Touchy-feely fanaticism

Touchy-feely fanaticism
: David Brooks has a very odd column in today’s Times.

He attacks Mitch Albom and his touchy-feely ilk. And I’m jiggy with that. I can’t stand Deepak et al filling bookshelves and PBS at pledge time and minds with their self-indulgent pap.

But then Brooks quite oddly decides to compare and contrast Albom with Mel Gibson. And if that’s all he did, I wouldn’t necessarily agree but I wouldn’t be posting about it. Except he goes one step further: He uses Gibson as a proxy for religoius fundamentalism and fanaticism (I still won’t argue) but even then still says Albom et al are more dangerous.

Who worries you most, Mel Gibson or Mitch Albom? Do you fear Gibson, the religious zealot, the man accused of narrow sectarianism and anti-Semitism, or Albom, the guy who writes sweet best sellers like “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven?”

I worry about Albom more, because while religious dogmatism is always a danger, it is less of a problem for us today than the soft-core spirituality that is its opposite. As any tour around the TV dial will make abundantly clear, we do not live in Mel Gibson’s fire-and-brimstone universe. Instead, we live in a psychobabble nation. We’ve got more to fear from the easygoing narcissism that is so much part of the atmosphere nobody even thinks to protest or get angry about it.

Have you read the news the last two and a half years, Mr. Brooks? I’d say that religous dogmatism — fundamentalism and fanaticism — is a well-proven danger! It is causing wars and hate crimes and terrorism and, some would say (see below), peril to the Constitution. To lump Gibson in with all that is odd enough but then to dismiss all that as trivial against the crap-think of Albom et al is most odd.

  • http://www.halleyscomment.blogspot.com Halley Suitt

    Jeff = I think I take BOTH sides here and agree with you that Gibson is all about fanaticism which is very frightening right now, but also agree with Brooks, that the flabby new age-y “easygoing narcissim” which is ubiquitous, is equally terrifying.
    Aren’t they just old and new ways to TURN OFF your brain — and stop thinking?
    As for Brook’s claim that no one even “thinks to protest or get angry about it” I have to disagree and say that Chris Locke has a book proposal out about this very subject, which is pretty fascinating, and I expect will be on a bookshelf near you soon enough, or GOD FORBID, in a theatre near you!
    Best — Halley

  • KMK

    He fears religion lite and what it means to religion (the true believers). eh. On the same note I read this today.
    ‘On a Mission From God’: The Religious Right and the Emerging American Theocracy by Maureen Farrell
    http://www.buzzflash.com/farrell/04/03/far04007.html
    excerpt:
    “The religious right is winning. They’ve won.” — Howard Stern
    In Dec. 2002, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman reported that House Majority Leader Tom Delay had openly admitted he was “on a mission from God to promote a ‘biblical worldview’ in American politics.” On Monday, the Washington Times revealed that DeLay “is about to announce his own legislative agenda.”
    “One goal, [Delay] said, will be to re-establish what he sees as the rightful role of religion in public places. . .” [WashingtonTimes.com]
    In other words, look out.

  • http://www.idontknowbut.blogspot.com James

    I think I may get what he’s driving at. Wars can be fought and sometimes even won if you take them seriously. But if you’re too busy dreaming of sweetness and light to make sacrifices, you lose. If _you_ are the center of the universe and there’s no need for any hard choices–why make them?

    You care about what happens to Stern, because you think there are important principles involved. I suspect you’d stand for those even principles even if Stern was the only one effected. So who is the deeper threat to freedom of the press–a handful of individuals who want to control it or a citizenry that doesn’t think it matters?

  • rivlax

    What hoakum! Mel Gibson a fanatic to be feared? More lefty-lib Chicken Little-ism. A fanatic these days is anyone who believes in any religious tenet. The religious left — Universalist Unitarians, breakaway lefty Baptists, et. al. — don’t believe in anything but advancing socialism in the cloak of religion. The real true believers we have to be afraid of are the Marxists who are as fervently religious as any Christian, Jew or Muslim. Where’s all your concern about them? More people have been killed for their “religion” in this century than any other.

  • http://emptydays.blogspot.com akim

    OFF-TOPIC: Body found in East River Identified as Spalding Gray (via kafkaesque.blogspot.com)
    You once wrote about Spalding’s disappearance and linked to an informal obituary by a friend of his (post on suicide). Maybe this still matters.

  • Richard Aubrey

    I listen to Albom from time to time and believe he’s a not very innovative lefty-feelinggood-reproachasevilanybodywhosebeliefsareinconvenient motormouth.
    He actually doesn’t believe in much, or believe much. He is a sort of cotton-wool response to necessities. They’re not necessary if they’re not convenient or fun.
    I think we need a new word. If Gibson is a fundamentalist, what is al Quaeda? Gibson has not said anything about killing those who disagree.
    One of these two may be fundamentalist, but surely not both.
    Or, if you think there is no distinction, please explain why killing and not killing are equivalent.

  • alkali

    Brooks might have gained something by actually reading what he purports to be criticizing. Albom’s book does not claim to be theology any more than Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” or Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” does. I don’t think it’s as good as either of those two works, but it’s got merit. In any event, it doesn’t purport to be a substitute for religious belief.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Richard: Yes, I think it was odd that Brooks lumped in Gibson with the fundamentalist movement by making him a proxy (my word of the day) for it so he could make his cute little rhetorical point that he thinks Albom et al are worse. I would not lump Gibson and al Qaeda together at all but if you’re going to try to make a generalized point about fundamentalism then I say you certainly can’t ignore Islamic fundamentalism and terror. Maybe this is just a badly written column — a bad idea or a rhetorical trick that went nowhere and could have used an editor. But I did sure find it odd.

  • Doctor Slack

    Well, Mel Gibson is evidently a fanatic — though hardly one of the fearsome ones — but I think I’d go further than calling Brooks’ argument “odd.” It’s frivolous, an indulgence in the same-old same-old culture wars routine. It is, in fact, precisely an example of the “easygoing narcissism” he claims to be decrying, of no better quality than a stoned-out college bull session. What Brooks had said loud and clear is that he doesn’t think he’s living in serious times that obligate him to even write or think coherently.
    But then, this is also the man who tried to publicly uninvent neoconservatism. So it’s hardly as though this is the most boneheaded thing he’s ever written.

  • helloit’sme

    Well, I think all that new agey, feel good stuff is dangerous precisely because it enables you to turn off and tune out the really dangerous fundamentalists (by which I don’t mean Mel Gibson by the way).
    You’re so convinced that feelings aren’t right or wrong, as the new aged therapeutics say, that you don’t realize that it is WRONG to feel you want to destroy the World Trace Center.

  • No

    While it was a bit of a rhetorical stretch, nonetheless Brooks’ essential point is correct. Albom is a disaster. Sappy, Oprah-style, secular, lacrymose, pseudo-religiosity is more enervating to national character than a passionate and challenging belief (QED: Gibson) that opens and exposes fissures in the national culture for debate. A feel-good, I’m OK, you’re OK, we’re all OK Malibu world (and other-world) view of Albom doesn’t challenge anyone; it’s narcissistic and lame..a point well satirized by Albert Brooks in his brilliant ‘Defending Your Life.’ Jeesh…look at Madonna’s perversion of the Kabala!

  • Doctor Slack

    more enervating to national character
    What’s more “enervating to national character”? Touchy-feely gurus, or multimillionaire celebrities who use their movies to push hyper-commercialized, anti-Semitic pseudo-faith and then complain about being “persecuted” when people call them on it? I don’t think it’s even a draw.
    Is either of these things dangerous enough to “national character” that they can be called “disasters”? Last time I checked, Albom wasn’t trying to alter the American Constitution — but there’s a good chunk of Mel’s fan base that would like to. So with respect, no I’m not losing any sleep over Albom and no, he’s not a “disaster.” He’s a twit; so what? America has much worse and more dangerous twits.

  • http://sisu.typepad.com/sisu/ Sissy Willis

    Yes, but. Psychobabble Nation, like those grade-school kids now being “taught” not to bully, are in danger of losing their ability to recognize evil in their midst:
    The unteachables

  • http://sisu.typepad.com/sisu/ Sissy Willis
  • http://bigwhup.blogspot.com Matt

    Here’s a excerpt of my blogged response to Jeff’s critique of Brook’s article:
    My thought–it is the fundies who want the world their way at any cost or those who are indifferent to the realities of our world?
    In my opinion), it’s the people who are indifferent to the things that shape our daily lives that threaten existence as we know it, because they have no backbone to stand for what’s right against what’s wrong with no personal, religious, or ideological template to discern a reasonable basis for their opinions or beliefs.
    Without a place to stand, there is no place to start a dialogue (debate, disagreement, revolution or whatever) among those of differing viewpoints.

  • Doctor Slack

    it is the fundies who want the world their way at any cost or those who are indifferent to the realities of our world?
    The flaw in that premise is that it assumes the fundies are not indifferent to the realities of our world. They’re certainly plenty interested in the realities of their world, but there’s often little sign that the two coincide.

  • http://www.modempool.com/nucleardann/blogspace/blog.htm Dann

    Jeff-
    Mixed bag from me.
    I agree that we need to keep an eye on religious fundamentalism. I also agree that we need some sort of new word so that we can differentiate between people like Mel (and Jerry and Pat and…) and the sort of people that shoot doctors and blow up buildings.
    I listen to Mitch frequently. He has a fine, entertaining show, as long as he stays away from politics in general and guns in specific. When things get political, he tries to pretend that he is a middle of the road/common sense everyman when in fact he is decidedly leftist in his politics and his presentation.
    He doesn’t appreciate much in the way dissent either.
    Leftism is generally trouble wherever it is implemented.
    -Regards

  • Doctor Slack

    he tries to pretend that he is a middle of the road/common sense everyman when in fact he is decidedly leftist in his politics and his presentation.
    Stuff like this is really telling. It has evidently never occurred to you that common sense everymen don’t have to be right wing. Fascinating.

  • No

    Matt is was so sensible I was shocked. Could this be a ‘Reason’able post by uber-blogger Matt Welch? Nah…that Welch is still pretending–after a brief respite of post-9/11 sanity–that Bush is worse for our country than ‘Cash ‘n Kerry.’ This poster’s a new, improved Matt. Go there and be encouraged. Never forget, never surrender.

  • Doctor Slack

    Never forget, never surrender.
    …and never steal lines from second-rate SF comedy flicks as inspiration for serious struggles in real life.
    Of course, Bush’s record of “steady leadership” speaks for itself. Waffles, anyone?

  • Dan Herzlich

    Jeff, I’m surprised you don’t see through this.
    “Who worries you most, Mel Gibson or Mitch Albom?”
    The NY Times wishes it could generate the interest, and more importantly, the money that these two are doing, so it tells its readers to be scared and cover their little heads with the gray lady for protection. (Wow, I like this metaphor for the Times as a prophylactic–totally unintended.) The Times thinks it has a higher mission than just making money.
    NPR does the same thing when it talks about Stern. “Now you folks don’t listen to NPR AND Howard? You know better than that don’t you?”
    DH – There’ll be no shelter here; the frontline is everywhere.

  • Dave

    Another way of looking at all this is that both points of view suggest a certain “knowing”.
    As Suzuki so aptly wrote it in his book Zen Mind Beginners Mind- “in the beginners mind there are many possibilities, in the experts there are few.” Why judge any of it at all? Or to use another Zen phrase- “Only don’t know”.

  • http://www.hathaby.net/weblog.php Arnold Williams

    And with all this, who is more likely to be anti-Semitic: a religious fundamentalist in Arkansas, or a liberal Unitarian in the Bay Area of California?
    I know several people meeting both descriptions, and the answer is unequivocally that fundamentalists support Israel and the Bay Area Unitarians are deeply concerned about all the “illegitmate influence of the moneygrubbing Jews”.
    Equating Christian fundamentalism with Muslim “fundamentalists” merely shows that you don’t know what you’re talking about: and to call Catholicism “fundamentalism” means that your ignorance has reached the point that you cannot be trusted with sharp implements.
    It’s time to do some basic research before you make a fool of yourself in this way again.

  • Doctor Slack

    I know several people meeting both descriptions, and the answer is unequivocally that fundamentalists support Israel and the Bay Area Unitarians are deeply concerned about all the “illegitmate influence of the moneygrubbing Jews”.
    A little demonstration of the fundamentalist mentality was about due, Arnold, thanks for providing it.
    Yes, of course, being pro-Israel means you can’t possibly be anti-Semitic! Gosh no! Pffft. That particular bit of sophistry has been debunked many times, of course, and will no doubt have to be debunked many times more.
    The stuff about “Bay area Unitarians” is fairly bizarre. I doubt that you can actually supply a source for that pseudo-quote you’re parading, nor that you can substantiate the further charge against Unitarians generally. Nor can I chalk this up to a version of the “anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism” game, since Unitarian congregations are generally philo-Semitic in a much more thoroughgoing sense than just looking on Jews as potential cannon fodder for the battle of Armageddon. So, where is that coming from, exactly?

  • John

    Jeff –
    To be fair to Brooks, he does say that “we are not living in Afghanistan.” I would agree with him that in my part of America (Northern CA and probably in NY too) New Agism is much more common than fudamentalism is. Many of the traditional religious organizations such as Catholocism also are permeated with New Age ideas. But I’m not sure that it is as dangerous as Brooks and Lasch think.
    I think that the main reason for the decline of traditional religiosity is that it is so inconsistent with the modern scientific world view. How can anyone who has learned anything about science seriously believe the Christian Mythological nonsense of the resurection? Yeah, New Age religion is intellectually flabby, but traditional Christianity is a fairy tale. It is insane for Christians to complain about Abrom’s lack of intellectual rigor.

  • http://www.modempool.com/nucleardann/blogspace/blog.htm Dann

    Dr. Slack,
    And does it ever occurs to you that non-leftist positions are just as valid in the arena of public opinion as leftist ones?
    Be serious.
    I know the difference between being a centrist, a conservative, a libertarian, a liberal, and a leftist. Mitch isn’t a centrist.
    -Regards

  • superfly

    I think part of the problem here is not defining fundamentalism before you start talking about it. Also fundamentalists in different demoniations or religions have very different tenets. A fundamentalist Catholic for instance probably has no problem with drinking alcohol, but a fundamentalist Baptist or Muslim would.
    What follows is a first draft of my definition: someone who believes in the innerency of scripture, the correctness of their beliefs above all others, is anti-intellecuctual, and believes in a strict moral code. Gibson may fit that definition.

  • Doctor Slack

    And does it ever occurs to you that non-leftist positions are just as valid in the arena of public opinion as leftist ones?
    Another interesting tidbit. Do you really, honestly believe “non-leftist” political positions are persecuted in the arena of American public opinion? Do you honestly believe that the existence of leftists who have the ability to criticize you in the public arena amounts to such persecution? Did it not at any point occur to you that my answer to the above question would be a simple “yes”? I’m genuinely curious.

  • http://www.modempool.com/nucleardann/blogspace/blog.htm Dann

    Dr. Slack-
    I believe, based on what I’ve seen/experienced, the the leftist trend is to either ignore other positions, demonize them, or use non-average examples in an attempt to derail non-leftist positions. (“It’s for the children”.) Generally not an unusual tactic in political circles, but used to a greater extent by those on the left, IMO.
    In general, any suggestion that we might be better off with a bit less government is met by the left with a sort of disbelief that any rational person might hold such a position.
    Now I’m genuinely curious. Did it occur to you at any point in your original response to think that perhaps I might be a regular listener to Mitch’s radio show and therefore might have an informed opinion on his politics and how he presents himself on that show?
    Mitch is a decent guy. But he isn’t a centrist unless one defines the World Workers Party as slightly left of center. Any reasonable person could tell you that just by listening to his show and to his callers.
    -Regards

  • Doctor Slack

    To rewrite your first couple of paragraphs from a leftist perspective:
    I believe, based on what I’ve seen/experienced, the the right-wing trend is to either demonize and personally attack those with different politics, to cherry-pick examples and evidence in attacking other positions or defending theirs, and to reduce complicated issues to dishonest soundbites. (“They’re not anti-war, they’re just on the other side”.) Generally not unusual tactics in political circles, but used to a far greater extent by those on the right.
    In general, any suggestion that we might be better off with a bit more focus on justice and equal opportunity is met by the right with a sort of disbelief that any rational person might hold such a position.
    Of course everyone tends to feel their side is the correct one, and the others are the barbarians. Am I naive to think we can rise above this? Maybe. In any case, I don’t know that the American right can be accused of being objectively worse on average than the left in terms of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of polite debate, but I do know which part of the political spectrum has more media profile, is better-funded and is in control of all three branches of government.
    (To sidetrack a bit, I do wish American conservatives would start learning re: government that it’s not size that matters, it’s how you use it… but that’s a discussion for another time.)
    Did it occur to you . . . to think that perhaps I might . . . have an informed opinion on his politics and how he presents himself on that show?
    I’m not in a position to dispute your characterization of his politics. I just find it odd that you think leftism and populism are somehow incompatible.

  • http://www.modempool.com/nucleardann/blogspace/blog.htm Dann

    Dr. Slack,
    Your re-write: was there a point to that? Of course I think that my political philosophy is ‘better’. As you correctly observe, most people do.
    I just don’t see the point in flipping an argument, conveniently twisting it where needed (more on that shortly) and sending it right back out.
    In my experience, the folks on the left are less interested in a discussion based on facts and are more interested in calling names. In my experience, such things are not limited to the left, but seem to be more prevalent there.
    Your flip with a twist: In general, any suggestion that we might be better off with a bit more focus on justice and equal opportunity is met by the right with a sort of disbelief that any rational person might hold such a position.
    I don’t see the left as being concerned with “justice” or “equal opportunity”. They do some quite interested in transferring wealth from those that earn it to those that don’t. And they do seem quite interested in “equal outcomes” regardless of inequal effort. In either case, a correct flip of my position would have been In general, any suggestion that we might be better off with a bit more government is met by the right with a sort of disbelief that any rational person might hold such a position.
    At what point did I say that leftism and populism are incompatible. At times and on certain issues, they certainly are. The same can be said of conservatism and libertarianism.
    What I said was that Mitch is not a centrist.
    Genuine question here, why is that leftists seem to be incapable of accurately quoting someone with a differing point of view?
    -Regards

  • Doctor Slack

    Your re-write: was there a point to that?
    To give you an example of what you look like from the other guy’s perspective.
    In my experience, the folks on the left are less interested in a discussion based on facts and are more interested in calling names.
    And in my experience, the folks on the right are less interested in the facts — because they’re convinced they already know them and damn all those “liberal academics” who dare tell them otherwise — and are more interested in calling names and inventing positions for whatever they imagine “the left” to be.
    I don’t see the left as being concerned with “justice” or “equal opportunity”.
    And I don’t see the right as being genuinely concerned with “less government,” since too many on the right actually favour militarism and intrusive government and give a pass to ridiculous GOP deficits. (Some libertarians are more consistent on this score… but then see my earlier comment on “size” above.) They do seem more interested in undoing the mixed economic system that made the US a powerhouse middle-class nation and turning it into a vast banana republic, in which they naturally imagine they’ll be among the privileged class.
    (IOW, both sides see the other’s framing of the argument as dishonest in a very basic sense. The only difference is that the right happens to be wrong. ;-) )
    At what point did I say that leftism and populism are incompatible.
    Did you not, above, say that Mitch was a “leftist” and not a “common-sense everyman”? Does that not imply that the two categories are mutually exclusive? Are now disavowing that position or looking to rephrase that? If so, why not just come out and say it?

  • http://www.modempool.com/nucleardann/blogspace/blog.htm Dann

    Dr. Slack,
    I’ve seen the other guy’s perspective time and again. Suggest legalizing drugs in ‘polite’ circles, and you can get the full experience. Perhaps we agree on that point.
    With respect to the right and ‘facts’ I think it depends on which issue you want to talk about. Conservative think tanks do pretty well on facts, IMO. Conservative politicians less so.
    I agree with your assessment regarding the right and their ‘less government’ philosophy. I’m still waiting to see action that matches their rhetoric. About the only thing Mr. Bush has gotten correctly in the last 4 years is our War on Terror; specifically our actions overseas. The rest, IMO, has been a mess; especially his collusion with Congress to spend like drunken whores.
    (My apologies to those employed in the world’s oldest profession for suggesting any similarities with politicians.)
    I also wouldn’t necessarily put up much opposition with your suggestion that how we spend money is important. For example, limiting Medicaid recipients to emergency rooms for treatment seems a bit silly to me…and not very cost effective, and not very healthy for those with lifelong conditions.
    At the same time, the fact is that the only budget that increases every year is the federal budget. No one has taken an active interest in controlling waste, duplication, or fraud when it comes to most any part of the federal government.
    Demanding a 0% increase in the federal budget with no adjustments for inflation would be an excellent motivator for the government to economize, modernize, and generally shed a lot of federal employees and spending that it shouldn’t be involved with in the first place.
    I’m not sure how Mr. Bush & Co. are destroying the middle class. Perhaps you’d care to elaborate.
    I am not disavowing my original statement. I said Mitch pretends at being a “common-sense everyman”. That doesn’t make leftists in general, or Mitch specifically, mutually exclusive from populism or being a “common-sense everyman”. I know that only some of my libertarian positions are appealing in a populist sense.
    -Regards