Monday, December 18, 2006

I mean, heck, what's another wasted $10 billion or so?

Occasionally when I'm feeling discouraged (as happens to just about everyone who writes for a living and whose surname isn't Grisham, King, Rowling or Brown*), I get a pleasant surprise. Today, an acquaintance emailed me to say that when he typed the search coordinates "self-help" and "fraud" into Google, three of the first four hits, and four of the first seven, were connected in some way to me and/or SHAM. And that felt pretty nice. For about a minute.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, while it's validating to me, it's a good news/bad news situation at best, if we widen the lens. Because what it tells us is that the world of formal journalism has little interest in exposing, demystifying or even just investigating self-help. Throughout American culture, people either laugh it off or take it at face value. As I wrote early in my book: "Everyone underestimates [self-help]. You may think Dr. Phil is the greatest thing since sliced bread, or you may chortle at his braggadocio and his sagebrush sagacity. But almost no one worries about Dr. Phil. Like the rest of SHAM, he slips in under the radar."

That remains true today. Even after SHAM, even after Self-Help Inc., even after One Nation Under Therapy, even after The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need. Even after the occasional forays into the genre by Quackwatch's Dr. Stephen Barrett and the impressive, largely unheralded body of work being compiled by our Cosmic Connie in her own right.

It's a damn shame, folks.

* Of course, additional surnames that might seem to belong on this list include McGraw, Robbins and Schlessinger, among others...but notice I said writes.... Leaving snideness aside, notice that I also said "writes for a living." Few self-help gurus are dependent on their literary endeavors for their next bottle of Dom.


Anonymous said...

Now tell us the truth: is this post just a clever excuse to pat yourself on the back?

a/good/lysstener said...

Don't feel too bad. Your blog is the first thing I read every day, Steve, and I'm sure it's high on the list for the other regulars, too. It's like you've been saying, many Americans live for false hope. It's what gets them through the day. So naturally they're not going to be huge fans of anybody who wants to take that hope away from them. As for the mass media, it just goes along with the program.

Steve Salerno said...

And right on.

Cosmic Connie said...

Thanks for the mention, Steve. And Alyssa, you're right. The media are going to go along with what sells. And what sells is the feel-good stuff. But at least it gives me something to make fun of. :-)

Cosmic Connie said...

And on a more serious note, Steve, I think it's commendable that you and SHAM appear on those relevant Google searches. But I think you're right about formal journalism and its apparent lack of interest in deconstructing self-help.

More often than not, I tend to fall into the "laugh it off" camp (or, on my cranky days, the "annoyed" camp), and I probably don't *worry* about Dr. Phil et al. as much as you do. Even so, you and others have put forth some very good arguments in favor of worrying. And when I see the uncritical press coverage of blatant infomercials such as "The Secret," I do get a bit worried -- and even more cynical.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Connie. The thing is--and this is the main point I always hoped people would take away from my book and this blog--it would be bad enough if (most) self-help were just a colossal waste of time and money. It would be bad enough if the damage were contained to the extraordinary sums that gullible people blow on crap like "The Secret." But it's much, much worse than that. The "core theology" behind self-help, most of which was untested and basically just pulled out of a hat, has fundamentally changed the nature of American society. And not for the better.

I just did an interview with American Spectator that's supposed to run sometime this week, perhaps as soon as tomorrow, and I urge all of those who care about the subject matter of this blog to read that interview, and think about the points I'm making in my own clumsy, wordy way. (They were nice enough to let me go on at some length.) We are less happy today, in part because of the happiness movement; certainly it's a contributing factor in the restlessness and cynicism that so many of us feel. And that's just the beginning.

Anyway, look for the piece( and see what you think. And if you're of a more left-minded bent, don't let the obvious GOP-ness of the site throw you. I think the interview stands on its own merits.

Anonymous said...

I don't think we're "less happy now." Rather, we were formerly too busy going about the business of living to worry a lot about whether we were happy or not. People had more important things to think about. Worrying obsessively about whether we're happy or otherwise is indeed a legacy of Hollywood's "happily-ever-after" mythos and the self-help industry. And you're right, it's not a happy legacy!

Anonymous said...

Because what it tells us is that the world of formal journalism has little interest in exposing, demystifying or even just investigating self-help

And self-help shams aren't the only things they don't investigate: WMDS in Iraq, anything Bush does, global warming, abuse of government power, etc. America's corporate media is perhaps some of the worst in the world these days. Instead of investigating things they just stick up for the status quo, and that's why so many people are turning more to blogs and alternative news sources.