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Zachary Stockill Headshot

Oprah as Opiate: 'The Man With the Golden Voice' Reconsidered

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"Do you need proof that life in this country can change overnight?" Matt Lauer recently inquired. "Look no further than Ted Williams."

The tale of Ted Williams, with which you have likely attained some degree of familiarity -- homeless former substance abuser with a radio-ready voice "discovered" panhandling for change -- is a compelling, "feel good" human interest story which much of American major media has been keen on for most of the week. Indeed, the universal appeal of this story, and the viral video behind it, is evidenced by the voluminous hits on YouTube it accrued in mere days, and Williams' subsequent "overnight" success. "The man with the golden voice" is reportedly entertaining job offers from NBC, the National Football League, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Last weekend, Ted Williams was a homeless man who was spending his Ohio winter in a tent. Today, he is the toast of the Today Show.

The underlying implication of Lauer's question -- that there is something particularly "American" about Williams' tale -- is worthy of serious consideration. If we read Williams' story through a particularly "American" lens, we see the transmutation of the "American dream" that has occurred within the contemporary era. Eisenhowerian images of white picket fences, and a full-time job may still spring to mind for some with the phrase, though I contend that this will soon be confined to the realm of history for an age that has long since passed.

The peculiar modern phenomenon of "reality television" -- the (largely constructed) trials and tribulations of the modern subject projected for the entertainment of a captive audience -- is directly related to the ferocity with which America has "consumed" Ted Williams. Most would agree that "The American Dream" is associated primarily with the acquisition of private property and adequate employment. By week's end, Williams should have both. The toiling masses of earlier eras were expected to work for their American Dream. Williams did not "work" for his per se, but rather, the democracy of the internet created it for him. Our consumption of Williams may create for him some semblance of what was traditionally considered the "American Dream", though this is all under the auspices of the forces of capitalist consumerism that have overseen its dissolution.

Williams has cited prayer as the principal factor in his recent good fortune. The central idea behind the act of "the prayer" -- the requesting of a certain outcome from a Higher Power with the capacity, if not the will, to facilitate it -- is worthy of inclusion in this analysis. The "God" of Williams' prayer scenario is the public relations departments of corporate America. The PR departments of NBC, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the NFL and all of the other private organizations who have "reached out" to Williams have been motivated by capitalist initiative. It is good business for the NFL to attach itself to a universally affecting human interest story. Likewise with the Today Show. This is not a revelation, by any stretch. Instead, I have found it a useful lens through which to critically consider America's, as well as my own, reaction to the Ted Williams story. It is easy to cite Williams' triumph as evidence of the benevolence of the market, and the "deep democracy" of the internet. Additionally, it is easiest to point to Williams' substance abuse as having played the largest role in his earlier strife. This is, however, failing to take into consideration the larger issue.

Williams was not without agency in his prior quandary. As he readily concedes, substance abuse affected his professional, as well as personal, decline. Still, in light of the vast outpouring of media coverage, I have not found a single critique (or even a nod to) the underlying structures that create, enforce, and sustain social inequality in liberal democracies, and had direct bearing on Williams' homelessness. Instead, we are treated to a Disneyesque parable of Some Guy winning the Homeless Lottery, so to speak. This is all too characteristic of a major media that routinely fails its audience by keeping us sedated with bright lights and flashing colors that sanitize the harsh truths that underpin our profoundly unequal society. When we watch TV audience members win a Beetle, we derive some voyeuristic pleasure from the spectacle of their pleasure. This cheap thrill becomes problematic when we unreservedly accept the larger narrative it upholds: an economy and social system we believe to be based on some kind of "luck of the draw," and various Higher Powers sporadically granting wishes as they see fit. It would appear that the current "opiate of the masses" is Oprah (with whom I am confident Williams will one day soon have an audience).

Williams' story is moving, and one is reluctant to consider it critically due to the unsettling larger questions it provokes. What this story could (and should) be inspiring all of us to do is question our passive assumptions about the factors that create, enforce, and sustain inequality in liberal democracies. Williams was homeless due to far more intrusive, destructive elements than simply "drugs and alcohol." This story produces a warm high for its audience, and indeed, Williams' voice is truly "golden." However, for every Ted Williams there are millions more spending their lives on the streets. It is to them that we should all be listening.