A Politics of Love
This Week: Eat, Pray, Love and Vote! — a conversation with Angie Thurston, Beth Blum, and Dan McKanan about Marianne Williamson’s presidential campaign. Listen today at 2 pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.
Look, we haven’t succumbed to the Orb, nor have we lost our senses to the heat wave outside, not to mention the heat inside the Democratic Party’s big tent this week. For our latest show, we just chose to think about the Marianne Williamson phenomenon, which says so much about popular culture, politics, and the historical trajectory of religion in the US. (Before you leave a nasty comment, say something nice, as your mother would say — or at least listen to the show, and then tell us what you thought). We, like many others, were struck by her debate performance Tuesday night.
And we also came to realize that Williamson is part of something vast. There’s a long tradition of self-help and spiritualism in America, high and low, from the Transcendentalists to the prosperity gospel to Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking, the secular bible favored by Donald Trump and his father. And there’s still more of course to the history of inventive American religion: The Church of Latter Day Saints, Christian Science, and the New Age movements that developed more recently.
Our guest Angie Thurston connects this history and Marianne Williamson herself with the category of “spiritual but not religious,” and with modern secular communities of Zumba, CrossFit, and SoulCycle. Millennials are less religiously affiliated than ever and more turned off than ever by all kinds of institutions, from the church to the state, and they’re flocking to places and collectives that are built along spiritual lines. Explore Angie’s research in How We Gather.
Beth Blum is a professor of English at Harvard, and she’s also the author of the forthcoming Self-Help Compulsion. She helped us figure out the web of self-help thinking that brings Williamson together with Trump, and with celebrity culture more generally. Blum introduced us to the “New Thought” movement—an early twentieth-century “power of positive thinking” movement. William James saw the religious ramifications of New Thought. It had commercially religious properties, in fact, as James describes it in The Varieties of Religious Experience:
It is an optimistic scheme of life, with both a speculative and a practical side. In its gradual development during the last quarter of a century, it has taken up into itself a number of contributory elements, and it must now be reckoned with as a genuine religious power. It has reached the stage, for example, when the demand for its literature is great enough for insincere stuff, mechanically produced for the market, to be to a certain extent supplied by publishers — a phenomenon never observed, I imagine, until a religion has got well past its earliest insecure beginnings.
This commercially viable religion, premised around a go-get-’em sense of the individual’s power, developed as a way to navigate a century that would also generate a titanic celebrity culture. And celebrities to this day embrace New Thought’s successors. “There’s a reason that Williamson resonates so much with celebrities,” Blum told us. “And I think it’s because self-help believes that success is always right.”
Our guests were concerned about the dangers of what they call “spiritual narcissism.” How much of this is about you, Marianne, and can we do it without you? Dan McKanan wondered: Will she use her influence to extend her base deeper into electoral politics (and will other constituencies tap into hers)?
Just as Trump wants to be the personification of the strong, often hateful emotions that he stirs up, Williamson wants to be the personification of the strong, loving emotions that she stirs up, and as long as she wants it all to come back to her, she won’t be able to form alliances with people like Sanders and Warren (whom she has said she identifies with), and even more importantly, she won’t be able to say what I think is really the logical implication of her theology which is when one of her followers runs for school board, the idealism in that run for school board is just as powerful, just as transformative as Williamson’s campaign for president. So the real measure of this campaign is whether she inspires a lot of other people to run for office at the local level….On the one hand this kind of ego trap is pervasive because it relies on personalities rather than institutions, but it is also contrary to the best principles of new age where you’re not supposed to feed the regular ego but always be tapping in to that Emersonian divine influx. So really I’m both offering a stern warning and calling Williamson to her own best insights — which are all about not representing one’s narrow self interest in order to let this boundless flow of love make sure everyone has a piece of this ever expanding pie.
Tell It Like It Is!
It will be interesting to see whether Williamson can make the cut for the next set of debates in September and October (the bar is $130,000 in unique donations and getting 2 percent of the vote in 4 separate polls between now and the end of August). Any bets?
Watching the media watch Marianne has been amusing (not to mention watching Twitter watch her). Nick Kristoff said she didn’t belong on the stage. His colleague David Brooks disagrees. The rock ’em sock ’em debates this week were discouraging in lots of ways, and Marianne’s couple of minutes in the spotlight remind you how our political language ignores so much of how we’re feeling these days in this American life. Let’s hope at the least that Marianne invites the whole Democratic party to think harder about ways to cultivate the emotions of the disengaged. We know it works.
Anyone notice the music that maestro and engineer George Hicks chose to close the show?
Watch: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
We tend to think of New Age counterculture as something rooted in the 1960s and 1970s — and perhaps especially in California — and it happens that Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in the pivotal year of 1969, with a plot that hovers around the most horrifying aspects of that milieu. The film focuses on two fictional characters struggling in the film industry, but (we won’t give away too much of the plot) their story eventually brings cinema into conversation and conflict with 1969’s “dark psychic forces.”
Can a movie defeat those dark psychic forces? Can we make a new or better reality by imagining it? Tarantino’s rambling, shocking, glowing movie prompts those questions. Come to think of it, it prompts all kinds of questions. This is a difficult movie, about a world electrified by yearning that’s alternately deranged and moral.
Read: The White Album
It’s practically a companion piece to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Didion famously wrote that the sixties abruptly ended on the day of the Manson murders — the tension broke, the paranoia was fulfilled. “I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
Anyone think there’s a radio show to do here?
Listen: Terry Riley’s In C
Also from California of the ‘60s/’70s: Terry Riley, whose music suggests private, meditative contemplation along with wide-reaching echoes. In C is a classic work of minimalism, but it feels almost infinite. Here we go, talking about feelings again—but listen to Riley, and notice what happens.
We’re Reading: “Bartleby”
We’ll be celebrating Herman Melville’s 200th birthday with a show about “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” his prophetic story about the rebel law clerk with the bullshit job. It’s short! Read along, unless you’d prefer not to…
Coming Soon: Desert Island Discs
With our favorite jazz deejay, Tom Reney. Reney hosts the awesome Jazz a’ La Mode radio show and podcast on New England Public Radio and writes NEPR’s jazz blog.
Listen: YoYo Ma’s Bach Cello Suites
Speaking of spirituality, Yo-Yo Ma is on a mission is to save the world with Bach. If anyone can pull that off, it’s Yo-Yo. He’s performing the Bach Cello Suites in 36 cities on six continents (six suites with six sections, on six continents). He kicked off the tour in Denver a year ago with his new recording Six Evolutions — Bach: Cello Suites. Here’s the full tour schedule.
He’s at Tanglewood next weekend, and Chris will be interviewing him in the next few weeks.
This Week’s Ephemeral Library
We downloaded the Sharkivity app, and there have been 24 sightings on Cape Cod in 7 days! Stay out of the Watah! Speaking of shahks, Conor shared Amia Srinivasan’s LRB piece from last year on Sharky Waters. Jospeh O’Neill on Real Americans. Follow the money in the Democratic primary with a groovy interactive map courtesy of the NYT. Jackson Pollock’s ginormous “Mural,” on a continuous world tour since 2014, has arrived at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Luke Menand reports, where it will be until next February.
Just cause it’s cute (and so is the emailer):
Extra, Extra, Hear All About It
Our new intrepid producer Adam Colman has revived our Patreon crusade, single-handedly (almost) producing three bonus features. This week, a walk with Lewis Hyde (the only guest, so far, to take his shoes and socks off for an interview). It’s for Patreons only, so if you want to hang with the cool kids, sign up!
See you next week, folks!
Your spiritual advisors at OS! Eat, Pray, Love, Tweet, Subscribe and Donate!