I've been meaning to comment on one particular public-service announcement in NBC's deathless series of syrupy "The More You Know" PSAs, this one targeted to self-esteem and delivered by resident Law & Order star Mariska Hargitay.
"Everyone is born with their one true love: yourself," intones Hargitay, thereby demonstrating that NBC's one true love is not grammar.* She pauses for a beat to let that sink in, then amplifies, "If you like you, everyone else will, too."
Excuse me for overthinking something that everyone are supposed to just smile at and feel enriched by, but...huh? Again here we have the empty-headed, cloying platitude—a line that "sounds right" but is ridiculous on the most cursory analysis. If you like you, everyone else will, too? Where's the evidence for this? Even without evidence, does it make sense? Self-love by definition = narcissism, a topic we've covered in this blog. Many of the narcissists we know are distinctly unlovable people, not so much because of their self-love per se (which can even be a turn-on, at first), but because that self-love drives them to do so many uncaring, if not downright antisocial, things. But without going too far afield, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Bill O'Reilly likes Bill O'Reilly. (One gets that impression.) Does everyone like him for it? How 'bout our pal Trump? A lovable guy? I dare say, I suspect that George W. Bush kinda likes George W. Bush, too.... Need I ask?
Oh, and while we're talking politics, let's not leave out one of the more famous self-lovers in history, as adjudged by practitioners of the mental-health arts: Adolph Hitler.
Maybe Hargitay means that you're supposed to love yourself, but not to the point of being egotistical about it. Sorry, that's still a no-go, because it's parsed language—another of those delicate distinctions that's impracticable in real life. (Self-help is chock full of these, beginning with codependency, an intriguing but totally useless concept: It simply cannot be applied to real-world situations, involving real people in real relationships.) How would you teach someone to know when he or she has crossed the line from "the good kind of self-love" into "an annoying level of egotism that makes people want to hit me in the face with a shovel"? Let's face it, what Hargitay and the writers of the PSA really want to say is along the lines of the title I slapped on this post. Something like, "Try not to hate yourself, OK? You probably don't suck as badly at life as you think you do." Of course, that doesn't make for a very uplifting slogan on national TV.
(Incidentally... Am I wrong in postulating that many of us have a soft spot for those who don't love themselves? For underdogs and the downtrodden? Just askin'.)
Bottom line, especially when the segments are bracketed collectively as "The More You Know," it'd be nice if some actual knowledge were imparted along with the feel-good sloganeering.
On the other hand, I think the makers of the new weight-loss drug Alli have come up with something that eventually may be ranked among the better slogans in advertising history, right up there with such legendary catch-phrases as "Think Small" (VW), "Just Do It" (Nike) and "You Deserve a Break Today" (the McDonald's jingle, famously sung by a young Barry Manilow**). It goes like so:
"If you have the will, we have the power."
Experts seem divided about the drug's ability to live up to the brilliance of its ad copy...and Alli can have some truly, truly gross side effects (follow the link, take a deep breath and scroll down. Be prepared). But the copy itself? Classic.
* everyone is singular and should take his or her, not their. In truth, of course, I'm sure the writers purposely avoided the singular pronoun. They didn't want to be off-putting to females (who are perceived as generally more lacking in self-esteem and thus are the primary intended audience of such spots) by using him, yet didn't want to make the spot sound stilted, unnatural and guy-unfriendly by using her, either.
** though not actually written by Manilow, as often reported. Barry did, however, write (and sing) the well-known State Farm Insurance refrain, "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there...."
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
I've been meaning to comment on one particular public-service announcement in NBC's deathless series of syrupy "The More You Know" PSAs, this one targeted to self-esteem and delivered by resident Law & Order star Mariska Hargitay.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
An item in today's Parade underscores the risk in long lead-times*, and demonstrates how breaking news can make magazine editors look, well, pretty damn stupid. It also sounds a perfectly delicious note of irony apropos of yesterday's discussion of Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-steps, etc. The item, which appears in one of the magazine's most popular features, Walter Scott's gossipy "Personality Parade," is a cynical question about Lindsay Lohan's recent stint in rehab. A reader asks whether Promises, the posh Malibu retreat where Lohan made her (supposed) recovery earlier this month, isn't just an "extended vacation" for unruly celebs. In its reply, Parade notes that the brat-packer finally seems "committed to getting clean," then quotes Promises founder Richard Rogg as follows: "This is a very serious 12-step program. No one should be penalized for choosing to do the hard work of recovery in a luxurious setting." Given Ms. Lohan's difficulties of the past week, you wonder if Parade—and Rogg—wouldn't like to have that one back.
More to the point, once again we are reminded of how difficult it is to kick a serious habit like alcohol, and that maybe we shouldn't put so much faith in 12-steps. Even "very serious" ones.**
* Most major national magazines are "put to bed" (i.e. they take final editorial form) months before they appear on newsstands. Even a weekly supplement like Parade goes to the printer weeks ahead of the Sunday on which you read it with your morning coffee.
** Please don't accuse me of being "anecdotal" here. I'm using Lohan as an object lesson after having done the research, not citing her case as if it were the research.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 11:54 AM
Friday, July 27, 2007
For most of the seven-plus decades since its founding in 1935, little in this country has been so mythologized as Alcoholics Anonymous and its special place in American society. Certainly during its first three decades, before other mainstream alternatives began appearing (and differentiating themselves by questioning AA's methods, albeit still with some delicacy), perhaps nothing in our culture was so untouchable, so off-limits as a topic for serious debate, as AA. This attitude is still largely intact, and I encountered it in spades during the 2005 media push for SHAM. Those of you who've read the book know that I was pretty hard on AA—as hard as I was on any single facet of the SHAMscape. As a result, in almost every phone-in show I did, and I did dozens, I received a call that began with some version of the following: "How dare you! All I know is, my [father, mother, brother, uncle, etc.] wouldn't be alive today, if it weren't for Alcoholics Anonymous...." Others simply called in to defend the organization on principle, even though they claimed no familial connection to AA or any related success story.
Several good reasons underlie such entrenched feelings. AA's intentions were always seen as honorable, especially during its first half-century. There are also the organization's strong religious underpinnings, which are bound to resonate in a faith-based nation like the U.S. (In the fabled 12 Steps to recovery, five of the first seven make some reference to God's central role in the process.) Plus, "treatment" is free. Ergo, the snarky, money-based accusations I make against other gurus and their regimens don't apply. And then, of course, you have all the anecdotal testimonials, like the ones I'd hear about when I did talk shows.
I do not doubt that AA has helped people. As I often reply when contentious interviewers ask, "Are you suggesting that self-help never helped anyone?", AA now has about 1.9 million members worldwide; it'd be hard not to help somebody, even just by accident. And if AA enables only a small percentage of those 2 million people to kick the sauce, that's still a fair number of lives affected.
But do we have any real idea how "fair" that "fair number" is? And is it enough?
That's what brings us—much belatedly—to the real topic of this post: a new study out* from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a branch of the National Institutes of Health. Among other things, the study quotes experts who peg AA's "success rate" at around 20 percent. That's actually not as dour a prognosis as I surmised in crunching the numbers, or trying to, while researching my book. (Because of AA's veil of secrecy, reliable data can be hard to find and authenticate.) But 20 percent is a long, long way from the 40 to 75 percent success rate AA has historically bandied about. And, of course, it's nowhere near the famous, blatantly misleading promise that some of the more aggressive AA chapters still use: "We will help 75 to 90 percent of those who are ready to embrace change." As I've pointed out on talk shows, that's like a surgeon telling you before an operation, "Don't worry, I cure 75 to 90 percent of the people who don't die on my table." Your first question is going to be, OK, but doc, what percentage of people die on your table??
The ambiguity and purposeful overstatement of AA's success rate** takes on added meaning when you consider the meta-analysis featured in the October 1995 Harvard Mental Health Letter (see SHAM page 143), which suggested that alcoholics have at least a 43 percent chance of kicking the habit by going cold turkey on their own. Sounds implausible? Think about it. First of all, AA's highly structured, claustrophobic, spiritually tinged format just doesn't work for some people; they drop out right off the bat. (Though the dropout rate, too, is controversial, and by its nature almost impossible to quantify, even AA admits it's high: that, for example, half of those who show up for their first meeting drop out within a month.) Also think about the overall climate of an AA meeting: a room full of people, self-admitted "failures" (see step 1 of the 12) who are constantly swapping horror stories about their slavish dependency on booze and the hold it has—will always have***—on their lives. Is it not possible that such a climate might reinforce and perpetuate that dependency, laying the groundwork for future "stumbles"?
There are further aspects of the NIAAA study, as recounted in the AP story (linked above), that will not only surprise you, but lend credence to several other against-the-grain ideas I broached in SHAM (and for which I also took a lot of heat during my media work). I won't cover them at length here because, 1, this post is quite long enough already, and 2, this is a complex subject where you're best served by using the AP story as a road map to your own independent investigation, should you be so inclined. However, the overarching point is this: So many of our suppositions about drinking and the very nature of addiction were based on...nothing. They were ideas that got pulled out of a hat by two men, a salesman and a proctologist, who couldn't find satisfying answers to the riddle of alcoholism, so they basically made up their own.
That was the genesis and "theoretical foundation" of the program that—for seven decades—has been America's first line of defense against a national catastrophe with a total economic impact of $185 billion a year****.
If my math is corect, that's about the same as the total economic impact of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Combined.
* which, predictably, got very little media play, perhaps because the larger news outlets had to devote all that time and space to Lindsay Lohan's latest tumble from the wagon. Ironic, no?
** This is armchair sniping, but fairly well documented, and interesting reading nonetheless.
*** The notion of lifelong addiction is part and parcel of the AA liturgy. You're never "cured"; you just do your best to battle the malaise "one day at a time." There are eye-opening insights into this theory, too, in the NIAAA material.
**** See SHAM, pp. 224-229.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
So I'm trying to order flowers online for my sister in San Diego, who, tomorrow, celebrates the 65th anniversary of her arrival on this planet. (OK, that's a fancified, overwritten way of saying it's her birthday; I do not mean to imply that it's the day on which she stepped off the mother ship from Baantar-5, or some such.) Anyway, I go to FTD's site, and get most of the way through the process when I remember—being the cheap SOB I am—that I have a "save up to $15 on FTD flowers!" coupon from one of those massive Entertainment [fill-in-the-year] books. The coupon, however, requires you to order through a dedicated sub-page of the usual FTD site; I go there and begin anew.
Everything's fine until I get to the part where you have to input your credit card, which is where they also spring the shipping/wire fees on you. (They don't do that in advance, at least in part, because people blanch at the idea of paying 25 percent of the price of the flowers themselves just to have the darned things delivered; FTD figures that once you're that far into the process, however, you're more likely to just swallow hard and go along.) And here is where I notice something odd: When I was ordering the regular way, through the main FTD page, the shipping charge was just $11.99. But now, when I'm using a coupon, the shipping charge—for the same exact item, to the same exact address, on the same exact day—is $13.99.*
I call the FTD customer-service line, wait on hold for 10 minutes to experience FTD's "superior level of customer care," and you know what the rep tells me? "I'm surprised," she says. "Usually it's $15 no matter where you order." I guess that was supposed to make me shut up and count my blessings.
I know, I know...it's two bucks. And to paraphrase that famously cynical line from Saturday Night Fever, these days two bucks doesn't even buy one buck. It's hardly worth worrying about, let alone blogging about. It's just the principle of the thing. I get tired of being hosed in a dozen little ways each and every day. I get tired of the gimmicks and the shticks and the ruses. Don't you? I mean, here I am sending flowers to my sister for her birthday, very pretty flowers that I am quite pleased with, and something like this takes just a little bit of the edge off it.
Or maybe my critics are right. Maybe I am becoming a curmudgeon in my old age.
* I printed out both invoices and kept them. Just in case.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Some might consider it dirty pool to take one self-help regimen, hold it up against another self-help regimen, and use the contradictions between the two as evidence of cracks in the foundation of the SHAMscape itself. And I'd agree that you can't do that with entire contrasting schools of thought. For example, Victimization* and Empowerment have wholly different views of human nature, interpersonal relationships, and life itself. Those must be taken as givens, much as the respective core beliefs of Catholicism and Islam must be taken as givens; it's unfair to use Islam to point out flaws in Catholicism, because the two religions just start from different premises. It's another story, however, if within a specific system or school of thought, the internal givens don't quite mesh. For example, you'd be altogether justified in taking one of the Catholic Church's bedrock Ten Commandments, holding it up against another Commandment, and saying, "You know what? These two don't gibe."** Within any specific system or way of thinking about life, you're looking for internal consistency. And when it's not there, then you have potential evidence of a serious problem: shoddy logic and/or shoddy research and/or unsupported conclusions drawn from that research ("leaps of faith"), all the way up to outright fraud.
This is even more true of a specific self-help technique. If different gurus are using the same technique to promise diametrically opposed results, then what are we to conclude about the inherent validity of the technique and the thinking that underlies it? It's kind of like the latter-day status of, say, caffeine. (Caffeine may not be the very best example, but I'm rushed today.) If 50 credentialed experts are telling you that caffeine is bad for you, and another 50 credentialed experts say it's good....at that point, you pretty much have to throw out the validity of what any of them says. It's all a big wash. We can only conclude that we have no idea what caffeine does, or doesn't do, for us.
That's a long intro to the fact that I'm always on the lookout for new SHAM spins, or embellishments of old ones, expressly so that I can make such analyses and comparisons. Yesterday I came across this piece in the London Times, which talks about the rise of "health-care perfectionism": a particular type of hypochrondria that, says Dr. Robert Leahy, president of the International Association for Cognitive Psychotherapy, results from today's emphasis on physical perfection combined with the sheer volume of medical info that floods mainstream culture via the Internet, 24-hour cable news, etc. According to Leahy, these health-care perfectionists, who want their bodies to be flawless inside and out, tend to panic every time they hear about a new disease or symptom, worrying that they might have it or get it.
Among Leahy's "prescriptions" for such worry is the following technique, and I quote the article:
"...Leahy gets his clients to repeat: 'It's always possible I have cancer [or whatever it is they fear],' over and over, hundreds of times a day. Many who have tried it have found that the internal struggle quietens**. In fact, the thought becomes boring."
This is the same desensitizing technique that panic-disorder therapists have used for a while now with fearful fliers. Counterintuitive as it sounds, such passengers are supposed to board the plane thinking, This jet is going to explode. This jet is going to explode. This jet is going to explode... (Helpful hint: You really don't want to say such things aloud in these times of high paranoia, unless you want to be escorted off by a K-9 unit and spend the next few hours chatting with the FBI.) After a while they don't even hear themselves. Or it actually becomes funny to them.
OK. But...now...does this desensitizing process remind you of anything? How 'bout, say, the much-vaunted theory of affirmations? That is, telling yourself wonderful things, usually the same wonderful things, each day as you shave or put on make-up. (Some gurus suggest doing this every time you have a quiet moment to yourself; the more, the better.) Yessir, the process of affirmations relies on this same repetitive chanting. So why doesn't that become boring and meaningless? Why don't people become desensitized to those positive thoughts, in the same way that Leahy's subjects, and the fearful fliers, become desensitized to the negative ones?
This is no small question, because there may be no single element that's more critical to the Empowerment schema than this whole idea of self-talk: the messages we send ourselves daily. If one guru says that through self-talk, you can learn to believe in the literal truth of what you're saying ("you're wonderful! nothing can stop you!"), while another guru says that you can use the same technique to make the words (and underlying concepts, like fear of flying) totally meaningless...then where does that leave us?
Why should it be that much different when the person you're continually talking to is you?
* This link takes you to a blog containing a review of SHAM that I hadn't seen. Though the review is not totally favorable to my book, it does present a nice summary of my feelings on Victimization.
** I'm not saying that's the case. It's just an example.
Monday, July 23, 2007
I've now heard off-blog from a few people who felt that this last thread—which, by the way, has obliterated all previous benchmarks for comments, at 66 and counting as I write this—strayed outside my usual standards for "civil dialog," as one critic put it. Evidently some of you felt that I permitted the blog to devolve to an uncomfortable he-said/she-said; that I stood passively by as people called each other out by name. A second emailer, who some months ago had had her own hand slapped for crossing the line, quite reasonably observed, "You explained to me then that you don't want ad hominem attacks. If calling somebody a 'racist' because you don't like their ideas, or linking their name and the word 'ignorant' doesn't qualify [as ad hominem], then what does?"
Folks... I am sorry if anyone was offended by some of the views expressed in that thread, which started out with Rhonda Byrne and somehow got into a spirited, free-ranging debate covering rap music, the feminine mystique, human nature as a whole, and even (to some degree) the nature of discourse itself. In my defense, a lot of sensitive, emotionally charged cans of worms got opened along the way, and I guess I felt that I needed to let the worms* crawl to wherever they seemed inclined to go. I also felt that the discussion deserved a denouement, and in my eagerness to host it, I suppose I was willing to tolerate a bit more of the bad along with the good. It is clear that I suspended some of the rules that I've upheld for two years insofar as personal courtesy and, especially, name-calling. Again, I apologize to anyone who came away thinking that the debate sank beneath the usual SHAMblog standards. It is difficult to make some of these judgments on the fly, in the midst of a philosophical free-for-all where people are commenting back-and-forth almost in real time, and one wants to be as fair as possible to all parties and their respective positions. It does become something of a slippery slope. ("Well, heck, I let the last person say such-and-such, and so-and-so is entitled to respond, and what he says here isn't that much worse....") Particularly in a case where two or three individuals are "having at" one another, if I suddenly bring down the curtain on one of the participants, or even just censor a comment that seems slightly more flagrant than the prior one, I worry about being accused of taking an active hand in rigging the "results." Yes, I know that that explanation doesn't address or justify everything that happened in that previous thread; it's just the best I can do, looking back.
I want to applaud those who kept their cool as things got hot. And just for the record, there were a couple of comments that came through—not from regulars—that I did spike because I felt that they added nothing and were simply from outsiders who wandered by, saw the developing scrum and decided to pile on in an over-the-top (and in one case genuinely racist and profane) manner.
On that score, I want to emphasize again that I see no legitimate reason why any of us would need to call one of our philosophical opponents "ignorant," or "an idiot," or any other labels that apply specifically to the person rather than the ideas that person expressed. If you think someone's ideas betray ignorance, that's fine...show us how by refuting the ideas. Just please leave the labels out of it. (Let me also point out that you can call somebody ignorant without actually using the word. An ad hominem attack that avoids epithets and is phrased in erudite language is still an ad hominem attack.) And please also consider that none of us is, or should ever be, defined or categorized based solely on one or two opinions we hold. I may have a belief about some particular thing in life that is incredibly naive and untutored...but that belief, in and of itself, does not make me an idiot. I happen to know, personally, a number of people that I consider extremely intelligent who have purchased The Secret and unabashedly subscribe to its themes. Go figure.
One final note to the two people who felt that I should've done more "refereeing," even in terms of the ideas themselves. This would be a good time to add that I have always had a tendency to value words more than content, and that may be a flaw of mine. This is probably because I'm not nearly so certain as some people seem to be about what's objectively right and what's wrong, or about whose god is the God—if anybody's is. Thus I tend to give all ideas equal footing**, especially if they're well-put, and bespeak some degree of self-consistent evidence. If Osama bin Laden turned up on SHAMblog with a passionate and eloquent explanation of why it was important to torture and kill American women and children, I would run it. It's not my job to decide that he's "wrong." He's entitled to feel that way. (And I'm entitled to feel that he should be tortured and killed. How do I know which of us is "right"? As I've said before, I kinda go with Bill Maher here: If you haven't actually sat down with The Big Guy, don't presume to know what He's thinking.) And though, at least where writing is concerned, I've never had to face situations that involved life and death, I have put my money where my mouth is within my own sphere of influence and activity. When I taught at IU, I told students on Day 1 that regardless of the school's official policies, my class was going to be run as a PC-free zone, and if students didn't like it, they should drop the course now, or write the dean and try to get me removed. One student, who thought he was being very clever, noticed the vowel at the end of my name and challenged me: "Suppose I want to write an essay about how Italians have brought nothing but misery and death to this country, and should be deported or even imprisoned. How about that?" And I told him, sincerely, that my first and only thought would be, "Let's see how I can help you write such a piece for maximum impact, to make it as credible as possible." (I would've done the same thing if he wanted to write a piece arguing for the restoration of slavery, or another Holocaust, or what-have-you. It was not my job as a writing professor to tell people what to believe—merely to show them how to communicate those beliefs effectively.) Later in my career, another student who had a bitter dispute with me over her grade took me at my word, saying she intended to write a letter to the dean demanding that I be fired. I asked her if I could see the letter first, so that we could work together to shape her arguments as persuasively as possible. I would've been fully willing to follow through on that, too, though she never took me up on my offer.
I'm not patting myself on the back here, and I realize that my attitude may not even make sense to some readers. Can't be helped. Just telling it like it is.
* Please note: I am not using worms as a pejorative, i.e. to characterize the individuals who posted. I'm simply following the "can of worms" metaphor.
** When I'm acting as a host, that is. In my own writing, I'm entitled to sell my own beliefs. I try to separate my own beliefs, on the subjective level, from my intellectual uncertainy about the nature of objective truth.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
You might call it Secret-dipity. While I sat here Tuesday quietly observing the second anniversary of SHAMblog, little did I know that some 9852 miles away, Head Secretron Rhonda Byrne was poised to mark a milestone of a different sort: She was about to become, the following day, the highest-achieving newcomer to BRW's* annual "Top 50 Entertainers" list, which ranks Australia's performers and celebs by annual earnings.
On the strength of the combined sales of The Secret book and DVD, pegged by BRW at 6 million**, Byrne came in just outside the top 10, with a single-year income of $14 million. That's modest by U.S. standards for an upper-tier celeb, but a chunk o' change that a lot of Byrne's starry-eyed, ever-hopeful American fans wouldn't mind attracting, I'm sure. (And don't worry, I'm equally sure she'll do better in 2008.)
BRW editor James Thomson described Byrne's sudden ascent to affluence as "stunning." Said Thompson, "It is a pretty impressive debut really, considering the DVD was released last March and the book was released later in 2006." He credited Byrne's two sit-downs with Oprah, who, in giddily touting The Secret, came as close as she ever will to acting as an outright spokesperson. (Winfrey later gave a copy to her hand-picked presidential candidate, Barack Obama...and there is now a member-only blog set up on Obama's official site that exhorts Secretrons to attract the presidency to him. You know, I really like the guy, but I almost hope he doesn't win the White House for that reason alone: so we don't have to listen to all those wack-jobs screaming, "See, I told you it works!")
I guess the takeaway here is that this becomes yet another compelling restatement of the old Mencken line (in its colloquial form), "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." Which is not to imply that only dumb people bought (or bought into) The Secret. Actually, I'd say it's more a matter of gullibility, and of a near-compulsive need to believe what Byrne says is true: a sort of opiate-for-the-masses phenomenon.
In making the BRW list, Byrne joins such Aussie notables as Nicole Kidman ($35 million), Hugh Jackman ($30 million), Kylie Minogue ($27 mill), Keith Urban (whose incremental $26 mill means that he and wife Kidman needn't struggle to get by on her salary alone), Cate Blanchett ($18 mill), and Russell Crowe, who put another $15 million into his emergency telephone-throwing fund. However, it pains me to say that topping the list at $50 million is/are The Wiggles, whom my grandkids adore, and whom I can tolerate for about three minutes—maybe—before I go looking for a gun, or a stiff drink (and I don't drink), or at least a way to make the TV appear as if the cable went out. (Where is David Chase when you really need him?)
* It's like the Aussie Forbes.
** That actually sounds light to me, which suggests that it's not an up-to-date figure, but just what counted in BRW's reckoning of last year's income. Maybe. (See comments made after the post went up.)
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Consider this a somewhat more studious rendering of yesterday's post about the similarities between junk food and self-help.
Reader John Curtis, whose own debunking site is selfhelpfraud.org, tipped me to an article that appeared in a special issue of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine devoted to junk science in the mental-healing arts. Though this was back in 2001—before SHAM was so much as a gleam in my agent's eye—I hadn't seen it before, and I'm grateful to Curtis for bringing it to my attention. Its title pretty much says it all: "Fringe Psychotherapies: The Public at Risk."
The author, Canadian psychology professor Barry L. Beyerstein, comes out swinging. "From Hippocrates to the present," he opens the piece, which later became the keynote address to the 2002 Annual Convention of the Canadian Psychological Association, "the first duty of the helping professions has been 'Do No Harm.' Unfortunately, a widening gap between science and the further reaches of psychotherapy has allowed certain practices to flourish that have the potential to do much harm." A few points here. Beyerstein intended his treatise primarily as a broadside against pseudo-therapists: that is, under-credentialed private-practice shrinks who tout the various untested, faddish regimens that he labels collectively as "neurobabble." ("For example," he writes, "there are well-known psychiatrists...who advocate treating current maladjustments by encouraging patients to 're-live' mental trauma that supposedly occurred in utero, during birth, or even in previous incarnations.") He also concedes that even at best, formal psychotherapy remains an evolving science with a spotty success rate. Serious-minded professionals do not shy away from such truths, and their profession's limitations, as I myself learned when I delivered a keynote address to a convention of psychologists last fall.
But that's all the more reason why consumers must guard against falling under the spell of today's "fringe" practitioners, Beyerstein argues: "Cult-like pseudo-therapies can prey upon the dependency needs of vulnerable people while extracting unconscionable sums of money." Further, he writes, "inadequately trained therapists may fail to recognize early signs of serious psychopathologies that, left untreated, could prove disastrous"; even in less serious cases, such practitioners may "encourage their clients' delusions." Needless to say, he adds, "bad advice could exacerbate rather than alleviate clients' complaints."
All of these criticisms could be lodged with (at least) equal weight against mainstream self-help, as the author notes: "With the growth of the 'New Age' movement, the market has been flooded by a growing cadre of therapists with little formal training but an immense investment in pop-psychology and 'post-modernist' psychobabble." Many of these self-appointed gurus, he writes, set up shop under such labels as "New Age guide, relationship advisor, mental therapist, etc."
Beyerstein concedes that it's not beyond the realm of possibility that a troubled individual might find some solace in the words of a "kind, empathetic" psychobabbler (though, I might add, an equally sympathetic ear may be found among friends and/or loved ones, and without the self-help price tag). Still, he continues, even if we give the psychobabblers the benefit of the doubt, "there remains the danger that they will divert clients from treatments that would help them more."
In closing, I quote from Beyerstein's own conclusion: "As long as people refuse to think critically and to put psychotherapy methods to hard-nosed empirical tests, bogus treatments will continue to flood the market. It continues to amaze me that many people who demand extensive, impartial evaluations of automobiles or televisions before making a purchase will put themselves in the hands of psychotherapists with little or no prior investigation of their credentials, theoretical orientations, professional affiliations, or their records of successfully helping their clients in the past."
That last line, to which I've added emphasis, applies in spades to SHAMland, and is as incisive a comment as has ever been written about modern-day self-help, its clientele, and the strange, symbiotic relationship between the two.
Monday, July 16, 2007
Read an interesting article this morning in, of all places, the Turkish Daily News* that contains the following description of such fare as The Secret: "Enis Batur described those books as the junk food you eat when you get hungry instead of a nutritious meal, because the answers for existential questions such as life beyond the unknown could not be hidden only in one book." As you can probably see from that line, the writing is a bit stilted; it sounds like the translation from Turkish that it probably is. But self-help-as-psycho-spiritual-junk-food, despite being an obvious and irresistible metaphor, also is one I hadn't really thought of or seen elsewhere**. In fact, I think it's stunningly apt in ways far beyond what Batur and the author of this piece, a gentleman named Bengu Aydin, suggest. SHAM tastes good, can become habit-forming—and in most cases is bad for you. SHAM contributes to intellectual torpor and sloppiness in the same way that junk food contributes to physical obesity and sloth. Both contain tasty-but-empty ingredients that were intentionally put there to keep us coming back for more. In addition, many self-help regimens are every bit as greasy—as slimy, if you will—as any griddle-fried, syrup-laden fast-food breakfast. Finally, the entrepreneurs behind SHAM, like the corporate types behind fast food, get very rich on the strength of our national (and international) appetite for this junk.
* The link says "subscription" but it opened for me.
** Though I'm sure it's been used here and there. And by all means, if you're a blogger/writer and you've used that particular metaphor, set me straight.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 7:50 AM
Friday, July 13, 2007
LINDSAY LOHAN informs Tatler, a top Brit magazine, that as part of her ongoing quest for self-discovery and the expansion of her already prodigious intellect, she's now reading Machiavelli's classic 1513 work, The Prince. The magazine's cover story on Lohan quotes her thusly: "I was going out with someone and they said I should read Machiavelli and I was like, 'Nah,' and then I was, 'OK, I'll read it,' and now it is always with me."
My fervent twofold hope for mankind is that (1) she can't understand the book and (2) she resists the urge to, like, circulate it among friends when she's done with it. The last thing the world needs is a bunch of jet-setting, club-hopping Machiavellian narcissists like Lohan, Spears, Simpson (either one), et al.
(Then again, today's self-help is pretty Machiavellian to begin with. If you don't believe me, just re-read horror story number 2.)
* It's another one of those recurring headings, or "slugs," Esquire would use for the satirical items in its annual Dubious Achievements issue.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Apropos of yesterday's post, the Internet, the shield of anonymity it affords, and the opportunities for clandestine behavior created by that shield*: For all my experience in journalism and the (supposed) bicoastal sophistication new acquaintances usually presume that I have, I must admit to a decided naivete about the way people use and abuse the Web. Comes a story, now, about a CEO in the thriving natural-foods sector who would visit key industry chat rooms and discussion boards where, under a phantom screen name, he flaunted his immense grasp of the industry, establishing himself as something of an oracle of the organic-foods biz—a platform he used in touting his own company while disparaging his chief competitor. That's pretty nasty stuff to begin with (albeit perhaps "typical" in America's all's-fair-in-love-and-business climate). But it would appear that the guy kept surreptitiously bad-mouthing his competitor even after deciding to acquire it, employing the ruse to depress the other company's stock price, thus making his target easier and less costly to gobble up. The Federal Trade Commission is looking into the CEO's actions, and one suspects that the Securities and Exchange Commission just might have something to say about this particular M&A strategy, too. For my part, it blows me away that people in even the highest and most visible positions have the cojones to try these kinds of shenanigans.
I'm sort of playing six-degrees-of-Steve's-pet-peeves here, but inasmuch as we're on the subject of corporate affairs and the like, I noted with interest the other day that China executed a former top bureaucrat who once had run the nation's equivalent of our Food and Drug Administration; the guy accepted bribes and caused unsafe products to find their way to Chinese markets, with sometimes-fatal results. It can be tempting to regard such news stories (together with accounts of the state-authorized draconian punishments found throughout the Middle East) as evidence of how "barbaric" some other cultures remain... And yet I've long thought that many types of so-called white-collar or "institutional" crime are far worse than any instance of homicide and should be punished accordingly. I ask you: Who demonstrably did more damage? Charles (Tate-LaBianca) Manson? Or Enron's Ken Lay? Which of them probably ruined, even ended**, more lives? I would think that punishment should consider the breadth of the harm, not just simple, biblical notions of "an eye for an eye." It has always mystified me that people who do truly horrific things in corporate or governmental settings, affecting the lives of thousands or millions of Americans, are somehow insulated from the more extreme criminal sanctions and need only worry, in most cases, about facing the music in civil court***. As I mused in a post some time back, if it's ever proved that George W. Bush got us involved in Iraq under false pretenses (especially if he did it for personal/venal reasons), then who could possibly be more deserving of the ultimate punishment (whatever we, as a society, deem that to be****) than our illustrious chief executive?
To my mind, all those bright-eyed wannabes now seeking the presidency in 2008 should be made to understand that there are far worse things that can happen to them than simply being voted out of office in 2012.
* What I'm trying to say about the relevance of this to yesterday's post is, I don't think I would've gotten suckered to begin with were it not for the ease with which the 'Net enables people to establish bogus identities and even create bogus web sites.
** In Lay's case, the "murders" would've been indirect: lost or substandard health care, suicide as a result of financial desperation, etc.
*** Lay, of course, was criminally prosecuted. But he's one of the few.
**** I am not a fan of the death penalty. If we're going to have it, however, we need to think more deeply about when to invoke it.
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
OK. There are two reasons why I've called a halt to our series of horror stories. I've already alluded to Reason 1: the looming threat of legal repercussions from one of the stories I've featured to date. But there's a second reason, whose possibility did not occur to me when I originally embarked on this enterprise (though the risks seem all so obvious in hindsight).
I got snookered, folks.
Well, not quite. But almost. There's a long story to be told here, and someday I may tell all of it. For now, suffice it to say that in the course of re-reading Horror Story No. 3 one last time before publication*, something in the narrative suddenly didn't sit right—one of those "little things" you tend to miss the first or second time through. That motivated me to do a bit more double-checking, which, in turn, led to some reverse phone-number look-up (which I should've been doing all along, to be honest. Just as an added measure of security). At this point the whole story began to unravel fast, and it became clear that I'd been had: Someone had cooked up and fed me a whale of a tale. Here things get a bit fuzzy. I'm presuming—though I can't yet prove—that the ruse originated on The Dark Side, perhaps in order to get me to embarrass myself (even more than usual) in black and white. By revealing after publication that the whole thing was a hoax, the perps would demonstrate not only what a hopeless dupe and shoddy journalist I am, but how easily I'll throw caution to the wind in my eagerness to savage self-help. Or possibly they had an even more sinister motive in mind. Rest assured, if I get to the point where I feel I have a sturdy enough handle on the particulars, I'll publish all the names and numbers and we'll let the chips fall where they may. I should mention, however, that already one of the key phone numbers "has been changed," says Ma Bell, and "no further information is available..."
Meanwhile, I now have my suspicions about the legitimacy of a second story.
I suppose it's possible that the folks behind this gambit did it "just to do it." Or maybe someone with the mother of all grudges against self-help decided to produce the horror story to end all horror stories. But I don't think so. The plot we're talking about was pretty intricate and, I think, devious: It relied on the coordinated activities of several seemingly unrelated people in different states...not unlike those 5-star review-writing campaigns that we saw in the early days of Dr. Phil's Love Smart (and that follow the publication of any major new self-help book these days. Certainly we saw this with The Secret as well).
A mea culpa here. Because I solicited for these vignettes on this blog—among what I took to be a sympathetic audience—and because readers took the initiative in responding to me (or forwarding my solicitation to "good candidates"), I was more credulous in taking respondents at their word than I would've been in dealing with hostile subjects whom I'd had to chase down on my own. The bottom line, in any case, is that this episode has doubly sensitized me to the fact that I'm working without a net here, as the saying goes. There's no one to backstop me—no one whose deep (legal) pockets I can reach into**—should things get ugly. Though I think I've demonstrated my willingness to go out on a limb when I feel it's called for, that's not a risk I want to make a practice of assuming on something as informal (and, frankly, unprofitable) as a blog. And on material as slippery and subjective as our horror stories.
This doesn't necessarily mean that I'm forever burying the rest of the stories that some of you were kind enough and courageous enough to share. From time to time I may throw in (or at least make reference to) a story that I've had a chance to research backwards and forwards, and that I'm confident contains no journalistic or legal land mines. Today, I just wanted to explain a little bit of what's been going on.
* And I may have said this before, but it bears restating: Blogging is publishing. If you defame someone in a blog, you have defamed that person as surely as if you did it on Page 1 of The New York Times. The nature of the recourse may be somewhat different—and the aggrieved party may have a harder time proving damages and/or collecting—but the offense is the same.
** Let's see how many metaphors I can mangle in one post.
Monday, July 09, 2007
My wife thinks I'm wasting my time. And yours. At least when I go off on what she calls "airy tangents" like my feelings on race and such.
"These things you think and write about," she says, shaking her head in exasperation, "may make sense as ideas. But they go totally against human nature. They have nothing to do with real life and how people live it...and how they'll continue living it. So it's pointless. Just a lot of talk."
My wife has never been shy about making the case for my detachment from reality—and trust me, she was doing it well before SHAMblog came along. The most immediate source of her ire, however, was a discussion we had over the weekend about pride. See, I think the concept of pride is widely abused in American culture. I don't think pride makes sense unless you're talking very narrowly and specifically about pride in something you did—and even then I think there are limits, including many conditions that need to be met, before one is entitled to feel pride in the commonly understood sense*. (It also behooves me to point out that the first dictionary definition of pride is actually pejorative and almost mocking in tone: "a high or inordinate opinion of one's own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct....".) Certainly it strikes me as bizarre to feel pride about something someone else did, whether it be a child of yours, your spouse, a close friend...or a member of "your race." That last, as it happens, was the starting point for Sunday's discussion with the wife.
Though race and ethnicity aren't exactly alike, I've posted before about my Dad's endeavors to imbue me with pride in my Italian heritage, and how frivolous I deemed those efforts, even as a small boy. What did Da Vinci have to do with me? So what if "his blood still ran through my veins" (doubtful to begin with)? He pioneered the design of the parachute, not me; he painted the Mona Lisa, I didn't. And anyway, was it his Italian-ness that caused or catalyzed such triumphs? Clearly not, or else people in 15th Century Italy would've been making parachutes and churning out Mona Lisas left and right. He was simply Leonardo Da Vinci (or "L-Dee," as per the pop conventions of today), one individual of great talent; his achievements had/have nothing to do with Italy, other Italians, my father, or me. In fact, if you take the deterministic view, his achievements didn't even really have anything to do with him. They just happened, as they had to happen in accordance with the dictates of some grand, steadily evolving cosmic blueprint. He was the mere instrument of their occurrence. By that theory—to which I happen to give a lot of credence—the circumstances that would produce the Mona Lisa were already in play, and immutably so, long before Leonardo came along. The first brush strokes for that painting were set in motion when the Earth cooled, or before.
It is for similar reasons that I believe the whole idea of racial pride is not only illogical but counterproductive. Once again , it may be helpful to shift the focus away from race for a moment, to something like...religion. And we don't have to fall back on the likes of radical Islam to make this point. Because here's a simple truth: You cannot simultaneously be Catholic and also fully respect someone else's right to be Jewish. (The Catholic Church, speaking through the Pope, gave us still more evidence of this late last week.) Oh, you can say you can, and may even think you can—but you can't, no matter how ecumenical the Vatican liked to sound in its public rhetoric during the Pope John Paul era. If you truly believe that Catholicism is the path to heaven, then you cannot accept any other path as equal; you probably can't even accept any other path as legitimate. I mean, for Crissake (I say that quite pointedly), this is salvation we're talking about—whether your ticket is punched for heaven or hell; whether your eternal kimono is made of silk or asbestos. You either think you know The Way or you don't. To embrace Catholicism is to reject Judaism, and Islam, and Buddhism, and all the rest. Even the Episcopal Church; maybe especially the Espiscopal Church.** Literally and figuratively, there are no two Ways about it.
Technically and theoretically, one could argue that BiB, evaluated as a raw concept, conveys no automatic implication that "white is less beautiful." In practice, however, it makes no sense to sell the idea that black is beautiful if you don't intend to mean that "it's good to be black" or even "black is better." Think of it this way: If one's motivations are pure—if what one means to say is, "As groups of people go, we're all really the same"—then why not say exactly that? (By definition, of course, we can't all be "beautiful," since beautiful is a superlative. It's like telling kids that they're all special or exceptional. Nonsense. If everyone is exceptional, no one is.) If you insist on bowing to the concept of race, then at the very least, why not teach or informally present lessons that show all different people, of all different races, doing good works? Especially at the college level, why do we need a separate curriculum to cover black achievement? At best, that's pandering. At worst, it's racism. (Incidentally, have you ever listened to noted scholar and intellectual darling Cornel West? Try it sometime. And tell me if, in his own subtle and high-minded way, he is not as dangerous as David Duke.)
Like the nonstop parade of Italian imagery my father put before me (Dad conveniently left out a discussion of all the mobsters and ne'er-do-wells), the attempt to inculcate so-called black pride by immersing kids in stories of black inventors, painters, poets, performers, politicians, philosophers, etc., promotes a link between color and achievement—that there's something about blackness, per se, that helped yield those results. Some might argue that the black pride movement is necessary because the self-esteem of young blacks has taken such a battering—that they "need a little something more" to bring them back up to normal levels of self-worth (an attitude that sounds more than a bit patronizing, to my ear). First of all—again, as I explain in Chapter 10 of my book—the much-ballyhooed link between self-esteem and success has become highly suspect in recent years. Counterintuitive as this may sound, there is no proof that high levels of self-esteem lead to good things; in fact, there is a sizable contingent of people with high levels of self-esteem who do some very, very bad things. (Seems that a fair portion of the thugs who, we used to think, were "driven to crime by low self-esteem" believe, on the contrary, that they are "special" and that life "owes them.") More importantly, you don't correct one flaw by substituting another. You don't tell pretty lies in order to paper over what you see as an ugly truth. Especially when all you end up doing is reinforcing the idea of race and then driving wedges between the various races you've just reinforced. (And if you find yourself doubting what I’m saying here, turn things around for a second: Imagine a course in White Pride. How's that grab you? Doesn't sound so "innocent" and "uplifting," now, does it?)
When I think about group pride in all its forms, I'm reminded of the on-campus atmosphere at Brooklyn College during the early '70s, when I attended. Between the Black Power crowd and the Young Zionists and the Jews for Jesus and the coeds in Women's Studies and the guys who marched in the Puerto Rican Day Parade—and even the nascent Gay Pride movement—we took a campus that could have (and should have) been a true melting pot and turned it instead into the Balkans. People decided which lunch table to sit at based on which bloc or group they belonged to.
Pride is prejudice. Race-consciousness is, or inevitably leads to, racism. That's just how it is. I dare say, it's "human nature."
* Give you a quick example. When I hit a double in one of my weekend baseball leagues, I enjoy it, sure—but I don't really feel pride, because I realize that I'm only playing a low-amateur version of the sport, that I'm not really one of the best hitters in the league, and that it's not like I hit that many doubles overall. So while I savor the experience in the moment, I wouldn't exactly call it "pride" in the classic sense.... And yeah, I know what you're probably thinking: God, it must be terrible to be Steve, and overthink everything in this manner. You know what? Sometimes I kind of agree.
** Popularly known as "Catholic Lite," the Episcopal Church has developed, uh, mass appeal for many Catholics who find the Vatican's policies and politics a bit too strident and judgmental.
Saturday, July 07, 2007
"Seniors, this is our book," asserts the press release from one David Wayne Silva in (redundantly) describing his "most recent book to date," More Senior Moments: Getting the Most Out of Your Golden Years, from vanity publisher* Outskirts Press.
"It contains our stories and our ideas," writes Silva. "It is about us. I just put it together."
Silva says that More Senior Moments, "defly constructed at 196 pages," is the result of coaxing his older friends and associates to open up "about their emotions and their physical problems, even touchy subjects like dressing themselves, sexual matters, loneliness and depression.... It is good that we can band together and help each other have more enriching lives while we accept the challenges of aging. Be Encouraged. You are not alone."
And then, down in the "about the author" section, where normally the writer of an advice book would establish his worthiness to give such advice, comes this:
"David Wayne Silva is a student of the human condition."
All right, I grant you, it doesn't end there. Silva goes on to say that he's been a teacher and "family counselor" (though he mentions no formal degrees or certifications, which leads me to think he may be using the phrase "family counselor" in a casual and possibly misleading way). But...student of the human condition? As your first qualification?
Actually, given the way self-help types tend to overstate/abuse credentials, I'm a little surprised that Silva didn't simply put a nice "ShC" after his name (as per the "PhD" model). Hmmmm. Makes you wonder: What others could we invent? LaL? (For "Loser at Love"? Perhaps suitable for sex-and-relationships maven Barbara De Angelis, shown, who's been married five times.) PoFSO? ("Peddler of Financial Snake Oil"? I could make nominations here too, but people are already on my case about certain other statements I've made in the blog of late.)
* For those unfamiliar with the term, this means that Silva paid to have his own book published, possibly (though I have no knowledge of this) because he couldn't find a "real" commercial publisher willing to take on More Senior Moments. Vanity publishing inverts the usual publishing paradigm, wherein, say, a Random House pays you an advance in order to tide you over while you write your book (or, in the case of major authors, as a sort of early reward for the huge sales they anticipate). Instead, vanity publishers charge x-amount in order to provide varying levels of service. In the most bare-bones scenario, you simply submit your manuscript and they publish it verbatim—typos, grammatical mistakes and all. But most latter-day vanity publishers offer different packages with escalating levels of amenities. Outskirts, for example, apparently has five of them: diamond, ruby, sapphire, emerald and pearl. Realize, of course, that the mere fact that you publish a book does not mean that bookstores will agree to carry it (though admittedly this isn't quite as big an obstacle in today's era of the internet and viral marketing). Through the years, vanity operations have often been criticized as predatory, in that they take advantage of people with no talent, and even less market potential, who nonetheless are determined to have their books see print.
Thursday, July 05, 2007
As I look over the slate of topics and news stories I hope to cover in upcoming posts, I realize that almost all of it relates to pride. Not real pride, mind you—the kind that's actually earned—but perceived pride. The sort of faux, push-button pride that's so popular (and so deeply ingrained) in American culture nowadays. Next week, for example, we'll be discussing racial pride, which—aside from being baseless*—also happens to be one of the most divisive and subtly destructive forces there is. For today, however....
HIGH SCHOOL MATH FAILING TO MAKE THE COLLEGE GRADE reads the page-one, above-the-fold headline in my Morning Call. The story goes on to explain that large numbers of students** these days are arriving on college campuses needing remedial classes in some of the most rudimentary mathematical operations. As the article notes at one point, one local college, "finding that students were struggling with pre-algebra courses, added a low-level basic mathematics course and arithmetic course to its offerings for the fall 2007 semester." Later in the piece, describing the underwhelming nature of today's typical college-level calculus class, the reporter quotes a math department chairperson, Marie Wilde, as follows: "The change [from past years] is astounding. It's like calculus lite." Wilde adds that there's no way that you can expect to confront most students with the advanced problems that used to be staples in such courses, because "students have never thought at that level." This reflects a nationwide trend, says the reporter.
Such events are just one more form of fallout from the "success movement"—a more tightly focused offshoot of self-esteem-based education that seeks, in this case, to confer to high-school graduates an instant, spray-on brand of success: a high GPA and the cachet of having taken and passed "advanced placement" courses. That faux success looks good on paper and opens doors at higher educational levels (as well as in the job market), but signifies nothing of real value because the underlying skills simply aren't there. The students received inflated grades for dumbed-down coursework. (And yes, I know how ludicrous it sounds that coursework would be dumbed-down in "advanced placement" classes; but apparently it's happening, and it's happening all over.) How can this educational double-whammy not be at least partly responsible for the U.S.' steadily deteriorating posture in the international science sweepstakes? (If you have a copy of SHAM handy—and by now, you really should [wink]—see chapter 10, especially pp. 185-6 and page 200.)
Further, though this isn't a primary emphasis of the Call piece, I find it interesting that the colleges are clearly wimping out, too. Instead of setting standards and holding fast...instead of just bouncing these unqualified students out...colleges "enable" the whole process by accommodating to this new, lowest-common-denominator student body. They waste precious college time on grade-school coursework...and then they dumb down the college-level classes (e.g. "calculus lite") as well! Thus the colleges, too, in at least some meaningful percentage of cases, end up awarding degrees that do not attest to the level of knowledge and capability they should. (Otherwise administrators would have to pass up millions of dollars in tuitions and lose market share to other colleges that take a more "forgiving" approach.)
So where does it end?
Incidentally, when I taught, I had students who harbored no illusions about the process, and wouldn't mince words. They felt that they were "buying" a college degree in strict commodity terms, and "expected me" and my colleagues to give them the kinds of grades that would help them compete in a tough job market. "That's what my parents are paying my tuition for," said one unflinchingly. "Let's face it, that's what pays your salary."
* no matter which "race" we're talking about, of course. See previous post for my general feelings on race.
** "half" of all college-bound students, speculates the reporter.
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
On a whim, your fearless antihero went to Barack Obama's website and registered to run a blog from there. It was shockingly easy. (I wonder how closely they'll monitor content and/or how long they'll continue to allow unrestricted access as the campaign heats up.) Anyway, here's a link to what I posted today. We'll see what this generates. If anything.
Uhhh, hang on.... I think I hear someone at the door....
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 7:09 PM
This is another one of those posts that may seem, on its surface, off-topic. (And it's something I threw together hastily, to fill the space that would've been devoted to installment one of our next self-help horror story. So forgive me if it doesn't seem as neatly tied-together as it ought to be.) But really, what could be more central to the question of Self or Identity than the way you define yourself in terms of race, ethnicity, etc? That is to say: Are you an individual? One unique chunk of protoplasm among 300 million (if we confine this to America) or 6 billion (if we look at the world as a whole) other unique chunks? Or are you more a member of a bloc of similar people who share a large number of common, innate and immutable characteristics? (We'll come back to the italicized phrase later.) Or are we all really, in essence, "the same person"?
Some months back I had an interesting dialogue with Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist Clarence Page, whose home base is the Chicago Tribune. This was after Page wrote a column in which he talked extensively about black voters and black issues. And my opening question for him was, "How are we to get past the question of race in America if Big Media never stop talking about race in America?" I could actually hear the benevolent smile in his voice—I'm sure he saw me as quite the dreamer—as he explained, "Race is a fact of life. It's how it is. It's how people see themselves and their environments and their problems. And it's a reality that's going to be with us."
I've heard that reasoning put forward in many connections, to justify many hapless situations. I'm sure you've heard it as well. "It's just how it is." And I've never understood how intelligent, well-meaning people could make that argument with a straight face (or maybe a "straight mind" is the better term). Though I didn't think to mention it to Page on the day we talked, for many years in America, after all, slavery was also "just how it is." Further, slavery, as a concept, rested on another "just how it is" assumption: that blacks were somehow an inferior grade of humankind. It took a war and some tweaks to the Constitution, but we managed to get past the Jim Crow era. Until the 1960s, too, women stayed home and tended babies and kept house, and though there's hardly universal agreement on the virtue of all that's taken place in the interim, the fact is, women were able to make major changes in the options available to them and their daughters. How did they do this? They threw off the yoke of their own "just how it is": the assumption that staying home in the kitchen and tending babies was simply "what women do." To me, the women's movement in America represents even more of a sea change in cultural attitudes than the question of race, and what role race should play in self-definition. For better or worse, the women's movement quite simply changed the way we view biology and the "natural order of things."
In fact, the condition known as that's just how it is is merely the way things are until people decide that things don't need to be like that anymore. Which leads to a new "that's just how it is." And on and on it goes. We're pretty stupid that way. We always think the new way is the "right" and "only" way. Until the next new way comes along.
Point being, there are few things in life, I think, that must be exactly as they are. The notion that "race is here to stay so we're going to keep covering it that way" is circular reasoning that sets in motion a self-fulfilling (or self-sustaining) prophecy. That in itself prevents change from taking place.
Now, I realize that physical appearance figures in this discussion. People who are seriously into their blackness often will say, "We're not like other groups that have been victims of discrimination. We can't hide the fact that we're black." I would point out that women can't usually hide the fact that they're women, either...but beyond that, we already know that even among members of "our own race" (if you must), people come in all shapes, sizes and shades. As I've pointed out before, I have relatives who are darker than either Halle Berry or Barack Obama, both of whom are allegedly black. Does that make my Italian relatives black? Does it make Halle Berry white? Why/why not? At what point in the spectrum of human hue does a person become, officially, black? Even if we expand the discussion to the constellation of facial features that makes a person "look black" or "look white".... Well, there's a wide array of specific facial topographies in life, lots of which may be suggestive of certain ancestries, but finally mean nothing. For example, I have many relatives who "look Italian" much more than I do. You might see my cousin Frankie and think, That guy's gotta be Italian. Fair enough, I guess. But why go further in the case of people who look like Clarence Page, shown above? Why can't Page just be some guy who happens to have a certain look ("African," if you must) in the same way that Frankie has a certain look? Why do we need a separate race? Is my cousin a member of the Italian race? No. While I'm on the subject, there are many people who look kind of like Frankie who aren't even Italian. Some are Jewish. At least one is Jairek Robbins, son of Tony. Ergo, the look, in and of itself, means nothing.
You see, to me*, the response to "Blacks are inferior" is not "Black is beautiful," but rather, "There's no such thing as black." Ultimately, any form of race-consciousness strikes me as the same as racism, or surely lays the groundwork for it. This is one reason why I applaud the recent Supreme Court decision on school desegregation and particularly admire the clean and unencumbered logic of Chief Justice Roberts' majority opinion: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race." That is exactly right. You don't attack racism by substituting another form of racism. You attack it with the contention that race is irrelevant or, ideally, that there's no such thing as race.
In his official Tribune bio, Clarence Page writes, "I started out as a baby." It's a priceless line that, while meant to be whimsical, says much more than its author intends. He started out as a baby, as do we all: blank slates. Not black babies (unless someone tells us so), not white babies...just babies. Infant humans. At that point, whatever is "innate and immutable," I truly believe, has little to do with any racial markers. If Page had been raised to think there was no race—and if he went out into a world consisting of other kids who'd been raised that way—he would not now think of himself as Clarence Page, black syndicated columnist.
A Utopian vision? Sure. But, like freeing the slaves and securing women's rights, you gotta start somewhere.
* I admit, I have the advantage here of not having to face this in my daily life. But remember, we're arguing principles here, not applications. Principles shouldn't change based on whose ox is gored.
Monday, July 02, 2007
File this under "something else Steve should've covered long before now," but the young-lad Robbins, given name Jairek (?), is following in Dad's (size-16) footsteps, doing motivational training in his own right. Or, as he puts it on the front page of his professional site, he's an "extraordinary life enhancer" who's "impacting lives daily." (Personally, I think the word impacted should be reserved for wisdom teeth...which, come to think of it, may have some relevance here, since thoughts of TR and the rest of the seminar crowd tend to cause me the same kind of discomfort associated with that particular dental condition.) Thus does Jairek also follow in the not-so-grand traditions of Stephen/Sean Covey and Phil/Jay McGraw, among other father-son guro-duos.
You will notice that Sean Covey's official bio makes no mention of the fact that his father happens to be Stephen Covey. It's a curious omission that leads one to believe that Sean would like people to think he attained his current station in life without benefit of his father's celebrity in the very same genre. It's all the more curious when you consider that the younger Covey's signature book bears the same title as Pop's signature book*, except that it substitutes the word teens for the word people. (That, of course, was the Jay McGraw MO as well.) Which is kind of like being in real estate, having the last name "Trump" and not mentioning that oh-by-the-way, your father is Donald.
Speaking of oh-by-the-way, if you live in the Greater Los Angeles area and enjoy "running with gurus," as Augusten Burroughs might've put it (or you're trying to marry into money, perhaps), Jairek posts on one fitness site as follows: "Hey I am living in LA until August and am always looking for more fit people to run with!" Jairek also belongs to something called the Los Angeles Cash Flow Club.
On a less glib note, one more thing for today: I find it necessary to suspend our series of self-help horror stories for the time being, pending the resolution of certain events set in motion by one of our first two stories. I cannot, or at least should not, say more than that at this point.
* still a fixture in the Amazon top-100, 17 years after first publication.