Tuesday, May 22, 2007

THE SECRET - Wherein THE AUTHOR doth delve into an arcane recipe for WEALTH and SUCCESS and discovers it to be solid gold New Age BULLSHIT

A couple of years ago Australian TV writer and producer, Rhonda Byrne, cracked the secret of vast wealth. If you read her mega best-selling book or watch her video – The Secret - you might think the secret she found was the one described in those works, fully endorsed by Oprah and snatched up by millions. But, in fact, the “secret” she cracked was how to repackage some hoary old New Age and self-help psychobabble and flog it to the gullible, making herself a multi-millionaire in the process.

After seeing vast piles of the book and DVD in Borders a few months ago and watching a queue of people (mainly women, actually) lining up to buy them as though they were proverbial hotcakes, I decided to check it out. Suspecting it was a load of over hyped crap, however, I waited until the DVD arrived at my local video outlet so as to minimise the amount of my well-earned dollars finding their way into Ms. Byrne’s already well-lined pockets.

My suspicions were correct – it’s a load of over hyped crap.

Hilarious crap though. The first part of the video consists of scenes that look like low-budget outtakes from the movie of The Da Vinci Code and gives the viewer the impression that this “Secret” is something discovered by the ancient Egyptians (cue mystical music – because when were the Egyptians ever wrong about anything?), hidden from the evil Catholic Church (boo! hiss!) and deciphered by wise, smart Eighteenth Century-looking people in periwigs.

This is achieved by a hokey voice-over explaining all this, some spooky music and scenes of people escaping from temples with mysterious-looking stone tablets, guys being pursued by bad dudes in flowing robes, some Templars (of course!) and thoughtful looking chaps in dark chambers poring over big dusty books. I was kind of hoping that the video would go on to tell this exciting story and explain the evidence for this historical stuff, but it doesn’t. We just get the Da Vinci Code atmospherics and then we’re supposed to simply accept that all this is true. Or something.

Then we are promised that now the “Secret” has been “rediscovered” (er, by an Aussie TV producer), some of the world’s finest “scientists, philosophers and thinkers” were about to explain it to us. What follows is, therefore, something of a let down. We get a gaggle of no-name self-help authors, goofy “positive thinking” hucksters and Anthony Robbins-wannabes spouting facile clich├ęs at us, but not a “scientist” or “philosopher” of any calibre is amongst them. And few of them seem to be much chop at being “thinkers” either.

So what’s “the Secret”? well, it’s not much of a secret and nor is it much of a mystery. Basically it’s Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, written back in 1952 (and not in ancient Egypt), repackaged with some spooky music and silly visuals. Not to mention some additional New Age hokum and vague claims to a “scientific basis”.

Essentially it claims all you have to do if you want something – and it can be anything – is (i) visualise yourself getting it (ii) “believe” and (iii) accept it when it comes. That’s it. But that would make for a very short video, so they repeat this endlessly, over and over again like a 1.5 hour infomercial-from-Hell, with footage in the background of people visualizing, looking thoughtful and “believing” and then banking big cheques, happily driving away in BMWs or laughing the arms of a perfect new lover.

Well, there is a bit more to it than that. You see, if you visualize what you want and then “believe” the universe “always” gives it to you. But if you think “I wish I WASN’T fat/poor/lonely/in debt”, the universe won’t get the “WASN’T” bit and you’ll stay fat/poor/lonely/in debt. Apparently the universe has some trouble with basic grammar.

How this facile nonsense could appeal to the woolly-minded is pretty clear – it sure would be nice to live in a universe where this was true. But the examples the video gives of the success of The Secret don’t exactly inspire confidence. For example, the author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, Jack Canfield, assures the viewer that “the Secret” worked for him. He “visualised” having $100,000 by adding some zeros to the number on a $1 bill and then looked at it every day. And then – hey presto! – the universe heard him and gave him (almost) $100,000!

Well, sort of. Canfield actually did more than sit on his backside and visualise having money. He also (i) wrote a book, (ii) came up with a cheap way of marketing it and (iii) sold a shed load of copies. Most people would point out that if he had done these things without the visualisation he would still have made the money and that if he’d just done the visualisation without doing these things he wouldn’t. Therefore it seems pretty obvious that it was doing these things that got him the money, not the visualisation.

Of course, the visualisation probably did focus him on his objective and open him up to ways of achieving it, and that bit of “positive thinking” isn’t hokey at all. Psychological studies of “lucky” people have found they aren’t much luckier than “unlucky” people at all, they just have a more positive attitude to life and are more focused and reasonable in their goals and expectations. This attitude and focus means they are more likely to achieve these goals, and are less likely to dwell on them if they don’t, than their “unlucky” and less positive and focused counterparts tend to be.

Where The Secret veers wildly off into kooksville is in its claim that all you have to do is visualise and “believe” and nothing else. And that the universe will “always” give you what you want. It also claims that this is “confirmed by science”, but here it gets strangely vague again. In this bit of the video the various talking heads start throwing around comments about “quantum mechanics” and doing some general frenzied hand-waving (while computerised music plays in the background and a photo of Einstein floats across the screen, for some odd reason). Then we’re reassured that it doesn’t matter if we don’t understand how quantum mechanics explains “the Secret”, because most of us don’t understand electricity either, and that still works!

By this stage I was audibly groaning in genuine pain.

But it gets worse. Not only does simply thinking about what you want magically mean you’ll “always” get it, but “the Secret” also explains the bad things that happen to people. Basically, it’s all their own fault. They have thought and imagined bad things and so bad things happen to them. All they have to do is grasp “the Secret” (and buy the book/DVD/fridge magnet/coffee coasters and steak knives – dial this number now!) and everything will be okay for them.

It only takes a few moments’ rational thought to begin to see the problems with this idea. One might question what “bad thoughts” a four year old girl was thinking which caused “the universe” to have her abducted by a pedophile gang and brutally raped. Or what the infant babies “thought” which led to them being tossed into Nazi gas chambers and murdered. But the glib and shiny people on The Secret don’t pause in their slick sales patter to let you think about nasty things like that.

In fact, they tell you that you shouldn’t. You see, watching footage of sectarian violence in Iraq or massacres in Dafur or starvation in Africa and worrying about it is thinking “bad thoughts”. It’s better not to get concerned about these things, because you’ll only attract bad things to yourself if you do. Besides, selflessly worrying about the woes of other people will distract you from visualising your new Mercedes, your 15 room mansion and your Fabio-lookalike lover.

At around this point, I was starting to feel a bit sick.

Not only is The Secret simplistic wishful thinking slickly packaged and marketed at the gullible, but it’s also designed by and for the most self-centred, materialistic, narcissistic and revolting element in our society. Not only is it brainless crap, it’s also vile, selfish and disgusting brainless crap.

Still – it did “work” for one person: Rhonda Byrne is now rolling in dosh. Not enough to bother sharing with her elderly mother, Irene Izon, however
who is still living on a $1050 a month aged pension. "She is very generous giving all those millions to charity," poor old Mrs Izon told a British paper, "but I have to admit she hasn't given me a single dollar, though I'm expecting she'll send me some financial help soon. That's what she told me." Keep on visualising, Mrs Izon - maybe the power of "the Secret" will make your daughter less of a selfish, greedy bitch.

Interestingly, that wise oracle of all that is bright and true, Oprah Winfrey, has been madly endorsing The Secret for a while now. But recently she had to “clarify” her enthusiastic imprimatur when she was contacted by “Kim”, who had swallowed The Secret whole after watching Oprah and decided to go off her cancer chemotherapy and “heal myself” using “the Secret”. Perhaps smelling a law suit from the woman’s grieving family when she died, Oprah’s PR people scrambled madly to back her away from her endorsement:

"What I believe about the law of attraction, I want to clarify it," Oprah says. "I want to say it's a tool. It is not the answer to everything. It is not the answer to atrocities or every tragedy. It is just one law. Not the only law. And certainly, certainly, certainly not a get-rich-quick scheme.”

Actually Oprah, The Secret repeatedly claims to be both these things. Perhaps the letter from “Kim” gave Oprah a whiff of reality-coffee for a brief moment of clarity.

Ah, such negative thoughts …

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