Friday, September 10, 2010

Behold The Pow-errrrr of The New Yorker!

UPDATE, Friday afternoon. By the way, here's a streamed version of an Irish radio show I did last night ("Culture Shock"). My segment starts at around the 12:30 mark. The host, Fionn Davenport, strikes me as a really bright guy. As for yours truly, I got caught up in my own thought process a couple of times, and a frog crept annoyingly into my throat at one point (ahh, the joys of live media!), but overall it's not too bad.


Once again, it's nice to see this stuff getting ongoing, mainstream coverage, especially in a must-read* like The New Yorker. Still, the writer, Kelefa Sanneh, sounds oddly credulous for the most part, and almost seems to go out of his way to avoiding quoting Byrne at her most idiotic and outré. He sets the piece up as if the "juicy" story line here is Byrne's split with Esther Hicks, fails to mention the lawsuit by Secret DVD director Drew Heriot, gives short shrift to the whole James Ray debacle (and what it implies for the genre), and describes Joe Vitale, uncynically, as "an ecumenical healer," providing no further insights into Vitale or his background. Though I'm not entirely sure what an ecumenical healer is or does, I can think of far better phrases to capture the essence of our pal Joe. In passages like the following, Sanneh even sounds sympathetic to Vitale and the rest of the displaced cast from The Secret, none of whom appears in The Pow-errrrr:

Unfortunately for the likes of Vitale, The Power does away with teachers altogether; this time, Byrne is the sole guide....
So now Vitale is not only an ecumenical healer but a "teacher" as well. And the rest of us are presumably missing out on the further wisdoms he might have shared....

I have to feel that I could have done a better job. And yes, without doing a total hatchet job.

* Well, to New Yorkers, anyway. But seriously, The New Yorker is read faithfully by large numbers of opinion leaders everywhere else, too.


Cosmic Connie said...

JV as "ecumenical healer?" Jeez. As I remarked to Burned by Fire on Twitter, whenever I read something like that, I always want to believe that the writer is being a bit sarcastic. Having read the entire New Yorker piece, though, I rather suspect the author was just being careless about details and was perhaps not considering the import of every word he wrote. Regarding his description of Joe, the talking heads in The Secret have often been referred to as "teachers" by Rhonda and many others, so can I see where he got that. But he must have pulled "ecumenical healer" out of his... well, out of somewhere. (I imagine Joe will be far happier with that than with Barbara Ehrenreich's description of him in her book as resembling "an elongated Danny DeVito." :-))

Labels aside, Sanneh seemed more intent on the larger message of his piece, which is basically that Rhonda's work is pretty shallow and that she has a tendency to misappropriate the wisdom of dead writers and leaders. (He did point out, after all, her ludicrous use of the quotation from Oscar Wilde.)

Steve, I agree that you could have done a better job on a piece with a more secular bent, focusing on the social and cultural implications of the vacuous and shallow messages that Rhonda and gang are spreading. Sanneh, on the other hand, seems more sympathetic to and interested in the mystical aspects and on how Rhonda's work was influenced by other mystical, philosophical, and inspirational writers. He's just coming at the criticism from a different angle, IMO.

That angle does apparently limit him, however, and not just because it seems to prevent him from pointing out the "dark side" of McSpirituality to my satisfaction (or to yours). At one point he seems genuinely puzzled by Rhonda's attempt to promote a religion in which religion is missing. To me it's not puzzling at all; Rhonda is just pandering to the New-Wage spirituality market, in which bits and pieces of various traditions are adopted and people simply make things up as they go along. (I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing, since I'm no fan of traditional religious dogma either. It does, however, become problematic when morals and ethics are left out of the equation, and the egos and bank accounts of the various "spiritual" gurus become paramount.)

Part of me feels that Sanneh was devoting too much serious attention to what seems to be a basically silly and shallow work. Then again, Rhonda's work, such as it is, has deeply influenced our culture, and is equally a creation of that culture.

At any rate, there's a place for Sanneh's type of criticism and a place for yours, and I look forward to reading more of both.

Now I'm off to listen to the Culture Shock show you just linked to.

PS ~ I didn't get the impression that the author was setting the piece up as if the Hicks-Byrne split was the juicy story; I think he emphasized that because he was focusing on the "teachers" in The Secret, and Hicks and her imaginary pals were among those "teachers." But the Drew Heriot lawsuit -- as well as the less-publicized Dan Hollings suit -- should not be forgotten.

Steve Salerno said...

CosCon: On reflection (and especially after reading your long, typically thoughtful take), it occurs to me that I might have been a bit hasty in categorizing the New Yorker piece (having arrived at my POV after one quick read-through). Still, I felt that it was awfully credulous (if not naive?) of Sanneh to throw around phrases like "healer" and "teacher" without--if not sounding a note of irony--at least providing a bit more context. The way the piece is written now, Vitale almost comes off sounding like a cross between Gandhi and Randy Pausch. ;)

Anonymous said...

steve, I just wanted to say I haven't been around awhile but I read you when I can and, you're still doing a great job!

Steve Salerno said...

Carl: A blast from SHAMblog's ancient past! Good to hear that you're still "out there."

Dimension Skipper said...

Just a couple chuckles for the weekend...

Today's Wondermark (by David Malki). I thought it was very SHAM-like in its premise, though perhaps more broadly applicable to advertising and hard salesmanship in general.

Also semi-SHAM-relevant was Saturday morning Breakfast Cereal (by Zach Weiner) a couple days ago.

Just thought you might appreciate them, Steve... and maybe a few others around here will too.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, DS. I never turn down a chuckle...

Elizabeth said...

“We are not really as strange as all of that,” the group consciousness said.


Elizabeth said...

P.S. I agree with Connie on Sanneh's "different angle" in his criticism -- and I personally appreciate it, because it speaks to my (on-going) semi-confusion about the differences between New Age-ish ideas and religion.

As Sanneh rightly points out, people like Byrne attempt to fill the spiritual void so prominent in our culture, what with the crisis of the organized religion, by providing Spirituality Lite (TM) -- a bunch of seemingly uplifting ideas without any of the nasty side effects, like work and sacrifice, that are involved in the traditional religious worship.

SL(TM) is all about The Self (read: me, myself and mine) and satisfying its own needs. But none of that self-sacrifice that religion requires, or the troublesome attempts at self-transcendence, whether directed at God, or one's brothers and sisters, or higher ideals, that religions insist upon.

When SL(TM) talks about love, it typically means love of one(MY)self. When it mentions love toward and/or helping others, it is usually to underscore how this endeavor may benefit ME: make ME happier, wealthier, more at peace, what-have-you.

There is no mention of the necessity of suffering, pain and loss -- which are among the religions' major themes -- and if such unpleasantness are discussed at all, again it is usually to show how they can benefit ME (e.g., "The Gift of Cancer").

The Power, indeed. Of egocentric self-delusion?

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: What's interesting (to me, anyway) is that religion itself is becoming "religion lite." I know that the Catholic Church--at least at local levels--has made a major effort to downplay the "pain and guilt" factor, and entire Christian faiths, notably the Episcopals (did I spell that right?), openly refer to themselves as "Catholic-lite."

People just don't have the patience for guilt and sin anymore; sybarites and narcissists that they are, they simply won't stand for it. ("I don't care if you are Jesus, who are you to be telling me...!") That's also why some self-styled pastors have turned themselves and their churches into national phenomena by reframing what used to be a sin (e.g. greed) as a latter-day virtue.

Elizabeth said...

"I don't care if you are Jesus, who are you to be telling me...!"

Indeed. (LOL!) Pain and guilt are so first century (if even that -- more like Old Testament, really) and decidedly un-American.

BTW, I love The New Yorker. Its arrival every week (yes, I'm a proud subscriber) is a bright moment in my otherwise ho-hum reality. And yes, I usually read it cover to cover, starting with the often unintentionally hilarious but always informative "Letters to the Editor."

My husband insists that I like TNY only for its cartoons, but I swear it's not true.

But apropos.

RevRon's Rants said...

While pain / suffering is an inherent part of life, I don't accept that draping one's self with the mantle of suffering is integral to spirituality, any more than is the denial of that suffering.

Furthermore, IMO, guilt is for the greater part a perversion of the concept of responsibility. Religions have used guilt for centuries as a tool for maintaining control over the masses. While we need to accept the effects of our thoughts, words, and deeds, making the ramifications of our past behaviors the primary beacon of our future endeavors leads only to more suffering.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I definitely see your point. However, I think it's a bit silly to call yourself "religious" if the religion (or spirituality) to which you subscribe basically amounts to a celebration of you and your perpetual joyfulness and fulfillment.

Seems to me that a genuine religion demands obeisance to a set of principles that do indeed require a person to put his or her own wants and needs aside from time to time (if not routinely). It would call for denial, self-sacrifice and, yes, a certain amount of earthly pain. No other concept of god makes sense to me. If your idea of god = "do whatever you want, have a blast doing it, and don't worry about how all this affects the neighbors..."--how the hell is that spirituality? If you insist on being a sybarite, then just forgo religion/spirituality and live a secular life. Why the pseudo-spiritual charade? (Of course, we know the reason why: because people want to do whatever they want to do and feel good about it besides.)

Though regulars know that I no longer practice, having grown up in The Church, I am nonetheless amused by today's so-called cafeteria Catholics, who pick and choose the commandments that fit their busy, hedonistic lifestyles. If you insist on using contraception or aborting fetuses that come along at inconvenient moments, so be it; that's your personal path in life. But to do such things under the mantle of your own personal view of Catholicism...that's a bit much.

RevRon's Rants said...

Perhaps we could better grasp the disparity between a religion and its practitioners if we look at it as being part of a business model. Bear with me...

Every business begins with a mission. Some document that mission in a mission statement. A spiritual quest is no different, beginning with a core objective. In both the business and spiritual models, a mechanism is put into place to further the objectives set forth in the mission. Religion is the mechanism (the "machine"), implemented to provide a hierarchal structure, development and implementation of policies and procedures, and last but not least, public relations.

Just as we'd be hard-pressed to find a business whose every practice is synchronous with its mission statement, so to would we have a tough time finding a religion whose practice is consistent with its premise.

Just as the bureaucrats charged with the actual management of a business are prone to bend the business' policies and procedures to their own personal objectives, the individuals at the core of any religion - and especially the mid-level administrators (ministers, teachers) tend to interpret the religion's tenets to reflect their own objectives, frequently at great odds with the original mission.

At the core of every religion lies a spiritual longing, a need for comfort, and a hope that something better awaits, beyond the challenges we face in our daily lives. If those challenges leave the individual frightened or angry, they will be very open to "doctrine" that reinforces the validity of their fear and anger. And the administrators, who often become more focused upon sustaining the "machine" than realizing the goals of the mission, are more than willing to reinforce the connection.

When this happens, the message becomes subordinate to the machine, and just as many businesses find themselves operating in a manner that is diametrically opposed to their mission, so do religions find themselves altogether abandoning the spiritual quest upon which they were originally founded.

Were the Christ, the Buddha, Muhammad, or Krishna to arrive in our world today, I doubt that any of them would align themselves with the groups that have formed in their names, just as old Sam Walton would likely turn his back on the operation he founded.

Does that mean we should abandon the quest for spiritual knowledge? Of course not. Should we then abandon religion altogether and seek that knowledge without any predetermined structure? That's a tougher question, one whose answer is different for every individual. At the very least, it behooves us to look as objectively as possible at the machines, and determine for ourselves whether they operate in a manner consistent with the mission. We can embrace those elements that enhance our efforts, and abandon those that impede those efforts. Just as we can perceive someone's flaws and still love them, we can (and actually, MUST) learn to value that which leads us forward, while letting go of that which does not.

I'm an optimist. Ultimately, I see the global abandonment of religion as an inevitable function of humanity's spiritual quest. The tribal consciousness upon which individual religions depend for their existence will eventually lose its validity. Because at its core, there is really no difference between a "good" Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Taoist, Hindu, ad infinitum. My hope (and belief) is that at some point, the folly of such separatism will be understood and accepted by most people. The move toward "secular spirituality" is, IMO, merely a faltering early attempt to move toward that goal.

Dimension Skipper said...

It's not a new proposal or argument, by any stretch, but Charlie Stross (better known as science fiction novelist Charles Stross) is opining today on the Toffler's "Future Shock" as the reason behind a lot of the world's ills, bringing religion into the discussion as a major point.

He begins with...

Yesterday (9/11, as Americans call it), was widely touted as International Religious Tolerance Day, for reasons which should be obvious. To a first approximation, this seems like a good idea; a lot of the most unpleasant news of the past decade has been generated by the actions of the religious and intolerant, from Al Qaida to Pastor Terry Jones. But is more religious tolerance the answer?

Stross goes on to try to broadly explain much of the craziness in the world...

My working hypothesis to explain the 21st century is that the Tofflers underestimated how pervasive future shock would be. I think somewhere in the range from 15-30% of our fellow hairless primates are currently in the grip of future shock, to some degree. Symptoms include despair, anxiety, depression, disorientation, paranoia, and a desperate search for certainty in lives that are experiencing unpleasant and uninvited change. It's no surprise that anyone who can offer dogmatic absolute answers is popular, or that the paranoid style is again ascendant in American politics, or that religious certainty is more attractive to many than the nuanced complexities of scientific debate. Climate change is an exceptionally potent trigger for future shock insofar as it promises an unpleasant and unpredictable dose of upcoming instability in the years ahead; denial is an emotionally satisfying response to the threat, if not a sustainable one in the longer term.

Deep craziness: we're in it, and there's probably not going to be any reduction in the prevalence of authoritarian escapism until we collectively become accustomed to the pace of change. Which will, at a minimum, not happen until the older generations have died of old age — and maybe not even then.

Finally Stross revisits the religious tolerance question he first posed...

Anyway, back to my earlier question: is more religious tolerance the answer?

I'm going to give it a qualified thumbs-up, for now. Thumbs-up, because religious intolerance is clearly not the answer — but a qualified thumbs-up because I don't believe we should give a free pass to all religious doctrines in the name of tolerance. Some beliefs can kill, when they are translated into action. They can kill directly, as when the Taliban stones women to death for adultery, or they can kill indirectly, as in the Catholic Church's opposition to the use of condoms (which makes it harder to prevent the spread of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, where the disease holocaust is killing two million people a year). We should, in my view, not seek to accommodate those religious doctrines that would impose restrictions on people — especially non-co-religionists — through the force of law. (If you're a Hassidic Jew and don't want to eat pork products, that's fine; campaigning to ban pork products from sale to anyone at all: not so fine. And so on.)

But ultimately, religious doctrines aren't the source of today's social problems. The taproots run deeper, and religious extremism is only one manifestation of the underlying problem: widespread future shock. And I've got no easy answer to how to deal with it, unless it is to apply a little humanity to our fellow sufferers when we meet them.

Anonymous said...

Steve, thought you would enjoy this hilarious piece on "The Pow-errrrr":

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: Thanks, I actually read that yesterday and meant to link to it somewhere.