Volume > Issue > Quackery Reducks: A Discussion of Spiritual Consumerism in Post-Christian America

Quackery Reducks: A Discussion of Spiritual Consumerism in Post-Christian America


By Pieter Vree & Jason M. Morgan | July-August 2020
Pieter Vree is Editor of the NOR. Jason M. Morgan, who writes the NOR’s Cultural Counterpoint column, teaches history, language, and philosophy at Reitaku University in Japan.

COVID-19 has the whole world debating how much the “experts” really know, and whether we should trust the talking heads or our gut instinct in dealing with the pandemic and everything falling apart in its wake. One thing, however, is certain: There’s a ton of opinion out there, and not all of it is correct. Mixed in with real information are a lot of spin and outright lies. The problem is: People today are perhaps more gullible than at any time in history and likely to believe just about anything.

Metaphysics deals with ultimate reality — God — but when we as a culture rejected God, we didn’t get the clean, businesslike, secular world we were expecting. Instead, we got a whole slew of fake metaphysics to go along with the phony physicians and fraudulent “experts.” Only one Man ever rose from the dead, but ever since we effectively shoved Him aside, we’ve subscribed to all manner of meager substitutes. The point? Without Christ, we are defenseless against those who would — and do — prey on our insecurities. We are all quacked up unless we learn the faith and live it again.

After Jason M. Morgan’s column “The Golden Age of Quackery” appeared in the NOR (Cultural Counterpoint, May), he and NOR editor Pieter Vree discussed just how much quackery there is in the world today. What follows is a transcript of that conversation.

Pieter Vree: Jason, I’ve been having Baader-Meinhof moments since reading your column. Once you see quackery in one place, you start seeing it everywhere! Just the other day I was flipping through an issue of Harper’s when I came across an article about a new men’s movement. Called Evryman, it’s partly a response to #MeToo and partly an attempt to address “toxic masculinity” by getting men in touch with their emotions, but in a feral, berserker kind of way. Evryman puts on three-day retreats, and writer Barrett Swanson attended one at a woodsy lodge somewhere in the Midwest. Allow me to read you a passage.

On the second day of the retreat, Swanson writes, “already I’ve been the recipient of countless unsought hugs. Already I have sat in Large Groups and Small Groups, and watched dozens of middle-aged men weep with shame and contrition…. Twice I’ve hiked through the woods to ‘reconnect with Mother Nature,’ and I have been addressed by numerous men as both ‘dude’ and ‘brother.’ I have performed yoga and yard drills and morning calisthenics. I’ve heard seven different men play acoustic guitar…. Three times I’ve been queried about how I’m ‘processing everything,’ and at the urinal on Friday night, two men warned me about the upcoming ‘Anger Ceremony,’ which is rumored to be the weekend’s ‘pièce de résistance’…. The rest of day two is a derby of self-expression.”

Jason M. Morgan: It sounds like “mindfulness” for males, a series of extemporaneous, ultimately meaningless rituals for men deprived of authentic liturgical ritualism.

Vree: Guess what a weekend of forced emoting and hugging-it-out, bracketed by baying at the moon (literally!) and confessing your sins and failures to a (temporary) band of brothers, sets you back? A mere thousand bucks.

Morgan: Grown men paying to be sissified. It reminds me of the current rage for male cosmetics, with men dropping serious coin on face creams, beard oils, eyebrow waxing, and even lipstick and rouge. If you can double the makeup market, you can really make a killing in the powder trade!

Maybe I’m getting cynical as I get older, but much of the world seems to have been designed by P.T. Barnum. We fall for pretty much anything.

Vree: Speaking of beard oil, one thing you didn’t mention in your column was essential oils. If beard oil is for the grizzly emotivist in your life, essential oils are for everyone. And there’s an oil for everything, I’m told. There are even essential oil “schools of thought” and an Essential Oil Academy that will certify you as a “credentialed, skilled authority” in the stuff — after you take an online course, of course, for the low cost of $99 a month for ten months.

“We’re accredited!” the academy boasts. By whom? you ask. The American Association of Drugless Practitioners. Who’s that? They’re the fine folks who’ve accredited such important institutions as the University of Bio-Vibrational Science, the Holistic Cannabis Academy, the Living Alchemy Institute for the Applied Science of Self, and something called 21st Century Heathen.

Morgan: Wow. The “Applied Science of Self.” That’s modernity in a nutshell.

There’s an Evryman version of essential oils: steroids. I was thinking lately about how the sport I loved most as a kid, baseball, had become juiced-up quackery by the time I tuned it out as an adult. Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi — those guys inflated like muscular balloons, and the whole every-game-a-homerun-derby thing became a farce. But the crowds roared every time the ball lofted up on its way over the outfield and into the stands. It was a broken record of broken records — every day a new milestone in big lumber and heavy swat. Only, it was all fake. Quackery at the diamond.

Vree: Now you’re hitting where it hurts. Those three guys you mention all happened to play for my hometown team, the Oakland A’s. After the steroids scandal broke, a local radio sportscaster called the Bay Area “ground zero” of steroids experimentation.

The lightning rod for the whole affair, Barry Bonds, plied his trade for the San Francisco Giants, across the Bay from Oakland. Bonds has maintained his innocence all along. Interestingly, his explanation for the inflated homerun figures of his later career — courtesy his inflated physique — was that he was using flaxseed oil (given him by a quack M.D.).

And that, my friend, is your real Evryman essential oil.

Morgan: The era of fake baseball was also the era of fake sugar and even fake fat. Remember olestra? Companies were applying a newfangled polymer to potato chips and then marketing the whole Frankensteinian contraption as health food. You could have an olestra-fortified snack and then wash it down with a diet soda loaded with aspartame. “Experts” assured us all this was not only safe but positively healthy.

Vree: Sounds delicious.

Morgan: What happened back then to make us believe such quackery? I remember watching baseball games on TV and seeing advertisements for drugs that could cure maladies that no one had ever heard of before. Low-T? Never mind that pharmaceutical companies invent conditions so they can sell expensive new medicines for them. We’re even encouraged to tell our doctors which new pills we want, like choosing toppings at the pizzeria. “Doc, I’d like a prescription for Chemical X to treat halitosis and restless leg syndrome, please.”

Vree: It wasn’t just the 1990s. Remember the ads in comic books and Boys’ Life for sea monkeys, X-ray goggles, and hypnosis guides? How many kids parted with their hard-earned paper-route money for esoteric plastic junk?

Morgan: At least one kid — me.

Vree: Those kids have all grown up — physically, at least — and now, as adults, they’re parting with their hard-won cultural heritage, the received wisdom of two millennia of brilliant minds, for a mess of potage.

Morgan: Have you ever noticed that some of the same people who mock “organized religion” subscribe to some of the silliest metaphysical notions? A popular bumper sticker in the 1990s warned tailgating motorists that “Karma Happens.” What exactly is this grand settling of cosmic accounts?

Vree: I know people who call the Christian God a “sky fairy” and insist that Jesus has gone AWOL, never to return. These same people can be found on Facebook — usually commenting about a criminal who’s been captured or killed — prophesying that “karma is a b***h.” As if there were some supernatural force in the universe keeping track of everyone’s deeds and repaying them in kind when the moment is right. They don’t seem to realize that karma is itself a kind of sky fairy.

Morgan: The business end of this dabbling in misty metaphysics is the Devil and his minions — real karma, real consequences for not being as wise as serpents in a world that is not under the management of the good guys. I’ve been reading Fr. Gabriele Amorth’s books lately, and what he says is surely true. If you mess around with the occult, even if you think you’re just groovying up your apartment by setting up a Shiva statue or playing with a Ouija board during a cocktail party, you are throwing the door wide open for some serious misery of body and soul.

Vree: In An Exorcist Tells His Story, Fr. Amorth writes that the “first factor” in the increase of “evil influences” in our time is “Western consumerism.” Our consumerist culture provides the very framework in which quackery-peddling charlatans can operate with impunity. We try one thing, tire of it or find it unsatisfactory, and it’s immediately on to the next thing that’s sure to change our lives for good. Meanwhile, nobody’s going to get in the way of someone trying to make a buck; after all, a sucker is born every minute.

Morgan: A sucker unsnookered is a dollar unearned.

Vree: That’s the American ethos distilled to its essence. The same system that enables us to consume mass quantities of “products” also allows us to imbibe various “spiritualities.” We can explore the religious market with the same aplomb that we can explore, say, the craft beer market. Or we can settle down and be as brand-loyal to a parish church as we can to a local brewery. One way or another, we’re consumers above all.

And what are those “evil influences” we’ve been consuming? Fr. Amorth mentions yoga and witchcraft — two topics you addressed in your column — as well as Zen and Transcendental Meditation. If you’re skeptical about how this all works together, consider one of the popularizers of TM, Jerry Rubin. He was, along with Abbie Hoffman, one of the infamous Yippies, the cadre of the hippie movement of the 1960s. You know, smoke pot and overthrow the social order. He wrote a revolutionary manifesto called Do It! and made international headlines (back when headlines were a thing) when, with a little help from Hoffman and his friends, he brought the New York Stock Exchange to a standstill by throwing money into the air as the stockbrokers went nuts trying to grab as much of it as they could.

Morgan: The stockbrokers, Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe,” thought they were the ones leading the American public by the nose, but all Rubin had to do was give them a taste of their own quack medicine and watch them dance to his tune.

Vree: Indeed. After the hippie movement exhausted itself, Rubin began dabbling in a series of esoteric “spiritual” experiences, one of which was TM. He wrote a book about that too. In an ironic twist, in the mid-1970s Rubin became a Wall Street stockbroker, and by the end of the decade was a multimillionaire. He had become the very symbol of the establishment “system” he detested as a youth. What he rained down on the trading floor as a Yippie came back to him in spades as a corporate yuppie. Like the health-drink Adonis on the airplane whom you wrote about, Rubin invested heavily in multi-level marketing of health foods and nutritional supplements — more quackery.

Morgan: Rubin’s antics are transparently goofy, but not everything is so obviously quacked up. Fr. Amorth warns against letting kids play around with magic, and he specifically mentions Harry Potter. Brandishing “wands” and reciting garbled pig-latin “spells” might seem innocent enough, but those things cut very close to real curses and witchcraft. Quackery is not only a dietary supplement or an energy drink. Quack darkens quickly when wizardry is involved. And exposing kids to Harry Potter softens their resistance to things like palm reading, tarot, visiting “psychics” and clairvoyants, and so on.

It’s the “new paranormal.” There are TV shows documenting run-ins with ghosts, and witchy types who claim powers of discernment and aura-reading are taken seriously by a huge segment of the population. “Seeing ghosts” used to be code for “out of your mind,” but apparently now it’s a measure of hipness. I guess we shouldn’t discriminate against the new protected class: the “incorporeally challenged.”

Vree: “Spooky quackery” isn’t limited to the boob tube or the Young Adult aisle of Barnes & Noble. The New York Times recently profiled a number of people — successful adults, even — who believe they were “quarantining with ghosts” during the coronavirus lockdown. And get this: According to the report, some of the people were frightened while others just appreciated the company!

The report quotes Kurt Gray, a professor of social psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who said, “In quarantine, you are physically confined and also psychologically confined. Your world narrows. You’re trapped at home, you’re needing human contact — it’s comforting to think that there’s a supernatural agent here with you.”

Morgan: Psychiatry has an answer for everything. No comment on the quack-factor of that profession.

Vree: These lonely souls must have grown up watching Casper the Friendly Ghost. Little do they know what those “supernatural agents” are really after. Somebody call Fr. Amorth!

Morgan: As Americans, we often forget just how high and deep this stuff runs. The White House has been home to a slew of occultists — Mary Todd Lincoln and “Honest” Abe held séances there. And who could forget Nancy Reagan’s creepy astrology fixation or Hillary Clinton’s attempts to “commune” with the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt? If you open up any newspaper in the land you will find your daily “destiny” coded to rank nonsense about the zodiac. Like Mrs. Reagan, millions honestly believe that Cancer and Capricorn and the planets and the stars affect how we live our lives on earth. The Romans placed a premium on augury and omens, too. Maybe it comes with the territory of being a pagan empire.

Vree: Speaking of which, The Times also reported that astrology gained greater traction during the COVID-19 pandemic as the nonreligious scrambled to make sense of why their lives were turned upside down so swiftly. Horoscope-peddler Steph Koyfman is quoted as saying, “I think astrology might offer comfort because it has a way of naming and unpacking archetypal patterns; it allows people to put words to what they’re already feeling and that helps them feel witnessed. It helps take you beyond, oh my God, why is this happening to me? This is just how time works. It’s a cycle.”

It’s all just a cycle, Jason. We’re like hamsters on a cosmic wheel, racing our lives away but ultimately going nowhere. Isn’t that comforting?

Morgan: Color me uncomforted. Even as pseudoscience this stuff is a joke. “This is just how time works.” I don’t remember Einstein slipping in any cheesy aphorisms about “archetypal patterns” or the inevitability of dying of pneumonia in his papers of 1905. These people can’t even get being wrong right. My quackometer — which cost me only 20 cereal boxtops! — is going crazy over here.

Vree: Going back to that Harper’s article, Swanson stumbled onto an insight that strikes at the heart of the ongoing popularity of quackeries of myriad sorts. He writes, “I wonder if we, as a culture, are doing enough to furnish [people] with meaningful systems of belief, or if their only recourse has been to the dictates of corporate success and the soft nihilism of self-improvement.” The Weltanschauung of Rubin rules the West.

But when the money runs out and the health food rots, what does our culture give us to fall back on? Essential oils. Karmic revenge fantasies. Transcendental Meditation. Astrology. Friendship with ghosts. We rejected the source of our salvation, Jesus Christ, and now we’re reduced to chasing after transparently phony substitutes while fattening the hucksters’ wallets.

Morgan: We have all had our fill of the unfulfilling during the corona spring. Nobody is going to miss the nonsense with which our days have been glutted even before we were all locked down. What we crave in this spiritual wilderness is the Mass, the other sacraments, the Real Presence, the Church. When we eat and drink of the ultimate reality, we are inured against all other claims. The test of quack is whether any of it could pass through Calvary and the tomb and live again. If the answer is no, then stand Hume’s advice on its head and commit fake metaphysics to the flames.


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