the deleterious use of racist epithets in pretextually serious public talk.
I think you're right that Bruce wanted an America enlightened enough such that the knowing, sophisticated, hip, irony-layered use of N…, and other racial epithets, would be unproblematic. But that wasn’t Schlessinger's use. It’s a further conflation to apply what he wished for in these ways to a Schlessinger-like bad use of the word.
They are country miles apart.
Your mistake is not to distinguish sufficiently between them.
Your posit that Bruce would have not distinguished between her execrable hypocrisy generally and her particular use of the N-Word tells me that you don’t understand him very well."
Perhaps. But I'm not persuaded that you understand him any better. When you make the following statement :
"And to think he would have championed Schlessinger's use of it, or, more precisely, her right to use it"
You are attributing to him the exact kind of stifling morality that you decry in her. He was a comedian and an acerbic critic of pomposity, and high-faluting words that come with rigidity of principle. Someone like Lenny Bruce, if he was the genuinely free-thinking liberal you vouch for, would not presume to set up a system of rules for people to follow as to whether they have a right to say anything or when. He would have wanted to destroy these words, or better still, the need of some people to use them. It doesn't make sense that he would want to erect a fence of righteous usage around them, as the quoted statement seems to imply.
..."And to think he would have championed Schlessinger's use of it, or, more precisely, her right to use it"...
Actually the thought came to me while doing something else this afternoon that this isn't well formulated.
You are incisive to note it.
The issue for Bruce wouldn't have been "her right" to use such a word.
The issue would have been rather, as I first phrased it, her use of it. So my attempt at more precision was erroneous.
But with that granted you don't, I don't think, have it exactly right, as I see it. To shift from "right to use" back to "use" gets away from a suggestion of Bruce as a stifling moralist, imposing rules based strictures on what people can say. But moralist he was from his sense of things, and a passionate one. So, indeed, his sense of morality led him to inveigh against pomposity and the highfalutin but that critique would have been a slightness without his assailing of the hypocrisy and phoniness such pomposity covered up, when it did. What he wanted to destroy, among other things, was racist hurtfulness, which, I think would have led him to scorn things like Schlessinger's use of "N...", as she used it He, I speculate, would not have scorned her apology--which I haven't heard--if it was sincere.
So he wouldn't have wanted to destroy the N.. word as such, necessarily. It's, after all, neither pompous nor highfalutin. He would, differently, I think, have wanted to destroy the racist use of it.