Friday, October 10, 2008


SHAM Addiction and Marriage

By John Taylor; 2008 Oct 10, 13 Mashiyyat 165 BE

Our clunker, which the kids name "Anzuf," had to get its Clean Air test yesterday. Anzuf getting almost old enough to be exempt from the emissions test as an antique. Anyway, I heard that beaters like Anzuf are more likely to pass if you run the engine for at least a half hour before the test, so I made an excuse to go to Port Colborne and get an electric bicycle repaired just before the examination. After leaving the bike shop, I dropped into the Port Colborne library and became embroiled in a book called SHAM. Thanks to SHAM, I was ten minutes late for Anzuf's test. Fortunately, Anzuf did pass, with flying colors. Anyway, the full reference for SHAM is:

"SHAM, How the self help movement made America helpless," Steve Salerno, Crown Publishers, New York, 2005

The book is dedicated "To mom and dad and the other members of their generation who, thank God, were co-dependent enough to put their kids first." Clearly, this is a conservative voice. The acronym SHAM, by the way, stands for "Self Help and Actualization Movement." This author sets out to prove that SHAM really is a sham, a scam, a clever way of skimming money from gullible people who long to better themselves. Instead of offering real advice based on science, complete with footnotes to substantive studies, as the old self help books of the 20th Century did, this new generation of self help gurus set themselves up as authorities. They spout nonsense, eschew science and do incalculable harm to their listeners and society at large.

"To a disconcerting degree, (SHAM) is an 8.56 billion dollar social crusade about nothing. Is a religion whose clerics get very, very rich by stating the obvious in a laughably pontifical fashion. (One guru said:) "Life is a process. We are a process. The Universe is a process." To which a cynic might add: "Making airy, asinine statements meant to impress or hoodwink gullible people is also a process." (16)

One of the worst of the lot, according to Salerno, is Alcoholics Anonymous, and the hundreds of 12 step programs that it has spawned. He points out one thing that had bothered me, that in order to perpetuate itself it must label alcoholism as a disease, a lifetime condition that can only be alleviated, never cured. This puts its adherents into the position of being helpless victims, infantilizing them forever. The leaders are what Christ called the blind leading the blind; they have to be permanent patients, or they do not qualify to be members, much less leaders. This turns the normal order of knowledge on its head.

"At meetings of alcoholics anonymous and other support groups, the leaders' sole credential may consist of his being in recovery from whatever the specific addiction is. Society, again, seems to think that this makes good sense. I would ask two questions: is it not possible that fellow sufferers are a bit too close to the problem to lead effectively and impartially? And if your problem was, say, that the electrical fixtures in your house were getting funky, would you really want a workshop taught by some other homeowner who could not get his lights to work right (and who, by his own admission, still had the problem?) Or would you want a trained electrician?" (SHAM, p. 15)

Personally, I found this argument pretty devastating. Worse, SHAM holds, AA has actively suppressed studies that found their program ineffective compared to other, expertise based addiction therapies. That is dishonest, corrupt and really unforgivable. If there are better ways of dealing with addictions it is in everybody's interest that they be better known.

My brother is heavily involved in AA and gobbles up self help books by the dozen, and I was involved in Al-anon for a couple of years, before the lifelong prescription began to weigh on me. Never is there even a mention of the virtue of temperance in their meetings. Instead of virtue crowding out vice, we have unending victimhood coping with a permanent condition.

But still, I regarded 12 step programs as a good thing for some people. Mostly, my problem with the movement was its wimpy stand on alcohol. Instead of trying to extirpate from society a harmful substance, they passively take all fault and guilt upon themselves, more perhaps than makes sense. They never denounce the liquid; the problem is in themselves, the percentage of drinkers who cannot handle it. Self-labelled alcoholics are diseased, not a world where 95 percent of the population imbibes. Permanent enslavement makes the worst victims of alcoholism willing collaborators, tolerating a boozy society without a peep of protest.

Another startling point made in SHAM is about marriage. The self help movement is a contributor to rising divorce rates because it has turned husbands and wives away from the purpose of marriage. "Nowadays young marrieds of both genders may be a tad too focused on their own fulfillment, with catastrophic effects for domestic tranquility." SHAM, citing an interview with David Blankenhorn in 1988, continues,

"`I think people today are less forgiving and relationships and more inclined to walk at the drop of a hat.' He made an interesting point about the famous JFK quote ask not what your country can do for you... and its relevance to a wholesale change in society’s perspective on the institution of marriage. `In years past, getting married was more of a selfless act. You do that in order to build something bigger than you -- a family -- and to be able to give what you could to the children of that union. That is all changed... People go into a marriage expecting to a far greater extent to have their own needs met. Instead of giving to the marriage, they want much more from the marriage. And often what they want is unrealistic.' It is hard to see such mental turnabouts as anything other than a consequence of SHAM-bred insights." (SHAM, p. 36)

Having just attended a weekend-long session about the Baha'i position on marriage and homosexuality, I can say that this point is one that we need to make much more forcefully. I think even the Writings tend to assume that people enter marriage out of altruism rather than ego fulfilment; but that is no longer an assumption that can stand up twenty years after Blankenhorn said that. Today selfishness, or if you prefer, self-actualization, is the default position, assumed by virtually everybody who gets married. Whether that is the fault of the self help movement or of materialism generally, is moot.

The following excellent points about the difference between Baha'i and materialist approaches to sex and marriage were made by our speaker at the sexual identity conference, Mary Kay Radpour,

"Contemporary American values undermine social order and the idea of service as a purpose of life. The Baha'i writings propose that one of the "patent evils" which has been engendered in the American nation is a distortion of our understanding of a chaste and holy life. A materialistic view holds that the purpose of life is pleasure and happiness. A spiritual view holds that the purpose of life is service to humanity and the development of virtues."

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