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Teenager Ethan Couch was exonerated from drinking, driving and vehicular manslaughter because his parents were wealthy. Contributor MATTHEW FLACKS chats with British psychologist Oliver James about Affluenza; The contagion and consequences of consumerism.

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Chicago Tribune

Houston, we have a problem. Yes, and you London, you have a problem too. New York, Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, Los Angeles, Paris, you all definitely have a problem. A silent, ethereal virus is sweeping through the streets of our westernized cities with millions already obliviously affected and the numbers are increasing at a startling rate. Men, women, adults and children. You and me. I’m talking about Affluenza. Say it out loud, and not so proud as you’ll be hearing much more about it. Affluenza. Yes, it’s a proven affliction, a virus that was successfully cited in a recent landmark Texas court case as a defense for criminal activity. ‘Selfish-capitalism’, the triumph of want over need, a propensity on materialism, an overwhelming desire to adhere to the status quo and to keep up with one’s neighbors are all just some of its demonstratively unattractive traits. Oliver James, British clinical psychologist and author of the illuminating book “Affluenza” has provided elucidating arguments as to why consumerism is catastrophic for our collective health.

The relevance is thus. A ruling in Texas — in which a 16-year-old schoolboy was sentenced to ten years’ probation for killing four pedestrians whilst driving under the influence of alcohol — has pricked a media storm, full of frenzied coverage often draped in lazy language. The defence’s argument claiming that the youngster was suffering from Affluenza as a result of his parents’ wealth succeeded. Instead of receiving a prison sentence of up to twenty years, the Judge ordered Ethan Couch to reside in a therapy facility at the not-so-insignificant cost of $450,000 a year, the price of which is to fall at his parents' door. Cue media hysteria, and yes, a generous dollop of dramatic, grotesque irony on show, but all washed down with a sizable torrent of troubled water.

Science confirms Chronic Emotional Problems follow Materialistic Values

Mr James, an Eton and Cambridge graduate, was quoted directly by psychologists in the Couch case. He acknowledges that Affluenza is a perfectly plausible and legitimate defence in theory but that the ‘poor-little-rich-kid’ media presentation is ‘bogus nonsense’. He explained that scientific evidence supports the fact that more people, especially young people, have a higher risk of emotional problems if they are fixated on materialistic values. His book, a hugely engaging read, suggests that vulnerability to the virus is unsurprisingly most acute in the Western world, and a catastrophic malaise is upon us. In short: we have become infatuated by ‘having’ rather than ‘being’.

In this book, Mr James conducts numerous interviews with those of different nationalities and examines their psychological wellbeing. Needless to say marked variations occur. Those in Denmark, for example, have a healthy appetite for ‘Unselfish Capitalism’, its population retaining a lesser dependence on consumerism for fulfillment. China suffers a far reduced rate of depression than the US (In Shanghai, 4.1% of the population suffered some form of emotional distress in 2004, compared to 26.4% for the US). This is partly due to their relatively embryonic consumerist society but also to their cultural history of collectivism over individualism, in modesty (both emotionally and materially) over narcissism. James says that having high aspirations is perfectly tenable, but it is the sense of entitlement that can come with those ‘wants’ which bears the poisoned fruits of Affluenza. The destructive and exhaustive notions of ownership and acquirement which so plague the Brits and the Americans in particular are much lower in developing nations as motivations in these poorer countries remain ‘intrinsic’.

James (who I sense would be a rather brilliant dinner guest) chides the Western credence of advertising and marketing, which are king in contemporary society. Soaps no longer make you clean, says James, they make you beautiful. Apple is not a brand it’s a creative way of life. Even television shows are becoming thinly veiled proponents of products, with the intention of increasing our consumerism, and in turn, our materialistic values. We want what they want us to want. Such toxic messages can manifest themselves in the inexorable desire to look better, act better, be better, all for the benefit of others. Even at work, we’re turned into commodities, robotic minions, and it is only paid labour (rather than, say, stay-at-home parenting) which is seen as worthy. As a consequence, we lose sight of our identity, our uniqueness and our sanity. Ironically, Mr James points to the hugely successful television series “Breaking Bad” as a beautiful metaphor for the failure of free-market economics which has caused such a prevalent and pervading strain of Affluenza that is gripping so much of humanity.  

To go to the organic root of the virus, I ponder whether it is simply a natural human instinct to want more? No, says James, stating that a baby has a sense of ‘enough’, and it is only the nurturing experience beyond this in which children develop wants rather than satisfied needs.  In researching for the interview and reading the book, I was skeptical at how childhood experiences, the idea of nurture over nature, was so central to James’ perspective. He places the ultimate relevance of a child’s formation on parenting and mentions The Human Genome Project, which asserts that the difference between siblings is not caused by genes but how parents treat them individually. It is not possible or desirable, according to James, for parents to treat all of their children in the same manner or with the same sensitivity. In the nature of existence, those within a family seek their niches and parents can unknowingly impose external goals on their children. Hence Affluenza infection can be inevitable.  

So is there a conscious, elite-led Affluenza conspiracy, a con, a market-led dependency on the system taking place? James thinks that there is a conspiracy, conscious or not. Free-market economics has affected and infiltrated decisive tenets of our political society: democracy, female emancipation, equality, education, health, and this has created a trickle-up—rather than trickle-down—formula resulting in the haves, the have-nots, and the have-mores. Milton Friedmann, the poster-boy of the consumerist utopia, has been inspirational to the capitalist politicians of the post-1970s era. James says that Thatcher’s policies post-1979 looked west to spark consumption rather than being marshaled by the Scandinavian example of the egalitarianism, i.e., smaller banks, universal education and the like. James qualifies that he is not Marxist or Communist and not against the idea of private property or capitalism in principle. But the current ‘dark period’ has ensured that we, as a society, feel powerless to turn the unrelenting tide.

So, what’s the answer? From the news that defendant Ethan Couch has been sent to a (particularly pricey) therapy facility, I put it to Mr James that such reactive medical self-indulgence could be seen as exacerbating the Affluenza virus, rather than provide a cure.  As a psychologist, he is confident that therapy can profoundly change people’s lives and help to cope with the ‘toxic system’ in which we live, but notes that successful treatment can be enormously varied. For example, he suggests that cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) merely acts as an Elastoplast, papering over the cracks. Psychological help can inspire patients to aspire to live in the present, to be playful and authentic (helpful and intrinsic), rather than hyperactive and sincere (detrimentally extrinsic). However, at what cost I wonder?

James has four essential remedies. Pay parents to look after their children, give citizens the power to vote on issues that concern them through regular referenda, ban excessively attractive models in advertising and take a nought off all those darn house prices so that they cease from being a commodity in which to trade. And that’s just for starters. Our collective psyche certainly has to change. Affluenza is not inevitable. Most of us are exhausted with ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’, proffering idle conversation about our cars at drinks parties whilst eating mini-burger canapés, paying extortionate prices for energy on our over-extended houses and fretting over the frenetic addiction to our facial exfoliants. Capitalism is not the problem; it is the interpretation. Ask George Orwell, whose true message of ‘1984’ that it is inherent on humans to dominate each other went unheeded. We should dip our toe into the mind of Oscar Wilde who declared: “The true perfection of man lies not in what man has but what man is”. Heed indeed.

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