Sunday, October 18, 2009

Notes on the price of pursuing a ridiculous Ray of hope.

So the other day an erstwhile editor of mine, who has gone on to some fame and fortune as an author in his own right, sends me an email with a link to Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, and he says, "Hey, why didn't you think of writing something like that?"

Very funny.

But more important than author envy is that Ehrenreich's book has shined light anew on a point that I tried very hard to make in SHAM, not just via my subtitle (that whole "made America helpless" thing) but throughout the book: that this stuff isn't just harmless silliness. It can hurt you psychologically, it can hurt you financially and, as recent events show us, it can hurt you physically as well. (It can certainly hurt the folks in your orbit who depend on you.) And yet too many people
even some people who were pretty high on SHAM as a whole—dismissed my subtitle and the subtext it represented as writer's hype: i.e., "Well, you know how writers are [knowing wink]. Salerno is overdramatizing, exaggerating the controversy and the danger here, because he's trying to sell books. But his basic point is a good one."

There was no exaggeration about it. In fact, the more I think about things, the more I think I may have actually understated the damage self-help has done (and continues to do) to American society.

To get down to present cases: The point isn't that I think James Arthur Ray is a terrible evil man. I don't believe that's true. The point is that James Arthur Ray, like probably 92.7 percent of all the folks involved in self-help, has no idea what the fuck he's doing* (or even what he's talking about). He found a salable concept (that he didn't even originate) in this notion of "harmonic wealth," then stumbled into his greatest celebrity by attaching himself to the coattails of a project that became an Authentic Cultural Phenomenon, a mile marker in the American zeitgeist. And now, having achieved that celebrity, having found that limelight, he needs to justify his gurudom, to milk the moment. In commercial terms, he needs something to sell to keep the good times a-rollin'
a shtick; a programso he promotes a hodge-podge of a "thinking system" that might be described as a philosophical bouillabaise, drawing on random elements of the New Age and other facets of karmic psychobabble in an effort to sound with-it and oh-so-cosmically plugged-in. He tries things without a clear sense of implications or consequence because he knows his spiel sounds good, catchy and offbeat, and because he knows that his audiencethis shockingly large demographic of people who, in seeking deliverance, are willing to spend outrageous sums of money they often don't haveexpects the bizarre from him. (After all, if it's too normal or commonsensical, how can it possibly be the brainchild of the special, proprietary wisdom of which Ray speaks? How can it lead his disciples to the Promised Land?) And then when it all blows up in his facewhen people actually die, as in the case at handhe's the most surprised guy in the room.

But of course, he still has to cover his ass.

More thoughts on this in the coming days.

* And this is one of those rare cases where I claim un-poetic license for myself in order to make a point forcefully. As regulars know, I avoid profanity and urge our contributors to do likewise.


Tyro said...

I hope that this new attention to the self-help(less) movement will renew interest in your book. I've used it as an opportunity to remind friends about "SHAM" and Ehrenreich's earlier "Nickel and Dimed". With the relentless, uncritical endorsement of The Secret and other nonsense, any attention to this issue has to be good.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - Ray might well have been clueless to the danger the *first* time someone died at one of his spiritual smörgåsbords. After the first instance of a participant suffering real harm, however, he loses the right to the naiveté defense, and becomes culpable for having caused participants harm.

If he is prosecuted and convicted for homicide, as it would appear this case is heading, he truly will have to cover his ass - this time, literally, because there will be plenty of folks who will do to him physically what he has figuratively done to his marks.

Cosmic Connie said...

I'm with Tyro. I haven't read "Bright-sided" by Ehrenreich yet, but I HAVE read "Nickel and Dimed," and, of course, I've read SHAM.

I just checked on Amazon and "Bright-sided" is currently #87 in Books (all genres).

I'm always more interested in reading the bad reviews than the good ones, and so far the bad outweigh the good. At the moment I am writing this, there are 21 customer reviews, of which 9 are one-star, 2 two-star, and 2 three-star.

Of the one-star comments, the only one that appeared to be real criticism was a complaint that Ehrenreich's book was superficial and that she did not adequately cover the history of "positive thinking" in America. (Not having read the book, I can't offer an opinion either way.)

Most of the other critics accused the author of being full of anger, lacking love in her life, not having something good to believe in, etc. Some offered anecdotes about how they or a loved one were saved by positive thinking. And some groused because she always writes about problems and doesn't offer solutions.(Is all of this beginning to sound familiar, Steve?)

Obviously, Ehrenreich has struck a VERY sensitive nerve, as SHAM did a few years ago.

As "Bright-sided" continues to climb the best-seller list, my hope for you, Steve, is that Amazon will do a bundle promo of some sort with SHAM.

As for James Ray, more and more atrocities and irregularities are coming to light. As most people know, the current body count from Sedona is three, and then there's the poor woman who committed suicide during the July wealth seminar in San Diego. On my own blog I've heard from more than one person claiming to be an ex-employee of James Ray International, and they vouch for his arrogance and apparent attempts to cover up unpleasant realities. One of these commenters said s/he has talked to the police, and I am sure numerous others have too. Whether or not there will be actual homicide charges is anyone's guess at this point, but I imagine the authorities are getting an earful right now.

Finally, I have to admit that throughout my surprisingly lengthy career of snarking and sniping at New-Wage/selfish-help/McSpirituality (a "career" that pre-dated my blog by years), I have been one of those who leaned more towards the view that most of this stuff is silly but benign. I am rethinking this view.

Elizabeth said...

Rev, I'm almost ready to agree with you on the first-time cluelessness of Ray, except for the fact that if you charge people money, especially such obscene amounts of money, you have no right to cluelessness. (Yes, I know, I live on the planet Naivia.)

Ray, like most of self-help gurus (or any gurus, period) is a fraud and con man, scheming gullible folks out of their money (and lives, in this instance).

Steve Salerno said...

[First of all, for those of you who subscribe to comments, I apologize for sending this same comment through three or four different times. It's just that it was so full of typos on the first few tries that I couldn't let it go. Such is life on deadline!]

Ehrenreich's critics--like mine, four years ago (!!)--have fallen back on that patented tactic favored by purveyors of all forms of New Age nonsense, including alternative medicine and the various "be happy" programs: They insist that we prove (literally) a negative. They throw the scientific method out the window and make it seem as if it's our burden to demonstrate why this stuff is b.s., instead of their burden to show how and why it's valid.

But really, when people have pitched their tents (again literally) around the idea that all of life reduces to attitude and mindset, how can you expect them to react differently? This is a religious cause for them, in the deepest sense. Even if the gurus are venal and mercenary, and don't really believe in what they're selling, so many of their followers clearly do; indeed, they depend on LoA and all this PMA-based nonsense to get them through the day. How can you expect them to ever wave the white flag of surrender on the point? So when a book like "SHAM" or "Bright-Sided" comes out, it's like a stake to their hearts, a challenge to everything they believe in, everything in which they've invested their minds and souls (not to mention thousands upon thousands of dollars, in many cases). They can't just let it be. They can't be seen as dupes and fools, least of all in their own eyes.

Elizabeth said...

Most of the other critics accused the author of being full of anger, lacking love in her life, not having something good to believe in, etc. Some offered anecdotes about how they or a loved one were saved by positive thinking. And some groused because she always writes about problems and doesn't offer solutions.

LOL! Yes, Connie, I've noticed that too. Positive thinking is as American as apple pie. Can't touch it without offending social and personal sensibilities. But it is no wonder (to a naturalized American) that it should be so.

PT is an excellent myth and illusion to cultivate in order to retain the societal status quo. (I.e., it's not that the American society is full of mind-boggling inequities -- it is that YOU TOO! can become part of the wealthy elite if you only try to change your life! By shelling $$$ on self-help and "roads to wealth" drivel, etc., of course.)

So instead of working on systemic changes in the society, people focus inwardly and do all kinds of silly stuff, like sweating for wealth and wisdom and wasting their money on worthless crap.

Let's see who benefits from all this... Hm.

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RevRon's Rants said...

Elizabeth, I think we can agree that some folks are clueless, whether they have a right to be or not. Ray probably didn't even consider that what he was doing might be dangerous - only that it was profitable. That he SHOULD have taken potential danger into account is obvious. And that, m'dear, is where his cluelessness comes in.

I personally try to limit my own cluelessness to things that don't endanger others, yet still provide my friends with a good chuckle (but a respectful one, mind you!).

Dr. Swill McGraw said...

One of the Amazon reviews for Ehrenreich's book has the heading, "This book will attract people who are addicted to thought!"

Silly me: I figured that was one of the raves, but in fact, it was one of numerous hostile one-star reviews. The reader HATED and DESPISED Ehrenreich's book because it contained too much of that nasty, rotten "thinking" stuff.

Here we have the SHAMscape in a nutshell: "thinking = bad, feeling = good".

Yekaterina said...

"thinking = bad, feeling = good."

Or as Osho used o say, Leave your mind at the door before entering.

Unfortunately, it's not simply a question of relaxing the mind for a quick spell in order to think better later. (even though this is what is claimed) Shutting off the mind and feeling (which really is nothing more than shutting out any and all of the harsh realities of life and replacing them with "happy" thoughts) is truly drug-like. Of course people are going to react negatively when you try to take away their drug of choice by challenging their beliefs.

It always strikes me as very telling how mean and hateful most true-believing followers become with "outsiders" when this happens...accusing them of not having love in their lives? Would a truly loving person do such a thing? You would think only a non-spiritual jerk would verbally kick the poor guy while he was down and lacking love in his life. It's another reason why surrounding oneself with the group becomes so important. Otherwise they'd have to see their drug-addicted mean reactions on a daily basis and have to own up to it.