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- The Violent Outcomes of Ideological Extremism: What Have We Learned Since Jonestown?
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- William R Clark
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At the same time, some New Age practitioners are themselves not above promoting dubious claims. They offer workshops in self-realization, dream harnessing, guided imagery, visualizations, primal screaming, channeling, rolfing, polarity balancing, aura readings, tarot readings, palmistry, psychic readings, gemstone healing, astrological charting, rebirthing, levitation, spiritual counseling, and other strategems. In the diverse array of enthusiasms that come under the New Age rubric, two general orientations might be discerned.
Many New Age theories are not new at all, being borrowed from Yoga, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen Buddism, and other ancient disciplines, transmitted by gurus from India and Tibet or, as it might be, from Brooklyn and California. What I want to criticize are not New Age practices—some of which strike me as possibly beneficial, others as grossly counterfeit—but the way New Age notions discourage engagement with social problems and political realities. Both inspirationists and spiritualists believe that individuals have great untapped powers within themselves that have been overlooked or kept submerged.
Get in touch with it. It all starts with you. You make the world. The approach is not much different from psychotherapeutic methods that brush aside the victimizations of the real world; what counts is how reality is perceived. The New Age approach to knowledge is quite different from the scientific method that seeks empirical evidence, replication, and validation, and treats purely subjective experiences as largely unreliable.
In the New Age mode, the more subjective and grounded in personal feeling a perception is, the more true it must be. The very ineffable quality of an experience is taken as evidence of its depth within oneself and its veracity and reality—as with mystical revelation and other experiences of faith. The sociologist Charles Horton Cooley once said that a separate individual is an abstraction unknown to experience. Yet many New Agers place great value on a self-contained individuality.
To need others is viewed as a sign of insufficiency, rather than a normal desire of social beings. To be in need of no one is supposedly to be more developed and liberated. Not all New Age advocates are of this persuasion. They congregate to touch, smile, laugh, and cry together, always with lots of hugs.
The Violent Outcomes of Ideological Extremism: What Have We Learned Since Jonestown?
Here too, the emphasis is on self-affirmation. New Age self-centeredness resembles the hyper-individualism of the free-market society in which it flourishes. Under capitalism, self-reliance is glorified most persistently and most ironically by those corporate interests that themselves depend on the government for all sorts of services and supports. In their focus on the self, the yuppie and the yogi are not that far apart. In truth, no human accomplishment is an autonomous thing. The athlete, the artist, the business leader, the scientist, and other such achievers, all draw upon the accumulated skills and material resources of those who preceded them and those who currently work with or for them.
Each of these involves a world of others into which we are entered every moment of our lives. Idly, for instance, we take coffee and sugar in the mornings, and even that simple act immerses us immediately in the larger world. Both the sugar and coffee. No doubt, too, the political system underlying the distribution of land is maintained in large part by the policies enacted and the armies acting in our name.
It is one thing to affirm our faith in the value of the individual and something else to reduce all valued affirmations to individual experience, to see reality only through the prism of self. Once we treat interior experience as all-important, it is but a short step to claiming a personalized omnipotence. Paint a new backdrop. Surround yourself with new actors. Such notions can be carried to chilling extremes by right-wing ideologues. Thus Eileen Marie Gardner, special assistant in the U. Department of Education during the Reagan administration, maintained that even the handicapped and disabled make their own destiny:.
They falsely assume that the lottery of life has penalized them at random. This is not so. Nothing comes to an individual that he has not, at some point in his development, summoned. Each of us is responsible for his life situation. There is no injustice in the universe.
Those of the handicapped constituency who seek to have others bear their burdens and eliminate their challenges are seeking to avoid the central issues of their lives. In other words, if you were born with cystic fibrosis, it is a punishment for the sins of past lives. Conversely, if you are born to wealth or accumulate it, it is because you have earned this good fortune through previous good actions.
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It is yours to enjoy guilt-free. Nothing short of an inner revolution in the way we experience the world will truly help solve them. We are not victims of the world, and when we understand this we learn to forgive others, enabling us to forgive ourselves. If there are no victims, there are no victimizers. Who are we to say that those dead [Nazi SS] soldiers at Bitberg were guilty? It is too easy to project our own aggression onto an evil other.
For the New Ager, a calm mind is essential for spiritual progress. Unselfish personal actions may be advocated as a way of healing and nurturing the self which makes them anything but unselfish , but political action against unjust policies is thought to encourage antagonisms and personal negativity. Nobody wants war except the machine. There is no need, then, to fight any group of people in America.
The grand strategy is this: resist the state, when you must; avoid it, when you can; but listen to music, dance, seek out nature, laugh, be happy, be beautiful. It is being realized that the way to bring healing change is to love and nurture ourselves and others; to have fun, to enjoy delicious food, to cultivate prolific gardens [and] make beautiful clothes. What is wrong is the notion that those activities will rectify the terrible realities of the ecological crisis. Such nostrums seem more like a way of wishing away that crisis. For most New Agers, involvement in worldly affairs is little more than a distraction from self-development.
Society will reform itself.
William R Clark
Get worldliness out of your heart. The world will take care of itself. Remove the world out of your mind. The world will be peaceful. That is the only solution. If each man [sic] tries to work out his own salvation, there will be nobody to create the problems.
One study shows that most cult followers are college educated Caucasians from upper- or middle-class homes. How do we empower ourselves without also acting on the social conditions that limit our life chances and our ability to be empowered?
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But it does not mean that the political can be reduced to the personal. Most New Age leaders manifest a level of thought and information regarding gender, racial, and politico-economic struggles that is not very profound, being ingested mostly from conventional mainstream news sources. What Jeffrey Masson says about many psychotherapists would hold for most New Age leaders.
Without denying the desirability of self-improvement, we might ask, does there exist a two-step process: first, I reform myself, then the world around me? Do devotees ever feel sufficiently enlightened, energized, and self-empowered to do battle with the injustices of the larger world? Most New Age enthusiasms do not bestow a more developed ethical commitment. The goal is self-gain not moral advancement.
Individual realization needs community and communion with others.
But we should not overlook how the process of democratic struggle itself can help bring about inner growth, as we become participants in worldly affairs. New Age gurus advocate spiritual regeneration while themselves manifesting a notable fascination for material acquisition. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, one of the gurus who came here from India to do good and ended up doing well, had this to say when interviewed in the Washington Post:. You have property all over. A: But that is not yet enough.
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Want more and more. Here I sit with all the possiblities. I need as much money as possible.
Would this not be a more effective way to bring about change? A: If they use their brain properly. Money in the material universe is like God in the spiritual. Money is God in action.