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—or even disclaim responsibility for—any adverse psychological reactions to their spiels. But think about it. Wouldn't a thought system powerful enough to create the transformations these guys promise also carry with it potentially devastating psychic side effects, at least for some people? (As is also true of our most potent mental-health drugs.) Side effects like, say, Colleen Conaway jumping to her death at that 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.


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.

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.

* as the inimitable Salty Droid called him.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The gift of perspective: the sequel.

The second Sunday of 2017 strikes me as the perfect day for wading even more deeply into the waters of moral controversy than in my last post. So let me lay this one on you:

Pets and children do not understand the concept of "a necessary evil" or "for your own good." Therefore, from the vantage point of the pet or child, getting a vaccination or a nail trim may well be the same as, say, being sodomized with a pencil. We are the only ones in the scenario who are confident in the propriety of one act vs. the other. If you've ever seen a large recalcitrant dog getting its nails trimmed with a dremel, you know the phenomenon of which I speak. It is traumatizing for both the animal and the (uninitiated) observer; the dog will howl and bark and strain against any confinement as might another dog being frankly tortured (except in the case of a nail trim the animal has no recourse; if it's awake for the procedure, it's usually muzzled and held or tied down). Veterinary pros grow inured to the histrionics and shrug them off...just as I suppose serial pedophiles get used to the whimpers and/or screams of their young victims.

The same applies in the case of the severely vaccination-phobic child who's dragged kicking and screaming into the pediatrician's office.
This would be a good place to reiterate that we are talking from the point of view of the pet or child only. In no way does this post even begin to imply that those of us on the outside should regard pedophilia or torture as no more sinister than nail trimming or vaccinating. I'm speaking only of how your pet or child likely interprets those experiences.
So no, I am not proposing some bizarre false equivalence between pet groomers and/or pediatricians and pedophiles. I am saying that to the pet or child, the abuse is the same: Pain and terror are being inflicted while the people they trust most in life, Mommy and/or Daddy, are standing by and letting it happen. And it doesn't matter that the vet or pediatrician is speaking in consoling tones. Child molesters often do that too.

Think about it. And think about the fact that we often say that young victims of pedophiles are scarred for life. Just think about it. As always, that's all I ask here.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

For Christmas: the gift of perspective. On glass houses.

I posted a shorter version of this item some years back, when SHAMblog was still very much "a thing," and the reception was not warm. Apart from criticism in the comment section here, I received wide-eyed emails (now there's a visual) from the colleagues in writing and editing I then had. People accused me of moral relativism, which I found odd and ironic (and telling, since that is exactly the phenomenon I'm targeting in this post: the moral certitude so many of us feel in acting holier-than-thou, in launching stones from our own glass houses). I ask you to read this and think about how it applies in your own life. We can argue about the danger of the implications of this school of thought...but...dangerous or not, I don't think I'm wrong.
A vignette. I know any number of people who drive fast on the highway. (Sounds vaguely Rain Man-esque, no?) These people appear to have an inner clock about how fast is "just right," and they expect to be able to drive at that speed without being impeded by motorists cruising at, say, the speed limit. Regardless of traffic conditions. Take my wife, for example. (Please.) Her comfort zone is somewhere between 75 and 80. So she'll come up on a car doing 68 in the left lane and begin to display annoyance. She'll grumble through the windshield at the woman in front of us: "Why are you in the left lane? If you're going to go that speed, move over, lady!" So eventually "the lady" moves over, and my wife proceeds along at 78. Then, a few minutes later, someone comes up on my wife's tail, and now she's annoyed about that. This time she's talking into the rear-view mirror: "What, 80 isn't fast enough for you, buddy? Get off my tail." Sometimes, at her passive-aggressive best, she'll slow down (or even briefly brake-check) her tailgater. One time she slowed down so much that we ended up getting passed on the right by a motorist she'd coaxed out of the left lane moments earlier.

With that in mind, here's a funny postscript that goes back some years. My father was a tailgater, too. One time we were zooming along in the left lane on Brooklyn's notorious Belt Parkway until we found our progress blocked by an old Dodge ambling along at 50 or so. Dad gave the guy his brights a few times then passed him on the right and, noticing a SLOWER TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT sign ahead, honked his horn to get the Dodge driver's attention, pointed to the sign and yelled its instructions out the window. We then zoomed past him. A mile or so farther on, traffic crawled to a halt due to construction. Suddenly the Dodge was again alongside us. Now it was his turn to honk. He got my father's attention, pointed to a different sign on the highway shoulder and yelled its instructions: SPEED LIMIT, 55. I thought that was damned clever, though Dad did not concur
There's a point here, and it's not just about driving. 
If there’s a single human trait that bemuses and at times enrages me more than any other, it is the tendency to rationalize and excuse whatever degree of larceny or sinfulness we find in our own hearts, while pointing an accusing finger at someone else whose own degree of larceny or sinfulness extends a hair beyond our own, or merely differs from our own. We get comfortable with our personal foibles, or the degree of our personal foibles, despite being irate over the foibles of our neighbors. Thus people who break the law by driving 78 grow apoplectic over people who break the law by driving 83. But it hardly ends there.

The woman who's had an abortion will have all kinds of nasty things to say about another woman she knows who's had two abortions. Or the woman who has two children, then has an abortion next time around for matters of convenience, demands justice after a gang member accidentally kills one of her first two kids in a drive-by shooting.

The guy who overspends on an Audi costing $56,000 gets pissy about his neighbor's $98,000 Benz.  

The guy who enjoys farting around his girlfriend when he knows that she hates it gets irate over the guy who smacks his girlfriend now and then. 

The man who cheats on his taxes scorns the man who cheats on his wife. 

The woman who engages in an adulterous affair with a married man scorns the same married man who then cheats on her with someone else.

The president who sends troops off to die in some foreign land is "doing his job"…but vilifies the Mafia don who took matters into his own hands during a local turf war.

The boss who treats all of his employees in dehumanizing (but legal) fashion shakes his head and grows indignant reading the story of the (jovial, generally good-guy) boss who groped some of his female employees.

The bar bully who likes to pick on the weak thinks the Jerry Sanduskys of the world should all be shot. 

The black guy who hates white guys scorns the white guy who hates black guys. 

The man who hunts deer for sport condemns the man who hunts humans for sport. (Oh, that's not the same thing at all? Bill Maher, among others, would disagree.) 

The venal corporate executive who sacks his company feels no qualms about prosecuting the “young punk” who broke into his house to steal a stereo. 

The Pope who kept silent about the Nazi outrage during World War II now tells millions of Catholics how they need to take a stand against evil when they encounter it.

The U.S. politician who deplores the killing of innocents in Sandy Hook favors greater trade relations with nations that use children as slave labor in dangerous working conditions.

Really, who decides what’s worse than what? Is it worse to rape a woman—or shoot ten bison grazing peacefully in a field? To rob a bank? Or set fire to a puppy? Is it worse to tell a lie that you think is small (because you never see the end-term consequences that your lie sets in motion, which turn out to be catastrophic) or to kill one person without whom the world would be better off anyway (though the world may not know it at the time you kill him)? There is no way to know the answer to such questions. Certainly not here on earth. 

A man cheats on his wife, that’s immoral. A woman makes a man feel small every day of his life, treats him like a piece of furniture with a checkbook—and that’s "just marriage"? 

We also tend to discount sins of omission. The rich woman who wears a $2500 designer gown to a social event where she will be greeted like royalty has probably killed people in doing so—she just doesn’t know it. She could’ve worn a $200 gown and donated the rest to prevent African children from starving. Is what she did—wearing a pretty gown to a social event—better or worse than the crime of the impoverished inner-city husband who ends up beating an elderly woman for her purse, so that his pregnant wife can eat?

And as I've asked before—also inviting condemnation—is what Charlie Manson did worse than what the boys at Enron or Goldman did? Tell me why.

I've tagged this "hypocrisy," but that's not the deepest explanation for what's going on here. We label it hypocrisy only when the sins are analogous—when, say, you point fingers at someone else who got caught doing the same thing you’ve been doing in secret. But we somehow manage to avoid seeing the parallels between the things we do and the different things others do. We see it as apples-and-oranges, when in fact it's apples-and-apples at the core (ahem). We excuse the code by which we live, the Faustian bargains we make, while excoriating others for their codes and compromises. In truth, all sins are analogous and to some degree created equal. We each have degrees of sin we can live with, within ourselves. We each have our own mostly hard-wired capacity to avoid sinning, or certain types of sinning. This is especially the case if one views life through a deterministic lens, as I do. 

The first time I posted something like this, one of my critics accused me of doing the devil's handiwork...I was attempting to undermine the (high) standards by which we all should live (which of course just happened to coincide with my critic's own high standards). I prefer to see this as a call for understanding. Take a second look at the people you've been judging. Give a bit more thought to the traits you find so "wrong" in others. Then take another look at your own glass house. That's all I ask.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

She just said No. A case study

Received an email the other day from Laurel VanWilligen, who said she'd just finished SHAM and had a few thoughts to share. Following (eventually) are Ms. VanWilligen's remarks in the form of a guest column (published with her consent, of course). I applaud her for her honestyespecially in that she comes from a medical background. The column focuses on addiction/recovery, a theme we haven't touched on in a long, long time. Some of you may recall that my thoughts on AA were a large part of the impetus for my book, and certainly formed a topic of considerable controversy in the dozens of radio call-in shows I did when SHAM was first released. That may have been a decade ago but addiction is timely again, as we know, (no) thanks to the heroin epidemic now blighting not only America's cities, but our suburbs as well; this became clear during the presidential campaign. Speaking of which, I have taken down my prior post, "Deplorable. Irredeemable. Maybe so." Apologies to those who graced the blog with their thoughtful comments, but it's time for the healing to begin. And now on to our guest blogger:
As far as addiction, I can attest to the weird power of "just say(ing) no," even though I'm no Nancy Reagan fan. I was addicted in one form or another for 40 years...never particularly intrusive in my work life. I functioned at a high level (as an ER physician) for most of those years, until I retired 10 years ago. I would say sleep deprivation had as much negative effect on me as any particular drug, but that's a different book.

Anyway, one day a couple of months ago I woke up and said to myself, "I don't want to be an addict anymore." And that was it. Haven't really had an urge since. 

I can say unequivocally that 12 steps and "admitting a higher power" would not work for me. I am an atheisthave been one since the age of 25and foresee no change in the future. So a higher power was not going to help me.

Further, if magnetic therapy works, wouldn't you expect people coming out of MRI scanners to be cured of all kinds of things? Or at the very least, after all those fields had been momentarily aligned, to be "reset"? 

I believe my journey shows the disease "burning itself out," as you spoke of in your book. I seemed to need to get to that point before I could just stop. And I honestly don't believe any amount of bullying or 12-step intensity could have done it before that time. I'm not sure I would have believed it could work that way if I hadn't lived it... 

Anyway, thanks for the book and the clear thinking. 

ED. NOTE: Be interested to hear from some of our mental-health professionals on this one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Trumpnost. Or, confessions of a semi-repentant Trump-aholic

UPDATE, Monday, Oct. 24... It's nice  to see that we've got an honest-to-goodness (or -badness?) conversation going around this topic...the first in a while now, he says with some chagrin. Be that as it may, and unless that Sweet Meteor of Death rescues us in the interim, we're just a fortnight removed from Election Day 2016. Would be nice to have good ol' SHAMblog serve as the venue for our own little family "discussion" about some of the attendant issues till the clock runs out (or the celestial object hits), no?

Consider this piece a bookend, if you will, to last week's USAToday column on Citizen Trump.

Like my little rendering of Trump & Pence?
I was at first drawn to Donald Trump—which is to say, fascinated by his rhetoric—because he was so disarmingly unabashed in his political incorrectness. It was mesmerizing to watch this caricature-esque billionaire say the outrageous things he said, incite the contempt he incited from the punditry class (as well as many in his own party), and then run away with the primaries. (It was almost as if offensiveness was his very raison d'etre.) Perhaps a better way to put it is that I was drawn to what Trump's oratorical inelegance symbolized: the bedrock notion that people are allowed to hold and voice unpopular, even reprehensible, opinions. He stood for the idea, to which I very much subscribe, that Americans should be allowed to say almost anything, no matter how controversial or even hurtful. For better or worse, that is the very basis of free speech. Popular, antiseptic viewpoints need no special protections, after all. 

So if at times I recoiled at the content—the Mexican rapists, the McCain thing, Megyn bleeding “wherever”—another part of me was titillated by the mere fact that someone, no less a candidate for the presidency, would utter such remarks in front of live mics or in formal sit-downs with Wolf and Megyn herself. The idea of a candidate talking sans filter was refreshing in a world in which we were suddenly supposed to filter everything: a world of safe spaces, trigger warnings and microaggressions. Donald Trump perpetrated MACROaggressions. He did it daily, and even seemed to thrive on doing it. This was all the more uplifting to some of us steeped in academia's stifling protocols, where one is forever at risk of being censured if not booted out for entertaining an unapproved thought. (Colleges are the last places where there ought to be "safe spaces." As I've written in op-eds, colleges are the great laboratories of the mind, and as in actual laboratories, we must sometimes handle that which may harm us.)
'...people are allowed to hold and voice unpopular, even reprehensible, opinions....' 
The improbable rise of Donald Trump testifies that there are least 13 million Americans who have deeply held beliefs, reasonable beliefs, that they've not been allowed to admit, let alone act upon. Alas, they lack sufficient wealth or status to insulate themselves from blowback from today's increasingly fascistic thought police; more bluntly, they lack “fuck-you money.” Thus, in a sense, in this age of surrogates, The Donald was their surrogate. Even if he didn't specifically address all of their grievances—even if he now and then went overboard—his brashness clearly felt like philosophical camaraderie to Americans who were sick of hearing themselves dismissed as racists, misogynists and xenophobes.

Americans, in other words, who were sick of being tossed into a “basket of deplorables” long before Hillary uttered the piquant neologism. Trump himself hasn't addressed all of the following points, but in a sense his very candidacy speaks to them, symbolizes them. It is not racist to be annoyed by #BlackLivesMatter's enshrinement of thugs like Michael Brown, or to aver that "mass incarceration" is actually "mass criminality." (For the record—memo to college campuses—it's not even illegal to be racist as long as you don't violate any laws by actively discriminating against others.) It is not misogynistic to feel that if a man and woman are both drunk, and they got that way voluntarily, any ensuing sex isn't rape. Nor is it transphobic to harbor the once well-established view that you don't want an adult person of indeterminate gender (but with a penis that would seem to settle the matter) sharing a bathroom with your teenage daughters; at minimum he may embarrass the hell out of them. Are people of traditional mores the only ones we don't care about offending nowadays?

The bottom line is that you can believe all of these things and more without being evil; the millions of Americans who fall into that category should never have been marginalized by our culture to begin with. No small part of Trump's early impetus was that he stood up for people who, despite white privilege (or maybe because of it?), had been disenfranchised by the discourse-tyranny of the Left. Even on those rare occasions when the candidate himself wasn't screaming, his attitude fairly screamed It's OK to speak your mind! Yes, even if what's in your mind is, ironically, unspeakable. 

I thus saw Donald Trump as the Lenny Bruce or Sam Kinison of politics, if you will. Or perhaps the Howard Stern: the “shock jock” of political campaigning. Although I don't think I could've ever pulled a lever for him—that seduced I was not—I felt he was an important addition to today's sociopolitical landscape, a necessary counterweight to the coercive forces of neoliberalism. 

In more recent days, however, I've had my wake-up call...and a rude awakening it was. It now occurs to me that comedy is comedy, and governance is governance, and never the twain should meet. The man whom I once found “refreshing” in his “honesty” has revealed himself as a serial liar and a pathological narcissist, as well as someone utterly out of his depth in seeking the nation's highest elective office. It also occurs to me that if Trump says reprehensible things, it may be because he's just, well, reprehensible. An awful human being. And if I deem it unlikely that he could reach the Oval Office, it nonetheless aggrieves me that there is always that chance. Especially in recent weeks as he pulls even with Hillary in the polls. 

That said, I'm not willing to shoulder my share of blame for Donald Trump; nor will I lay it as a yoke on the shoulders of my fellow Americans who remain in his thrall. 
All of this is happening—Trump is happening—because of political correctness. 
The chickens are home, and roosting madly. This is what you get when you force authorized points of view down people's throats for too long. This is what you get when you tell people that their legitimate fears and hopes and lenses on life are unacceptable, if not "unAmerican."

This, Donald Trump, is what you get. You might even call it "Trump Spring," or, forgive me, trumpnost. Donald Trump is a creature of the backlash against PC orthodoxy. So let us all sit back and gaze upon what we, in our socially just enlightenment, have wrought.