Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 25 August 2010

The unbearable triteness of best-selling BS

Ever noticed how the haves the world over greedily gobble up any gumph dressed as the “secret of success”, while the have-nots just pray for breakfast? The sequel to “The Secret” – “The Power” – is yet another step on the super-highway to Shangri-Lala Land.

At some point in the early or mid-1980s, our hosts at a dinner party complained about the escalating price of meat. I remember being struck by how curious this lament was, seeing as the hosts in question were undeniably rather wealthy – they had cars for every conceivable purpose (the shopping car, the beach holiday car, the high-tea-at-the-Nellie car), and lived in what seemed to my youngsters’ eye to be a house in which they might regularly get lost, such were the number of rooms, nooks and crannies.

But as the years have limped on, I’ve heard this sort of complaint regularly, and it has become clear that just about everybody wishes that their lives were better, no matter what their current social or financial status. And this is perhaps good, in that having aspirations is what drives us to better our lives. In many cases, bettering our own lives can contribute to the welfare of others also, and that’s certainly no bad thing.

There is, however, a difference between being aspirational and being delusional. The former could involve wishing you could afford any meat at all, and the latter perhaps that you could persuade Floyd Shivambu to express himself using coherent and complete sentences. And it is, of course, possible to make significant distinctions in the realm of what we aspire to, in that it’s somewhat offensive to complain about your lot when you already have more than most could dream of having.
Maintaining a sense of perspective has never been our strong suit as a species. As is well-known to even those who have only dabbled in psychology or behavioural economics, we’re prone to all sorts of biases and fallacious ways of reasoning. If you are savvy or exploitative enough, you can make plenty of money out of these human frailties, as Rhonda Byrne demonstrated with her bestselling self-help book, “The Secret”.

“The Secret”, for those of you who sensibly ignore this sort of nonsense, is a book (and later, DVD, coasters, coffee mugs, calendars etc.) which teaches you about the Law of Attraction, whereby “that which is like unto itself is drawn”. This may require some translation. Essentially, think Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams” (“If you build it, they will come”), except where Kevin wanted people to play baseball in his backyard, Rhonda wants you to imagine happiness, the partner of your dreams and a business deal with Bheki Cele.

While the idea that your thoughts can affect the real world outside of your head is simultaneously incredibly simple as well as incredibly simple-minded, its simplicity has not deterred Byrne from offering us further guidance in these dark arts via a new book called “The Power”. She clearly feels that she’s spent enough time visualising a new generation of gullible readers, and that the readers of the first book won’t mind or notice that their lives remain sufficiently unimproved, thus meriting a fresh infusion of quantum-quackery.

The day after publication last week, “The Power’s” sales propelled it into the top five of Amazon’s book sales. While it repeats the primary claim made in “The Secret” (you can get want you want by wishing for it, and imagining that it’s already in your possession), it apparently adds some further revelations. One of these is the importance of being nice to your water.

According to Byrne’s new book, research has shown that “when water is exposed to positive words and feelings such as love and gratitude, the energy level of the water not only increases, but the structure of the water changes, making it perfectly harmonious”. Negative emotions, on the other hand, decrease the energy level of the water, and “chaotic changes occur”. Since “the inside of your head is 80% water”, it’s clear how important this information is. I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book to discover how one goes about being nice to water, but I imagine it at least involves not freezing it into little cubes and then adding it to inferior brands of scotch.

It gets worse, as these things often tend to. “The Power” also explains that death itself is subject to the Law of Attraction. The “ancient texts” that Byrne has access to tell us that, “People once lived for hundreds and hundreds of years”, but that we have since changed what we believe and are, therefore, dying sooner than we should. The Law of Attraction has thus brought her and Deepak Chopra in sync, seeing as he’s on record as saying that you can “free yourself from aging by reinterpreting your body and by grasping the link between belief and biology”.

It’s easy for most of us to have a good chuckle at the expense of those who believe in this sort of woo-woo. However, many who don’t take the likes of Byrne and Chopra seriously nevertheless use language that’s not too dissimilar. When we speak of being “grounded”, for example, what is it that we mean? Apart from the grounding provided by the force of gravity, what else is there to be grounded to? Similarly, we might speak of “being centred” or “letting the universe decide”. We might read far too much into mere coincidence, or thank God for sparing our lives after having been raped, as a Pretoria mother recently did, saying “God was good to me” instead of asking the more pressing question of why God thought it appropriate that she be raped.

And to return to the intersection of these sorts of platitudes with class and economic power, it’s important to note that it’s more often the case that the haves, rather than the have-not’s, entertain ideas of actually changing the external world through bunkum such as the Law of Attraction. Sure, there is a widespread acceptance of spirituality and mysticism among the poor, but it’s arguably of a far less self-important nature. When you have nothing, you might pray to be blessed with something, or anything, but you don’t think that it’s in your power to provide that blessing – it’s a beseeching of a third force, or a higher power. By contrast, it’s largely the already privileged that imagine themselves to be able to generate further wealth simply by thinking about it.

As an antidote to this epidemic of positive thinking, Barbara Ehrenreich has written a tremendous book called “Smile or Die”, which traces the evolution of these delusional ways of dealing with the world. She reminds us that shit happens and that it’s perfectly natural – and should be expected – for life to not dish up all the treats you’d like or expect to have. Given the prevalence of this sort of optimism in the US, it should come as no surprise that the American edition of the book was titled “Bright-sided”, seeing as a title reminding us of our mortality might be considered a little pessimistic in the land of can-do.

PZ Myers has it right when he says: “The real secret is that the universe doesn’t give a goddamn about us, doesn’t dream, doesn’t wish, doesn’t hope. The real power is that science gives us the tools to wrench the pointless detritus of reality into the shape that we dream of, to impose our wishes on the substrate. We don’t achieve that by lying abed and hoping really hard, though — we do it with work and real knowledge. The shortcuts of lotus eaters like Rhonda Byrne are entirely illusory.”

And on the issues of class and power, the last word on positive thinkers should perhaps be those of Charles Bukowski who said: “The problem with you people is your cities have never been burned and your mothers have never been told to shut up. Good night, here’s the next poem.”