Marion Barry’s arrest in January for cocaine possession set the stage for what has become a familiar American scene. At a press conference held after his release from jail, it didn’t take Barry long to perform the public ritual of secular penitence: he announced that he would be entering a drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation center because of a “problem.” Barry didn’t elaborate on this “problem,” but one of his supporters did. The mayor’s behavior could be easily explained, she said. Barry has an “addiction.” Barry has a “disease.”
As the Marion Barry saga makes clear, American society has rejected a rhetoric of responsibility for one of absolution. Comedian Flip Wilson made himself famous in the early 1970’s with the saying, “The Devil made me do it.” Marion Barry’s press conference was merely a variation on Flip Wilson’s schtick. When pressed by reporters who questioned him about his use of illegal drugs, Barry at one point replied, “we have a problem,” and “we will conquer it.” Impersonal syntax and plural pronouns are familiar tactics of public men who wish to transfer moral responsibility to the Devil or “society,” which is the modern equivalent.
Barry’s “we have a problem” line of defense reflects one of the most common and disturbing trends in American culture. The turn-of-the-century theologian and Social Gospeller, Walter Rauschenbusch, had a name for it: he called it the socialization of sin. Social science has aided this process with a helpful, two-syllable word, which has done more to undermine personal morality and individual responsibility in this country than anything else in the 20th century: it’s called “disease.”
Americans no longer suffer personal failings, they only suffer “diseases.” Eating, gambling, shopping, adultery, child abuse, premenstrual tension, and any form of self-destructive activity—all have been classified as diseases. Indeed, the disease model of human behavior has been so profitable and politically successful that it has given’ birth to one of the biggest growth industries in the post-World War II era—treatment centers. Alcoholism is a prime case in point. There has never been a scientific justification for the disease concept of alcoholism. Yet there exists a labyrinth of lobbies, both national and local, professional and volunteer, from the most prestigious medical associations to the most vulgar of commercial treatment centers, that have their entire existence riding on the bet that they can hoodwink the public into viewing alcoholism as a disease. And their bet appears well-grounded.
This disease concept of human behavior has stained every aspect of American society—from our courts to our courtships. Contrary to what millions of us saw on television, John Hinckley didn’t shoot Ronald Reagan, his “disease” did. Wade Boggs—the star third baseman for the Boston Red Sox who tearfully admitted to Barbara Walters, Geraldo Rivera, and to virtually every other talkshow host that he was “addicted to sex”—didn’t cheat on his wife, neglect his children, and play ball only halfheartedly when his wife and not his mistress was watching from the stands, his “disease” did. Pete Rose’s problem wasn’t moral; he was only addicted to gambling. And poor Marion Barry. He didn’t let down his constituency, shirk his responsibilities, make a mockery of political office, break laws—to say nothing of trivializing the real problems of blacks. No, Barry was a man with a problem, and as he explained to his church congregation, part of his problem was his “selfless devotion to other people.”
One can be sure that, after a therapeutic course on “looking out for number one,” the mayor will be ready for a triumphant return to public life.
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