"AND SO IT WAS written, as the ancients foretold, that the evolution of religion and self-help towards some common ground would continue, rendering unto God that which had previously been found only in the annals of viral marketing…."
The conceptual similarities between self-help and today's more "secularized religions" were always striking. We've been tracking the phenomenon for a while on SHAMblog. But even your host didn't realize the degree to which today's religion is being explicitly repackaged in self-help terms. Such at least is the message of this cover story by Scott Bass, which I found in a Virginia alternative weekly.*
The "relevancy movement" in American churchdom is nothing new, and has been most immediately noticeable in the music. Anyone who's listened to gospel music of late (or almost any music emanating from the so-called megachurches) will have a hard time distinguishing it from the genres that have parents screaming at teenagers to "turn that down!" The lyrics are more tasteful and "godly," if you will—but there's no mistaking what the actual music and underlying rhythms owe to R&B, alternative, and even rap. In effect, the pastors (and, increasingly, boards of governors) of these "enlightened" churches are turning weekly services into concerts, hoping to make the experience more tolerable for the younger generation that churches desperately need to attract in order to survive. As one of Bass' sources puts it, in a line with both literal and figurative meaning, "You can't play the old music and get the new folks." Especially in larger, nondenominational houses of worship, services have become multimedia extravaganzas worthy of a Tony Robbins seminar, featuring live performances on-stage (which may include dance routines), and even light-hearted, pre-sermon "warm-ups" by the nation's growing roster of Christian comedians.
But we now seem to have reached that point where many religious leaders are dropping all pretenses, talking openly and unashamedly in a lingo borrowed from consumer marketing. They speak of smart merchandising and brand identity, marketplace differentiation and expanding their franchise; parishioners are consumers of religion. Here's one of the pastors in Bass' piece discussing his church's promotional efforts: "We've done billboards, we've done movie ads…. We believe we have the best product in the world." You listen to that kind of talk and you wonder: Is this dude selling God or a new-and-improved grease remover?
Traditional religion, you see, has a major image problem: It's "fighting 2,000 years of bad marketing," as Bass phrases it. All that fire-and-brimstone stuff doesn't connect very well with today's self-centered, hedonistic audiences, who expect religion—like everything else in life—to meet their needs and speak their language. Today's pastors, in their effort to distance themselves from religion's hell-fire heritage, even try to look different: tres Joe Vitale-like, they're increasingly inclined to wear such get-ups as jeans and Hawaiian shirts. During the worship services, hosannas have yielded to high-fives; a collective chorus of "my bads!", followed by an instant, blanket absolution, is gradually replacing the penitent Hail Marys I remember from the confessions of my youth. Some churches, reports Bass, have even taken their crosses down. Crosses are bad karma, after all. Crosses make people think of suffering. Crosses make people think of obligation. And the only obligation that matters these days is your obligation to yourself.
Behold the church of the here-and-now!
"Escapism," writes Bass, "is as much a part of our psyche as capitalism or democracy, freedom and equal rights." Yes, and more so all the time. And what today's, ahem, worshippers mostly want to escape from is any judgment or condemnation from on-high. (This, in the same way that today's highly empowered self-helpers want to escape liability for the harm they cause in the course of their unapologetic pursuit of personal fulfillment.) Hence the most successful churches jettison such off-putting, uncomfortable notions as sin. Or what used to be thought of as sin. To be sure, greed and avarice are totally off the table nowadays as tickets to hell. Preachers even build their aforementioned franchises around an end-user-driven liturgy—what Bass calls a "self-help gospel"—that warmly embraces the pursuit of ostentatious material wealth. We've also talked in this blog about Joel Osteen and his Gospel According to Ralph Lauren. (That's a joke, but it's one of those jokes that's awfully close to the truth.) As Bass writes, Osteen "epitomizes the what-God-can-do-for-you movement. [He] has grown his Houston-based church into the largest in the country, with 47,000 members." Osteen's latest book, Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day, sounds like something that easily could've been written by a Stephen Covey or a Phil McGraw.
Nor is it just greed that's been air-brushed off the signpost to eternal damnation. I think it's safe to say that divorce by now has been totally destigmatized (and I'm not contending that it shouldn't have been; I'm just saying that for better or worse, religion has grown steadily more forgiving of human foibles than it used to be). Premarital sex is not the taboo it used to be, either, in church or out. Unwed motherhood?** Hey, if it works for you... Even the Episcopal church in my neighborhood (which is hardly in the category of the churches Bass writes about) has no particular stipulations when it comes to the circumstances under which kids are brought into the world, or into "the light of God's love."
Interestingly enough, as religion grows more lenient, self-help becomes more dogmatic. In their own smiling, uplifting ways, the likes of Vitale and Rhonda Byrne can be as demanding of loyalty to their particular "scripture" as the Catholic Church of my boyhood ever was. They'll threaten non-believers with their own versions of Hell, and not just figuratively. We saw the extent of Vitale's quiet wrath in his recent attempts to draw a linkage between positive thinking and whether or not a person's home survived San Diego's wildfires.
If the day comes when religion and self-help are all but indistinguishable...when it doesn't really matter what you worship, as long as you worship something, and it makes you happy...what then?
Something to think about, maybe, over Christmas.
* I've often said that some of the best stories are not found in the august national media like The New York Times, but rather in small-market publications.
** Wait, let me rephrase that in more culturally relevant terms: single parenthood.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
"AND SO IT WAS written, as the ancients foretold, that the evolution of religion and self-help towards some common ground would continue, rendering unto God that which had previously been found only in the annals of viral marketing…."
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Every once in a while I'll get an email that goes something like the following, which I actually received just about a year ago, i.e. Thanksgiving 2006. It was somewhat longer than this, which explains my use of ellipses, but the basic flavor remains intact:
"Dear Steve, I was one of your biggest fans when I read your book. I told everybody I knew to buy SHAM. I was also one of the most avid readers of your blog, at first. But lately I find that I can't start each and every day with another dose of your never-ending pessimism. It just takes too much out of me. Especially with the holidays upon us, I need to be able to 'get in touch' with the childlike glee that still lives in me somewhere.... You may think that life is mostly full of disappointments and sorrows, but I just can't face that view of life right now.... I do wish you the best, and I hope you find something to be joyful about this holiday season."
You know, I am always sad and even a bit shocked to hear that that is what people make out of SHAMblog. Sure, it's what I'd expect my critics to say—especially those critics who are happily and lucratively engaged in conning mass numbers of Americans. But this blog is not a celebration of pessimism, folks. Nor is it intended as an unending exploration of "why life sucks." I'm simply functioning as something between a journalist and a social critic in puncturing the mythology of self-help, which—at least these days—is mostly about telling people there are no limits, we're all special, your dreams are attainable no matter how absurd they are, yada yada. Rest assured, if gurus wrote books about why life is a hopeless journey of perpetual heartache, thus we all might as well drink the Kool-Aid right now, I'd spend just as much time attacking that mentality. Of course, parody aside, only suicidal poets write such books, so there's no related "movement" for me to attack. (The truth of life is middle-of-the-road: "maybe things will work out, maybe they won't." Trouble is, MOR doesn't sell.)
America is, for the most part, an optimistic nation. America very much wants to be like the fellow who wrote that email to me last Thanksgiving: It wants to wake up every day with some sense of optimism. Sadly, that is the very mentality that makes people vulnerable to the charlatans of self-help. What this blog is, for the most part, is an examination of the con-trepreneurs who live parasitically off the emotional desperation of their fellow man and woman. SHAMblog is dedicated to exposing the self-styled guru who'll tell you any lie—no matter how out of conformity it is with everything we know to be true about the world and the people who inhabit it—just because he knows that you crave that false reassurance and will pay top dollar to hear it again and again.
This may surprise most readers of this blog, but I myself wake up almost every day eager to see what the new day will bring me. No lie. I am by nature a resilient person, as a rule, so it doesn't (usually) crush me if something fails to pan out. (And just as an FYI, there is probably no more childlike a celebrant of the holidays than yours truly. I'm still keeping an open mind on the existence of Santa Claus.) I'm not sure I'd recommend my approach to daily life as an across-the-board prescription for most people, and I certainly don't recommend that most people wake up each day expecting the moon and the stars, because there's only one moon, and the stars are zillions of miles away. The fragility of human nature being what it is, I'd think most of us are better served by a slightly more reserved/guarded attitude towards life and what it's likely to provide. However—I can't emphasize this enough—although there's no logical reason to "expect" life to hand you success and happiness, there is no logical reason to expect life to burden you with failure and misery, either. On any given day you're as likely to be the beneficiary of something wonderful (and totally unforeseen) as you are likely to be the victim of something horrible (and totally unforeseen). It can go either way at any time. I truly believe that. And which way it goes has almost nothing to do with you, and what you expect or don't expect. At least as I see it.
To sum up, then, there's a subtle but profound difference between (a) pessimism and (b) debunking fraudulent optimism. This blog is about (b).
Now go out and enjoy your holidays. I can promise you (as well as my emailer from last year) that I personally will find many things to be joyful about this holiday season.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Mr. I-Can-Turn-Anything-Into-A-Marketing-Op is back—just in time for Black Friday—with his holiday gift guide. And guess what: He thinks the best thing you can do for your loved ones is to give the gift of Tony!
I guess it's hard to fault Robbins for taking advantage of what is, historically, the busiest and most profitable day in retail.* But if you've been reading this blog for more than, oh, 10 minutes, you know that TR has an affinity for holiday "mailers." (They arrive through cyberspace, but I still call them mailers; I'm old-school.) He can be depended on to come up with an idea themed to just about every occasion, including certain ones—say, 9/11—that wouldn't normally seem like cause for much gift-giving (or soliciting). But leave it to our man Tony to find a sales hook. By the way, if you feel that you simply can't face the malls on Friday without first hearing an inspirational holiday message from the master, here ya go.
Here's a great column on self-help by Padraic Scanlan, writing in the McGill Daily, the student newspaper at Montreal's McGill University. Scanlan sees self-help through a slightly different prism than I myself used in sorting SHAM offerings into Victimization and Empowerment. Rather, he divides self-help into (a) that which panders to the very weak and (b) that which panders to the very strong. Cannily, he writes, "The very weak seek strategies for gaining emotional strength. The very strong seek justification for their bullying; they aren’t insensitive, they are assertive; they aren't manipulative, scheming overlords; they are self-confident." I do think that Scanlan misses the damage component, conceiving self-help as a mostly victimless crime; we on this blog know better.
Anyway, highly recommended.
I get a lot of grief off-blog for harping on the race thing, so I apologize in advance for going back to that well. I guess I'm just trying to work this all out in my head, and sometimes that endeavor doesn't go too smoothly. Today is one of those times.
Several months ago I registered as a blogger on Barack Obama's site, which entitles me to regular email updates that keep Sen. Obama front-and-center in my consciousness; just got one again an hour ago. Also, we have new polls out that appear to show Obama running neck-and-neck with the presumptive Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. Due to all of that, Obama is much on my mind this morning. And what I'm thinking isn't good.
Here is a man who, presented with his dual racial identity, picked one and rejected the other. Though in his more formal writings Obama adroitly covers his multiracial heritage, he today campaigns as (and indisputably frames himself as) a "black man." So I have a few questions: How does his mother—who raised him after his "black" father walked out on the family when Obama was 2—not feel just awful about this? And how do we, as a nation, tolerate it? I don't understand. What difference does it make that he "looks black"? Is that what it's about? So now we're reverting to carpetbagger logic about whether your features are Negroid, or whether you have even a single drop of black blood coursing through your veins? I mean, people: Is this really the dialogue we still want to be having in 2007?
But if we are going to have the dialogue, and if we are going to consider race in electing (or at least talking about) our candidates, then we must label Sen. Obama for what he is: a racist. If ever there were an opportunity for someone to step into the limelight and make a statement—to give us a much-needed lesson by renouncing race and just presenting himself as A Man (or better yet, A Person)—Obama embodies that opportunity. But no. Instead we have a guy with a twin heritage who unequivocally, unabashedly shuns one side of that heritage in favor of the other. What that is, is RACISM. And it's an affront to every American, not just Obama's mother or the rest of the "white" ones. It's an affront to every American who upholds colorblindness. And it's about time someone said so.
Happy Thanksgiving! ;)
* Personally I've always found that a bit hard to take, even though I've seen the stats. But you mean to tell me that they sell at flat profit or even a loss for the first 330 days of the year in hopes of edging into profitability during the final 25??
NOTE: One hopes the "turkey symbolism" isn't lost on careful readers....
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
In the two-plus years I've been writing this blog, I've been accused many times of being a downer and a party-pooper. (What's the up-to-date terminology for that, by the way? And keep it clean, please.) But I have a feeling I'm going to outdo myself today. In fact, if ever I've written a post that might make someone want to give me a good slap upside the head, this is the one. It touches on a topic that's very much a raw nerve for many folks, and women in particular. The thing is, I've seen the damn commercial a half-dozen times now, and it leaves me wincing and shaking my head every time. I just couldn't take it anymore.
The commercial* I have in mind is one in a series put out by Bristol-Myers Squibb, in this case featuring actress Lynn Redgrave, who's been waging a highly publicized war against breast cancer for a while now. The basic message of the Redgrave spot is that she's not going to let cancer beat her. Toward the end she smiles into the camera and puts it this way: "I refuse to die from breast cancer. I want to die of something else."
OK, I'm not stupid, I get it. It's supposed to be one of those empowering, never-give-up, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar spots. (I say this especially because it seems to run most often on Lifetime.) Redgrave is giving herself and other cancer victims a little pep talk. (In fact, she'd probably bristle at the use of the word victim.) She's trying to make cancer patients feel less helpless; she's giving them a reason to smile.
That's fine and dandy. But have we lost all reverence for little things like, oh, I don't know...making sense?
Are we to assume that Redgrave's avowed refusal to die of cancer somehow obviates the need for treatment? After all, that's the clear, taken-to-its-logical end point implication here: it's the "mental attitude" that's making the difference, not medicine. Because, see, one assumes that Redgrave has already had all the standard medical interventions. So at this point, she's relying on her will to survive. But if your will to survive can really carry the day against cancer when it "tries to come back" after treatment, then what do you need the treatment for in the first place? Why not just energize that will to survive a little sooner? That way you can dispense with the disfiguring surgery, and you don't have to lose all that beautiful hair in chemo, either.
(TIME-OUT FOR A NOTE: If you're getting pretty hot at me right about now, I ask only that you consider: THIS is what happens in today's America. We make subjects "untouchables," so that no one is allowed to use common sense in analyzing them. As Bill Maher learned when he lost his original show, there are settings in which we can't even raise certain ideas or ask certain questions without being "impolitic." This is what the Bush Administration has done so successfully with Iraq over the past five years. I'm not making a political statement here; I'm just talking tactics. Every time somebody rises up against the war, the Bush team trots out 9/11 or "our boys in Iraq" or "patriotism." They kill debate by trumping it with emotionalism and making people with legitimate grievances feel like traitors. I think maybe America could use a bit more thinking and bit less sentiment. Whether the subject is Iraq, breast cancer, race, etc. We now return you to your regularly scheduled program...)
If Redgrave and another woman both have surgery and chemo and go through all the treatments, do we really have any proof that Redgrave's refusal makes her less likely to die than the other woman, who's perhaps a bit more pessimistic? (And if two women seem equally upbeat, but one of them later dies, does that mean the one who died was secretly weaker in character than the one who lived?) Or what about this: Suppose Redgrave's optimism is misplaced; suppose she relapses and dies anyway. What things might she have left undone that she later wishes she'd taken care of if—feeling less optimistic initially—she'd rushed to squeeze all those things in before dying? In that respect, this ad plays into that whole "downside of being uplifted" phenomenon that I've written about many times, where people actually end up disempowered because they put their faith in a form of power that turned out to be illusory.
Finally, I don't like this ad because it evinces that familiar alt-med mentality that has been the basis of so much health fraud. How many people have been suckered into bogus "spiritual healing" therapies by appeals very much like the one Redgrave makes?
But the ultimate question: If you really can beat cancer just by "refusing" to die from it—by making up your mind—then why not also refuse to die of heart disease and diabetes and all the other maladies that fall into the category of Redgrave's preferred "something else"? In fact, why not simply refuse...to die?
I know. Now that's just plain silly....
* The way Bristol-Myers has the site set up, this link may bring you to the main page, which is basically a "menu" of their ads. If you type Redgrave's name into the search box, however, her ad promptly comes up.
Friday, November 16, 2007
An outtake from Braveheart, which is on in the background as I work:
Two Scottish rebels, smeared with blood, are sitting at the base of a large tree.Or the same scene, maybe as David Mamet would write it:
First Scot: "I feel like we should be plundering or something."
Second Scot: "We just plundered yesterday. Get with the program."
First Scot: "That was yesterday? Christ, time flies when you're dismembering people."
Second Scot: "Tell me about it."
First Scot: "Well then...maybe we could pillage?"
Second Scot: "See, to me, that's an awful lot like plundering."
First Scot [considering that]: "I suppose you're right.... Well then, we could always indiscriminately rape and torture..."
Second Scot [visibly perking]: "Now you're talking!"
First Scot: "I'm thinkin' we should pillage."Ah well. It was funny to me. Have a good weekend, folks.
Second Scot: "You wanna [expletive] pillage?"
First Scot [sarcastically]: "Wait, where'd I hear that? Oh I know: I think I just [expletive] said it!"
Second Scot: "You [expletive] said pillage, yeah. I heard you [expletive] say it."
First Scot [sarcastically]: "So wait a [expletive] second, what are you sayin'?"
Second Scot: "I'm [expletive] sayin' I [expletive] heard you say pillage. What else is there to [expletive] say...?"
First Scot: "See, 'cause if you're sayin' what I think you're sayin', maybe you shouldn't-a [expletive] said it..."
Second Scot [after a long pause]: "[Expletive] you and the high [expletive] horse you rode in on..."
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 10:10 AM
Thursday, November 15, 2007
So, Paris Hilton was at Macy's in center-city Philadelphia last night to promote her new "personal fragrance."* Also on hand were the media—to record this momentous happening—and Ms. Hilton's legions of adoring fans. Among the latter was a young blonde girl, extremely enthusiastic if not actually giddy to be a part of "Paris in Philadelphia," as my local ABC affiliate headlined the event. Asked by reporter Jessica Borg to explain her admiration for Ms. Hilton, the young woman gushed, "She's a singer, she's a model, she's an actress. She can do it all!"
And there you have it: Paris Hilton-as-inspirational-role-model for a generation of women.
Were I reporter Borg, I would've asked a follow-up: "Could you define 'do it,' please?" The fact is, thanks to her family name and social celebrity (which is more along the lines of notoriety; see below), Ms. Hilton is allowed to act (she's unwatchable) and allowed to sing (she's unlistenable) and allowed to model (she's passable at best; let's face it, the girl is no Heidi Klum). What is admirable in all that? She can't do any one thing very well, but somehow "does it all" and gets paid quite nicely for it. In exploiting her celebrity/notoriety, Hilton is also extracting money from millions of workaday fans who—if the stories about her are even close to true—she'd no sooner spend time with than eat all her meals at Del Taco (unless she's getting paid millions to "slum it" for television with her erstwhile comrade-in-anorexia, Nicole Richie). Hilton's brand of so-called success is no different than if, say, Prince Harry decided to launch a career in Vegas or write a series of crime thrillers. Sure, some casino would put him on its stage and some publisher would gladly pony up the advance money. And though Harry's show would sell out for a while and his book would earn back every penny of the advance, the young prince would, in reality, be a joke. Just like Paris Hilton. Except, Hilton is worse. Leaving aside her name and enormous family wealth, she is "famous" in her own right chiefly for parties, public drunkenness, very short skirts and jail stretches, and home-made porn. (In fact, if I were a member of the Hilton old guard, I would seriously consider suing her for soiling the family name and devaluing an iconic international trademark.) But this is what we apparently admire in American culture these days: this kind of vapid, hollow, dye-job, open-legged celebrity. This is what has young women atwitter and screeching things like, "Paris can do it all!"
If I sound bitter and harsh—and I already know I do—I hope I can be forgiven this one time. I just can't help thinking of Ms. Hilton in the context of a very lengthy, angry comment I wrote as an addendum to my post about the tragic suicide of my son's former girlfriend. I'm going to repeat here some of what I said there, not because I'm in love with my own words, but because many visitors to this blog do not read all the comments; besides, several regulars have told me I should've built a new item around that rant in the first place.
Reading the "remembrance page" that several of the girl's friends put up on MySpace**, I was suddenly struck by the fact that that page, plus the various friends' pages to which it led, told me all I needed to know about the environment in which this young woman lived and died. It's an environment in which the highest kudos go to whoever can get drunkest, fastest (with special bonus points for anyone who can elude police while imbibing some portion of that in a moving vehicle); an environment in which kids who still have several years to go before reaching 21 reminisce about their favorite night out drinking with the girls; an environment in which "bettering yourself" apparently means stepping up to a single-malt Scotch. On his own MySpace page, the man to whom this girl was engaged at the time of her death lists as his "most admired person"—I quote—“the guy who invented beer." Also on that page, his sister writes, "Get your liver ready, sis is coming to town." Amid all this, traditional values (for want of a less hokey-sounding phrase) become utterly irrelevant. Another young woman on the remembrance page, who has been with her boyfriend for five years in a relationship that has already produced two children, writes cheerfully that they are now "thinking about getting engaged." Nor is there any reverence for learning here. If anything, there's a distinct anti-education bias of the kind that used to be identified with urban street gangs. Overall, then, this is a climate in which mourners measure out their remembrances of a dead girl (and their own lives as a whole) in shots of tequila or sly references to the number of people of the opposite sex someone "partied with" over break.
I realize that no one assembles a MySpace page as if he or she were composing a resume. Still…this is really what we aspire to? To live a no-responsibilities, never-a-serious-thought life? Like Britney or Lindsay? Or Paris?
Understand, though I should be allowed my private feelings, I'm not really saying this as a moralist. (In truth, I may be the last person who should be shaking a holier-than-thou finger at others.) I'm saying it as a pragmatist. The problem is that while this kind of lifestyle may "work," in some sense, for Britney or Lindsay or Paris, it will not work for you or me, or most other people. Not long-term. There is always a price to pay, often a severe one: in jail time, in lost opportunities, in needless violence, in a pattern of dysfunctional relationships, in innocent babies that never should be born into the circumstances they're born into. And unless you are Paris Hilton, there usually isn't a painless, conveniently available way for you to regroup and begin anew. And you're definitely not getting your own perfume when it's all over.
Worse, if initially I'd associated this dubious ethic with a certain segment of the population, at least five people I know who are in college, or recently were, now tell me it's not much better on campus. Incredibly, several of them tell me that the disdain for serious-mindedness may be even worse on campus, where kids who take their coursework seriously become pariahs: Like the honest cops in the NYPD of the Serpico era, they "can't be trusted."
Paris Hilton may have "got religion" in jail—that's what she said when they let her out—but the image of Hilton that endures encapsulates just about everything that's wrong with today's younger generation, and what it admires. She came by her wealth easily, effortlessly, and yet prances about like she's entitled to every penny of it, as well as every flash of a camera. She comports herself like American royalty, as though somehow entitled to keep her prodigious nose aloft. Meanwhile, young girls look up to her and the way she lives her life. They want to "be like Paris."
Again, I am sorry, but I am bitter. I'm bitter about the role models that we embrace (and that network news teams race out to cover as if they were heads of state or Nobel prize winners). I'm bitter about the fact that young blondes covet the movable-drunken-orgy lifestyle that so many young celebrities live. I'm bitter that at least one such girl, whom I knew and cared about, ended up dead. I am sick of it all. I am sick of watching young people live messy lives, and then die.
* I was relieved to learn that they meant an actual, commercially available product; with Hilton, you never know.
** Once again, in order to protect the family's privacy, I am not disclosing that URL.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Received the following email early this morning:
"DON'T MISS TONY'S GUEST APPEARANCE TONIGHT ON DANCING WITH THE STARSWhat I find interesting about this is—once again—we have the implication that will is what wins. Not (primarily) natural aptitude, discipline, finely honed skills, etc. Will. A particular reason why I find it interesting here is that this season's installment of Dancing featured as one of its competitors boxer Floyd Mayweather—and competitor is the right word for Mayweather, who clearly, if you know anything at all about the guy, has as much "will to win" as anyone, anywhere. In the early episodes of the show, Mayweather displayed a competitive fire and a streak of unbridled perfectionism that appeared to have him taking things much more seriously than what one sees, typically, with other celebrity dancers on the show.
"We are excited to announce that Tony Robbins will make a guest appearance tonight on the ABC hit show Dancing with the Stars. Tony will be discussing what it takes to be a winner during the show's Will to Win segment.
"Dancing with the Stars, one of the highest-rated shows on television, is a unique series that pairs up celebrities with professional ballroom dance partners in an intense LIVE competition...."
Then bam, he got KO'd.
Mayweather is in many ways the perfect object lesson for this blog, and in this area ("the will to win") above all. What ended Floyd Mayweather's stint on Dancing was not his lack of any will to win. It was his lack of dancing talent. In boxing, where Mayweather's skills are superb (not a few ring aficionados consider him the best pound-for-pound boxer of our time), his will to win carries the day. But in dancing—where no such level of skill exists*—his will to win couldn't get him past the middle rounds.
Funny how that works, huh?
Nonetheless, I will tune in, along with 21 million other Americans, to hear what Tony has to say.
* at least as adjudged by America, which, while we're on the subject, adds another whole dimension to the "will to win" debate. No matter how much "will" you have—or even how much talent—sometimes you're going to fall victim to factors utterly beyond your control, like American voting habits, the preferences and prejudices of the people who have power over your future, etc.
Monday, November 12, 2007
"Oh, Ted feels his pain all right. Every bit of it. He just can't feel yours."
—from The Deliberate Stranger, about sociopath and serial killer Ted Bundy.
If you've read the two horror stories I posted before I yielded to my better judgment—and in general, if you listen to confessed victims of what I call "second-hand self-help"—it isn't long before certain themes jump out at you. This is especially true when you're talking about today's New Age Empowerment and the disciples of same. To the person who's full-speed-ahead on the ocean of Self-Discovery, there's little tolerance for contrary advice or dissenting opinion. No, not even when the words of wisdom come from people who deeply care about that person's welfare. Not even when—to belabor the maritime metaphor—there's damage below the water-line that the person does not see from his/her position at the helm. Nor does today's Seeker of Uber-Empowerment waste much time on the hurt voiced by those who get innocently caught up in things. Today's worshippers of the New New Age bristle at being reminded of how they've hurt you in the past—"Get over it!"—and they want no lectures about how they should try to act more thoughtfully in the future.
See, all of that is "negative energy" from "dark entities" who are "blocking" the path to full potential.
Often, New Agers fail to see the biting irony of this journey to Happyland and (so-called) positive thinking. I'm reminded of Gerry, from my second horror story, who told his wife not to watch the news in his presence because he "couldn't have that kind of destruction in his life." Then he went on blithely to wreak significant destruction in his marriage, and on his teenage daughter.
The gurus of Empowerment encourage us to take this no-regrets approach to people who've outlived their usefulness to us as we move closer to harmony with the Universe. They encourage us to regard those who've suffered at our hands as human detritus—waste products of our quest for fulfillment—somewhat akin to the skin a snake sheds as it approaches a new season of life.
Oddly, much of this is an outgrowth of codependency, one of the key planks in Empowerment's precursor concept (and mirror image), Victimization. I grant you, the idea that your happiness shouldn't be "chained" to other people's wants and needs may have been well-intended. Primarily, the gurus of Victimization sought to help women see that it wasn't up to them to "fix everything," and that they had no moral obligation to devote the rest of their lives to catastrophic unions with alcoholics and abusers. But like most aspects of self-help, it was oversimplified and oversold, such that it comes out, today, sounding something like so:
If it's not working for you, just move on. Do what makes you happy and don't apologize for it. If you choose to walk away from something/someone, don't look back. Life is about YOU.*
Never mind that this view of codependency pretty much rules out the kind of self-sacrificing outlook we used to admire—that it would conceive Mother Teresa as the biggest codependent in recorded history. Never mind that by the same line of reasoning, a mother might simply abandon a house full of kids who turned out to be more stressful or annoying than she foresaw, or a husband might leave a wife who was suffering through a bout with depression. (I know what you're thinking: Come on, Steve, no one intended for it to be interpreted that way. But that's what it says. And if you need all sorts of individualized caveats, conditions and qualifications in order to know how to apply a "guide for better living"…then what good is it? Besides, if my horror stories and research for SHAM mean anything, plenty of folks did, and do, interpret it "that way.")
The New Wage SHAMster immediately perceived a growth industry in showing (cash-paying) followers how to escape the guilt they instinctively felt over acts and attitudes that once were considered selfish** and contemptible. As a source for a related story told me, "The preacher who gives people permission to be sinners will never lack for a flock." And beginning in the early 1990s, that's just what the spiritual wing of the Empowerment movement did: They institutionalized freedom from guilt into the "value system" they preached.
Thus we had the mainstream evolution of so-called gnostic or "designer" spirituality, wherein each person has a direct pipeline to the supreme entity (or force), and no one person's "spiritual truth" is any more valid than anyone else's. This not only eliminates the concept of absolute right and wrong, but also leaves the door open for people to justify everything they do as "consistent with my spiritual reality."
In fairness to the New Wage crowd, the notion of religion without rules—faith that only rewards, and never punishes—isn't confined to SHAMland. A December 2005 New York Times article about "faith that fits" unfolded through the eyes of Emily Hoogenboom, a teenager who sampled religious experiences until she found one where she "felt God loved me, that I don't have to worry about sin because he forgives me." And we've covered the likes of Joel Osteen and his Gospel According to Ralph Lauren; Osteen's wildly popular brand of godliness openly embraces greed and gaudiness. But churches still need some rules, commonalities, and orthodoxies. The true genius of the new spirituality was that it gave each person license to be his own Pope, free to redefine right and wrong as expedient, free to blow off the very idea of conscience. And let’s face it, if you already know that your beliefs and behaviors are inconsistent with the demanding edicts of most formal religions...isn't it so much neater to just declare yourself "spiritual" and not have anyone to answer to?
I'm not contending that gurus like Rhonda Byrne and Joe Vitale are sociopaths or are knowingly trying to convert their followers into sociopaths. But it’s interesting how people schooled in today's Empowerment seem to think and speak in terms that sound like a $20,000 Pyramid category called "Things a Sociopath Might Say":
"Why are you always bringing up old stuff?" (Translation: Don't remind me of how I disappointed you last month or last week or yesterday. Yesterday is history.)
"I have a right to change my mind." (Translation: Don't try to hold me to any commitments, no matter how important you think they are. I'm a free spirit and I intend to march to my own drummer.)
"Well, it's what the universe wanted for you." (Translation: Hey, if you were hurt by what I did, that's not my problem. It just wasn't in the cards for you—and you're responsible for your own happiness anyway.)
The Secret has taken flak for its more outrageous positions, like blaming disaster victims for inviting that disaster into their lives (or at least failing to repel it); but the real problem with "spiritual regimens" like The Secret is broader and more subtle. Such programs sell the notion that people's pain is theirs and theirs alone. They attracted it; they "own" it. Thus, such programs afford moral absolution: You didn't cause the damage to all those wounded people around you. They attracted it.
Somewhere, the late Ted Bundy must be kicking himself for not thinking of that defense in time.
(Here's a link to Part 1 in this series.)
* By no means is this to say that only women succumb to such tendencies. To some extent, in fact, all self-help did was cause some women to act with the same calculated self-regard that had typified the actions of too many men for centuries. Still, there's no question that women have always been self-help's primary targets and core audience, and that women have been instrumental in helping SHAM's language and concepts "go viral."
** I suppose we could allow ourselves to be diverted by that old argument posing that "all behaviors are selfish"; that whatever human beings do, regardless of how others judge it, is motivated by self-interest and some psychic payoff. Under this theory, even Mother Teresa acted selfishly, because she obviously derived personal satisfaction out of "doing the Lord's work." I'd rather we not get bogged down in such philosophizing here. Even if I grant the point, I'd rather we focus on how your singular brand of selfishness affects others: Does it enrich them or hurt them? Does it consider the people around you or callously ignore them?
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Came news very late last night of another death, and one that hit considerably closer to home. Eight years ago my youngest son began a relationship with a young woman I won't name here, to spare her family further pain. It was in many ways a stressful, tortured relationship, but it also produced what was one of the greatest joys of my life up to then: Sophia, our adorable, beatific granddaughter. Or so we thought. Two years later (we spent one of those years helping raise Sophia in our own home, amid her parents' ongoing dysfunction), we learned that Sophia's mother had duped my son, and us. And overnight, she just walked out of our lives and never looked back. My struggle to come to terms with all this would include pieces written for Good Housekeeping and The New York Times Magazine. But it never really "went away." To this day, I stare across at a wall graced by at least a half-dozen special photos of my Sophia.
Last night my son phoned at almost midnight; he'd heard from mutual friends that Sophia's mother was dead. A suicide, they think, some months back. (She would've turned 30 a few days before Halloween. In fact, on that very day two weeks ago, my wife voiced the wish that "I hope you're having a nice birthday, wherever you are." Kathy understands pain and confusion, and always had a soft spot for Sophia's mother.) I found out in the obituary that in addition to Sophia, now 7, the tragedy orphaned a second little girl, a 2-year-old we hadn't known about, of course.
I will remember Sophia's mother as a fun-loving girl with a bright, beaming smile that almost (but never quite) hid her anger and heartbreak, a girl who—as seems so often the case these days—had to grow up way too soon and deal with things children should not have to deal with. We left off on bad terms, and if I could see her again today, I would hug her and tell her that I hold no hard feelings about any of what happened. I guess she did what she felt she had to do. Both then and now.
At moments like this I'm reminded of something another great American author, John Steinbeck, once wrote: "There are some among us who live in rooms of experience we can never enter."
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 12:20 PM
Saturday, November 10, 2007
Comes news, this morning, of the death of Norman Mailer. For decades regarded as the preeminent voice in American letters (among only a handful of select contenders, like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth), Mailer was as famous for his prickly nature and imperial persona as for his literary oeuvre. Even as a young man, well before America-at-large had caught up with his generous self-assessment, Norman Mailer did not suffer fools gladly—and if you were a writer, and he considered you of lesser pedigree (which was almost everyone, to his mind), you were most surely a fool. Ever the stylistic innovator, Mailer took lots of risks in his writing, inevitably producing some works that were denounced as self-indulgent and waaaay overdone; Ancient Evenings comes to mind. He also drew criticism from journalistic purists for his early advocacy of the school of nonfiction story-telling that came to be known as "faction": a blend of overarching fact and invented detail wherein Mailer was able, for example, to place himself inside the heads of main characters he had never met or even interviewed; this enabled him to flesh out his narratives with so-called "interior monologue."
But at his best, when everything worked, there was simply no one better. Or even close, in my humble opinion.
Though Mailer is perhaps most famous for such early works as The Naked and the Dead and The Armies of the Night, I for one will always marvel at his deft and lyrical handling of the Gary Gilmore case, published as The Executioner's Song. The genius of the way Mailer wove a seamless narrative out of multiple, often discordant points of view, revealing the contradictions and ambiguities in human nature by simply letting the individual stories tell themselves (that is, without the heavy-handed narration that so many writers fall back on)... I'd never read anything quite like it before. I'd be surprised if I ever do again.
Not a few of those of my generation who were compelled to commit ourselves to this crazy enterprise called writing have Norman Mailer to thank. Or maybe blame is the better word. Whatever the case, he was an idol among idols, the Ted Williams of writing (and just as fiery and hard to get along with, by all accounts). It's a cliche, of course—one that Mailer would scorn as such—but he will be missed.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 10:56 AM
Thursday, November 08, 2007
Lately I've been reflecting a lot on the similarities between today's supercharged variety of Empowerment (think: The Secret or Joe Vitale's honoponogonorrhea, or whatever it's called) and the dangerous psychological malady known as sociopathy. Those similarities are eye-opening and provocative. (Here, by the way, is a more academic treatment of sociopathy, and here and here you'll find armchair summaries that are basically faithful to the more clinical-minded definitions.)
Many of the "qualities" we associate with sociopaths are in fact uncharacteristic of the malady. For example, the textbook sociopath is not an overtly evil-tempered brawler, like your hard-drinking cousin who's always getting into bar fights. On the contrary, sociopathic violence is more apt to be unprovoked and wholly inappropriate to the stimulus: the classic case of the person who, for no apparent reason, pulls the wings off birds. Nor are sociopaths, as a rule, "jumpy," manic-looking folks—the kind who might make you nervous when you're cooped up with them on a cross-country flight. They often manifest a surface calm and can even seem imperturbable and rather "cool" (like our friend Ted Bundy, shown). Again as a rule, they are not highly "affective" or "emotive" people—not always crying or screaming or deeply emotional about what's going on at the moment (although they are quite good at mimicking rudimentary forms of the emotions others truly feel... Look, this is complex terrain, where the distinctions aren't always apparent).
The condition of sociopathy, then, refers to a specific constellation of symptoms, most (if not all) of which must be present for a valid diagnosis to be made. That said, if there are certain bedrock behaviors suggestive of sociopathy, they would reside in the following interrelated handful of psycho-emotional defects: (1), and clearly foremost, the absence of a conscience (in the commonly understood sense of regretting the effect of one's actions on others*), (2) pathological egocentricity (in the sense of thinking their way is the way, and that what's right for them is simply right, period), and (3) personal unreliability and the lack of a consistent life plan (which is to say that because sociopaths tend to make it all up as they go along, they have a hard time meeting the needs of the people who depend on them. Their whim takes priority over your dire need. And don't you dare challenge them on it, either). Further, sociopaths, as noted, are not raving dysfunctionals. They're often quite-intelligent people who—this is key—will contrive a world-view that supports or justifies the antisocial, narcissistic approach to life they've instinctively embraced for themselves.
Now. We've already talked several times about how latter-day conceptions of self-help promote an extreme and unhealthy form of narcissism. But the more I think about it—and the more I listen to the likes of The Gospel According to Joe—the more I think such regimens also promote a form of sociopathy....
And with that as preamble, we'll get down to cases next time.**
I cannot close for today without mentioning two very recent pieces of news that confirm the bizarro-world today's "medical literature" has become, and also highlight the dilemma facing we mere mortals who struggle to build our lives around solid science. First came word that being overweight is not quite the death sentence it's been made out to be—not only that, but some extra padding may actually protect you against several serious medical conditions. Now we have news that taking vitamins can be bad for you.
Sigh. Sorting through all this is chicken-or-the-egg stuff. It's hard to know whether the blame for the unending flow of confusing, contradictory material should be placed on the medical establishment (for constantly rushing into the breech with premature data) or the news media (who, in their desperation to flesh out today's 24/7 news cycle, hype every new morsel of info that comes along as a "health-care breakthrough!"). No doubt it's some combination of the above, plus our own obsessive need to feel "in-step" with the newest and hottest info. Whatever it is, it would be hysterical if it weren't so damned annoying.
Already I can hear the feedback I'm likely to get from the New Wage crowd, so let me get something on the record ahead of time: This is still no reason for us to entrust ourselves to people like Rhonda Byrne, who simply throw science out the window and base their "programs for better living" on nothing at all. But it does make you wonder—what's next? Mainlining black-tar heroin actually adds seven years to your life?
* Sociopaths very definitely can feel regret, but it's regret over how something worked out for them. They cry easily for themselves.
** I've been told that some of my posts "go on a bit" for single-session reading. Besides, what's wrong with a little teaser now and then?
Monday, November 05, 2007
Folks, consider this an "encore performance" of an item that originally went up on April 3 of this year. I'm returning it to front-page status because of the enormity of the recent feedback (83 comments and counting, many of them from SHAMblog newcomers, and most of them from people who claim to have had firsthand dealings with the Center) and also because the issues raised here—particularly in the various threads spun off in/from the comments—are central to this blog's core mandate. Issues like the nature of real maladjustment (as opposed to perceived maladjustment), the nature of real therapy (as opposed to placebo therapy) and, if you think about it, the very nature of Self.
I invite all of our regulars to read this anew, meander through the comments (if you're so inclined), and add your own thoughts.
If you found yourself feeling worried or even fearful much of the time, and someone recommended the Midwest Center for Stress & Anxiety...what would that make you think of? What images might come to mind? A gleaming glass edifice—something Mayo Clinic-like, perhaps?—whose employees specialize in showering troubled souls with personalized TLC? A battery of psychiatrists, psychologists and other area-specific counselors available 24/7, making their rounds in their white lab coats (or maybe tweed jackets), studying the info on their ever-present clipboards, with nurses standing dutifully at their sides? Of course—as you continue to think this through—it would stand to reason that such a place is located in the midwest. That puts it at the heart of things, conveniently accessible by air to emotionally troubled people across the land.
There is in fact something called the Midwest Center for Stress & Anxiety, Inc. (hereinafter, MCSAI). It has operated continuously since 1984 and is quite successful, at least if you measure success in terms of money. Only thing is, there's no actual Center, in the sense of there being a place where anxiety-ridden people can go to receive treatment. There's really not much Midwest to the Midwest (non)Center, either. There is an office building in the sleepy Toledo, Ohio suburb of Oak Harbor, but the principals, Lucinda and David Bassett, are long gone; annual revenues estimated between $50 million and $100 million* nowadays enable the Bassetts to live among the L.A. aristocracy. What's more, the business itself could really be run from just about anywhere, because relatively few of the (non)Center's 60 employees have much to do with any therapeutic objectives. They're primarily cogs in the marketing machine: customer-service reps, creative types who put together the company's endless string of radio spots and Tony Robbins-inspired** infomercials, et cetera. (David Bassett says that MCSAI ranks in the top-20 of American radio advertisers—one assumes he's proud of this—while industry sources name the spots as among the longest continuously running ads in the business.) In short, the bulk of MCSAI's 60 employees are the folks who fuel the (non)Midwest (non)Center's aggressive overtures to the general public. Those overtures, say the Barretts, generate some 26,000 inquiries a week.
Oh yes, I almost forgot, there's a product in there somewhere. It's a 14-week do-it-yourself anti-anxiety program, relying chiefly on workbooks and DVDs; it retails for $400. Though Lucinda Bassett has said that she consulted a Toledo family therapist during the development of that program, she also admits that the $400 regimen owes much to her own struggles with anxiety and depression. During her obligatory kiss-the-ring appearance on Oprah, Lucinda recalled being paralyzed by anxiety during her career as a top-performing ad-space rep for a Toledo radio station. That experience, as she told it, motivated her to investigate a course of behavioral changes that not only enabled her to defeat her obstacles, but led to the (non)Midwest (non)Center, as well as a pair of strong-selling books, From Panic to Power and Life Without Limits.
Look... Instead of playing this whole thing for laughs, or maybe tears, I'll be fair. The Bassetts can produce reams of testimonials, and even people with some standing in traditional therapeutic realms aren't as dubious about MCSAI's methods as you'd expect. (One study of the Bassetts' approach, later published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, suggested a "cure rate" of 58 percent, comparable to that attained in formal psychotherapy.) I'm not sure that's the point, however. During my discussion of Dr. Laura Schlessinger in SHAM***, I noted that formal mental-health organizations frown on the misleading use of doctorates and other credentials, especially those unrelated to mental health. In Schlessinger's case, for example, therapists tend to resent the fact that she took the one doctorate she does have (in physiology) and used it to add a patina of credibility to her career in pop psychology. As I also note in SHAM, fully three-quarters of confessed Dr. Laura junkies told The Washington Post that they just naturally assumed she was "a psychologist, psychiatrist or therapist." That, to me, is a problem. It's also a serious breach of professional ethics, when the central figure in the confusion not only fails to correct the false impression, but actually seeks to maximize profits from it.
The MCSAI story strikes me as much the same—beginning with the name the Bassetts chose for their enterprise. Maybe their advice is terrific. So what? As it happens, I know a great deal about cardiology. I think I have some solid insights into the more subtle workings of the human heart. And I can even empathize with Lucinda Bassett, because my knowledge was an outgrowth of the firsthand research I had to do in assessing some very odd cardiac symptoms I experienced some time back. Still, I did not, on the basis of that accumulated know-how, set myself up as the Eastern Center for Cardiac Research, Inc. And if you experienced heart trouble today, I don't think you'd want me practicing medicine on you. You'd go to someone who actually went to school to learn cardiology, and was duly and appropriately credentialed in that discipline.
Wendy Kaminer observed years ago that America is the least credential-conscious society in the free world. Things haven't gotten any better. Every day the meaning and marketplace value of proven expertise is eroded a little bit more by profit-minded charlatans who argue that a (relevant) doctorate means nothing, that formal education means nothing, that scientific validation means nothing; they argue that their mere good intentions should stand shoulder to shoulder with someone else's demonstrated competency (a delusional mindset that's only made worse by "positive-thinking" extravaganzas like The Secret). Maybe it's time to remind ourselves once again of exactly where the road goes, that is paved with good intentions.
* MCSAI is privately held, and therefore not obliged to disclose revenues to the SEC and others.
** The Bassetts admit this.
*** pp. 44-51.
Sunday, November 04, 2007
I don't remember any jolt of panic when it happened, or even really shock. It was more of a sense of displacement, a "what's wrong with this picture?" state of mind: something like, There shouldn't be a deer there...
But there was a deer there—right there, streaking into my peripheral vision from the left as if on a suicide mission, along one of the darkest stretches of Pennsylvania interstate between Harrisburg and Allentown. We hit it at full highway speed.
The deer's head snapped down and into the hood for just a beat before the large animal disappeared from view; my wife, who was driving, swears that she then heard hooves clattering against pavement, or perhaps the sound of bone yielding to metal, but I heard no such sounds. The car jerked sharply to the right, and Kathy still isn't sure whether the momentary change in course was due to the impact itself or an emergency steering correction on her part. (The air bags did not deploy.) She burst into tears and I had to guide her hand on the steering wheel as together we pulled the Nissan onto the narrow shoulder. In rapid succession I asked her if she was OK and if the car seemed to be drivable, but she was unresponsive; she just kept sobbing. Thankfully there was no traffic immediately behind us. Seconds later a big rig roared by in the right lane, the one we'd been driving in. I don't know whether or not the truck wiped out what was left of the deer. I do know that he almost certainly would've wiped us out, and/or been at the center of some horrific pileup, if he'd been traveling a bit closer on our heels.
I got out and took stock of things; as you can plainly see, the damage to sheet metal was extensive. However, nothing was leaking underneath, and I heard no alarming engine noises, so I deduced that none of the major internal components had been taken out. Though the driver's headlight assembly was missing, the actual bulb remained lit, albeit aimed straight down at the road surface. I decided to bend it back upwards and somehow wedge it into position to illuminate the highway—that is, assuming the car could still be driven. At which point I learned an important lesson about today's high-intensity headlamps: You don't screw around with them. No sooner had I begun tugging at wires than the thing shorted out and exploded, shooting white-hot plastic shrapnel into my hands. (The short also took out the dashboard lights and emergency flashers.) When I eased Kathy into the passenger seat and got back in behind the wheel, the car appeared to have only one gear left—I could not move the shifter forward from neutral—but luckily that one gear was drive. Rather than sit forever on that desolate stretch of highway, waiting to be hit by the next errant truck or waylaid by some interstate pirate, I figured I'd continue driving east until the car failed us. I pulled carefully back onto the road and nursed the Maxima through the remaining 40 miles to the Allentown exit. Other than a slight vibration in the front end and a loud scraping noise each time a bump in the road bounced the damaged sheet metal against the pavement, the car seemed none the worse for wear. It steered straight and had all five forward gears. When I shut it off in front of the house it would not restart—something to do with the shift interlock, is my guess—but the main thing was, it had gotten us home. All I can say is, if you're going to assassinate a deer with a passenger sedan, the Nissan Maxima might be one of the better vehicles to do it in.
Something I kept thinking about on that nerve-wracking drive home was timing, and the way seemingly random events are revealed as not quite so random once they intersect to produce more momentous events, like collisions with deer. If I'd taken two less sips of iced tea before we left the Chinese place in that nice mall in Pittsburgh, or two more sips—anything that altered the timing of the day by a few degrees—we would not have met that animal last night (all other things being equal). It would've passed frighteningly but harmlessly in front of the car, doing no damage to anything but our blood pressures, or it would've raced behind us without our even being aware of it. (So perhaps my level of thirst played a role here.) I thought, too, of the worst possible scenario: If we'd gotten there just a click later—say I'd taken a fractional second longer to get the credit card out of my wallet when paying the bill at the restaurant—the deer would've been directly in front of the car when the impact occurred, and likely would've come up over the hood and into our windshield. In which case I doubt I'd be writing this post. (So the age and "stickiness" of my wallet plays a role, too, along with the number of credit cards I carry and jam into various wallet compartments. And how many other variables figure in that?) Then there's the deer itself: What about its timing? What made it bolt from the woods in that moment? Further, what effect will the death of that deer have on subsequent events? And what about the effect of my operating with just one car for a while? See, we never know all the variables involved...but they're always there, even if mostly in the background/under our radar. They spell the difference between a non-event and a tragedy. They conspire inevitably to produce the life we lead, and the death that takes us.
Consider: Where are the deer in your life? They're out there somewhere. They just haven't run into your field of vision yet. (Of course, this doesn't apply only to bad things. There could be any number of "happy deer" awaiting you as well.)
Incidentally, going out to inspect the car this morning, I noticed a cluster of coarse gray deer hairs embedded between the tire and the rim—actually wedged in there, below the surface, as if they'd been sewn into the tire when it was manufactured. For some reason, that, of all things, gave me chills....
* If you haven't been reading along on this blog for a while, the headline is a reference to the "law of attraction," much in the news of late thanks to The Secret. In its simplest conception, LOA dogma poses that what you have in your life, good or bad, is what you attracted to yourself. No exceptions.
Friday, November 02, 2007
In a way, it seems almost unfair to go after Joe "Mr. Fire*" Vitale. He's such an easy target. The guy just keeps saying some of the stupidest things you're ever apt to hear—and what's more, he says them as if he were Moses, sharing wisdom on the Mount. But in recent times, Joe may have out-stupided himself. And before we proceed, I should note that it looks like I'm pretty much the last one in on this controversy; journalistic integrity requires that I credit the fine work already done here by Cosmic Connie, Blair Warren, Rev Ron and others.
It all started in Vitale's blog of October 26. Therein, Joe wondered why, amid the inferno that was Southern California**, the homes of several of his positive-thinking collaborators in The Secret were among those that had been spared. He mused,
"It's interesting to me that 45 homes burned near the home of John Assaraf but his is safe.Vitale stopped short of declaring forthrightly that the positive thinkers had kept the fire at bay through the mystical energy of their happy thoughts...but what other implication is there? (In fairness to Joe, once again I'll quote his exact words, confusing though they may be: "Instead of wondering why they attracted a fire, it might be wiser to wonder how they didn’t attract a fire.") There was no mistaking the inverse implication, either: that the homes that were destroyed belonged to people who weren't as positive about life, and who, presumably, had "attracted" the fire to their residences (or at least, unlike Assaraf and company, had failed to deflect it).
"Same with the home and office of James Ray.
"Same with the manager of Lisa Nichols."
Joe's remarks ignited a firestorm in their own right, with readers, yours truly included, condemning him for his blame-the-victim mentality. Just as offensive to me personally was Vitale's cavalier way of making the point: its seeming smugness and lack of anything resembling empathy. I told him so in a comment, which he promptly deleted, along with all other critical comments. Today, just one comment remains on that post of October 26. It's from "Tammy," and it reads like so: "There [sic] attitude is truly fantastic," she gushes, referring to Assaraf and company. "I'm on a few of their mailing lists and was in awe of the attitudes presented. I believe they have Zero Limits!"***
In a follow-up the next day, Joe unsurprisingly pointed fingers at those of us who can read and understand English. He titled his rebuttal, "The Rorschach Blog Post," contending that we who'd attacked him for attacking the fire victims were the ones with the real problem. See, we had interpreted his post through the chronic veil of negativity that plagues our pitiful existences. In his mealy-mouthed defense of the previous day's post, Vitale denied that he'd made any "direct comments [about his] Secret co-stars and why they escaped the San Diego fires," adding, "What I did say was I found it 'interesting' and I invited readers to consider asking a different question about the experience."
We get it, Joe. You were just sorta thinkin' aloud, huh? Having a little metaphysical moment with yourself. Just like the Reverend Al has no particular agenda or implication in mind when he says it's "interesting" that there are so many blacks on death row. It's just an idle musing.
Well, comes now a new post in which Vitale muses about the experience of returning home from a trip to discover that his swimming pool was ruined. (Though Joe avoids mentioning the San Diego fires this time, presumably we are to make the association between Joe's damaged swimming pool and the incinerated homes, with both events being equally tragic in Joe's world.) He assures us that, confronted with this great loss, he "didn’t fall into a victim mentality" and "didn’t see the event as negative." Events, you see, are just events; it's how we respond to them that makes all the difference. Notice that in saying this, Joe V. is judiciously backpedaling away from the implications of his post of October 26; in fact, he's retreating into the realm of standard-issue Norman Vincent Peale resiliency: "It's not what happens to you in life, but how you react to it." So, even leaving aside the tackiness of Vitale's endeavor to draw some analogy between the cracks in his pool and the devastation in Southern California, we have a philosophical problem.
What Joe now seems to be saying is a variant of that old cliche, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade." That is a far, far cry from the gospel of The Secret, which argues that if you put the right vibes out into the cosmos, life won't give you lemons in the first place.
You know, I'd always assumed that The Secret was so absurd on its face that it required little formal refutation, so I never took its logic to task. The fire in San Diego—regrettably—presents us with an opportunity to do just that. San Diego in general is a pretty nice place to live, and some of the neighborhoods blighted by fire—though well removed from the ocean breezes for which the city is best known—are very, very nice places to live. For over a decade I lived in the town immediately west of Rancho Bernardo, the site of arguably the worst devastation. If you live in a private home in a place like "RB," and you've been there for more than a few years—long enough to see the value of your house soar from, say, $300,000 in the late 90s to seven figures today—you enjoy a fairly privileged everyday lifestyle, at a level that most Americans in most other areas of this great nation cannot imagine. It is like being on perpetual vacation. That's the "feel" of it, the causally opulent way life is lived there. So. Are we to assume that the families who lost their homes in the fires of late October had "attracted" this idyllic lifestyle through the power of their positive energies...but then suddenly, for no reason anyone can theorize, they emitted some demon vibe that drew this horror to them? Does that make sense? But we needn't fall back on mere common sense to make the point. Statistically speaking, too, Vitale's original premise was way off the mark. There are tens of thousands of private homes in the areas of San Diego ravaged by the fires. Out of all that, about "365 properties" were lost. Even in the hardest-hit areas, most residents avoided disaster. Some 48,000 people live in Rancho Bernardo alone, occupying some 20,000 homes. If Assaraf and Nichols defeated the fire through positive vibes, they had plenty of company. Thankfully.
When I ponder all this, the word that comes to mind is insincerity. And the word applies on (at least) two levels. First, there is the basic insincerity of what Joe wrote on October 26. Here you have a man who claims to be part of a movement that upholds the sanctity of the human spirit, and yet at a time of profound human tragedy he writes a post that shows not "zero limits" but rather zero compassion; he writes a post that turns human suffering into a talking point for his pet projects. But there's a second level of insincerity here, and that is Joe's cowardly reaction to the ensuing fray. In reacting as Joe did—in tap-dancing away from the core article of faith in the Secretron liturgy (even absurd as it is)—Vitale underscored the insincerity of the whole movement. Worst of all, he tried to make it sound as if we misunderstood what he was trying to say to us in the first place. We're the crazy ones, you see?
No, Joe, we're not the crazy ones, and we didn't misunderstand. We heard you loud and clear, fella. And that's the saddest and sickest part of all.
* It's a nickname that someone supposedly hung on Joe years ago, and Joe embraced it; he likes to think it captures the sweep and intensity of his promotional copy.
** It bears noting that, though the worst of it was over, the fires still raged in some areas as Vitale typed out his post for that day.
*** a reference to Vitale's latest book, which presents his secret Hawaiian system for achieving untold wealth and fulfillment. You may recall our earlier discussions of h'onoponomonobonodono....
Thursday, November 01, 2007
Unless, that is, you're so medicated these days that your eyes just won't open anymore.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 11:59 AM