Is popularity of Dr. Oz magazine covers sign that we want real heroes or that we embrace politics of selfishness?

One measure of celebrity hotness is the increase in the sales of magazines that bear their faces on the cover. Putting some celebs on the cover can increase newsstand sales by tens of thousands. That explains why hot celebrities end up on so many covers and also why we can use covers as a measure of hotness. The covers are one aspect of the feeding frenzy that characterizes celebrity worship.  As soon as a celebrity cover drives sales higher at one magazine, other mags follow suit, ratcheting up the intensity of the celebrity worship. Sometimes magazine advertising representatives will try to sell the benefits of advertising in an issue, the cover of which features the celebrity of the month.

As reported in the New York Times today, the hottest magazine cover celebrity in 2012 is not Justin Bieber, Snooki or even Adele. It’s not any singer, actor or TV personality. And it isn’t even a member of any of the wealthy families whose ancestors held autocratic control over large masses of people (AKA royalty).

It’s Dr. Mehmet Oz, a physician, a medical doctor, someone dedicated to science. You know, science—that topic which situation comedies, movies and other mass media present as boring and a sure sign of social ineptness if one likes it. Science—against which the mass media has waged war by broadcasting  pseudo-documentaries on imaginary creatures and giving so much play to anti-scientific theories and theorists.

Not just science, but medical science, which is part of biology, the basis of which is standard evolutionary theory.

The Times quickly disposes of the question of why Time, O, Prevention, Men’s Fitness, Natural Health, Shape, Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Day have all put the good doctor on covers over the past few years. Everyone quoted agrees that it’s because when Oz goes on a cover, more magazines fly off the shelves.

I would desperately like to believe that the current consumer thirst for Mehmet suggests that people are sick of the superficial fame of most celebrities and are attracted to the more tangible accomplishments of Dr. Oz. But Oz just one person, compared to the dozens of current A-list media magnets who are reality TV stars, royalty, children of the rich and third-rate pop entertainers.

It is also a little disconcerting to think of the type of doctor Oz is and what he represents. I don’t mean to knock Dr. Oz, who gives the same kind of much-needed good advice about health that Suze Ormand does about personal finance. Just like Suze, if people followed Dr. Oz’s advice, they would be a lot happier and healthier.  When you see him make a guest appearance on a TV show that is inundated with commercials for chips, pop and fast food surrounded by an endless dessert of reality shows and fantasy documentaries, he resembles an oasis of rationality.

But compare Oz to the medical celebrities of the 50’s and 60’s, when I was growing up. Back then it was Albert Schweitzer and Tom Dooley (who we learned years later doubled as a CIA operative in Southeast Asia). Back then, our medical heroes went to undeveloped foreign countries to treat poor people. Let’s not forget about Jonah Salk, who developed a vaccination against a major disease.  In the 80’s, the medical celebrity was our Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who took a heroic stand against a major health menace, smoking tobacco-based products.

By contrast, Dr. Mehmet Oz’s heroic deeds that transform him from physician into celebrity is that he treats you—the narcissistic self-centered viewer. He shows each of us—each of you—how to be healthier, as opposed to providing medical care to poor people in the jungles of Africa or Laos, curing a disease or taking on a big industry for the benefit of society.

To make my point, let’s consider the call to action woven into the message symbolized by our past medical celebrities—be it to help the locals in poor countries abroad or to fight disease, the call to action to consumers for Dooley, Schweitzer and Salk was “give money or your time.” Koop offered several calls to action, most of which reflected altruism—stop smoking, support anti-smoking regulations and warning labels, support government intervention in health issues.

For Dr, Oz, the call to action is to work on the self, to better the self.

An age in which the pursuit of selfish interest is the highest good naturally prefers its medical heroes to focus on keeping each of us healthy—not some distant tribes, not even some underserved community in rural or urban America, but you, the viewer, the individual, the self seeking its own best interest.

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