The Marcelas Owens Bias Test: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

The photo in question, which you can see here, shows young Marcelas Owens being embraced by Vice President Joe Wash-My-Mouth-Out -With-Soap Biden as President Obama signs the health care reform bill.

If you see nothing wrong with using an 11-year-old boy who has lost his mother as a PR prop, go to the back of the ethics class. Sure, Marcelas probably enjoyed the trip to Washington and all the attention. Those microcephalics (pin-heads, in carny-speak) who used to be exhibited in circus freak shows enjoyed the attention too. But an 11-year-old cannot give consent to being used as a cynical political “freak” to tug at the heart strings and convince easily swayed people with an intellectually dishonest inference.

Among Emmanuel Kant’s most enduring contributions to ethics was one of his “categorical imperatives,” “Act to treat humanity, whether yourself or another, as an end-in-itself and never as a means.” That means, among other things, that you don’t stick a young boy in front of cameras because people like kids and will get all warm and fuzzy about whatever you are doing because he’s there.

The idea programmed by the soulless White House spin-masters, the story that Marcelas’s presence was supposed to tell, is that because of this bill, people like Marcelas’s mother, who died after she lost her job and could no longer afford treatment for her medical condition, won’t be dying any more. Thus the bill is “for” Marcelas, and for his mom’s memory. But of course, it is not. Had there been no Marcelas, there would be another prop child in the picture. And the bill is not “for” any one situation or personal crisis. It would be insane to pass a trillion dollar set of laws to address one person’s problem, or even a hundred. Do you think Marcelas understands that the story of his dead mother was just a convenient tear-jerker used to skirt real issues of cost control, effectiveness, transparency, process and budget impact?

Wanna bet?

If “Joe the Plumber” is willing to be used as a prop, fine: he’s an adult, and had a chance to say no. No grandmother was telling him that he had do do what the President wanted him to.  If soldiers who have lost arms and legs choose to be used as props in war protests, that’s fine too. But putting a sign around your wheelchair-bound daughter or your Down Syndrome son that says, “Don’t let the bank take away my home!” is a violation of their dignity and autonomy, as well as dishonest, and borrowing someone else’s disabled child to make the point more powerfully is worse still. How are these uses of children as props any different from what the President and Vice-President did yesterday?

Not at all. If you don’t see that, and are tempted to say 1) “It’s done all the time,” 2)”it’s for a good cause,” 3) “don’t sweat the small stuff,” or all three, then you need a refresher course in the ways rationalizations allow us to justify unethical conduct when it’s more convenient than holding someone we may like or admire accountable.

It is fascinating what bias can do to reason and integrity. Many of the same individuals who justly criticized the TLC cable reality show “Jon & Kate Plus 8” for exploiting small children and making them involuntary celebrities are willing to forgive the same behavior when it is done for votes rather than ratings. The children on the reality show may even be treated more fairly, supposedly making money in the deal; Marcelas  got an airplane trip and some photo ops with the President. Year from now, will he think that was sufficient compensation for losing his privacy, when some website or E! show includes him in a “Where Are They Now?” feature? “Marcelas Owens, the Health Care Kid, was all smiles when he shared the stage with President Barack Obama in 2010 at the signing of the historic health care reform bill. But those smiles turned to frowns in five years later, when…” Did Marcelas ask to become a trivia question? Did he understand what fifteen minutes of fame can do to a life?

Did President Obama or Vice-President Biden care whether he did or not? Of course they didn’t, because to them, Marcelas Owen was just a prop, and a useful one.

Did you pass the test? Because they certainly did not.

7 thoughts on “The Marcelas Owens Bias Test: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

  1. Pingback: The Marcelas Owens Bias Test: What’s Wrong With This Picture? | Celebrity news

  2. You’re absolutely right. I don’t agree that the White House spinmeisters are soulless, it’s just that ethics never came up. In my 30 years in govt it never came up, except in the annual admonitions not to steal, bribe, or extort. I think there are real human reasons for the lack of conversation–one of my clients once said, “We don’t talk about it because we’re diffident. Who am I to lecture others about ethics?

    I bet that if one of the spinmeisters had stopped to ask it using Marcellus was ethical they would have perked up and said, “oh, no, of course not.”

    Problem is, people don’t often ask that question. You and I are trying to get them to ask it. if they ask they’ll usually get the right answer.

  3. Jack,
    It amazes me that the Democrats would pull the a stunt like this only a few short years after the Graeme Frost / SCHIP debacle. What’s perhaps more disturbing, however, is there seem to be fewer voices of criticism this time around.


    PS: Though it concerned a different issue, I was reminded of an article you’d written some time back for the Scoreboard entitled “Think of the Children.” Perhaps if more dough-eyed youngsters had been thrown in front of more cameras in 2005, the DREAM Act would have been more successful.

  4. Yeesh, so what’s the kid supposed to do? Sit down and shut up, let everyone forget what happened to his mom? Well, what if he didn’t WANT to shut up? I take it America still has that freedom of speech thing?

    Guess what – when I was 11, I knew how to say no. This kid is not some puppet, he’s a bright, talented person who lost his mother, and I have yet to see one whit of evidence that he’s being “forced” to do anything he doesn’t want to do. Conservatives would just like to pretend that he doesn’t exist, along with the human cost of their inaction.

    • You can’t seriously be arguing that an 11-year old child could give informed consent to being used in support of a a health care reform package most adults barely understand, much less children. How would you get such consent? It is not valid consent if someone he is under the supervision of asks him. It is not free consent if any adult who inspires him with admiration, awe or fear asks him. Are you saying he understands “what happened to his mom”? I don’t. The story of his mother’ death involves issues of treatment and multiple options…it certainly is more complex than “the lack of health insurance killed her.”

      Sure, you could say “no” when you were 11, but a lot of the time it didn’t do any good, did it? You still had to do what adults wanted him to do because they are in control. That is per se evidence. Legally and ethically, children cannot give meaningful consent to the requests of adults—hence statutory rape. It has nothing to do with ideology, it is fairness.

      Finally, the “Freedom of Speech thing” has no application to a kid flown across country to humanize a bill signing, and if you are arguing that Democrats had a First Amendment right to use a kid to make their “statement,” I agree. But programmed speech is not “free,” and child exploitation is conduct, not speech.

  5. I came in late with watching the signing..too late to hear who this young boy was..he looked younger than 11.

    What did I think? Of course he is there for a reason. I thought perhaps he had an illness and his family didn’t have health insurance, too common an occurence nowadays!

    However, learning that it was his mom who died…what did it really state? Two words Jack, just like the Gosselin Kids…

    “Product Placement”!

    Sell that bill!

    i work in the health care field, now for over 30 years. I see the results of people who have no health care coverage, we didn’t need a young child to be standing there to ease the blow on the legislative reps who are being hit on the head for helping to pass this bill when their constituants were asking them to regroup and think this out and listen.

    I thought being so close to this issue, as a child advocate, I was overthinking this. Nope, not at all.

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