Come for the Politics, Stay for the Pathologies

Monday, October 26, 2009

“Come To Me, My Babies. Let Me Quell Your Pain”*

Steve Salerno had an interesting piece in the Wall Street last week; Self-Help Doesn’t Help – And Often Hurts. He captured what is undoubtedly a widely shared attitude about the huge self-help industry:

"OK, we all know this is a silly and sometimes expensive exercise in navel-gazing. But really, where's the harm?"

Salerno then demonstrates that the $11 billion industry can indeed cause a great deal of harm: financially, emotionally and, tragically, physically. He cites the case of the idiot running a $9000 per person sweat-lodge ritual in Arizona that caused the death of 3 participants and the hospitalization of of 18 more. One could of course question the mental acuity of the people who paid for the privilege of being tortured. But being vulnerable is a thing apart from preying on people’s vulnerability. The idiot-in-charge was self-help guru James Arthur Ray, best known for his cameo in the huge hit DVD “The Secret” in which he “compared mankind's relationship with the universe to Aladdin and his lamp: Ask and you shall receive.”  Sounds like Obama boot camp.

Salerno is merciless in his criticism of the malignant threat from these so-called self-help gurus of self actualization, claiming that ”large group awareness training” (LGAT) sessions incorporate  “tactics more commonly identified with psychological warfare.”

In his book, Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless Salerno describes the self-help racket:

Self-help is an enterprise wherein people holding the thinnest of credentials diagnose in basically normal people symptoms of inflated or invented maladies, so that they may then implement remedies that have never been shown to work.

The Skeptics Dictionary has an excellent entry on LGAT that ought to be read if, well, you’re a skeptic. It also links to multiple other cult and cult-like self-help enterprises still thriving (e.g. est, Landmark Forum, neuro-linguistic programming, Tony Robbins seminars, and even bona fide cults like L .Ron Howard’s Scientology: spirituality for the reality-challenged actor class).

Upon my initial read of this article it brought to mind a period in the 90’s when my company’s COO was sold an open-ended consulting engagement with a firm hired to work with officers and directors to “facilitate change management'’ in the organization. The head consultant became the COO’s personal guru, and was consulted on everything. By the time the “engagement” was “over”, it had enjoyed a ten year run and grossed millions of dollars (for the consulting firm). I’m sure some of it was worthwhile, if by worthwhile you mean nobody died in a sweat-lodge. What I primarily remember was the unconscionable loss of productivity due to endless meetings spent thinking ‘out of the box’ when we should have been trying to figure out how to fill the box. That, and a year long series of multi-day off-site training sessions in which middle-aged out of shape executives spent the days swinging through trees in upper Michigan. I’m proud to say that I was the only member of the executive management group that didn’t participate in that teambuilding exercise. Then again, that might have something to do with why I was fired. But I digress. The moral of the story is “Beware of stupid gurus.”

And we are surrounded by stupid gurus. As I reread the article, I couldn’t help but think of commonalities exhibited in susceptible self-help participants and Obamabots. A cult leader arrives on the scene promising hope for a better life/future if only you change some of your evil habits which have brought you to this miserable place. Listen to me. Follow me. Believe in me. I will make your life better. Unhappy sojourners flock like sheep. Their glorious leader will make their lives better. All they have to do is believe! It sounds like just what they’ve been looking for. It sounds good, sign me up. No facts or proofs required: mmm, mmm, mmm!!!

They begin to sound like brainwashed acolytes in an est session, secure in the knowledge that their guru will not just show them the truth and the light, but he will make it so. He is magical, he is “cosmically plugged in”. The entire enlightened world (of which they are now a part) recognizes his import, his singularity. But the truth is, as Salerno notes, these inadequately trained gurus have no business leading people: “They're snake-oil salesmen, pitching regimens that have never been validated.”

Noted psychologist Michael Hurd is quoted as saying: "Gurus encourage these poor, already troubled souls to literally take leave of their senses, as if departing reason will somehow liberate you." Any of you troubled souls out there ready to come home yet? Christopher Buckley? Peggy Noonan? David Brooks (well, maybe you are home)? Anyone?


*Powers Boothe as Jim Jones in Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones H/T the Dennis Miller Show