Monday, September 03, 2007

SHAM creates lies. We correct them.

In assembling material for the blog, I'm always hesitant to quote from SHAM, especially if I'm quoting myself in a way that seems self-congratulatory. To do so, I feel, is to come perilously close to satisfying the entry requirements for that erstwhile New Yorker fraternity, "Writers in Love with Their Own Words."*

Thing is, the other day I got an email from somebody asking a question about Suze Orman, and that email sent me scurrying back to SHAM to check something I'd said about her. I soon found myself on page 62 of my book, where I read lines I'd long-ago forgotten writing. They were lines that, as much as anything, illuminate the folly of the SHAMscape.

I had written on page 62 about how, in The Laws of Money, the Lessons of Life, Orman chose, as her very first law, this:

"Truth creates money, lies destroy it."

I can actually hear her declaiming the line on Oprah,* those wild eyes of hers ablaze with manic intensity (as per photo). I can see Oprah's well-coiffed audience hanging on Orman's every word, applauding without any prompting from the APPLAUSE sign. And, I can see Oprah herself nodding and smiling, as if her guest has just shared an incredible cosmic truth, and Winfrey is oh-so-pleased with herself at being the one who's brought such enriching wisdom into their otherwise-benighted lives.

Except...is it a truth? Can Orman really be saying that honesty can be depended upon to create more wealth and success than dishonesty? I don't think it takes an incorrigible cynic to raise an eyebrow (and an objection or two) here. In fact, we have at least a minor, anecdotal bit of refuting evidence from no less a source than Orman herself. She has often spoken of how one of the reasons she went into finance in the first place was that she'd watched her dad—a hard-working, honest man—lose his shirt in a series of star-crossed entrepreneurial ventures. Beyond that, has Orman never heard of the Mafia? Sure, the Mob had its comeuppance, but that took half a century, during which time many honest ventures went belly-up. The Mob, in fact, made a literal killing off many of those honest ventures, driving at least some of them out of business (and at times depositing their proprietors deep beneath the murky waters of the Hudson River). And let's face it, you needn't go to that end of the spectrum to find disreputable conduct in American commerce. What about Enron? Though Enron, too, ultimately toppled like the house of cards it was, for a good while there, Enron's "lies" sure made lots of money for lots of people. Hell, the patriarchs of some of the nation's most celebrated families amassed their fortunes, at least in part, through practices far worse than the mere telling of lies. Or maybe Orman needs to be reminded of the way American business was routinely done, at its upper echelons, before the likes of Sherman and Magnuson-Moss. New scandals continue to make headlines each week.

Truth creates money, lies destroy it is one of those pleasant, diverting SHAMland slogans that desperate people desperately want to be true. They will rally around it, and pay vast sums of money to have a guru like Suze Orman repeat it to them over and over, thereby sustaining their hopes and dreams, and fueling their visions of a just society in which the righteous prosper and the wicked are punished. But it ain't that simple, folks. Never was, never will be. And that's the inescapable, underlying problem with all of SHAM (the movement, not the book). In an effort to provide a happy-faced view of living, where all is good and possible, the self-help movement grossly (and knowingly) oversimplifies the mechanics of life, distorting "truth" to the point where it has no meaning and/or validity. [See: The Secret.]

Put more simply: The self-help movement lies. (This is particularly true of its Empowerment wing.) It lies because it cannot succeed by selling a realistic view of life and living; it cannot succeed by making appropriate distinctions between possibility and probability, between what can happen (i.e. the exception) and what usually happens (i.e. the rule). Which brings us back to Suze Orman and her very first law of money. In placing such bold emphasis on truth, Suze Orman was being misleading at best, untruthful at worst.

Ironic, don't you think?

* The magazine would highlight instances where well-known writers had used the same phrases, sometimes even the same exact series of sentences, over and over in different works.
** where she appeared many times. Like most top SHAMmers, Orman owes no small part of her success to Oprah's sponsorship.

18 comments:

Mary Anne said...

Does Oprah still promote Suze Orman? I thought she got a new money guru. I always had a bit of a problem with some of Suze Orman's messages. I REALLY have a problem with the one you quoted. I know a lot of rich liars and they're getting richer. Orman always seemed to be preaching basic common sense,"don't keep using your credit cards or you will be in debt." That's what the credit card companies want and it has actually pushed the economy quite a bit. Another gem from her, "don't lie to yourself." If I can't lie to myself, who can I lie to?

a/good/lysstener said...

Another one of your better ones, Steve. I hate to keep bringing up my poor Mom, but she's been a Suze Orman fan for a long time now. Among the many discussions we have these days is a debate about Suze's advice, which Mom is always preaching to me in order to "get me off on the right foot". I think her advice is pretty self-evident for the most part, and what isn't self-evident is confusing and even self-contradictory. And it's condescending to women I might add. She insults people's intelligence.

I'd write more but I'm off to class again (unfortunately).

Steve Salerno said...

Mary Anne, I'm not sure if Orman has been formally replaced as resident finance guru, but I know she has a longstanding affiliation with Oprah, and last time I checked, she still did personal-finance columns for O, The Magazine.

Alyssa, if you ask me, all of this stuff insults people's intelligence and is pretty condescending to EVERYONE, males and females alike. But really, that's the thing about SHAM, in a nutshell: You're not supposed to think about it too deeply.

Anonymous said...

Don't you worry about these people suing you? I would.

Steve Salerno said...

I believe I answered this question at some length a while back. The short answer, here, on what's shaping up as a very busy Tuesday, is that 99% of what I write falls into the category of fair comment and opinion writing. Now, there is that edgier 1% that could, I guess, be problematic--and of course, nothing prevents a person from suing on the 99%, even if they have no legal grounds. But I've been doing this long enough that I think I "know the ledge," as a famous rapper once put it.

Besides, in most cases except invasion of privacy, truth is the ultimate defense. And unlike the gods of SHAM, I'm confident that truth is on my side.

Anonymous said...

If a person really wants to improve him/herself then what can they do? The only cost effective way is to get down the local bookstore and purchase another self-help book. What advice would you give to someone who wants to really improve their life? Aren't self help books the only option available?

NOTE: I have read numerous self help books and they have made my life worst than it was before. The thing that really bugs me is that these so called self-help books focus too heavily on materialism. I have found that instead of 'buying more stuff' spending quality time with friends and your loved ones actually makes you feel much better than if you were to buy a new sports car, top of the range.

Mary Anne said...

Steve, I thought you were saved from lawsuits, because these are public figures. As long as you are not accusing them of a criminal act, I thought your blogs fell in the land of "opinion." Now how as a journalist can you NOT invade privacy? I thought that journalists had to dig to get the stories. Journalists look at public records and speak to witnesses. Those actions are not considered invasions of privacy. How could Kitty Kelley or Dominick Dunn right any books without digging? Just very curious about this slippery slope.

Mary Anne said...

"advice is pretty self-evident for the most part, and what isn't self-evident is confusing and even self-contradictory"

This comment can be said for a lot of these programs and books. I just finished this HORRID book on "work life balance" whatever that means, and the author was all over the map. He states that one should "only live in the present" and in the next chapter he gives a copy of Napoleon Hill's "thoughts are things" and "envisioning the future." How can I stay in the present and envision the future at the same time? How do these books see the light of day? Are the editors smoking something?

Steve Salerno said...

Mary Anne, leaving aside its casual, offhand usage, "invasion of privacy" is a specific legal term that refers to an equally specific set of circumstances. The law derives from the belief that a "private citizen" has to right to keep private certain personal aspects of his life that, under ordinary circumstances, would not become public knowledge. So, for the sake of argument, if Jane Doe once had an abortion or an affair, and those events are not presently public knowledge, and I reveal such facts in an article I write, I could be sued for invasion of privacy (especially if she suffers provable harm as a result of my revelation). Obviously in the case of IoP, truth is NOT a defense.

Of course, all laws and conventions in this area have gotten blurred (if not obliterated) in today's age of camera phones and YouTube; today's technology clearly shatters all prior assumptions in terms of what can reasonably be expected to remain private "under ordinary circumstances." Almost nothing is functionally private anymore, unless you're sitting alone in a room (and even then, there are web-cams, wireless "sniffers," etc.)

I am fairly certain that even within my lifetime (I'm 57), the issues we're discussing here are going to have to be revisited by the U.S. Supreme Court and/or revised by statute.

As you imply, celebrities, almost by definition, have very few IoP rights.

Cosmic Connie said...

Lots of interesting issues raised here. But getting back to Suze Orman's statement that "truth creates money, lies destroy it": As a general principle there are so many levels on which that statement is absurd or, at the very least, meaningless.

The sad part is that Orman does have some good advice, mixed in with all the New-Age feel-good hooey. Even her "truth and lies" slogan makes sense if you interpret it in a specific and rather narrow way. One of Orman's favorite recommendations for getting finances in order is to get rid of debt, particularly credit card debt. People who are overrun with consumer debt very often get into that situation because they are not being truthful with themselves about what they can and cannot afford. (I'm not talking about folks who are suddenly faced with out-of-pocket medical expenses, natural disasters, or other unforeseen circumstances, of course.) That barrier of plastic all too often gives people a false sense of affluence or at least financial security; even though they know intellectually that they are just putting off the inevitable, emotionally it's a different story.

I suppose a more accurate slogan would be a kind of reversal of the original: "Lies create unmanageable debt; truth destroys it." But like most "more accurate" statements, that one is not nearly as marketable.

I do think there are emotional -- and, for those who are inclined to think this way -- spiritual issues around money. But Suze and most of the SHAM and New-Wage gurus carry that idea way too far. I went back and read what you wrote about her in SHAM, and just had to roll my eyes at this (from page 59 of the hardcover edition of SHAM): "At seminars, she'll hold up a dollar bill and, referring to the eye in the pyramid engraved on its back, she'll say, 'The eye represents spirituality, the third eye, and there's an aspect of money that is very emotional and spiritual. it's on a one-dollar bill because we need to be one with our money.'"

I'd rather "be one" with a few thousand Ben Franklins than a one-dollar bill, but maybe I'm just not spiritual enough. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Connie, look, there is SOME merit to almost ANYTHING that gets people to think about money in this era of nonexistent savings, maximal debt ratios and sub-prime mortgage lending. (This applies doubly to young people, just starting out--like, say, the kind who don't own maps. Wink.) My objection to Orman, particularly her first law, is rooted in its philosophical kinsmanship with the likes of The Secret--this notion that "if you just send good vibes out into the universe, then good will come back to you!" That's crap. And I'm not saying that we shouldn't STRIVE for honesty and even, yes, "good vibes." I'm simply saying that the programs that sell that kind of simple-minded, straight-line relationship between positivity and success are doing it, for the most part, only because they know it's what people want to hear. They know it resonates. In short, it SELLS. Which makes the whole enterprise fundamentally dishonest--and yet massively profitable for the people selling the dishonest notions!

Now that's a paradox worth chewing on for a while, no?

Citizen Deux said...

Sound advice has changed little over the millenia. It usually springs from instinct shaped by experience. The new collection of "experts" find themsleves having to appeal to some esoteric aspect of our nature in order to be taken seriously. Not to mention sell their advice.

The problem is ALWAYS separating the wheat from the chaff. What is also happening is that people think things should occur NOW. Not in the future (even tomorrow). They don't want to wait or invest to feel better, get rich or lose weight. It's natural for folks to want to feel better, it is not natural to expect miraculous change overnight - although our human culture has promised miracles from time out of mind.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear about the direction of your new book ... vanity's role in America. Have you considered turning a critical eye on Web 2.0 which seduces us with the vain notion that we all have something to say worthy of being self-published to the world?

Cosmic Connie said...

Steve, I understand and share your objections to Orman.

And, regarding simplistic or misleading crap that sells, I find myself eagerly looking forward to reading what you have to say about Mr. "Four-Hour Workweek," Tim Ferriss. From what I've seen, he and others of his ilk aren't so much preaching nebulous "good vibes" stuff as they are preaching "get as rich as you can by doing as little real work as possible." Another person who seems to be pushing the same thing is one of Mr. Fire's cohorts, Pat O'Bryan, with his "Portable Empire" (which shot to the top 20 on Amazon yesterday thanks to a very concerted promotional effort by Mr. Fire, Pat, and others).

But, as is so often the case in SHAMland, it seems that just about the only people getting rich here are the people who are selling the books, DVDs, and seminars on how to get rich.

Mary Anne said...

"If a person really wants to improve him/herself then what can they do? The only cost effective way is to get down the local bookstore and purchase another self-help book. What advice would you give to someone who wants to really improve their life? Aren't self help books the only option available?"

Steve, you get this question a lot and I wanted to give my take on it. I don't think what Steve does is suppose to give one an option. I think investigative pieces are suppose to shed light on issues that affect a lot of people. They are meant to raise questions and awareness of what we are doing as a society.

Ultimately, the title itself answers the question-self. YOU are meant to come to some conclusions of how to help yourself. Even the best therapists are actully facilitators in the WORK one must do to improve his or her life. It always comes back to YOU.

There are A LOT of options besides picking up a self-help book. I must say, if one reads a self-help book without expecting the answers to all of life's woes, one can garner something from it. The problem happens when one puts all his or her hopes that any guru or book can heal them or magically change his or her life. That is the stuff of fairytales.

gregory said...

"the means gather around purity" is how the vedas say it, in sanskrit... a very old concept that has some truth, if you try it out... and for sure poverty is mostly a belief structure first, the lack of money follows... i say this from the perspective of currently living in a small indian town
.... i was contemplating the word sham and verizon popped into my mind, them selling for full price a partly disabled phone that forces you to buy their inferior service .... and have arrived at the understanding of when the self-help movement is bad.... it is when the author or promoter is helping him/herself first... if they are eneavoring to help the purchaser of their service, there can often be something valuable .... self-help, vs. one who is helping himself at your expenxe........

Anonymous said...

Steve, we miss you. Are you going to start blogging again?

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Anon. I'm sure somebody's going to accuse me of having written this comment myself, but in fact, it's been a crazy week, and I've been too busy to write just about anything lately. The two blog entries I'm working on are both fairly complex, and there have been some things going on in the background that demand my attention. But the short answer is, I appreciate everyone's continuing interest in SHAMblog, and yes, I plan to have something new up soon....