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The Quackery Is Killing Us

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Thank you for your excellent comments concerning the best-selling book The Secret ["A Little Secret About The Secret" by Julia Rickert, June 1]. I find the amount of positive public response to such a ridiculous work both astounding and tragic because it reveals the failure of many Americans to be able to think straight anymore and to recognize fraudulent expressions of spiritual principles when they confront them.

What are we to make of this phenomenon? As a teacher, I make a failure of American education out of it. I also make an enormous postmodern spiritual hunger out of it. I don't know if you recall a novel from some years ago entitled The Celestine Prophecy that became a runaway best seller even though it was so bad literarily that no critic of consequence would comment on it except the one working for the Village Voice and he panned it. I submit that the public response to The Secret has the same roots as those which made The Celestine Prophecy such a best seller. The same goes for the TV series Lost, which, as an allegory, has all the nuance of a stunned water buffalo. The same is true for Harry Potter books and films, New Age and fundamentalist doctrines. And how about the explosive (no pun intended) growth in the attraction to terrorism on the part of Muslims as the path to their world domination?

The "People of the Book" are clearly looking for something of a new direction, I believe. Almost 70 years ago, the founder of the sociology department at Harvard named Pitirim Sorokin wrote a controversial study called The Crisis of Our Age, which claimed that the failures of spirituality and the attempt to fill that vacuum with material goods would be, in fact, that "crisis." I believe that, at present, Sorokin's study is considered silly by academics, but, as an academic myself, I perceive that silliness in relation to Sorokin's ideas lies elsewhere.

Will we as Americans ever get beyond our present metaphysical and philosophical crises in time to save ourselves as a culture? Will we get wise in time because we manage to keep communicating honestly and intelligently to and about each other on the issues confronting us as a culture? Or will "the usual suspects" overpower our democracy and our functioning as a citizenry as they have so many other cultures before us? In 1947, Arthur Miller asked the nation that question in his iconic drama Death of a Salesman and suggested the answer wasn't a forgone conclusion one way or another.

Sixty years later, I don't know the answers to those questions any more clearly than Miller did. As a teacher, though, I do know cognitive dissonance keeps students from changing their perceptions about some particular view of reality as long as their present perceptions of it have utility. In other words, I'm suggesting the situation of the American people's vulnerability to spiritual and cultural quackery will probably get worse before it gets better. Instead, we've increasingly used materialistic and surface-featured yardsticks to measure our successes as individuals and as a nation. Some of the founding fathers feared this eventuality as their letters and diaries reveal and it seems their fears were well-founded.

How much more vulnerable will we become? I don't know that either. I do know that Asian metaphysical principles include one which declares, when situations reach their most extreme, they turn to their opposites. If that principle is correct, and I believe it is, then the prospects for increasing amounts of spiritual and cultural quackery that we'll keep confronting till we wise up or are destroyed because we couldn't seem very frightening indeed.

Susan B. Hartman, PhD

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