Like some of you, Marianne Williamson’s language regarding the “dark psychic force of… collectivized hatred” emanating from President Trump’s White House caught my attention at the recent Democratic Presidential Debate. More interestingly still was the contrast she drew between a battle of spiritual energies with a wonk’s concern for policy. It’s tempting to laugh her fifteen minutes of fame off as just standard American political weirdness. We should resist this temptation, however. The last few years are a testament to the failure of good political hygiene. Williamson deserves your contempt and scorn, not just benign neglect.
The obvious reasons for contempt are specific comments she’s made about mental health and AIDS. Her equivocations on mandatory vaccination are also a cause for concern. But the more important reason is the anti-intellectualism, narcissism, and casual disregard for truth that she embodies.
Williamson’s New Age spiritual message has to be understood as part of the surprising afterlife of the 1960s counter-culture. By the end of the decade a strong sense had taken hold among middle-class voters that their societies had become ungovernable. The sense of crisis stemmed both from what Tony Judt called a “backlog of nervousness” provoked by the counter-culture, as well as economic stagnation, rising inflation, and disruptions as manufacturers began to shed jobs and automate production. In the US, high-profile urban riots and political assassinations drove the perception that society was coming apart at the seams. Nevertheless, certain elements of the 60s radical thinking — individualism, skepticism toward authority, distrust of institutions — survived, in part because these ideas from the beginning of the counterculture had a close connection to status-seeking and conspicuous consumption (as Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter document in their excellent work of pop sociology The Rebel Sell).
New Age Religion and the self-help movement emerged as part of this individualistic afterlife of the counterculture. Transform yourself in order to transform the world. Social problems don’t require legislation or institutional action — you just need to change your attitude. As other commentators have noted, this has been Williamson’s shtick for her whole career, and made an entire industry of pseudo-intellectual gurus quite rich in the process. Williamson’s “moralistic therapeutic deism” is the theology of the best-selling book Eat, Pray, Love, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Joel Olsteen, and Depak Chopra. It is, as Ross Douthat describes:
…a religious individualism that blurs the line between the God out there and the God Within, a gnostic spirituality that constantly promises access to a secret and personalized wisdom, a gospel of health and wealth that insists that the true spiritual adept will find both happiness and money, a do-it-yourself form of faith that encourages syncretism and relativism and the pursuit of “your truth” (to borrow one of Oprah’s Golden Globes phrases) in defiance of the dogmatic and the skeptical alike.
One reason this Williamson’s brand of spirituality has been so successful (as Douthat goes on to observe) is its political versatility. For example, it is the unofficial religion of the bourgeois bohemians (“BoBos”) that David Brooks gently mocked in BoBos in Paradise. Williamson’s spiritual brand is one of the planks holding the otherwise conflicting elements of bourgeois and bohemian culture together. It can play in red states and B-schools too, as James Dennis LoRusso shows in his book Spirituality, Corporate Culture, and American Business.
One lesson from this history, I think, is that Williamson’s individualistic, feel-good, self-help act has been so successful, then, because it is empty of intellectual substance. Something with intellectual substance, after all, makes assertions that can be criticized and disputed. It sticks its neck out. Her spiritual brand has been so popular because it’s sufficiently inoffensive and never prompts its believers to ask, “Is this true?”
Let me specifically enumerate, then, several reasons to dis-esteem Marianne Williamson.
Her bullshit. Thanks to Harry Frankfurt’s analysis, “bullshit” is a technical term in philosophy that means (roughly) a statement made without concern for its truth-value. In Frankfurt’s metaphor, liars are opponents of truth-tellers in the same game. Bullshitters, on the other hand, are not interested with the truth or falsity of what they say. They are not guided by a concern for what really is the case. Bullshit is common in politics, but what makes Williamson unique is that the very industry in which she has succeeded is predicated on bullshit. Her entire corpus is one steaming pile of it.
Her narcissism. It’s on the basis of this body of “work” that she asserts her qualification for Presidency and control over the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal. Indeed, Williamson has no political, managerial, or policy experience whatsoever. What qualifies her, apparently, is her “ability to inspire action in people,” combined with the standard tired line about out-of-touch-Washington elites. It is an embarrassment that she thinks she deserves to be on the same stage as someone with a background like Elizabeth Warren.
Her mawkishness. No one can seriously believe in 2019 that “a revolution in consciousness” is the central remedy to injustice. Her empty sentimentality trivializes politics and distracts from serious concern for how to use the coercive political power of the state. The implicit standard for social progress in Williamson’s platitudes is impossibly, debilitatingly high. The attitude reflects a false dichotomy regarding social change: there must be top-to-bottom social transformation that gets at the core of injustice, or nothing has improved at all. The fact is, however, that it is not necessary to eliminate racism and bigotry to remove lead from Flint’s drinking water, just as it was not necessary for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
To be clear, I don’t take Marianne Williamson’s chances seriously. I don’t believe Williamson’s brand of self-help spirituality is an important cause of “neoliberal capitalism” or the anti-intellectual trend in American political discourse. She’s a minor blip who will likely soon be forgotten. But I do take her ideas and the danger she represents seriously. Norms about truth, reasoning, and competence can only persist if we sanction those who break the norms. Good civic housekeeping requires keeping pests under control, and we’re living with the consequences of one party’s spectacular failure at the task.