September 4, 1999

The Ban on Negativity ;-)

I'm going to tell you the scariest thing I ever heard on American television. It was an Oprah Winfrey commercial a few years ago. Most people don't get it, or don't think I'm serious. And mind you, these days Oprah must be counted a bastion of principle in the world of broadcast TV, even a dangerous radical, after her bout with the Meat Farmers of America, Inc. So I'm not holding this against Oprah personally. May she live long and prosper...and die owning most of Chicago.

So here it is:

Oprah comes on the air and in her most breathless enthusiastic voice says, "Tomorrow, Dr. So-and-so is coming on our show, and he's going to tell us all how to be a little bit happier each and every day for the rest of our lives."

Scared yet?

Well, between you and me, I could stand to be a little bit happier tomorrow than I am today, and more than likely a little bit happier than that the day after. But by the end of a week, if this kept going, I'd be positively giddy, beside myself with joy. Afterwards I'm not sure how quickly it would progress, but I'm damn certain that by the end of three weeks I'd be absolutely hysterical and they'd have to straight-jacket and lock me away as a dangerous menace to myself and the rest of humanity.

And I think I'm pretty tough. I'd be starting at a deep enough level of depression that I could probably hold out for three weeks. But I'm rather sure I wouldn't want to hang around if "normal," basically happy folks were going through this process at the same time. I doubt I'd live to be hauled away laughing to the funny farm. Some Smiling Jack or Joyous Jill would likely shoot me down in sheer grinnin' good neighborliness before the first week was out.

Seriously, America has a problem in happiness. We all want to be happy, all the time. And whenever we do feel happy, we're sooner or later unhappy that we're not happier still. "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Sometime in school, whether it's true or not, we all learn that's a rewrite, supposedly a cover for the real intent and orginal wording of the Continental Congress: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property." As time goes on, I increasingly suspect that it was, rather, a far more ingenious and ominous shift, another case of founding father foresight. The Pursuit of Happiness is a far more exactingly modern disciplinary path than the Pursuit of Property, which is, after all, as old as the hills. The Pursuit of Property would never do to tame a potentially unruly democratic mob once they had the vote, but the Pursuit of Happiness can turn the best of us to putty. And once everyone really needs to be happy all the time...then there's real money to be made.

Consider Asa Candler. Asa Candler is perhaps the greatest mass marketeer America has yet produced, far greater than Henry Ford who, in the last analysis, produced and sold something genuinely useful, however lethal and poisonous its side effects proved be. Candler was the genius of American Happiness who around the turn of the century bought a patent-medicine headache remedy from an Atlanta pharmacist and turned it into Coca-Cola, calculating that "the chronic sufferer from headaches may have but one a week. Many persons have only one a year. There was one dreadful malady, though, that everybody...suffered from...which during six or eight months of the year would be treated and relieved, only to develop again within less than an hour. That malady was thirst" ("Remarkable Proprietary Beverage," Printers Ink, November 4, 1908).

Today, almost a century later, the average American television viewer is treated to approximately one hundred 30-second sermons a day extolling the virtues of the Pursuit of Happiness. Commercials teach us our desperate need for happiness. Other possible values--comfort, contentment, compassion, sympathy, friendship, family, knowledge, wisdom, even achievement, power and wealth--are secondary. At best, they might contribute to making us what we really want to be. Just happy. And if push came to shove, we'd sacrifice any and all of these secondary values if we could just be as happy as folks in television commercials. Commercials make real the dream of a universal, non-denominational heaven in which everyone is happy, simply happy, all the time. On TV, even the cockroaches grin and crack jokes as their homes and business places are turned into gas chambers. Of course, there are a few exceptions that prove the rule. Sometimes commercials show us really unhappy people, inviting us to participate in the kind of bliss Augustine promised awaited believers in the City of God, where they would be able to look down over the edge upon the agonies of those in hell, those who had committed the unforgivable sin of buying the wrong product.

But the worst consequence of America's obsession with the Pursuit of Happiness is not the obvious, that we're all bound upon a wheel of endless consumption. It's that we've become intolerant of thirst and any other basic human "malady" that threatens, however momentarily, to diminish what happiness we have or might have right now. The worst consequence of the Pursuit of Happiness is that Americans have so little tolerance for anything that smacks of the negative, the critical, the questioning. And since these are such fundamental points of departure for it, that we have so little tolerance for reasoned thought. Quite simply--and this is true--it can't make us happy.

Have a nice day. Smiley Face

Posted by Raoul

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