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April 2018, Week 3

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 		 [A survey of a dozen self-help books reveals a genre with an
ideological axe to grind: it’s not the system that needs changing,
it’s you.] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 12 RULES FOR SPITTING ON THE POOR  
[https://portside.org/2018-04-19/12-rules-spitting-poor] 

 

 Noah Berlatsky 
 April 1, 2018
Dollars and Sense: Real World Economics
[http://dollarsandsense.org/archives/2018/0318berlatsky.html] 

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 _ A survey of a dozen self-help books reveals a genre with an
ideological axe to grind: it’s not the system that needs changing,
it’s you. _ 

 , 

 

Self-help books have no politics. Indeed, in self-help books, there
is, to quote Margaret Thatcher out of context, “No such thing as
society.” If the essence of neoliberalism is an ideological faith in
the righteous virtue of individual choice, then self-help books are
the true heirs of Milton Friedman. In self-help, the self is all, and
“help” consists in convincing readers that there is nothing else.

Readers of self-help books, of course, don’t expect to read about
politics or society. The genre is about unlocking the key to
individual health, wealth, and wisdom, to use the categories from Tim
Ferriss’s 2017 _Tools for Titans_. Gary John Bishop’s 2017 book
is titled _Unfuck Yourself_, not _Unfuck Your Nation_; William H.
McRaven wrote _Make Your Bed_ (2017), not _Make Your Neighbor’s
Bed_. There are no shortage of books about politics, injustice, and
inequality. People pick up self-help books to find out how to get
ahead in the world we’ve got. If you want to read about how to
change the world, you read something else. It’s unreasonable, you
could argue, to expect a genre called “self-help” to try to help
people other than yourself. 

But self-help doesn’t just happen to be apolitical. Its rejection of
social context and political engagement is explicit and even
evangelical. In self-help, you help yourself precisely by refusing to
think about societies or structures. “If you’re sometimes talking
about how ‘unfair’ life is, you’ll start to act according that
that view, perceiving slights where none exist,” self-styled success
coach Gary John Bishop insists in _Unfuck Yourself_.

Similarly, Jordan Peterson, in his blockbuster 2018 book _12 Rules
for Life: An Antidote to Chaos_, stipulates as one of his rules that
you should “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the
world.” Peterson is a psychology professor at the University of
Toronto who rocketed to fame after loudly proclaiming that he wasn’t
going to use they/them pronouns for nonbinary people. His opposition
to activism isn’t surprising. 

But even so, “you have to be perfect before you speak out” is
respectability politics with a vengeance—a sweeping claim that only
the neatest, cleanest, most admirable human beings should dare to
protest injustice. Peterson’s dictum that you must set your house
perfectly in order before turning to broader concerns would invalidate
the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and
basically every activist ever, since activists are human beings, and
no human being ever has their own life in perfect order.

As Peterson’s argument suggests, recognizing unfairness in the
world, or working to change that unfairness, isn’t simply outside
the purview of self-help. It’s presented, within self-help, as an
actual barrier to happiness and achievement. Peterson uses the Sandy
Hook child-murderer as his Ur-example of political action motivated by
the unfairness of the world. Elsewhere, Peterson sneers at those who
would imitate Christ by giving to the poor, arguing that Christ was
the perfect man and it’s arrogant to try to measure up. For
Peterson, only special people can work against injustice; most people
shouldn’t even try, lest they end up committing some atrocity.

Retired Navy admiral Wiliam H. McRaven’s approach in _Make Your
Bed_ is less apocalyptic but more typical. For him, noticing
unfairness isn’t diabolical; it simply holds back one’s own
progress. “It is easy to blame your lot in life on some outside
force, to stop trying because you believe fate is against you.”
McRaven declares. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
McRaven’s example of unfairness is taken (like all his advice) from
his experiences in SEAL training. Instructors would select trainees at
random for punishment. This was meant to teach trainees that life
isn’t fair, and to simply accept it and move on. The arbitrary
exercise of unjust power, in McRaven’s book, is treated like the
weather. Accepting it is a sign of maturity and strength; railing
against it is weakness. Attempting to change it is unimaginable.

Focusing on the self alone, rather than external circumstances, is
supposed to be empowering. “It’s entirely within our power to
determine how we think about and talk about our problems,” Bishop
insists. “To one person a situation may be negative. To another,
that same situation may be positive,” Ryan Holiday argues in _The
Obstacle Is the Way_ (2014). The world is big and difficult to move.
But you, supposedly, are the arbiter of your own thoughts and
emotions. You can choose how you respond to obstacles, you can choose
to be positive and powerful. Success in business and in life is within
your grasp if you just decide you want it. 

Narrow the world to the self, and suddenly you have control over the
entire world. “To stand up straight with your shoulders back means
building the ark that protects the world from the floods,” Peterson
declares grandiloquently, turning posture into heroism. Politics, in
this view, is actually disempowering, because it asks you to engage
with structures—and with other people—you can’t control.
Self-help says you can be strong by ignoring what’s outside and
focusing only on your own reactions, or the position of your own
shoulders. Reinhold Niebuhr asks for the wisdom to tell the things he
can’t change from the things he can. Self-help responds that the one
thing you can change is the self. Ignore everything else. 

So, what’s the problem with giving people a sense of empowerment?
Self-help is a $500 million industry; lots of people obviously find
self-help books inspiring and...well, helpful. People want to feel
that they have control over their lives, and self-help gives them a
sense of control over their lives. What’s the harm? 

The harm is, in a word, neoliberalism. Neoliberal ideology broadly
argues that the market, when left to its own devices, chooses winners
and losers based on merit. People’s own virtue and drive determine
their free choices, and those free choices in turn determine their
prosperity or suffering. Collective action to right wrongs or help the
suffering under neoliberal ideology is wrong, unfeasible, or some
combination of the two. Under neoliberal ideology, as in the world of
self-help books, the individual is all. And when you banish politics
and reduce the world to the individual, you lose all ability to
critique social structures. What’s good is what is good for the
individual. That makes it virtually impossible to articulate an ethic
beyond “might makes right.” 

Ryan Holiday’s _The Obstacle Is the Way_ places the moral vacuum
in especially sharp relief, because the book is, supposedly, based on
the tenets of Stoicism. The Stoics in ancient Greece and Rome
originally argued that virtue is the only real good, and that the
virtuous life is free of passions and desire. 

Somehow, though, in Holiday’s hands, Stoicism is transformed from a
philosophy celebrating virtuous moderation to a philosophy touting
Gilded Age grift and greed. For Holiday, a marketer and media flack by
trade, the goal of Stoic philosophy is not virtue, but overcoming
individual obstacles. Self-control isn’t a strategy to avoid desire,
but rather a prescription for advancement. Holiday praises John D.
Rockefeller for “cool headedness and self-discipline,” utterly
ignoring the monopolistic practices and shady business dealings which
were the real source of his obscene wealth. He also, jaw-droppingly,
includes a paean to Samuel Zemurray, the head of United Fruit Company
who engineered a U.S.-backed coup in Honduras in the early 20th
century in one of the ugliest of America’s imperialist adventures.

“Forget the rule book, settle the issue,” Holiday says admiringly,
lightly glossing over the fact that Zemurray “settled the issue”
by employing mercenaries to depose a foreign government. Not satisfied
with bringing authoritarianism and corruption to one Central American
government, Zemurray was also involved in spreading propaganda which
led to the CIA-backed coup against a democratically elected government
in Guatemala in 1954. Stoicism encourages its adherents to set aside
desire in the name of virtue. So Holiday chooses as his Stoic hero an
utterly amoral opportunist who literally engineered murder for the
sole purpose of increasing his own wealth.

Holiday can tout Zemurray as an epitome of virtue because Zemurray
made a lot of money—and in Holiday’s self-help ethos, individual
lucre is the only ethic. Like Holiday, Peterson also takes a rich
philosophical and moral tradition and hollows it out. In a bizarre
passage in _12 Rules for Life_, he recounts a dream in which he saw
himself in the position of Christ on the cross. Christ is sacrificed
to save the world. The cross is a symbol of God’s altruistic love;
it’s the epitome of self-abnegation. But somehow Peterson turns this
inside out; his vision, he insists, means, “It is possible...to find
sufficient meaning in individual consciousness and experience.” If
all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; when all you
have is the individual, even the most explicit message of love and
selflessness becomes uninterpretable. Samuel Zemurray is an icon of
pragmatic problem-solving and Christ was nailed to the cross to
validate self-assertion. When only the individual exists, all ethical
and religious systems become just another mechanism for helping the
individual get ahead.

Self-help’s celebration of the wealthy is unpleasant, but its
loathing of the poor and unsuccessful is worse. This loathing is
generally implicit—but the implication is nonetheless quite strong.
If your fate is in your own hands, if you can change your life through
sheer willpower, then failing to do so is your fault and your fault
alone. 

In the world of self-help books, poverty, racism, sexism, injustice,
physical and mental illness, and simple bad luck don’t exist.
Instead, failure is always a form of self-sabotage. Gary John Bishop
(_Unfuck Yourself_), through a series of rhetorical back-flops, argues
that everyone is always winning, so if you are unhappy, it means you
have chosen to win at harming yourself. “You won at that failed
relationship because you achieved exactly what you set out to
accomplish in the first place.” Nick Ortner in _The Tapping
Solution_ (2013) attributes a blip in his own financial fortunes to
his own guilt at being successful. He incurred debt and lost clients,
he says, so that he would be on the same level as his friends and
“nobody could be jealous of me or my financial success.” To make
money, you just have to tell yourself you deserve to make money. If
you fail, it’s because you want to fail. _The Tapping Solution_ is
a particularly pure distillation of the self-help ethos. Ortner argues
that simply sitting quietly, thinking about a problem, and then
tapping on pressure points on your own body while stating
affirmations, can fix a bewildering array of psychological and
physical ailments. Tapping, Ortner says, can make you lose weight and
heal PTSD; it can cure cancer and poverty alike. “But what if pain,
health concerns, addictions, weight issues, relationship challenges,
and financial problems really could be resolved—quickly and
easily?” Ortner gushes. “What if the impossible was actually
possible?” The Bible’s Job needn’t have lost his family or have
been afflicted with sores if he had only known this one amazing trick
of telling himself everything was okay. 

As Job’s comforters show, the idea that the poor and sick and
marginalized are to blame for their troubles has long held obvious
attractions for the rich, the healthy, and the powerful. Still, as
Micki McGee points out in the _Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in
American Life_ (2005), there has been a boom in self-help sales and
culture since the last part of the twentieth century—a boom that
tracks the post-Reagan/Thatcher rise of neoliberalism as an economic
program and an ideal. Self-help’s vision of advancement without
politics fits the politics of neoliberalism. The ideas may be old, but
they have been repackaged with vim.

That repackaging is perhaps ugly, but it’s not surprising. The
status quo always wants you to think it’s eternal and unchangeable,
and that you should adapt to it rather than the other way around.
Self-help claims to empower, but in robbing its readers of the ability
to dream of a better world, it actually does the opposite. Empowerment
requires solidarity. If help is restricted to the self, it’s not
really help at all.

[Essayist NOAH BERLATSKY is the author of the forthcoming
book _Chattering Class Warfare: Punching Pundits from Chait to Chapo
and Brooks to Breitbart_.]

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