Wednesday, April 28, 2010

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Well-Intentioned, But Misguided: The Obama Agenda on Obesity

In February, First Lady Michelle Obama launched her "Let's Move" campaign to end childhood obesity.

She drew widespread criticism by opening up this public conversation with a discussion of her daughters, whose weights she described as having been "off-balance." But thus far there has been limited discussion of the misguided direction her campaign has taken: pushing exercise and diet when there are significant structural economic and social issues at play in the challenges of keeping kids healthy, whether that means plump or thin. I've written about these issues elsewhere — on the Oxford University Press author's blog and in Social Text — but I was delighted to see these issues discussed in a more broadly distributed forum, by Ezra Klein in last week's Washington Post.

Klein points to the socio-economic factors associated with obesity — that communities with high rates of obesity are generally those with lower socio-economic status, along with limited access to healthy foods. What Klein doesn't mention, but implies, is that the evil twin of childhood and adult obesity is food insecurity.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (via,
  • In 2008, household food insecurity rose more than 35 percent due to the recession and increased unemployment.
  • More than 49 million people — including 16.7 million childrenlive in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. This represents more than one in seven households in the United States (14.6 percent).
  • 5.7 percent of U.S. households experience hunger. Some people in these households frequently skip meals or eat too little, sometimes going without food for a whole day. 17.3 million people, including 1.1 million children, live in these homes — where they frequently skip meals or eat too little.
  • 8.9 percent of U.S. households are at risk of hunger. Members of these households have lower quality diets or must resort to seeking emergency food because they cannot always afford the food they need. 31.8 million people, including 15.6 million children, live in these homes.
Food security for a household means that all household members have access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Paradoxically, food insecurity — a shortage of high-quality food — is a likely cause of the so-called obesity problem. Food insecurity is an economic problem with medical, educational, and psychological outcomes, including what doctors call childhood obesity.

Now let's talk about the movement side of things, or exercise.

When was the last time you (if you're a parent) felt free to let your six- or seven-year-old child head outdoors, on their own, to run around and blow off some steam? Probably never, if, like most parents, you wish to keep Childhood Protective Services out of your family life.

A little more than three decades ago, growing up in a Los Angeles suburb, my siblings and I did just that — ran around all day in the summer, building forts, catching lizards, playing war games (yes, we were politically incorrect, both pre-PETA and non-pacifist), and generally creating a low-level of neighborhood havoc. Without the paranoia of a pedophile on every corner generated by a 24-hour news cycle, parents just a generation or two ago felt free to let kids run around with little or no supervision. And frankly, the no supervision was key because it maximized the kids' motion. What adult, short of an Olympic athlete, can actually keep up with the average seven-year-old?

If we want our kids to be healthy — whether that means lean or not — we need a world where food scarcity is a thing of the past and kids are safe to run around without constant supervision.

Childhood obesity is not a disease, it's a symptom of ongoing social and economic inequality. I hope the Obamas have the political will to focus on the less visible economic and social issues that actually threaten the health of our nation. If that were their agenda, you'd hear me saying "Let's Move" as well.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Self-Help "Guru" Indicted on Three Counts of Manslaughter in Sweat Lodge Deaths

The Associated Press and The New York Times are reporting that James Arthur Ray, the motivational speaker who presided over a sweat lodge "ritual" that left three people dead and more than a dozen hospitalized, has been charged with three counts of manslaughter. The deaths occurred last October, when Ray convened a "spiritual warrior" retreat at which participants were pushed to — and obviously beyond — their limits.

Ray has been a frequent guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show and is one of many self-appointed, self-help "gurus" who advocate the doctrine of The Secret: that a mysterious universal "Law of Attraction" governs our lives, drawing into our experience only those things that we wish for or focus upon. I have to wonder how that idea's working for James Arthur Ray now.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Fit to Govern

The first year of the historic Obama presidency has been marked by public preoccupation with both of the Obamas' physiques.

The much discussed December 2008 paparazzo photo of President Barack Obama's "six pack" and the spring 2009 media preoccupation with First Lady Michelle Obama's "right to bare arms" are indications of just how much we've come to equate fitness with fitness to govern. The well-toned body is seen as a sign of the virtue necessary for governance. Self-control, that is, self-governance, is seen as prerequisite to govern the populace.*

Earlier this year I sat down to write about these public fascinations. Some of my thinking about this recently appeared in the journal Social Text, on the occasion of the journal's 30th anniversary and 100th issue. You can read more about this here.

*For a terrific book that also explores these ideas around fitness and governance, check out Jeffrey Louis Decker's Made in America: Self-Styled Success from Horatio Alger to Oprah Winfrey.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Overheard on Oprah: "You might think of it as socialism, we think of it as being civilized."

A Global Projection of Subjective Well-Being by University of Leicester social psychologist Adrian White.

Imagine my surprise when Wednesday's Oprah Winfrey Show featuring a profile of "the world's happiest people" became an impromptu public service announcement for many values I hold dear: universal health care, free public education, paid maternity leave, robust supports for the unemployed and disabled, and progressive taxation.

Winfrey reported on the show and at her website that "for the past 30 years, scientific researchers and survey results have all reached the same conclusion—Danes are consistently happier than the rest of the world. On the "world map of happiness"—a map created by a social psychologist in England—Switzerland, Austria and Iceland rank just below Denmark on the happiness scale. Canada comes in at number 10, while the United States is a distant 23rd."

Meeting some Danish women in their homes, Winfrey learned that they had simple uncluttered living spaces—"less stuff, more life"—and that they had lots of time with their families, high levels of education, universal access to health care, paid maternity leaves, and, astonishing to Oprah, an up-to-60% tax rate and an almost a universal agnosticism.

Winfrey invited two of the Danish women to Skype into her program live on Tuesday. Nanna Norup, one of them, is my new hero for her brilliant interview responses:

When Winfrey said "I know your county is a democratic country, but it's a democratic country with a lot of socialist views, correct?" Norup replied:

"Yes, you might think so, we don't necessarily think of it as that [socialist] . . . we more think of it as being civilized: that you take care of your old and your sick and you make sure that people get well educated—we think of it more as being civilized."

So this is where the new emphasis on positive psychology and happiness research gets interesting: although the focus on individual happiness can look venal in the competitive North American context, an international perspective reveals that the happiest people in the world are those for whom the desperate angst that Americans (and much of the rest of the world) experience over health care, childcare, livelihoods, and education for their children is alleviated by good governance and an equitable distribution of resources.

So perhaps there are positive outcomes from the new emphasis on happiness—among them a public conversation about the conditions that are necessary for human flourishing.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What Doesn't Kill You . . .

Here at Self-Help, Inc. we normally think of the dangers of self-improvement culture as being those of over-promising and under-delivering. Self-help literature promises its takers the world, and when it doesn't deliver, lays the blame at their feet.

Sadly, self-help guru and Secret co-author James Arthur Ray's "Spiritual Warrior" program delivered: It promised that participants, many of whom paid more than $9,000 to attend, would have their lives changed forever. Indeed. Two are dead, one is in critical condition, and eighteen others are hospitalized after a "sweat lodge" ritual went awry.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once quipped that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. The problem: some things simply kill you.

Our thoughts are with the families of the deceased, 38-year-old Kirby Brown of Westtown, New York, and 40-year-old James Shore of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and with the other eighteen victims.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bright-Sided, or The Perils of Positive Thinking

Patricia Cohen at The New York Times does a terrific feature on Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Bright-Sided, which looks at the role of positive thinking in the most recent economic debacle of boom and bust.

Irrational enthusiasms (some say "exuberance") is something that goes back at least to the dawn of global market economies — I'm thinking here of the 17th-century Dutch speculative trade in tulips, sometimes referred to as tulipomania.

But seldom has a boom-bust cycle has such a well-articulated ideology—captured in texts such as Rhonda Brynes' The Secret, or Esther and Jerry Hick's Ask and It Is Given—as has our recent run-up in uncollateralized derivatives and credit default swaps.

Ehrenreich unpacks the ideology of positive-thinking-lemons-to-lemonade-department-of-silver-linings in this important new book. And Patricia Cohen has shown a bright light on it.

(Full disclosure: Ehrenreich and I are part of an informal working group involved in the critique of improbable thinking.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Self-Storage: The Museum of Me

Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks, CA, August 2009

While I have no financial interest, or known relationship to the owners of McGee's Self-Storage (pictured above), I do have an abiding interest in the intersection of personality, self-identity and expertise.

So I was happy when we were able to snap this photograph where those three elements come together, and even more pleased when journalist Jon Mooallem took up the topic of America's pre-occupation with self-storage in a recent feature in The New York Times' Magazine earlier this month.

Self-storage is something we've discussed on this blog before, but Mooallem's analysis linking American identity, consumer culture, and the proliferation of self-storage companies nationwide was a welcome and extended commentary.

Mooallem shows how self-storage companies profit by creating a space where we can preserve our multiple selves, a sort of uncurated private and enclosed museum of me.

And now the mini-storage industry even offers to bring us happiness: this, from the downtown 3 train on the IRT this past week . . .

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mirror Man

More than enough ink and bandwidth has been devoted to the sad story of Michael Jackson's demise, but one analysis stood out for its excellent appraisal of the social forces that shaped Jackson: Patricia Williams' piece this last week in The Nation.

Jackson was the epitome of makeover culture . . . perhaps his story frames the limits of self-invention . . .

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Newsweek Takes on Oprah

'Twas great to see that Newsweek magazine took on Oprah last week, echoing what we'd said on this blog way back when (February 2008) about Oprah's embrace of The Secret. Newsweek noted:

"On one of the Secret shows, Oprah gave an example of the scientific power of the concept. She said that once, while she was hosting an episode about a man who could blow really big soap bubbles, she was thinking to herself, "Gee, that looks fun. I would like to blow some bubbles." When she returned to her office after the show, there, on her desk, was a silver Tiffany bubble blower. "So I call my assistant," Oprah told the audience. "I say, 'Did you just run out and get me some bubbles? 'Cause I got bubbles by my desk.' And she says, 'No, the bubbles were always there. I bought you bubbles for your birthday and you didn't notice them until today'."

There are many lessons that might be drawn from this anecdote. One is that if you give Oprah a thoughtful gift, she may not bother to notice it or thank you for it. This is not the lesson Oprah took away from her story. Because the way she sees it, her assistant hadn't really given her the gift at all. She gave it to herself. Using the power of The Secret, she said, "I had called in some bubbles." (Newsweek, May 30, 2009)

But a friend pointed out the similarity of the Newsweek text to language from this blog, back in February 2008:

"Winfrey had a bubble-blowing world-record-breaking champion on her show recently, and in the midst of his bubble-blowing she'd said, "Wow, I'm gonna have to get me some bubbles." Then, when she got back to her desk, she discovered a silver Tiffany bubble-blowing wand with several bottles of bubble solution. She was astonished. She asked her assistant where it had come from and she said she'd gotten it for her as a present several weeks before. And she hadn't noticed. She hadn't noticed a present that one of her staff members had gotten her several weeks earlier. It had just sat there, unopened and unacknowledged, on her desk for weeks.

The message Oprah takes from this — and tells the world — is that this is the miraculous power of The Secret at work and that she is special and chosen and that the universe has pre-ordered her a bubble blower to accommodate her needs, desires, and whims even before she knows she has them. One of Oprah's guests chimed in that Oprah's so special that she doesn't get just any bubble blower — that the universe sends her a silver one from Tiffany's. The message my friend took from this story is that Oprah must be a pretty awful person to work for if she doesn't notice, let alone acknowledge, a present from a staff member that's been sitting on her desk for weeks. Even a present in a Tiffany bag."

I'm happy to share, but attribution is always appreciated.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Living Life to the Fullest

Oprah's gained weight again. So much so that the gown she was planning on wearing to the Obama inauguration balls -- the gown that she had a photo of on her "vision board" -- probably won't fit. The first week of her 2009 season will be devoted to makeover after makeover: body, money, sex, relationships. It'll be a "your best life" fest. The cover of the January issue of her magazine is devoted to a reversed before and after picture of herself: the before is the skinny athletic look of 2005 and the after is her more robust and stout self of recent months.

What Oprah doesn't seem to understand is that her preoccupation with her weight and her public self-castigation over not fitting the skinny ideal is a disservice to us all. Kate Harding at Shapely Prose has written an open letter to Oprah about just this, and I strongly recommend reading it. Elizabeth Tamny at Cahiers du Moment has also penned a pal letter to Oprah. And Rachel at the F-Word (for fat, food, and feminism) has weighed in as well.

What worries me is how Oprah makes her weight a moral issue, with thinness a sign of virtue and fat a sign of all manner of bad: avarice, gluttony, moral dissolution. Given that body size and shape is as much an outcome of genetics as is skin color, I wonder why Oprah would buy into this last acceptable prejudice. When Oprah castigates herself for not starving and exercising herself into some smaller version of herself, she makes it that much harder for the rest of us to live our lives to the fullest.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mumbai, India and the "War on Terrorism"

Speaking about the crisis in Mumbai/Bombay, Deepak Chopra had something quite sound to say last evening on Larry King Live:

Chopra: I think Mr. Obama has a real opportunity here, but a challenging opportunity, a creative opportunity. Get rid of the phrase "war on terrorism." Ask for a creative solution in which we all participate.

King: Is it because the war on terrorism really can never be won because the terrorists (inaudible)?

Chopra: Because it's an oxymoron. It's an oxymoron, Larry, a war on war, a war on terrorism.

You know, terrorists call mechanized death from 35,000 feet above sea level with a press of a button also terror. We don't call it that, because our soldiers are wearing uniforms. They don't see what is happening, and innocent people are being killed. So, you know, terror is a term that you apply to the other.

I wonder if I'm going soft on self-help. Lately I'm finding myself agreeing with Oprah about her choice for president and impressed with Chopra's analysis of the war on terrorism. Is this what happens when there's a seismic shift and the those who have been at the margins become the center?

Could self-help culture be changing now that we have a president who embodies some of the better aspects of the American dream: self-invention in the interest of service to others? Has the economic crisis shown us that belaboring the self — working on ones self to get ahead is — is no longer a plausible path, since there is no clear route to getting ahead when it's all tumbling down?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Tale of Two Citi's

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way." — Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens made excellent rhetorical use of oppositions, or what my 11-year-old calls Oppositeville. Incommensurates are slammed up against each other, nullifying our usual categories of thought, leaving us with some vague sense of wisdom or profundity. It's a good trick. Time-tested. So good that the Citigroup used it in a long running ad campaign that touted what we sociologists like to call "expressive values" — the affective, sentimental, sensory, and emotional values that dance a counterpoint with capitalism's instrumental and rational values. (If you're wondering what the instrumental rationality of banking looks like, think of a bank foreclosing on a 90-year-old woman who lived in her home for some 38 years — nothing personal, nothing sentimental, just business as usual, that belies the Citi's ad campaign slogans of just a few years back:
  • Work like your life didn't depend on it.
  • Too much belt tightening leaves those funny little dents on your stomach.
  • If you think fun always requires money, think bubble wrap.
  • If you had all the money in the world, the rest of us would start using something else.
  • Money only rents happiness.
  • Your thoughts are worth way more than a penny.
  • Paying through the nose is a bad idea. Plus it sounds painful.
  • People with fat wallets are not necessarily more jolly.
  • You were born preapproved.
  • Live happily ever now.
The message: money doesn't matter as much as life — your life — was plastered on every bus stop and billboard and phone booth (back then we had phone booths — before everyone had their own privatized phone in the form of cellphone).

It's an appealing message, but not one we are likely to be hearing now — especially not that slogan "You were born pre-approved." And now the Citi is back, hat in hand asking not for our sentiments, but for our cents, 4 trillion cents and about another 40 trillion cents of loan guarantees, but whose counting?

Yesterday they got it — 40 billion bucks now as we bailed them out with cash and writedowns and a likely 360 billion in future loan guarantees, all from you and me — our taxpayer dollars (and our kids' and their kids' kids' dollars)
. The value of the company had sunk from 274 billion dollars a year ago to a mere 27 billion the day before yesterday. And we kicked in 40 billion dollars yesterday, when we could have bought the whole thing for $27 billion. And wasn't this the bank that about a month ago was bidding to buy up Wachovia? Can someone help me out here, as Rachel Maddox would say. Honestly, what is going on here?

Why is it that I cannot help but think that we are watching the largest transfer of wealth from working Americans to corporate America that we have ever witnessed?

Don't get me wrong — I'm not some free-marketer who thinks that the government should stand by idly while the economy crashes and burns — but something seems really wrong with this picture. Even Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman thinks something is fishy.

While we're trying to get to the bottom of this, if not to the bottom of the market, these are my pictures of the Citi campaign as it invaded my city of New York several years ago.

My personal favorite: If you had all the money in the world, the rest of us would start using something else. Maybe that is what's happening right now.
Soon barter will be back.

Tale of Two Citi's


Saturday, November 15, 2008


Pictured here is the newsstand at Fondamente Nove on the north side of the islands that make up Venice, Italy two days after the Obama victory. Obama, oh-yes!

Last week I was there for a conference on art, culture and the public sphere. The conference was terrific, but the downside was that I missed the election day celebration at home.

Friends said it felt like one images V-day would have felt. The end of one long war . . . The liberation of a nation held hostage. One friend reported that back in New York everyone was dancing in the street, coming up and hugging her and high-fiving her as she walked up to the Apollo Theatre for the celebration in Harlem. People, she said, were wearing buttons with photographs of departed parents and grandparents, wishing they could be here to witness the historic transition.

At the conference over in Venice, over lunch, a sociologist from the mideast asked me how I felt about the election results and I surprised myself as my eyes started to well up. Teary-eyed I said what so many have said — that the Obama victory is a repudiation not only of 8 years of presidential criminality, but of hundreds of years of racial bigotry.

I was apprehensive early on when it looked as though makeover maven Oprah Winfrey was choosing the next president of the United States. And I was annoyed with that primary remark "You're like-able enough Hillary." But in the end it's easy to see that Oprah got this right. When America needed an extreme makeover, it looked toward Oprah and Obama. O-yes.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Imagine: The Secret of Life Now Online . . .

Someone has posted the BBC interview that Alan Yentob did with me last February on YouTube, so I can share it with you now.

This was part of Yentob's cultural news program Imagine. The episode' – The Secret of Life — is Yentob's quest for meaning of self-help culture . . .

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Package Less || The Movement Movement

Choreographer Martha Williams and her company, The Movement Movement, have developed a performance piece inspired by Self-Help, Inc. and the issues it raises about "human capital." Package Less will premiere at the Soho Joyce Theater (155 Mercer Street, New York, NY) on Thursday, June 19th, 8 pm at 8pm and will run through Saturday, June 21st.

For more information, visit The Movement Movement's website.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

May Day 2008: Is Red the New Black?

In honor of May Day 2008, I must ask, is red the new black?

Red took a beating for roughly fifty years. From 1945 until just recently the color was viciously maligned, with children told that they were better dead than, well, you know, red.

But recently red has emerged as the color of choice for charities and corporate marketers alike.

If you have great images of red in marketing campaigns, and want to include them in our gallery of red, kindly send them to micki at selfhelpinc dot com.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Imagine: Credit Where Credit Is Due

Last week Alan Yentob and his marvelous crew of producers at the BBC aired an episode of the cultural program Imagine focused on the rise of self-help culture.

Yentob had been on a Panglossian (is that a word?) quest for the truth about self-help and happiness, and on the way he stopped by in New York City and interviewed me about my take on self-help culture.

Part of what I said is "Now we live in a culture of constant change and turnover . . . you not only have to be employed, but constantly employable. Not only married, but constantly marriageable. And that is the moment self-help emerges as a powerful literature."

It's a lovely summary, and I'm sure I did indeed say that, but the credit for this language rightly belongs to Jerald Wallulis who wrote a wonderful book called The New Insecurity: The End of the Standard Job and Family.

When I mention this idea in Self-Help, Inc, naturally I cite Wallulis and his work, but somehow in the ebb and flow of the interview I must have forgotten to mention this intellectual debt.

Apologies to Wallulis, whose book is a veritable goldmine of ideas about the use of anxiety and cultures of self-governance as instruments of social control. And thanks to the BBC for a thought-provoking program.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Self-Help Yourself

Stopped at a traffic light on Manhattan's Westside Highway last week I had a chance to snap a picture of this billboard. Self-help yourself!

At first I thought it was an ad for a self-storage facility, since there is huge one over there by the Hudson River, and the colors for the company that owns it are pretty similar to these, but no, I was wrong. Just an ad for a job search website, which, judging by the state of the U.S. economy, we may all be in need of very shortly.

But I've not been stuck in traffic for a full six months, so what's my excuse for the inexcusable blog silence? I've not been out here blogging about much of anything . . . didn't weigh in on the good doctor Phil's heinous misjudgment in springing the ailing Britney from her 72-hour clinical observation period, or his egregious breach of professional ethics in sharing with a national audience his observations about "his client." (Well, who ever thought Dr. Phil had professional ethics in the first place?) And I haven't chimed in on the rise of O politics, the Oprah-Obama endorsement. But I just can't help myself this week. I have to say something about two Oprah episodes this week.

On the first of the two shows, Oprah revisits The Secret, continuing to claim that the magical thinking contained therein can work magic for anyone who believes. My dearest childhood friend called me the morning after the show aired. (But not, dear readers, because I'd done a creative visualization summing her attention). She called to rant about her shock at the unmitigated arrogance of the bubble story — the silver Tiffany bubble blower story — that Oprah told as evidence of deep knowledge of The Secret, of her election as a very special chosen person.

I have to tell the bubble-blower story here because this part of the episode is not recapped on the Oprah website. Winfrey had a bubble-blowing world-record-breaking champion on her show recently, and in the midst of his bubble-blowing she'd said, "Wow, I'm gonna have to get me some bubbles." Then, when she got back to her desk, she discovered a silver Tiffany bubble-blowing wand with several bottles of bubble solution. She was astonished. She asked her assistant where it had come from and she said she'd gotten it for her as a present several weeks before. And she hadn't noticed. She hadn't noticed a present that one of her staff members had gotten her several weeks earlier. It had just sat there, unopened and unacknowledged, on her desk for weeks.

The message Oprah takes from this — and tells the world — is that this is the miraculous power of The Secret at work and that she is special and chosen and that the universe has pre-ordered her a bubble blower to accommodate her needs, desires, and whims even before she knows she has them. One of Oprah's guests chimed in that Oprah's so special that she doesn't get just any bubble blower — that the universe sends her a silver one from Tiffany's.

The message my friend took from this story is that Oprah must be a pretty awful person to work for if she doesn't notice, let alone acknowledge, a present from a staff member that's been sitting on her desk for weeks. Even a present in a Tiffany bag. Either that, or she just has way too much stuff.

Which brings us to the next show, which was about having too much stuff. The following day Oprah hyped the new book of her pal Peter Walsh, the decluttering "expert." Like all self-help gurus, Walsh had to find a way to write a diet book even if his area of expertise is clearing out the clutter from our overly consumptive households. He's just come out with a book called "Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? An Easy Plan for Losing Weight and Living More." (Yes, that's really true — I can't make this up.) His idea: declutter your home and you'll lose weight.

To launch the book, Walsh and his team ambush makeover a woman who is struggling with weight gain in the wake of a late second trimester miscarriage and subsequent kidney failure that requires dialysis and a transplant. The woman is bereft, and exhausted, caring for a husband and two children who don't seem to do much to support her with any of the housework, and don't seem to realize that their wife-mother-housekeeper is seriously ill. Her kids have also gained weight as the family is eating out and ordering in food since the mother is too tired to cook and clean as she once did.

But rather than deal with these complicated family care giving dynamics, Walsh rifles through the woman's stuff, blithely tossing her belongings in bins, until the woman loses it and runs, literally screaming and cursing, from the house. Walsh pursues her and persuades her that all of this is good — exactly the "breakthrough" they needed to get her to get "real" about what's going on in her life.

In the end we see a clean and tidy home — a total makeover for the house — and we're supposed to believe that the family is healed and that their weight issues are solved as well. The woman and her children sat in the Oprah show audience, looking ever bit as awkward and unhappy as they'd been in their home that was overflowing with clutter, still desperately in need of human attention, albeit not the voyeuristic sort one gets from an international television audience. They were still greatly in need of care, nurturance, security, not to mention an organ transplant. None of these much needed phenomena were going to magically materialize simply because they'd wished for them, or because they'd tossed away their extra stuff, or even because they were featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

There is one thing that Peter Walsh is right about in all of this . . . that all the stuff around us can be seen as a symptom. Capitalism has made it vastly easier to have more and more things rather than have clearer and better attention. Capitalism's strong point is that it's great at producing lots of things. Its weak point is that it leaves each of us alienated from ourselves, our work, each other, and from our human nature.

Maybe that's why I thought the "Self-help yourself" billboard was for a self-storage space . . . as the demand for mini-storage facilities escalates each year, we're storing away more and more of our stuff as we try to hold on to our selves.

Self-storage spaces, like self-help culture in general, are just stopgap measures for system that's staggering under its own weight, and poised to crumble.


Friday, May 18, 2007

The Secret's Success

This week Micki's critique of The Secret can be found in The Nation. Check it out . . .

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Dream Big (And Forget The Secret)

A couple of months ago a reporter from The Wall Street Journal rang me to ask me what I thought about Rhonda Byrne's bestselling straight-to-DVD self-help movie The Secret. I hadn't been paying much attention to it — after all, these folks are telling us that whatever we think about, we attract. You can bet that I wasn't interested in attracting two dozen would-be self-help gurus (and a couple of seasoned self-help pros) in search of paying syncophants.

The WSJ reporter and I marveled at how well the DVD had riffed on the visual vocabulary of another bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, and chatted about how there really is nothing new in the putative "secret" — folks have been selling this "believe it and you will see it" tripe for as long as there have been self-help books and even before.

We talked about the novelty of Bryne's "straight to DVD" marketing approach that's generated a huge book market for her product. And we talked about how tired and desperate Americans must be if they're buying a $34.99 DVD that tells you that the universe is essentially one giant catalog, get your order in any time, supplies are unlimited. And then the Journal ran the piece, using everything I'd shared as background. Good enough. At least word was getting out about the very unsecret nature of The Secret.

But that was all the way back in January — before the Oprah two-episode testimonials about the "miracle" of "the secret." Before the recordbreaking print run for the reorder by the book's publisher. Before the two-hour Larry King Live treatment, which Steve Salerno quips works as a prime time infomercial for this snake oil. Before Cynthia McFadden did a Nightline feature debunking the pseudo-science behind The Secret and I saw my former neighbor Valerie Reiss (Hi Valerie!), who works at, talking about The Secret and how it doesn't work well with most faith traditions as there's no place for compassion. Valerie has written an affecting piece about how, as a cancer survivor, the ideas in The Secret roil her.

While all this PR was spinning, I'd been meaning to post about The Secret — because it was everywhere, and because it was so annoying — but I just had better things to think about. I just couldn't focus on it. Didn't want to give it too much attention. And sure didn't want to attract it.

Then Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a wonderful post on her blog about The Secret, and I figured, well said and that's enough.

But today I broke my vow of silence about The Secret. I got a call from NPR's Talk of the Nation to come into their studios in New York and chat with host Neal Conan and Crown Book publisher Steve Ross about self-help publishing and The Secret. NPR is always fun, so I set out in the unseasonably warm March day to talk with them. You can listen in here.

All the while that we were talking about the Byrne bunk that promises if you dream it, it will be, I was thinking about another sort of dream, that "I've got a dream" sort of dream that Martin Luther King, Jr. evoked so eloquently from a podium in the shadow of the Washington Monument nearly half a century ago. That's the sort of dreaming and visualizing that I'm interested in hearing about. That's the sort of "believe it and it will be" that one hopes would make a difference, though we all know that it wasn't just the dreaming and believing, but the marches, the sit-ins, the meetings, the blood, the toil, the sweat and the tears that got us the civil rights legislation that was won.

Still, dreams to do matter, and that is what Stephen Duncombe argues so eloquently in his new book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. Duncombe shows us how progressive activists can harness the power of imagination and fantasy to see our values realized in the world. No self-help book, but genuine help for all of us, check out Dream at a bookstore near you.


Friday, September 15, 2006

Good News for Belabored Professionals

Labor Day came and went, but not without some good news for belabored Americans. Bestselling author Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickeled and Dimed, Bait and Switch) has launched United Professionals (UP), a new advocacy organization dedicated to assisting working professionals.

With the support of a grant from the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), Ehrenreich and friends aim to develop a national voice for the professional employees whose job security, benefits, access to health insurance, and possibilities for a secure retirement have steadily eroded over the past two decades.

In Self-Help, Inc I argued that anxious American workers turn to self-help culture to quell their economic insecurity. Here's an opportunity to turn to political advocacy and organizing instead.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Long Silence

They say something about silence being golden, but that is so not so in the world of blogging, where hits are golden, and new content on an hourly basis is the most golden of all.

This site has been as silent — as moribund — as the lonely folks I wrote about in February who'd come to Barnes and Noble to die.

It's not that nothing has been going on with Self-Help, Inc. On the contrary, it's been a busy productive time, with a heated back and forth with WNYC's Brian Lehrer in March, and a dialogue with Ellen and Julia Lupton about life as a work of art at Design Your Life, and a chat with journalist Linda Formichelli about ending self-help addiction.

But certainly not so busy that I ought to have grown totally silent in this space.

So what happened? Why the lull?

I had been meaning to write about the deleterious effects of red-baiting after the Brian Lehrer interview — where the dialogue swerved toward a not very interesting (from my point of view) — discussion of whether this writer has a soft spot in her heart for the economic and social theory of one mid-nineteenth century political economist. When so much is at stake with the political apathy that self-help culture breeds, who cares — really, who cares? — what one sociologist thinks about Karl Marx? But that's the path we went down, and for some reason I just couldn't bring us back.

Red-baiting on The Brian Lehrer Show? What has this world come to? I guess it makes for better radio to go on the attack — Rush and the rest of those folks on the far right have taught us that.

All of this got me thinking about civility and silence — about how the bombastic and accusatory can silence (however temporarily) even those among us, like myself, who typically have plenty to say.

Does one need to know tae-kwan-doe to do a radio show?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

No Place to Die

Early on in my research on self-help culture — back when I was poking a little fun at quantitative sociology — I'd gone into the Barnes and Noble on Union Square in Manhattan with a tape measure and calculated the total length of the shelf space devoted to self-help titles.

Back then B & N had those fantastic overstuffed arm chairs where you could park yourself and read for hours, or pull a set together for a chat with a friend. It was the most inviting of retail spaces, and I bought a lot of books there, in gratitude for that sort of public comfort.

Today I was back at that store, searching out a warm, indoor space where my daughter could amuse herself while her godmother and I caught up over coffee. (For out of town readers, we Manhattan apartment dwellers rely on such public spaces when we can't open up our apartments to guests for one reason or another.)

To my surprise, there weren't any chairs on the selling floor — no overstuffed comfortable arm chairs at all. Not even any stiff wooden ones. So we leaned against some displays and chatted while my daughter read some books and took part in a kid's story hour.

When I went to pick up my kid from the story hour, there were parents gathered around, many sitting, none too comfortably, on the floor.

"Wow," I said to one B & N employee, "It'd be great if you had some chairs so the parents had a place to sit."

"Yes," she said, pausing as if to consider whether to say more, "We had to get rid of them."

For a moment I was trying to imagine how the chairs could create some kind of inventory control problem.

Then another employee, someone new to the store, said "Yeah, how come we don't have any chairs?"

The first employee looked pained, and replied quietly, maybe so the kids wouldn't notice, "Too many deaths."

Employee number two and I fell silent, trying to comprehend the magnitude of this disclosure.

"Too many deaths?" I asked. "You mean people came in and sat down and died?"

"Yes, it got to the point where we had one a week."

I could feel my eyes welling up, so I made some off-handed remark about being grateful I'm well enough to stand.

Now I'm not sure what to think. If the B & N employee is to be believed — and she didn't seem to be making this up — then one has to wonder . . .

In a world with miles and miles of books on how to care for your inner child or win friends and influence people or become an automatic millionaire, we've come to a point where not only do some of us have no place to sit for a chat, others, the less fortunate among us, don't even have a comfortable, comforting place to die.

To help the homeless in New York City, contact the Coalition for the Homeless.


Monday, February 13, 2006

When Self-Help Can Help

Last week bestselling self-help author and pastor Rick Warren joined with other evangelical leaders in signing an Evangelical Climate Initiative calling for federal legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Warren's influence counts. He's the head of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, a mega-church with some 22,000 weekly congregants, and the author of The Purpose-Driven Life, with 25 million copies sold, a mega-seller among bestselling self-help books. In fact, Warren and the other evangelicals may well sway the stalwart Bush administration, which has denied the relevance of green house gases in global warming.

Here's a moment when a self-help author recognizes that individual bootstrapping (buying green, driving hybrids, and so on) just isn't going to do the trick. Hallelujah.


Monday, January 16, 2006

Resolute We Are . . . Some Thoughts on New Year's Resolutions

Resolute we are, usually from January 1st, until just about now, right around Martin Luther King Day. Perhaps it is no coincidence that our individual, personal resolve founders just as we're celebrating a holiday commemorating one of America's great heroes—a man who was committed to combating the systemic forces at the heart of so many individual troubles.

Take weight loss. According to 43 Things, the online home of lists and resolutions, losing weight is the all-time top goal of all resolution makers visiting their site. Apparently we are more desperate than ever to fight the putative battle against obesity, a war that supposedly begins at home. But let's think about it. Even if there is an obesity epidemic—an idea which is thoughtfully disputed by fellow-OUP author J. Eric Oliver in his recent book Fat Politics—why would it be that Americans would suddenly be so hefty?

There are social and economic forces at work here. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out, for many Americans weight gain is an occupational hazard. Confined as they are to their cubicles for 8 to 10 hours a day, and then in automotive or mass transit commutes of another couple of hours, white collar workers are hard-pressed to fit in the 10,000 steps each day that fitness experts urge we take for maintaining a healthy level of functioning. While some of us are fortunate to live in urban areas like New York City, where shoe leather is still among the commuting options, in most American cities the rise of the automobile, fueled not only by gasoline, but also by state supports for the automotive industry in the form of highway subsidies, has made walking not only difficult, but dangerous.

Then consider our national food supply, laced as it is, with corn syrup, a diabetes- and obesity-inducing additive that is a consequence of the glut of corn on the market. Why the corn glut? Because the USDA subsidizes the cultivation of corn.

Finally there is the matter of sleep deprivation. American working people, in particular mothers (and occasionally fathers) who are working second shifts at home, are chronically sleep deprived. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild (1989:10) writes of working mothers who "talk about sleep the way hungry people talk about food." And interestingly enough, recent research suggests that sleep deprivation can interfere with weight-loss because the adrenal glands in the bodies of the chronically-stressed and sleep-deprived churn out too much cortisol, a hormone that encourages the body to hold onto fat, in case of impending famine.

In reality, the famine is already upon us. On the average American workers are earning less today than in 1972. Don't just take it from me. [To read more, visit Oxford UP's blog . . .]


Thursday, January 05, 2006

Why Believe "Self-help's Big Lie"?

Steve Salerno got himself a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed piece on New Year's Day, denouncing self-help culture as a big lie. While he and I agree on some things, we don't agree on others.

Here's my Letter to the Editor that the Times elected not to include in their line-up of responses . . . I guess no one likes to think about the economic underpinnings of the anxiety that sends folks to read self-help books . . .

To the Editor:

Steve Salerno rightly points out that much of American self-help culture is a mass deception. ("Self-help's Big Lie," 1/1/06). But his analysis begs the question of why Americans are hooked on self-help. If Americans aren't just gullible or plain stupid, why are they turning to the likes of Tony Robbins, Stephen R. Covey, and the good doctors Phil and Laura?

The answer is simple: faced with declining earning power (real wages are about 20 percent less now than they were in 1972) and unstable, unpredictable employment opportunities—not to mentioning destabilized families and soaring divorce rates—Americans are searching for answers. Contemporary Americans are not just overworked, they're belabored: they're at work on themselves, struggling to remain not just employed, but ever re-employable; not just married, but also re-marriageable.

Americans turn to self-help culture for advice on how to minimize their economic and interpersonal risks in an increasingly competitive global context. Helping Americans actually minimize these risks is the important work of the sociology, social activism, and social policy that Mr. Salerno so blithely dismisses as "sociological junk food and a culture of victimization."

Micki McGee

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Speaking of Oprah

Speaking of Oprah, I'm reading a quite dazzling work of cultural criticism by sociologist Eva Illouz. Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery (Columbia University Press, 2003) is Illouz's analysis of how Winfrey has fashioned an empire out of suffering and moral certitude. This is a must-read for students of culture and fans of Oprah. Illouz, along with Steve Salerno—from a quite different vantage—have made me rethink my position on the role of victimization in self-help culture.

Steve Salerno and Mr. "Chicken Soup" Hansen

Check out Steve Salerno's blog for the back story on how he wound up talking with Mr. "Chicken Soup" Hansen instead of that giant of the self-help industry, Tony Robbins.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Soup Slurping: Wrong, Wrong, and Wrong

One more slurp regarding the Chicken Soup expert's "facts" . . .

In his CNN Anderson Cooper 360 interview, Mark Hansen says that only Americans have self-help culture and that Andrew Carnegie started it all.

on both counts.

Ben Franklin's book The Way to Wealth (1758) predates Carnegies' The Gospel of Wealth (1900) and The Empire of Business (1902) by well over a hundred years.

And Scottish author Samuel Smiles' Self-Help (1859) was the first book ever with "self-help" in the title.

And Hansen has the gall to call Steve Salerno incompetent.

Make that wrong on three counts.