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Jonathan M. Metzl: The Language of Addiction in the Bombast of the Right

Analyzing the colorful language of two of the right's loudest voices is Jonathan M. Metzl, author of The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease. Metzl is associate professor of psychiatry and women's studies and director of the Culture, Health, and Medicine Program at the University of Michigan.

Glenn Beck at CPAC, photo by Gage Skidmore on FlickrHas addiction become the new rhetoric of the right?

Glenn Beck suggested as much in his in his recent keynote address to the Conservative Political Action Conference when he parlayed his own history of substance abuse into a critique of so-called big government. "I'm a recovering alcoholic," Beck explained. "I screwed up my life six ways to Sunday." Beck argued that his experiences as an alcoholic privileged him to critique the seemingly different "addictions" to government perpetuated by progressives and liberals. "It is still morning in America," he decried. "It just happens to be kind of a head-pounding-hung-over-vomiting-for-four-hours kind of morning in America."

For much of the following week, Rush Limbaugh used his own, well-publicized addiction to prescription painkillers—"Have you ever had a genuine addiction to something? Well I have and let me tell you about it"—as a jumping off point into full-throated damnation of President Obama and his "liberal" followers. "Liberals," Limbaugh told his radio listeners, "their lives are basically meaningless, their addiction to power and dominance and control is what drives them."

Such language is, of course, a savvy political construction. Beck and Limbaugh paint the fight against addiction, and by extension against liberalism, as a redemption narrative in which the fallen overindulge earthly sin and then disavow it in what Beck calls "come to Jesus" moments. Beck literally dropped to his knees during his CPAC speech to demonstrate how "I was completely out of control," then rose to show how "I'm going to stand up on my own two feet, figure it out, and because of that failure I can stand here today." Addiction testimonials do the dual work of appealing to a presumed base of religious conservatives and placing the ex-addict, like the convert, on higher moral ground. Former President George W. Bush, who to his credit would never dream of using his own substance issues to critique others, employed such salvation to enhance his evangelical credentials. Riding Bush's coattails, Beck and Limbaugh craft the angry, white, male addict in remission as the embodiment of a new American conservative ideal.

Book Cover for The Protest Psychosis
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At the same time, Beck's and Limbaugh's rhetoric is replete with problems that extend beyond politics. Most obviously, their formulation of addiction is profoundly stigmatizing to persons who suffer from substance abuse. Both Beck and Limbaugh invoke the centuries-old moral model of addiction, based on the belief that addicted persons suffered defects of character or of the moral "soul"—not coincidentally the very term used by Beck. In the 19th century, American society equated substance use with "moral decay," and defined an addict's suffering as just punishment for past sins. The afflicted were often grouped with such other social undesirables as criminals, rapists, and paupers. Over the last half century, secular and spiritual organizations have worked tirelessly to reverse such discrimination by promoting understandings of addiction as a disease caused by a complex web of genetic, biological, and social factors. The result dramatically increased public acceptance. Beck and Limbaugh reap the benefits of this evolution in thinking—in earlier eras, both men would have been castigated and shunned by the very constituents they now seek to lead—even as they cynically undermine its basic principles.

Second, as Beck and Limbaugh fully realize, the platforms both men support would eliminate funding for substance abuse recovery programs. Here, it is not just banks and economies that would be allowed to "fail"; it is also persons whose lives would be ruined without access to treatment and social support. In this seemingly un-Christian trickle down, the hardest hit would include lower income Americans, members of minority populations, and families without health insurance.

Finally, Beck's and Limbaugh's addicted conservatism falls back on a logic that, according to current treatment models, is itself pathologically self-addicted. This is because both men enact defense mechanisms that are the hallmarks of addicted thinking: blaming, transferring responsibility for one's own behavior to other people, and projection, displacing one's hated parts by ascribing them to someone else. Former substance abusers who used such mechanisms to bombastically condemn other people's addictions would be seen as a highly untrustworthy messengers because the characteristics they project onto others—dependence, hubris, greed—represent the very impulses that they cannot tolerate in themselves.

It is undoubtedly the case that drug and alcohol addictions are deeply painful, debilitating conditions that show no predilection for a person's political affiliation. For this reason, the Beck/Limbaugh formulation of addiction should be rejected by conservatives and liberals alike. At best, their disingenuous testimonials represent public airings of unresolved personal issues. At worst they portend further attacks, not just on Beck's and Limbaugh's opponents, but on hard-fought societal gains.

Picture of Glenn Beck by Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

Watch Jonathan Metzl at the Big Think.