Folks, I am as down on James Ray as anyone. As I recently told a Member of Major Media, Ray and his travails epitomize all that's wrong with latter-day self-help. Little or no credentials to be selling what he's selling...the promise of near-instant transformation...a distinct proclivity for "churning" his disciples...scandalous prices for a slapdash program consisting of unproven, potentially (now manifestly) dangerous material.
All that said...I'm getting a wee bit uneasy about the ardor of our collective assault on Ray. I think there is danger in piling on, as some of us have—including your host. I think that we run the risk of unwittingly marginalizing ourselves: that in our zeal to find and trumpet every last incriminating detail, background circumstance or untoward facial expression—while at the same time ignoring or rationalizing away any possible mitigating circumstances—we make ourselves look like, say, the liberals who once were accused of "Bush derangement syndrome." Or the current Republicans who take such delight in savaging Obama, every word that emanates from his mouth, and everything he philosophically stands for.
You can drop those eyebrows back to their normal positions; believe me, I intend no parallels between Barack Obama and James Ray. I'm just saying that while Ray may be the poster boy for reckless/venal self-help, we probably shouldn't make him out to be the Grim Reaper, Adolph Hitler and Bernie Madoff rolled into one. Certainly not until he has his day in court. The guy almost surely is a megalomaniac—but if you're telling me that he intended to kill those people, or that he didn't care if he did...I'm not buying it. I think that in the person of James Ray, we have a messianic blunderer with no sense of consequences who may have honestly felt that he was showing tough-love on that October day, driving clients to push beyond their limits. This is not in any way to excuse what happened in Sedona. If anything, it underscores why self-help is so stupid, so scary. And that is where our emphasis should now reside, in my opinion.
Over the past year or so, The Secret and its mystique have been coming apart at the seams. The sudden fall from grace of some of its "stars"—not just Ray but also David Schirmer* and even creator Rhonda Byrne herself—speaks volumes about the project and the people involved, putting the lie to the touchy-feely philanthropy and avowed "hope for mankind" that characterized The Secret's earliest viral PR. (A little birdie tells me there are more falls from grace to come.) Further, if other erstwhile Secretrons have avoided major public black eyes, they have also shown no qualms about throwing the project and their collaborators under the bus, riffing on The Secret's deficiencies and building entire new programs around its (supposed) "forgotten laws."
Their actions say more about that project—and the New Age muck from which it sprang—than millions of words of condemnation for James Ray, churned out daily by the ever-growing skeptosphere.
* Not to be confused with Skeptic's Michael Shermer. Regular readers know this, but I don't want to leave casual visitors with any mistaken impressions.
Friday, February 26, 2010
Folks, I am as down on James Ray as anyone. As I recently told a Member of Major Media, Ray and his travails epitomize all that's wrong with latter-day self-help. Little or no credentials to be selling what he's selling...the promise of near-instant transformation...a distinct proclivity for "churning" his disciples...scandalous prices for a slapdash program consisting of unproven, potentially (now manifestly) dangerous material.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
From the blog of Joe Vitale—proud metaphysician, purveyor of secrets even beyond The Secret, and champion of ho'noponogonorrhea or whatever it's called—yesterday:
"When ABC News interviewed me for their upcoming show on the pros and cons of positive thinking and the Law of Attraction, one of their questions was, 'Why are there so many self-help books?' Apparently a published skeptic"—[NOTE: I'm thinking that would be me]—"felt that if self-help books really worked, we wouldn't need so many of them."Vitale goes on to observe: "With all the cookbooks in the world, there will always be more published... That doesn't mean there's a problem with the books already published."
The published skeptic begs to differ in self-help's case, and SHAMblog regulars know why. I therefore attempted to post the following reply:
Joe: Your analogy ("cookbooks") doesn't wash. Self-help, at its core, promises to fix something. (And usually the first thing it does is persuade people they're broken to begin with, which is another story which we'll leave in abeyance.) The better analogy is: taking your car to a mechanic. Let's suppose something went slightly awry with the Rolls during one of your Masterminds, and you wanted the problem repaired. You see a sign; it says OUR SEVEN-POINT PROGRAM WILL PROVIDE EVERLASTING MOTORING JOY. JUST $99. You pay the $99. Your everlasting joy lasts about a day before the Rolls acts up again. You go back. This time they tell you, "Well, if you really want it to work, you have to buy the ADVANCED EVERLASTING MOTORING JOY program. That's $500." (They also tell you that if you keep expecting your car to run better, it will, just on its own.) And on and on it goes…I'm sure the comment will appear on his blog any moment now.
P.S., LATE MORNING. Well whaddya know (or "raise my rent," in the immortal words of Cleavon Little). It did indeed appear. I even got a thanks-for-stopping-by and—need I say it?—a "blessings."
* For the young'uns: If you don't get the reference, brush up on your classic Twilight Zone.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
...the "elegant (a)whole"?
Once again I'm late to the party, but I did have a point I wanted to make in my few moments of downtime this morning. What tend to get overlooked amid the more sensational aspects of the James Ray case are the implications of the eyebrow-raising financial disclosures that have emerged from this whole debacle. As has been amply documented by now elsewhere (indeed, everywhere), the picture Ray paints of himself in bail hearings is a far cry from the way he portrayed himself on-stage as recently as four months ago, which is to say, before three followers became perfectly balanced in one of his sweat lodges. (For those of you who don't get the reference, Ray was fond of saying, "The only people who are perfectly balanced are six feet under.")
We are told that James Ray—who hinged his very business model on a phrase containing the word wealth; who paraded his insights in front of 200 paying audiences per year—is too broke to make bail; we are told, among other things, that he has $14,000 in his checking account, which is less, a lot less, than it costs to buy just one wheel from a set of four of the high-end type that most of these jokers put on their cars.* For our purposes here, it doesn't really matter whether all of that is true (some have suggested that Ray was never as successful as he pretended to be) or false (others have suggested that the assets Ray liked to tout during his programs are now lovingly sheltered in Andorra or wherever). Either way, the implications for Ray—and by extension, for the genre—are grim and revealing:
If Mr. Harmony Hisself, the maestro of wealth-building, managed his portfolio and his low-overhead empire so poorly that he now can't raise $500,000 cash bail** even by liquefying assets—if the guy couldn't make his failsafe methodology work, even for him—then he's revealed as a fraud.
If Ray put his money illegally out of reach of the IRS and/or other regulatory bodies and, to compound that sin, is now lying about his actual circumstances—also with the long-range goal of making himself lawsuit-proof when it comes time for his day(s) of reckoning in civil court—then he's revealed as a cheat and a scoundrel.
Maybe it's fitting that James Ray had his comeuppance in Arizona. The place is just crawling with snakes.
And on that note, I am reminded suddenly of something that happened, once, when I was covering a seminal figure in the success-training movement. There was this magazine piece I planned to write (it later became a book), and the guru gave me an unusual—and, really, reckless—degree of access to him, his people and his programs. So I'm backstage at one of his seminar gigs, and there comes a point where he says to the audience, very dramatically, "Write this down: People who answer the telephone within three rings make 20% more than people who don't." Immediately that sounded suspect to me; I couldn't figure out, for starters, how such data would've been compiled. So I asked him about it later: "That thing you said about answering the phone within three rings? Is that really accurate?"
He sort of snickered and shrugged. Then he replied, "Who gives a shit? People eat this stuff up. It works, so I use it."
There's your self-help movement in a nutshell, folks.
* I grant you, a lot of affluent people don't keep a lot of money in their checking accounts. But come on. As part of the overall picture Ray paints—especially when he gets into descriptions of his monthly nut—why would he have only $14K on-hand to pay it?
** He would have to collateralize the remaining $4.5 million, of course.
Friday, February 19, 2010
If you read the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal today, you will find a partial/qualified correction pertaining to my October 23, 2009 piece, "Self-Help Doesn't Help...and Often Hurts." You'll also find a letter from a higher-up at Landmark Forum, whose company is the subject of the correction. Both are the result of a negotiating process that has been active and ongoing since shortly after the publication of the piece, when both the Journal and I received the sorts of letters for which the notoriously litigious Landmark is famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view). Although I'm not altogether happy about this—the correction could be read by some to mean that I got the Singer quote all wrong, and that she never said what she did, in fact, say*—the editor of the page, Paul Gigot, was kind enough to call me personally and give me a heads-up here, and I basically agree that his course of action was a wise one, given the larger circumstances and his desire to clear this sticky and time-consuming imbroglio off his desk.
I'll have more to say when the time is right.
* though she later admitted, as part of a settlement in a suit filed by Landmark, that she'd never actually attended a version of the Forum course after Landmark assimilated est.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Of life and love-nubs, sex and selves, hype and help. La finale. (And, yes, the last post of its kind.)
Be good at what you do. Whatever it is you do. If you're going to be a hit man...be a good one.
—Frank Salerno, circa 1977
[Click here to read beginning of series.]
My father was not as well-known as Socrates for his philosophy. But he got off some memorable lines. He offered the above advice jokingly—I think, for it could be hard to tell in those final mournful days of his battle against bladder cancer, when Dad washed down everything, including the generous helpings of perc that got him through the day, with even more generous amounts of beer.
His point, however, was taken. Do what you do, and do it well. I thought of that the last time I was in The City, grabbing coffee and a brownie in a cramped, very crowded cafe overlooking Sixth Avenue amid the gaiety of Christmastime in New York (which, for my money, is like Christmastime nowhere else). One of the busboys, squeezing his way past some of the patrons in the hubbub, noticed a small area of crumbs on the just-vacated table next to me. He all but sprinted back behind the counter, grabbed a cleaning rag, sprinted back to the table and wiped that table-top down with a thoroughness and sense of purpose that seemed more befitting a Michelangelo putting the finishes touches on the ceiling at Sistine. He even stood back for a second and inspected his handiwork before sprinting somewhere else in the cafe. This kid was all of 17 or 18, probably working his first job—and let's face it, it's a crappy job—but he cared. It meant something to him. It was his job, and he was gonna do it well, dammit. As anyone who's been in a fast-food environment or a mall boutique lately knows, there aren't enough kids like that out there. Hell, there aren't enough adults like that. And I think I know why, at least in part.
See, there's another layer of meaning to Dad's remark. I don't advocate for becoming a hit man or doing anything else that will leave you teetering dangerously at the edge of normalcy; to be honest, I feel like I've spent a good part of my life just beyond that precipice, and yes, it can take its toll. At the same time, it has its rewards. If nothing else, I feel that I've lived my life—was the best me I was capable of being. I'm not talking about narcissism here; I'm not talking about the need to shower myself with material possessions or take off for Madagascar on a whim. I'm not talking about being oblivious to the needs of others, or being conscience-less when it comes to weighing my own interests against theirs; indeed, the people who know me well (there are one or two) would probably tell you—and this is ironic—that I may be the textbook definition of "codependency," as the 12-steps tried to sell the concept to America back in the late 1980s. No, I'm talking more about being true to who I was. Besides, I know for a fact that I could not have lived successfully pretending to be someone else. I would've self-destructed—as I, in fact, pretty much did, every time I tried.
We are, each of us, individuals. We are not just another thin slice cut from some Brobdingnagian cake, where each and every other slice looks and tastes the same. It follows that if our search is truly for self-actualization, we should attempt to maximize what we inherently are—not run from it in order to embrace some carefully processed, universal vision of Life on Earth.
I have to believe that if more people thought—examined things from all sides—they'd find more personally relevant answers to life's mysteries. Then maybe they wouldn't need to peruse those same damned magazines (or books) month after month, hoping against hope to find something that elevates their lives above the quotidian, something that actually helps them be the unique persons they are. Even when it comes to the search for suitable partners, how can we expect to find a "soul-mate" by employing the sort of shop-manual, one-size-fits-all approach to dating that's advocated by (and embodied in) books like The Rules? I hereby give you, in its totality, the chapter on relationships from Steve's self-help book: When you go on dates,* for Christ's sake, just be yourself! How else are you going to find someone who likes you for who you are?
(And here's the funniest part. Let's suppose that self-help really, really gains societywide traction, such that everybody has read "the literature," all the major works in the genre. Now think about the simplest career advice—say, something like "Always make eye contact with the person who's interviewing you." OK, now we're all making eye contact with the people who are interviewing us. So...where are we? Back to square one, is where we are. We've accomplished nothing.)
The bigger point is that when we stray too far from what we were "meant to be," something inside us rebels, chafing at that betrayal. This is what I meant in an earlier post about unintended consequences. Yes, it is possible that all those books and seminars, with their 10 rules and 7 keys and secrets unlocked, may provide you with the outer trappings of success. But they may also kill you, the real you, in the process. I submit that you may well be far less happy with what you have become—even if you are more outwardly successful (whatever that means)—because what you have now become is a reproach to the individual you were prewired to be. You'll exist in a constant state of inner tension, not unlike the hundreds of millions in the former Soviet Union who lived their profoundly constrained lives, doing exactly what they were told to do, knowing that the penalties for dissension—which is to say, for personal freedom—were extreme. This helps explain why so many of them turned to the bottle.
That kid in that cafe was a rarity. Most of us will not wipe down that table, certainly not with such passion, unless it's what we really want to do in life. We'll give it lip service, go through the perfunctory motions, and we'll hate ourselves in the morning, if not all day long. We do not as a rule take genuine pride in "achievements" that are unaligned with what we truly want(ed) to do and be. And we can't much help what we truly want to do and be.
More and more, science refutes the idea that we are blank slates at birth. More and more, science affirms that what we are, whatever we are, was largely present in the womb. We are tall or we are short, we are gay or we are straight, we are left-handed or right, we have dimples or not, blue eyes or brown. So too, we are moody or we are mellow. We are logical or emotional. Artistic or analytical. Dependable or erratic. It's all in there, in large measure. That is what I believe to be true.
I realize that a series of posts like this is bound to have overtones of elitism and intellectual snobbery (or at least the pretension to same). That is not my intent. But one thing I do know about myself is that I think for myself. Which is to say, I don't (knowingly) regurgitate pithy quotes or even whole arguments (as some do) that have been postulated by others, which I present to the world in the guise of "thought."** Further, I take almost nothing as a given, which can result in some pretty bizarre areas of inquiry (as those of you who've been with us a while can attest). I started this blog as an adjunct to the publication of SHAM, but I have maintained it all this time, largely, because I like to hear what people think. What people themselves think. And so if I ask you why blowing up Congress or having sex with roosters is wrong, I don't want you to quote from some law or one of the Commandments, or tell me "that's just how it is." I want to hear why you think it's wrong. My whole life, I've wanted to hear people talking as individuals, as selves. Not as reflections of what society (or Church; or the legal system; or Tony Robbins) made them. We can't help what we've internalized to this point in life. But we don't have to default to that body of core knowledge in approaching each new situation, and we certainly don't have to define ourselves by it.
So please, do me this favor: Don't call what you find on all those shelves in bookstores "self-actualization." Call it acculturation or selling out or whatever you want to call it. Just be clear on this: When you learn how to fit in, how to be better at what society wants you to be, how to make life go more "smoothly" and such, it is not self-help. It is the opposite. Because self-help does not actualize. It homogenizes.
This is likely the last post of this type that you will read on SHAMblog. In any case, our new format launches on March 1...otherwise known as the conclusion of my 60th year, all of which were, I swear, spent on this very planet. :)
* I am told that younger people don't really "date" anymore. Primarily they just fuck, see how they like it, and decide if they want to fuck that person again. Pardon my French. But I allow myself more leeway in footnotes.
** When I do use quotes, as in this series, they are more like mini-headlines, or what we in the magazine biz call "decks." Or I use them to be "catchy." In any case, they are always the result of the ensuing argument, not the impetus for it.
Monday, February 15, 2010
Saturday, February 13, 2010
(In honor of the holiday, a brief digression from our "sex and self-help" theme.)
Have you seen this one? Take a gander, then we'll talk.
"I'm here," he says, after the lightning bolt. You're here? BFD. Like your presence is gonna make a difference if lightning actually strikes? (Besides, if he were my guy, I'd be genuinely worried that his nose might serve as a lightning rod.* Jesus...) But that's not the point, of course. The point is that she's just such a helpless little fragile thing that she couldn't possibly survive the storm and its thunderclaps psychologically intact were it not for the presence of Her Rock.
Speaking of her rock, that's when he gives her the diamond. Part of Kay's "love's embrace" collection. At which point we get the tagline:
Surround her with the strength of your love.
("Motion sickness bags are located in your seat-back pocket, for your comfort during flight....")
And then, the piece de resistance, from her: "Don't let go. Ever." Of course, she says this only after getting the jewelry.
Sigh. I've concluded that I take these things way too seriously—I should just laugh it all off, or maybe groan it all off—but I can't help thinking that these ads reinforce our worst tendencies and stereotypes...and I wonder why gals in particular aren't livid. Do diamonds really mean that much to you?
* No, I've got no business talking about noses. But you don't see me doing TV commercials, do you?)
Friday, February 12, 2010
[Click here to read Part 1.]
To be clear: This is not an argument for navel contemplation or absent-minded-professorism. As is true in most of life, a balance must be struck. But I see few signs in today's written and spoken America of any striving for a nice balance between ideas and...well, anything else. I see only the anything else. In publishing, that anything else—again, if it's not about vampires—consists increasingly of simple-minded advice that purports to help buyers live better, richer lives: how to do this, how to do that, what to do next if the first how-to-do fails to deliver. It's a nonstop climate of functionalism feeding narcissism. I see people like Joe Vitale writing shamelessly about attracting money as if that's a life plan in and of itself: buy more, have more, flaunt more; then repeat. (Hence, vanity taxes.) I see issue after issue of Men's Health talking about learning how to rub her love-nub or, before that, how to master the conversational/dating techniques that supposedly will enable you to get close enough to have a shot at her love-nub. (Is love-nub-proximity really that hard to achieve in this, the era of the spontaneous hook-up?) Of course, towards that end, it helps if you have nice abs.
Is that what it's about? Is that all it's about?
But there's a larger point to be made here, a point that scratches at one of the supreme ironies of the SHAMsphere. You know, I often think about why self-help so rarely seems to "take," as noted last time. This is a question that comes up in almost every interview I do. Why don't more people assimilate the advice and outgrow their need for further self-help (instead of developing a dependency on self-help itself, which is too often the result)? After all, it's not as if people buy a book or attend a seminar, get their questions answered, and then next time around you have this massive influx of entirely new self-help consumers buying the books or attending the seminars. That's not what happens. As I pointed out in SHAM (and as our own research in Rodale's book division clearly suggested), the demographics of self-help indicate overwhelmingly that the same buyers are buying the same (or similar) materials over and over again, often from the very same guru(s). This is why, if you peruse Tony Robbins' discussion boards or Joe Vitale's blog, you see these breathless references from frequent posters to the previous event or the next one. It's a movable motivational feast, and it never ends.
I think I know why. At least in part.
The gurus like to tell you that they've done all the thinking for you; that they've taken the guesswork out of life and distilled it down to 12 Steps or 10 Keys or 7 Habits. Consider that for a moment: Are you an individual? A unique person with singular goals, needs and desires? Granted, we all want to be happy (or we say we do, which is another whole area that's best left to the shrinks). But what does that really mean, below the surface? What it means to you, I submit, is somewhat (if not very) different from what it means to me or your neighbor. Sure, most of us want a nice partner to go through life with...but what does that mean? Can we all agree on the meaning of "nice"? (Answer: No.) Can we even agree on the meaning of "partner"? (Emphatically no.) Do you want a fulfilling job? Terrific. What's fulfilling, to you? Hell, what's even a job, to you? How does your choice of job intersect with your choice of partner or your broader pursuit of happiness? Will you even know it when you find it?*
Those are questions self-help cannot answer—for you or anyone. Self-help is not written to answer such questions. It is written to sell to a broad audience, and so, not unlike a psychic doing a "cold reading," it must reduce life to a series of all-embracing bullet points and bland generalizations that seem to have personal relevance but in truth have wholly different implications for each and every reader. In all likelihood, we here on SHAMblog couldn't even agree on the precise meaning and application of even one of the habits in Covey's blockbuster best-seller. Now take that ambiguity and multiply it by seven, to include the rest of his habits—and then multiply that by the rest of the 6 billion people on earth. The permutations are infinite. (Indeed, to my mind, clear contradictions exist between several of Covey's habits, notably Nos. 1 and 5.) And yet this is what we American adults, all of whom today were raised on MTV and ostensibly suffer from varying degrees of attention-deficit disorder, have been conditioned to expect: We want it quick, easy, and accessible. Can't you just give me a pill, doc?
Here's another way of looking at it: The typical self-help product is formulated along the lines of a political speech that's conceived with the goal of engaging everyone and offending no one: You'd have to end up saying things that have virtually no specific meaning to anyone.
Now, there are, of course, some types of how-to advice that are useful, and this is where, for example, Men's Health must be given credit. We do know the exercises that will help you craft better abs. (Whether you can ever really look like that dude in my last post is another matter—and we don't really know what those better abs will "do for you," either. But we can't blame the advice for this.) Similarly, if you want to build a bird-house or change your own spark plugs, a carpentry or car-care magazine can walk you through the steps. There's a huge difference, however, between a spark plug and a cerebrum; between abs and emotions. To imply that the exercises that these books, magazines and seminars give you for your heads or hearts will work as predictably and effectively as the exercises they give you for your abs is a gross deception; I dare say it's a fraud. Because once you're working inside the human head and heart, you're faced with a maze of Butterfly Effects and unintended consequences and Id-driven, often unrecognized imperatives. Even when it comes to financial advice, which would seem to fall more in the "bird-cage" category, look at the people who devote their lives to analyzing money and the economy and the stock market and such: Look how often they get it wrong! It's not that easy, folks.
Self-help, for the most part, provides very few answers. It only begs further questions. Which is why those who succumb to its charm end up buying the next book, and the next book, and the next one after that.
NEXT TIME (thankfully, the finale): But there's hope!
* In that connection, I think about the lottery winners who later say they were happier beforehand, or who in some cases recount a disastrous downward spiral set in motion by their windfall.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
The unexamined life is not worth living.
The quote above has been used about a zillion times in connection with making just about every point that can be made, so I apologize if some of you think I'm going to a too-familiar well. But, I submit, never has the quote been more relevant.
I'm sitting in a doctor's office the other day, waiting the obligatory 40 minutes for him to spare a few seconds for me, and I pick up a copy of Men's Health magazine. As many of you know, I was once employed by the Men's Health organization, at least indirectly, as managing editor of Rodale's books division for men. Our content was largely derivative of the magazine (which is largely derivative of itself, as that recent flap over recycled Men's Health cover lines suggested. This goes to a point that I make early in SHAM, which is that self-help buyers are essentially, if not pointedly, being sold the exact same content over and over again. And you wonder: Since 80 percent of Men's Health's paid circulation of 1.8 million consists of subscribers, who presumably get and read the magazine each month, why doesn't the advice "take"? If the help is really helping, why do they need to read it month after month? But I digress).
Anyway, I'm reading the front matter—which, counterintuitively, consists of the material in the front of the magazine—and I'm growing progressively more dispirited at the intellectual torpor of what I'm reading. Then I come to an advice column by the so-called "Girl Next Door," Carolyn Kylstra. And after about 77 seconds of love-nubs, clever euphemisms for female masturbation ("Jilling off"?) and cutesy pet names for dildos and the like, I could take it no more. I walked into my doctor's office, screamed at him for leaving me waiting unattended so long, forced his head into a sink and drowned him in a vat of spoiled H1N1 vaccine...
To be clear, before we go any further, this isn't just some peevish rant against my ex-employer, Men's Health—which, make no mistake, is hardly the worst offender. Many of the guys I used to work with are still there, and aside from being funny—which is obvious in the magazine—they're smart and introspective and thoughtful—which is far less obvious in the magazine. And that's the point: They don't seem to think their audience is smart and introspective and thoughtful. Or maybe a better way of putting it is that they don't seem to think their audience is interested in being smart or introspective or thoughtful. The saddest part is, they're probably right. Smart/introspective/thoughtful doesn't sell magazines. I often wonder if it sells anything.
A bit of personal history here. In my early years as a writer, I did a number of pieces for a magazine called Harper's (not the "bazaar" one). This was a calculated, deeply meaningful act on my part. I'd always greatly admired the magazine, so when it came time to attempt to launch a writing career at age 31, it was only natural that I'd send that first piece—a memoir of my days as a white salesman in Harlem—to Harper's. I was lucky enough that Lewis Lapham (now with his own gig after more than three decades at the helm) liked it, bought it, ran it.* And when that January 1982 issue arrived containing my first published story, I greeted it with all the enthusiasm of the proverbial kid-on-Christmas-morn—eager to see my byline, yes, but every bit as eager to see what other ideas my story would be surrounded with: the tank in which I swam, as it were. You see, what I most remember about my infatuation with Harper's was that almost no subject was treated in a pat, formulaic manner. There were no givens, no authorized, "house" points-of-view; nothing was taken for granted. Nor was there any advice, per se (except perhaps whatever clarity one might achieve by reading between the lines of someone's essay and finding personal relevance in it, as one might also do in reading good poetry). Harper's, then, was truly and purely a journal of ideas.** If you could sustain a complex argument over the course of the several thousand words they'd give you to make your case (or hang yourself)—if you could meet that bar—then they'd publish you, no matter who you were or what you were arguing. In theory they'd let you do a piece about "why serial killers are good for society," if you could make the argument elegantly and do so without tripping over your own logic. It was all about the argument and one's skill in making it. Sometimes the stories didn't even have a clear intellectual resolution; their sole raison-d'etre was to make you think something through, or merely follow along as the author went through his or her paces, thinking it through. Counterintuitively, once again, those of us in the industry call these "think pieces." And there is almost no market for them today.
Really, there's almost nothing in the culture that reinforces intellectual meditation (not New Age meditation!) for its own sake. Books today will not succeed unless they have as a central character a vampire or a wizard, ideally both. In fact, I hereby give you today's ideal book-title concept:
The Vampire-Ate-My-Wizard Diet—Lose Those Ugly Love Handles in 2 Weeks! (Plus, Free Bonus Sex Tape: 'I Slept with Paris'...in 3D!)Think of the movies you've seen lately: Was there anything that didn't hew to some established commercial formula? Anything that struck you as having been designed chiefly to make you think about life? (I'm not talking about some Sundance winner that somehow exploded out beyond its niche and into the general population; I'm referring to films made by major studios for wide release.) Television, of course, celebrates stupidity. Former FCC czar Newton Minow had already dismissed TV as a "vast wasteland" in 1961, long before he could've imagined that there would one day be a Jersey Shore. Even the typical Sunday political show is less about thinking or true intellectual engagement than about posturing and defending one's political turf—less a true debate than a verbal volleyball match put on for the amusement of the partisans in the audience.
I can hear you already: "Steve, you're looking for ideas in all the wrong places. If you want high-level thought, you don't go to magazines like Men's Health." I have two levels of response to that.
Level 1: Men don't think? By the way, it's even worse for women. Go to the "women's interest" section of your local bookstore and take a gander at what's there. If I were a woman I'd be much more outraged about that than about whether they run right-to-life ads on the Super Bowl.Doesn't anyone give a damn about anything but love-nubs (and how to rub 'em) anymore?
Level 2: So where are the 1.8 million-circulation magazines for people who think? As I write this, the circulation of Harper's is around 200,000—about what it was in 1860. At various points in its life cycle, Harper's has been kept alive only through the largess of a philanthropic organization. On its own, it would've sunk below the water line.
NEXT TIME: Why this nonsense is actually counterproductive in the pursuit of genuine self-help.
[Click here to read Part 2 of series.]
* Technically, Lapham "went on hiatus" for a while after a spat with management, so it was interim editor Michael Kinsley who ran it.
** It must also be said that somewhere during Dubya's presidency, Harper's itself became a more intellectualized form of MSNBC, stumping for Leftist causes and finding every opportunity to throw oh-so-witty barbs at Bush. That was a shame. Intellect, in and of itself, shouldn't have a political agenda.
Monday, February 08, 2010
Flipping the dials this past Saturday I stumbled upon FOX's lengthy infomercial for Sarah Palin, who was giving her much-ballyhooed keynote address to the Tea Party Convention. So far as I could tell, FOX covered the speech (which is to say, showed it) live and in its entirety. I could be wrong, and if I am I'll happily stand corrected, but I don't recall FOX giving that kind of air time—even to a person who held an actual elective office—since I-don't-know-when (leaving aside formal wall-to-wall events like Obama's State of the Union gig). To my mind, any remaining questions about whether FOX is a serious "news organization" were answered Saturday night. 'Twould appear the network regards Job 1 as doing whatever it can to fuel Palin's presidential ambitions. Sean "DMoTV" Hannity must be especially thrilled; his body language around Palin is such that I bet he has to change his shorts after interviewing her each time.
I also have to laugh: So FOX is America's "most watched" and "most trusted" cable network, eh? It wins the ratings wars? Folks, so does The Bachelor. Absent a context, ratings mean nothing. The reason FOX wins the ratings wars is that there's no clear counterpart on the Left; network support for Obama and the Dems is much more subtle and diffuse, spread across all three major networks and any number of other lesser players, like MSNBC. But if you want right-wing agenda, unadulterated and unapologetic—if you want to hear a worldview that you "trust"—you go to FOX.
However, none of this is my reason for writing today, which is as follows: Palin at one point said something like, "America needs to get back to being a God-fearing nation" that relies on "divine intervention" to carry the day. To which I would reply, God, if you're really up there, please intervene NOW and prevent this ignorant/sanctimonious*/dangerous woman from gaining further political traction.
* Also, somebody find Palin and tell her what sanctimonious means.
Sunday, February 07, 2010
I was going to stand pat with my post in honor of the Super Bowl, but I just couldn't pass this up. I grant you, anecdotal evidence isn't much evidence at all—and we must always be wary of "testimony" from family members with an ax to grind—but if this little set of childhood memories is even halfway true, it's one helluva comment on "Mr. Self-Esteem" and the cofounder of the Chicken Soup series, old Smilin' Jack Canfield. The first paragraph alone is worth the price of admission. And when you consider that one of the group's signature songs is called "I Hate Me" (!)...what more is there to say?
What a riot.
Friday, February 05, 2010
As any sports addict will tell you, it's impossible to appreciate an event like the Super Bowl without a keen understanding of the attitudinal factors that control every play, starting with the coin toss. Since casual fans may be thrown by the nonstop, oft-contradictory narration from the broadcast booth—and thus may feel left out at gatherings in honor of this Sunday's storied Colts/Saints match-up—I hereby provide a helpful primer in football's so-called "mental game."
Realize first that an athlete competing at the Super Bowl level is well versed in the potent psychodynamics of success. He knows there's no I in team—yet can personally carry his teammates on his back when circumstances call for it. This athlete understands the fine line between unshakable confidence and overconfidence. He stays within himself while knowing how to stretch, having mastered the art of pacing himself in an environment in which he's expected to give 110 percent at all times...and he still has another gear left if he needs it! Such a competitor is fiery but calm, patient but eager. He enters competition with a clear head as well as intense concentration, and though he recognizes that winning is everything, not for one second does he worry about losing. (Some New Orleans players have voiced the belief that a Super Bowl ring is their destiny, as karmic restitution for Hurricane Katrina. These players do not address the question of why karma didn't feel obliged to make restitution to the city and the Saints back in 2005, or in any of the seasons since.)
The Super Bowl being the Super Bowl, fans can rest assured that the Saints and Colts will be in the zone, not looking ahead to next week. Certainly in this one game, players will leave it all on the field. (NOTE: Specially trained crews will descend upon Sun Life stadium early Monday morning to pick It all up again; as per the terms of the league's collective-bargaining agreement, It is then mailed back to players during the off-season for reuse next year.) From the moment the athletes race onto the gridiron, they're out to make a statement—although some teams prefer to let an opponent make its statement first, so they can answer with authority.
By rule, every Super Bowl must include at least one momentum shift. Befitting its name, this is an epochal development wherein a team that seemed to have matters well in hand suddenly turns the ball over at an inopportune moment, thereby "allowing the other team back in," to quote the NFL rulebook. (The precise mechanism whereby momentum spreads from player to player or team to team, thus giving athletes domain over all variables known and unknown, remains controversial. CDC researchers think it's a filovirus.) That said, momentum shifts are not always decisive. Notably they can be undone by a loss of poise. Because such mistakes are unforgivable at this point in the season, top NFL brass are said to be considering whether a loss of poise should be penalized with a loss of down.
If the game is close and circumstances afford one team a final chance to seize its destiny, the conditions then exist for another time-honored competitive phenomenon: the gut check. This is where players reach deep inside themselves to find out what they're made of (and, while they're in there, look for that other gear). In keeping with a recent trend involving the commercial marketing of all discrete game situations—"This kickoff brought to you by..."—Super Bowl XLIV's gut check reportedly will be sponsored by a public-service announcement for colorectal screening. Alert viewers will recall that some years ago Pepto-Bismol paid a tidy sum for the naming rights to the phrase "fire in the belly."
Favored teams* that find themselves unexpectedly behind as the clock winds down are allowed to turn as a last recourse to a Player Who Knows How to Win. It's theorized that these elite players emit waves of invisible energy that are capable of causing fumbles and errant passes—and can even summon sudden gusts of wind that deflect field goals. Such a player will be asked to communicate his proprietary know-how to the rest of the team. This ritual takes place at a sideline meeting, where the player imbues his teammates with the will to win by screaming inspirational totems like "just win, baby!" or "now let's go out and kill the moth&*!*$%$&%*ers!"
Important caveat: A Player Who Knows How to Win must never exercise that gift prematurely. He may not, for example, inspire his teammates to score four touchdowns in the opening quarter, thereby putting the game safely out of reach. Rather, he must bide his time while awaiting the perfect moment to help his team snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The delicacy of this balancing act is such that a player sometimes waits too long, rendering his team vulnerable to opponents who have no quit in them.
Enjoy the game. (Helpful hint: Turn the freakin' sound off.)
* latest line, Colts by 4.
Thursday, February 04, 2010
Tuesday, February 02, 2010
Monday, February 01, 2010
I see stories like this one increasingly often, and I am increasingly troubled by them. What's the upshot here? That it's inherently wrong to drink, or get naked, or both? That as long as no photos exist of someone drinking or being naked, we can rest assured that the person never does either? Clearly the answer to both questions is a resounding NO. So once again, this is part of a pervasive attempt to keep up the appearance of a truth that is not, in fact, true; an attempt to monitor people's private lives and micromanage their personal "decorum," if you will. The hypocrisy—the hubris—is breathtaking and unfathomable.
In this challenging economy of ours, your fellow Americans are being penalized or even losing jobs because someone unearths a photo of them in a drunk or sexually compromising position; or maybe your fellow Americans uploaded the photos themselves, on their Facebook pages or personal sites. It really doesn't matter to me. (Presumably the HR personnel making these inspired punitive decisions don't drink or have sex.) Some might say—as I'm sure my father would, were he alive—"Well then, don't act like a jerk around other people. Keep your wits about you and never let yourself get photographed in such circumstances." That's not the point. I don't understand how we can be formally punished for the images and impressions we toss out into the world, especially when what those images are saying in most cases is nothing more controversial than (1) I enjoy alcohol and/or (2) I enjoy sex. How many Americans do you personally know who fail to fall into one or both categories?
As it happens, my wife, with whom I've been debating this topic all day, is chirping up in the background, "If it takes place in a teaching environment, it sets a bad example. It's a bad message." Let me get this straight: The message we want to sell to our kids is that adults don't party? Spare me, please.
I don't understand what's happening here, or why we tolerate it.
NOTE: By the way, I don't drink, and I don't generally like being in environments where other people are drinking. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the sex part.