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Stifler of the Noble Soul
The story of America conveys the collected stories of hundreds of millions of individuals enjoying various degrees of freedom of person and property since the nation's founding. The authors of the Declaration of Independence observed that each individual has natural, unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As the scope of government protections of these rights expanded to include all persons regardless of race, gender or other superficial, unchosen qualities, the United States grew to become the freest nation in the world.
With this growing state of freedom came an unprecedented growth in wealth of matter and spirit. The nineteenth century saw massive financial boons resulting from the Industrial Revolution. The separation of church and state allowed religions of all flavors to flourish. Education, too, became a widely demanded commodity and literacy rates skyrocketed.
Many people recognize the works of Benjamin Franklin, notably his annual publication Poor Richard's Almanac and his Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, as the original American texts on personal growth. Under a system of great personal freedom, Americans had opportunities to engage in purposeful acts of self-growth unknown to previous generations. The great success of Franklin's works revealed a deeply buried hunger among Americans for spiritual nourishment leading to a sense of an enhanced self more able to live and more worthy of living.
As the new nation matured, it experienced a number of growing pains politically and culturally. The Civil War brought freedom to former slaves and later actions expanded the political and economic role of women and other formerly second class citizens. Unfortunately, ideas contrary to the American tradition of natural individualism also reared their ugly heads. The rise of both mysticism and collectivism threatened the "common sense" of natural law and self-responsibility and its ideal of individualism. By the middle of the twentieth century, religionists such as Norman Vincent Peale claimed that free will alone can defeat all threats in books like The Power of Positive Thinking. In reaction to these mystical claims, so-called "scientists" like B. F. Skinner denied free will altogether in books like Beyond Freedom and Dignity.
A host of other irrationalities grew in the twentieth century alongside basically rational ideas to spread weeds into the rich garden of American culture and its love of individual self-growth. Steve Salerno volleys his own treatment of weed killer with his book SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless. Salerno takes to task some of the most well-known and highly paid gurus of today. These include Anthony Robbins, Dr. Phil McGraw, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Dr. John Gray, Tommy Lasorda, and assorted others. More importantly, he challenges contemporary trends such as ebonics and pseudo self-esteem in education, alternative medicine in health care, and the ubiquitous "blame others" mentality everywhere.
In a mixed approach that unfortunately fails in one crucial respect, the author heavily criticizes the abundance of self-help and actualization movement (SHAM) artists in the American marketplace. He discusses the historical roots of SHAM, how it branched into the dueling false alternatives of "empowerment" and "victimization," and the harms that SHAM has brought to American culture and politics. Most beneficially, he shares what the reader can do to protect himself.
Empowerment and Victimization as Dual Denials of the Nature of Reality
To his credit, Salerno correctly identifies the two horns of the barreling beast he calls SHAM as empowerment and victimization. Empowerment claims that anyone can do anything if he puts his mind to it and "believes" with enough "passion." Anthony Robbins represents the loudest individual voice of this faction with Norman Vincent Peale as one of his intellectual ancestors. By contrast, victimization claims that no one can help anything and that no matter what misfortune happens, someone or something else deserves blame. Litigious lawyers represent the loudest collective voice of this faction with B. F. Skinner as one of their intellectual ancestors.
Both factions ignore two fundamental, irrefutable aspects of reality: the primacy of existence and the axiom of volition. By the law of identity, existence acts according to certain basic natural laws which no amount of "belief" or "passion" can change. Thus, no force of will can nullify a person's subjugation to the law of gravity, for example. Only a person's willingness to focus and reason via his own volition can "empower" him to acknowledge these facts and then act in accordance with them. Likewise, because we do live in an existence knowable through volitional focus and reason, no reasonable adult has any excuse to claim "victimization" when for instance she stupidly spills burning hot coffee into her own lap.
Salerno shows how these two horns together have skewered the long standing American ethic of self-responsibility. A person who decides to "empower" himself and fails can simply claim "victimization" and then sue whomever he chooses to blame for his ills. In the former instance, he denies the primacy of existence in his dabbling in wishful thinking; in the latter, he denies the volitional power of his own consciousness to reason. Both actions deny the most fundamental law of logic: the Law of Identity -- A is A. Though Salerno does not couch the issue in this formal philosophical language, he does note that "American society has largely remade itself in SHAM's bipolar image."
Again to his credit, Salerno relates the abstractions of empowerment and victimization back to concrete after concrete in all areas of American life, from romance to finance to education to medicine. Moreover, he shows real, tangible harm in terms of dollars and hours squandered on the nothingness of SHAM. For this information alone, SHAM warrants a read.
By Objectivist standards, much of the material marketed as "self-help" or "personal growth" does amount to destructive nonsense for reasons already described. Salerno epistemologically shows how SHAM artists glibly bypass logic and the need for rigorous empirical substantiation of their outrageous claims. However, the question remains: What ethical standards does Salerno use to judge the works and authors he criticizes so caustically? Tragically, Salerno frequently appeals to moral standards that also amount to destructive nonsense. His examinations often leave the reader of noble soul -- a person who loves his own life most of all -- with a feeling that says, "Damned if you do. Damned if you don't."
Despite its rich content and often caustic analysis, Steve Salerno's SHAM fails in one fundamental respect. Objectivists will see this failure interspersed all through the book. What fully grounded, objective, integrated, rational moral code does Salerno advocate in place of the messages of these various gurus? Blank out. Rather, paleoconservative seems best to describe Salerno's working ethical philosophy as he snidely sneers at self-interest in favor of a number of supposedly "higher" values such as marriage and family.
Salerno the Objectivist -- Not!
Peppered throughout the book comes Salerno's quotations from interviews he conducts with well-known Objectivist psychologist Dr. Michael Hurd, author of Effective Therapy and Grow Up America! Calling him "one of psychology's canniest observers" upon his first mention of the man, Salerno repeatedly appeals to Hurd's insights when attempting to debunk the likes of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the advocates of children's self-esteem affirmations, and other cranks. How can Salerno, clearly an intelligent man and a skilled investigative journalist, miss the underlying philosophy that makes Hurd's insights so relevant and demystifying?
Anyone remotely familiar with Hurd's work and writings will notice the influence of Ayn Rand and her philosophy, Objectivism. Surely a news man like Salerno would have seen this and researched this philosophy further given how often he appeals to Hurd's wisdom and commentary. Regardless, Salerno plainly does not buy into Objectivism's ethical code of rational selfishness. Many comments and observations Salerno makes throughout the book bear witness to this -- to the detriment of his own readers.
Salerno the Paleoconservative
For example, Salerno points to the rise of SHAM in the 1970s as correlating with -- and, he implies, causing -- a corresponding rise in the divorce rate. Despite his vacillating language to the contrary, Salerno clearly objects to the idea of nontraditional households and prefers marriages to remain intact for the sake of the children despite the unhappiness of one or both marriage partners. He lovingly quotes David Blankenhorn, founder of the Institute for American Values, as saying: "In years past, getting married was more of a selfless act. You did it in order to build something bigger than you -- a family -- and to be able to give what you could to the children of that union."
Why should any sensible person enter into any selfless act? Blank out.
Remarks like these run amuck across the pages of SHAM. For instance, the enigma of codependence represents a concrete manifestation of what Ayn Rand called social metaphysics. Melody Beattie wrote a very successful book called Codependent No More in which she describes codependency as the loss of one's own sense of self in the life of another -- especially when that other has issues such as drug addiction that he needs to address fully himself. Salerno cannot wait to get into the body of his book before taking unwarranted jabs at this valid idea. The dedication page of SHAM states:
To Mom and Dad -- and the other members of their generation who, thank God, were codependent enough to put their kids first.
When he finally does give Beattie a proper treatment over halfway through the book, he takes her to task for "ambiguities" in language, specifically her definition of "codependent" as "one who has let another person's behavior affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person's behavior." Lest you think that Salerno honestly wants an objective standard by which to judge a given person as suffering this condition, notice his sniping comments in the endnote of this section with my own emphasis added in bold:
It has been pointed out that the definitions put forth for codependency could describe most people whose lives are built around empathy and self-sacrifice, which are qualities we once admired in ourselves and others.
That same endnote observes that one Web site centered on codependency claims, again with my own emphasis in bold:
Boundaries are human personal property lines. Every human being is a Stand Alone Model. Certain conditioning through guilt can convince us that we are not.
Well, yes, actually, at least by Objectivist standards. But in the snickering paleoconservative world of SHAM, Salerno scoffs at such a worldview.
Salerno further reveals his unflinching, unquestioning adherence to entrenched traditions of marriage and family with further cutting remarks against cultural changes that threaten them. For instance, in his chapter on SHAM in romance, Salerno expresses contempt for trends such as "many Americans [who] draft prenuptial agreements and refuse to commingle assets." Combined with other developments such as "couples [who] postpone having children ... 'to make sure the marriage works first,'" these evolutions in the American love scene lead Salerno to condemn these changes collectively as "a reserve that can't help but handicap the marriage."
This attitude begs the question: Given that the individual represents the ultimate value, what good does any institution serve if not the ultimate good of the individuals involved? To such a question, Salerno would answer: Blank out. Subsequent questions regarding the autonomy of the individual man and woman that make financial commingling unadvisable, the limits to knowledge that make prenuptial agreements advisable, and other salient questions would meet similar Salerno evasions. For Salerno, whether he says it aloud or not, marriage and family remain sacred institutions to which the individual ought to sacrifice himself willingly.
In the field of medicine, Salerno deftly exposes the quackery of a wide range of SHAM artists. He takes to task the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for caving into pressure and granting sanction to specious "alternative medicine" practices. However, in line with his conventional paleoconservative views, Salerno never entertains the idea that perhaps the FDA and NIH need abolishing altogether in favor of a totally free market, caveat emptor approach to health care.
Likewise, in education, Salerno dissects the absurdity of movements such as ebonics and self-esteem affirmations. He shows how such theatrics rob children of their capacity to think rationally and to act productively to earn genuine self-esteem. But once again, the idea of completely privatizing this area of life utterly eludes Salerno.
Perhaps the most telling exposure of Salerno's troubling sense of life comes in his comments on economics. Salerno evidently has a moral problem with the very act of selling front end products and following them with ancillary products even though this common marketing approach keeps companies in business and people employed. He repeatedly knocks Stephen Covey, for example, not because he finds anything about The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to criticize -- he shows no signs of even having read the book -- but because Covey uses that book as a springboard to sell related products.
Moreover, in Salerno's own words, with emphasis in original, he expresses his view of the free market as a closed "zero sum" system:
[The] actualization worldview rests on a logical foundation that would never pass inspection. Today's champions of uncompromising positive thought portray their endeavor as the rising tide that lifts all boats -- a society-wide metamorphosis that's supposed to enable America en masse to reach new levels of fulfillment and prosperity. That is plainly impossible. Barring a wholesale change in the way the free market (in the broadest sense) operates, we can't all be chiefs. In any competitive closed system, there must be a loser for every winner. By definition, then, self-help cannot work for everyone, and the more competitive the realm, the more this is so. Two wonderfully optimistic women who both desire the same man or the same job cannot both succeed. So yes, in the abstract sense, if it works -- if it works -- self-help could conceivably help some of us achieve our goals. But not all of us. Certainly not all the time. ... Though we don't know who will win, we do know that the vast majority of people will lose.
For Salerno, then, as for so many enemies of the free market, the "pie" of total wealth remains fixed as a "competitive closed system" with a few winners and many losers. Anyone who truly understands free markets grasps that the participants all "win" to varying degrees. Macroscopically, the growth of the "pie" of total worldwide wealth since the Industrial Revolution should make this abundantly clear to anyone. More specifically and microscopically, every well-reasoned trade makes the participants wealthier in accordance with their values. A person who values a gallon of gasoline more than three dollars becomes wealthier after the trade -- and so does the person who valued the three dollars he earned more than the gallon of gasoline he sold. A woman who does not "win" the first man -- or first job -- she wants can accept the fact that plenty of other men -- or jobs -- exist as good as or better than the first. Ayn Rand thoroughly debunked Salerno's outworn viewpoint decades ago in her essay "The 'Conflicts' of Men's Interests" in The Virtue of Selfishness. But once again, these basic facts seem lost amidst Salerno's paleoconservative jungle of archaic beliefs.
I could cite many more examples. But these clearly illustrate the implicit paleoconservative viewpoint of Salerno. They lead me to a disturbing conclusion about a man who has written an otherwise informative book.
Steve Salerno -- Stifler of the Noble Soul
Salerno tears apart many existing advocates of personal growth while offering nothing except "tradition" in their place to fill that genuine human need for self-actualization. For Salerno, self-responsibility does not serve self-authority, but simply serves some paleoconservative "higher good" such as marriage or family or society. Anyone with a jot of moral ambition and genuine self-love will thus feel unease at the thrust of Salerno's message, and rightly so.
In the closing chapter of SHAM, Salerno summarizes:
After all the reams of data I have studied for this book, after all the interviews and years of research, when I try to encapsulate SHAM in my mind, I can't help thinking of a woman I know who's been buying self-help books for twenty years and has never made a meaningful change in her life. She sings the ennobling mantras from memory, she's got the vaunted self-talk down pat -- but her life remains the same. In short, she remains who she is -- and who she is, I might add, is a lovely human being. Still, she has been led to believe that there's something wrong with her, that she is failing to achieve the mission God (or at least Dr. Phil) intended for her. To my read, she is constantly asking herself if she's "happy enough," instead of simply kicking back and experiencing the many smaller joys along the way. She passes them by, unseeing, her eyes focused on the elusive pot of gold at the end of an always-receding rainbow.
Within this passage, in a sweeping arrogance that would make a SHAM artist blush, Salerno pretends to know the soul of this woman and the depth and breadth of her inner life. He brings to mind one of my favorite sayings: "People who mind other people's business do not have good enough business of their own to mind." Without understanding this woman's history, psychology, sense of life, emotional composition or any other qualities, Salerno plays the role of judge, jury and executioner, openly declaring "a lovely human being" as yet another victim of SHAM. He does this despite her own implied basic level of happiness and her ambitious quest for even more happiness at no one's expense.
Readers who want to learn about the seedier side of the personal growth market can read this book to galvanize themselves. However, by the very act of doing so, they in effect declare their own engagement in "self-help and actualization." This fact demonstrates the irony of SHAM. By helping people to help themselves, Salerno in effect becomes a SHAM artist himself whether he admits it or not. Worse, through his implicit acceptance and promotion of a paleoconservative moral code, he commits the same tragic crime as the SHAM artists he criticizes: He does not truly help the market he targets and leaves them needing still more. Perhaps he will release a sequel in eighteen months just like the Rodale Press self-help marketers he condemns in the opening pages of his book, thus bringing him full circle to become that which he reviles.
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