Saturday, May 13, 2017

Bad medicine...AKA the one that got away?

So many good books coming out now about the failures of modern healthcare, which the authors blame on the corrupting influence of the profit motive, inefficiencies built into the ACA and other concerns that should really be extraneous to quality medicine. But what people don't realize is that even when the healthcare system is hitting on all cylinders, it still isn't about delivering optimal healthcare. That's because in too many cases we still don't know what works and why; we deliver healthcare "solutions" based on bad science. 

Bottom line, America is awash in placebo medicine. Which naturally makes me think there ought to be a market for my moribund project, Placebo. Such a shame.

Friday, May 05, 2017

I'm OK...You're the Antichrist*

So let's review. (It's been a while, after all.) Back in 2005, when the world was young and unspoiled and we all mostly agreed on the nature of reality, I wrote a book called SHAM in which I deconstructed the self-help/human-potential movement. Although reviews were generally quite kind, if I was criticized for anything it was for an overreach in my perception of the movement's wider impact on society-at-large. In the book I made some dire forecasts about the possible long-term effects of motivational themes that were then taking shape.

Today, as I look at Donald Trump's Washington and our fractured society, it's hard not to think I underestimated the potential damage.

The excesses I critiqued chiefly had to do with America's growing faith in the decisiveness of mental attitude—that is, the belief in belief itself as an inherently transformative force. During the 1990s that most queasy-making of buzzwords, empowerment, must've been uttered on Oprah's show alone a few thousand times a day. By the turn of the millennium the trope was being endlessly reinforced in classrooms, locker rooms, and corporate meeting rooms, as well as in films and TV series. The power of positive thinking is not new, of course, but the gurus of personal empowerment took it to a new level, insisting on a straight-line relationship between attitude and aptitude. Today there is arguably no more revered a cultural incantation than the simple mnemonic rhyme, “Believe it, achieve it.” Many of us unthinkingly accept mere avowals of success as failsafe IOUs for success itself.

Hence, Donald Trump. There can be no question that Trump was propelled to the Oval Office in part by the notion that confidence = competency, spunk = skill.

This is not overreach, folks. It is an accurate taking of the American pulse.


Even now, as the president abandons plank after plank of the platform that got him elected, his disciples continue to cling to their belief; most say they'd vote for him again. Because, you see, empowerment isn't really about what anyone does. It's about having the stones to keep guaranteeing that you will do in the end. Indeed, the empowered mindset seems to value the ability to weather recurring failure more than it values the wherewithal to actually succeed. So in Trump's case, for all the walk-backs and outright flops of his first 100 days, he continues to speak (and tweet) in that same muscular argot, without qualifications or apologies. He projects that same bulletproof persona. To millions of rapt disciples, that's all that matters.

But wait, you ask, can't his followers see with their own eyes that the emperor has no clothes?

No, they cannot. Their eyes do not perceive the world the way the rest of us do. That may be partially because in 2007 the empowerment malignancy metastasized into something far worse—with the advent of The Secret. The perverse genius of the blockbuster book/DVD parlay was its ability to mainstream the delusional outlooks that once were identified with schizophrenia and other forms of genuine psychological pathology. The beneficent universe was at your beck and call, just waiting for you to get in touch and communicate your wants with conviction. (And here again, for this to work you had to believe and believe and BELIEVE....self-doubters need not apply.) This was no fringe movement, by the way. Reinvention-minded Boomers in particular embraced The Secret in in droves. The book sold 20 million copies and the DVD millions more. The concept was romanced by Oprah, Larry King and other media heavyweights.
Shameless narcissism was not only destigmatized but encouraged. New Age mainstays like Deepak Chopra also weighed in with the contention that nothing existed apart from our consciousness of it. Between The Secret and the likes of Deepak, we arrived at the concept of “designer reality”:
Suddenly there was no longer a consensus universal truth. Your world was whatever you believed it to be
And once again this pseudo-thinking received ambient reinforcement that extended its reach well beyond direct consumers of self-help products. Morning TV hosts exhorted America's youth to “never give up your dreams!,” to reject the reality checks offered up by those who point out that we can't all be president or BeyoncĂ©.

Thus was also laid, inadvertently, the groundwork for “fake news.” 


(I repeat...an accurate taking of the American pulse.) 

Post-Secret, information that challenged one's worldview was by definition bogus, invalid. Millions of people afflicted with a fatal case of confirmation bias blithely cherry-picked facts (or pseudo-facts) that supported their preconceived notions, while ignoring anything that might cause them to call their beliefs into question. Among other things, I submit, this currency helps explain the seemingly bizarre manner in which Trump partisans will embrace claims (inaugural attendance, millions of undocumented voters) for which no one can find verification. They did not see the empty spaces on the mall the same way you or I did. They make allowances; they eat up the rationalizations advanced by Trump and Sean Spicer. They continue to rationalize away the man's foibles in order to justify their ongoing confidence in his confidence; to do otherwise would be to concede that their designer reality is flawed, that their own confidence—in him—was misplaced. And that's simply untenable.

At the same time we are at our core a tribal species, so we forge alliances with others who see the world as we do. In this brave new schema there is no obligation to respect those who differ with you because, after all, your view of reality is reality. Dissenters are simply wrong. And while Trump may be the most conspicuous example, the GOP hardly owns the franchise on such irrationality. Think of all of the contemporary issues where there's zero give on either side. Think of mass incarceration, where the Left sees only systemic racism and the Right sees only an alibi for thuggery. Think of the emotional polarity of sanctuary cities or funding for Planned Parenthood. Think of the mood on today's college campuses. It follows that when another tribe opposes you on issues with strong moral overtones, that tribe is not merely mistaken, but something closer to evil. In this secular battle for the American soul, compromise and conciliation become dirty words. We inhabit a binary society wherein those who belong to opposing tribes aren't mere political opponents; they're apostates in a holy war, as it were.

One only hopes we can turn things back around before the crucifixions begin. 
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* If you don't get the play on the iconic self-help title, you probably have no business reading this blog. Though I do love having you here...

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Pride is Prejudice...finally in print.

Been trying to get these thoughts published in some form for the longest time...literally since Obama was campaigning for the presidency. Even my usual editors were disinclined to touch the piece, given that it's both politically incorrect and very much out of tune with the tenor of the times. But if anything, the piece is more relevant than ever today, as never before (in my lifetime) have we been been so unapologetically focused on identity politics, groupthink and the like (which is, of course, the implicit target of the piece).

The editors cut one line: "Practically and logically speaking, what is the difference between your pointing to the number of blacks in the NBA and my pointing to the number of blacks in prison?" At first I was sad to see it go, but in retrospect it only muddies the waters...and would be seen by some as so inflammatory that it overshadows the rest of the essay. My editor said the point is better made obliquely, and I now agree. 

Curious to hear what anyone thinks. I'm obviously way behind these days, as this piece ran in USAToday on April 1, but the times have been chaotic...in a mostly good way, however. 

I have some more interesting stuff upcoming soon, FWIW.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Tweet heat.

The other day a little thing happened that I found big-ly significant. It involved Chris Cuomo, whose work for CNN I much admire (in contrast to the tendentious work of most of Cuomo's high-profile peers). He tweeted a reply to a nasty critic that I found concerning, because it sounded as if Chris were daring the guy to man up and "come for" him. I immediately tweeted back, reminding Chris that there are wackos out there who might take him at his word—and I added that unlike certain other careless tweeters of note, he lacks Secret Service protection. Although Chris remained his unflappable self, a number of his followers jumped on me, accusing me of being the wacko and of coyly threatening Chris. One guy even emailed me from an anonymous account, warning that he'd saved my tweet and would be "watching how you conduct yourself going forward." Thankfully Chris soon came to my defense, calling off his hounds, and the onslaught stopped.

To me this minor dust-up shows how how easily "triggered" we are in our tribalism. How paranoid in our polarity.

Everything is personal. There is no other side. An opposing idea is by is nature an ad hominem affront. A threat. Even if, as in the case at hand, you're trying to look out for someone else, people will sniff out a nuance or an overtone to be disturbed about.

I experienced this phenomenon on a daily basis throughout the closing months of Campaign 2016, when my tweets criticizing people in media for unfairly attacking Trump invited a torrent of rabid condemnation from those who assumed I was a mindless Trumper. In the beginning I took pains to remind people that attacking journalists who unethically attacked Trump is not the same as supporting Trump. I did not, I was clear, support Donald Trump. I just didn't want him savaged by an obviously partisan media. But I just couldn't seem to get through to the #WithHer crowd. After a while I stopped even trying to explain myself.

People...if we don't start looking to find points of agreement rather than points to ridicule (or worse), we are going to unravel as a society. The social contract will be no more. We're getting pretty damned close as it is.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Bonus enlightenment. Outtakes from my piece on James Ray.

UPDATE, Jan. 18... An email exchange this morning reminded me of one of the killing paradoxes of self-help Gurodom. Gurus from the exalted Tony Robbins on down to the exiled James Ray will claim wonders for their respective psychic regimens, citing client breakthroughs ranging from simply "getting unstuck" to wholesale personal transformations. And yet at the same time, these same gurus seldom talk about—and/or disclaim responsibility for—any adverse psychological reactions to their spiels. 

But consider, please: Wouldn't a thought system powerful enough to yield the psychic rebirths these guys promise also carry with it potentially devastating side effects, at least for some people? (As is also true of our most potent mental-health drugs.) Side effects like, say, a Colleen Conaway jumping to her death at a James Ray seminar? It's probably a good thing that so many of these programs don't work, that they're little more than time-wasting intellectual masturbation. Because the annals of transformational self-help already include enough stories of breakdowns and other forms of suddenly appearing dysfunction, up to and including suicides (aside from Conaway's). Thankfully most of the breakdowns were temporary. The suicides, alas, were permanent.

The balance of this post appeared originally on December 1, 2016.


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Today Slate features my essay on James "Death" Ray* and CNN's Ray biopic Enlighten Us, which will now premiere Saturday, Dec. 3, as per the network. What follows is what I'd intended as a postscript to the piece. I can see why it was cut: Note to young writers, when you label something a postscript on a story that's already running long, it's your signal to your editor, "Cut this self-indulgent crap." I still think it makes interesting points, and the Bob Proctor connection is fun. Read the Slate piece first as a refresher course, then read this and let me know what you think. Also, please let me know if you "get" the allusion in the piece's inside title. My editor was dubious.
 
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Proctor and Ray: Two peas in a fraud.

It bears noting that Ray's best-selling book, Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life you Want, gave prominent play to a blurb from fellow Secret alum and self-described “metaphysician” Bob Proctor. Proctor is an eye-opening case study in his own right. After the economy tanked in 2008—thus signifying that the Universe had rebuffed a lot of those acquisitive vibes put out by Secret faithful—Proctor began offering his "11 Forgotten laws" download for the low, low price of $97. These were a set of pointers that Secret creator Rhonda Byrne had somehow overlooked...and it was a damned shame, too, because they just happened to contain the very knowledge without which the law of attraction remains stuck in neutral! That's what had gone wrong for all those poor Americans who lost their homes, cars, and credit ratings just two years after The Secret broke. But we digress.

In his fulsome blurb, Proctor says of Ray's book, “Harmonic Wealth is a classic. James Arthur Ray did not just write a book, he went out into the world and made it happen...”

It's a quote that not only drips with dark irony, given some of what Ray “made happen,” but that also reveals more than Proctor intended.

James Arthur Ray is Patient Zero in the cynicism, the narcissism, the utter lack of shame and responsibility at the heart [sic] of modern self-help and its “empowering” liturgy. He sold a philosophy in which selfishness masqueraded as empowerment—and, you see, the empowered person does not amicably abide detours along the path to his rightful place in the order of things. So it was with Ray himself. When Colleen Conaway fell from that balcony in San Diego, Ray could not abide a detour in his program. He could not abide consequences. Same with the sweat lodge. And now, in his legal gambit, he seeks to retrospectively undo the detour of Sedona and the 20 months he spent behind bars. For prison was not Ray's rightful destiny. His rightful destiny was Oprah and CNN specials and the red carpet that he walked at the Tribeca premiere of his film. As though he were Sly or Spielberg.

And the staggering magnitude of the hypocrisy. As one example, for all of Ray's rants about the power of the human spirit and celestial “vibes,” detectives investigating the Sedona episode found in his hotel room a suitcase full of performance-enhancing drugs including steroids, HGH and anti-aging potions. So if his customers needed only their warrior wills, Ray apparently needed a trove of pills. He sent his hopeful dupes out into the desert without food and water and insisted that they learn to harness the power of the mind; meanwhile, he went back to his suite and harnessed the power of something quite different.

Despite self-help's bubbly, non-serious public image, there is an ugliness at its core; danger lurks. In too many cases (especially among "no limits"/Empowerment types) it is a “belief system” constructed on notions that are antithetical to everything we teach our kids. It is a realm where winning is indeed the only thing, and how you play the game matters only insofar as its efficacy at animating that victory. What's more, the people in your orbit are mere props in this quest. They're expendable.

And as Proctor tells us, no one in self-help has done a better job of modeling this behavior than the master, James Arthur Ray himself. He is the proof of his curdled pudding.
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* as the inimitable Salty Droid called him.