Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Burned: Robbins' Firewalk Goes Wrong

It's been a rough two weeks in the world of self-help culture.  First Stephen Covey passed away from complications related to a bicycling accident.  And then Anthony "Tony" Robbins's trademark "firewalk" went wrong, leaving 21 people with second and third degree burns.

I'll be blogging about Covey's legacy elsewhere in the next day or so, but wanted to reflect on the firewalk injuries today.

Sri Lankan firewalk courtesy Wikimedia (full credit below)
Robbins' firewalk is intended to convince people that that they can do what they might otherwise consider impossible.  Firewalking is a fear-defying feat that's been practiced as a rite of passage in numerous cultures.  The practice relies on some subtle physics of heat conductivity to create a burn-free experience.

Although the firewalk coals are hot, certain rocks (particularly volcanic rocks used in the Fijian version of the firewalk) have very low (and slow) heat conductivity.  If the approach to the firewalk is across, say, wet grass, the water on the soles of the feet and the slow conductivity of the embers allows for a few moments of insulation before injuries can occur.  If the coal beds are still smoldering, but cooling, and the grass or other approach is wet, and the participants move fairly quickly across the beds, then typically injury is averted. And people leave exhilarated – pumped up on adrenaline – at having conquered the understandable fear of fire. 

Covey's team asserts that over 6,000 people attended Robbins' four day event and only 21 were injured.  There are, however, no figures on how many of the workshop attendees actually engaged in the firewalk. Robbins' team goes on to claim that they've been doing these events for 30 years without significant injury.

So what happened this time?

We don't know, and we'll probably never know, as there will be no police investigation.  The self-help industry is as unregulated as were the patent medicine peddlers of the early 20th century.

The most likely scenario is that one of the firewalk pits wasn't prepared correctly. Either the embers had not begun cooling, or the approach wasn't wet enough. Or someone slowed down or stumbled and that led to a chain reaction of slowing that kept people on the coals too long. Robbins' team will very likely be investigating this for themselves, very closely. 

But what's remarkable, and instructive to observe, is how the injuries have been explained by firewalk participants. One was quoted in the New York Times as saying that the injured must have been "out of state" – Robbins' language for not being in the proper frame of mind to conquer challenges. One injured woman showed up at the final day of the seminar blaming herself, and saying, incredibly, "I'm glad I felt the pain." Even the Times article minimized the seriousness of third degree burns for which some were hospitalized, calling the the injuries "blisters."

What's going on here is precisely the psychology that plays out in a meritocracy: if you succeed, it's all to your credit and had nothing to do with the circumstances or opportunities available to you. In this case the circumstances would be a properly prepared and monitored fire walk pit for some, and not for others.

Reciprocally, if you fail, it's your own fault and you deserve the consequences. In this case, serious burn injuries for several participants who are shamed into blaming themselves instead of holding Robbins' and his team accountable.

This sort of "glad it weren't me" used to be explained with expression like "there but for the grace of God go I." Now we're more likely to say some unspoken (since boorish) revision: "there but for my own personal merits or mind power go I."  It's hard to say which version of self-satisfaction is more smug.

In the midst of this self-satisfaction, the injured serve an important role. They become the living proof that the firewalk was a dangerous feat, and thus that walking over a bed of hot coals without injury is some sort of laudable accomplishment.

Fortunately, the 21 people injured at the Robbins' event will probably heal. To some extent, they were lucky. Unlike the three who died in self-help guru James Arthur Ray's 2009 desert sweat lodge debacle, these firewalkers got away, burned, but alive.

Robbins, too, has been both lucky and skillful.  His team has done a fine job of managing a potential public relations disaster: Robbins himself has been unavailable for comment.  And unlike Ray, who is serving two years for criminally negligent homicide, Robbins may not even be facing any civil action.

It was a remarkable weekend: Some were burned, some where singed, and some got away unscathed.  Self-help culture would have us believe that everyone got what they deserved. 

Photo: Sri Lankan firewalking ceremony: By Aidan Jones from Oxford, U.K. (Fire Walking) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, February 18, 2012

David Graeber's Thoughts on an Occupation

Yesterday I finally had the chance to hear David Graeber speak. The author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber is credited with being one of the architects of the consensus decision making at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement. I had hoped his talk at Bertell Ollman's Friday afternoon seminar would focus on Debt, as I'd been hankering for some sort of in-person Cliff Notes for the hefty volume that arrived, appropriately enough, under the Christmas tree two months back.

Instead Graeber focused on the rise of Occupy Wall Street, a decision that did not disappoint.  His talk revolved around the question of why this movement has caught the attention of the media and the imagination of the nation when other social movements of the past thirty years were largely ignored.

In answer to this question, he offered a series of possibilities: of course there is the advent of social media and the indignation that follows the immediate webcasts of police brutality. And there is the internationalization of the mass media, so that the earliest reports of OWS were carried by Al Jazeera, and in the Dutch, German, British and Japanese media, leaving the usually conservative American media compelled to cover the movement simply by force of peer pressure. A member of the seminar-sized audience reminded the group that the September 17th events had nearly perfect timing, coming as they did after the infuriating summer of 2011 where the U.S. Congress frittered away the possibility of a jobs bill while debating the increase in the debt ceiling and daring the financial industry to lower the government's credit rating (thereby, of course, dramatically increasing the debt due to increased interest rates.) Americans could not have been more disgusted with their representatives in that moment of rising unemployment rates and congressional stonewalling. The people were primed for someone, somewhere, to fight back against the forces of financialization and congressional intransigence.

But the most provocative idea from Graeber's freewheeling talk stemmed from his analysis of the content on the We Are the 99 Percent tumblr blog, where photos and text tell the stories of hundreds of indebted and unemployed, under-employed, or minimum-wage Americans who share a photograph of themselves with a note detailing their dire economic circumstances. Graeber observed that the preponderance of people posting on this site are women, and that among the men who have posted, most are either in the traditional helping professions of teaching or healthcare, or they are war veterans (our version of caring, mission-driven work for working class men). 

He went on to argue that the indignation that the Occupy movement tapped in to comes from a sense of moral outrage that goes something like this: I've followed the rules, I've done everything the society expects of me (worked hard, studied hard, gone to college, shouldered student and mortgage debt), and now, having entered into some caring profession, I have been rendered so indebted that I cannot even take care of my own family. Meanwhile, the folks on Wall Street have plundered and pilfered the economy, and we've been bailing them out.

The depth of this moral outrage, Graeber asserted, stems from a desire to pursue meaningful work that is thwarted by a system that punishes altruism and rewards greed and swindling.

Graeber continued with his analysis, extending it to the culture industry: For the most part, only the wealthy can afford to take up meaningful work, whether caring or creative.  The price of entry for a job in the arts, or the media, or most of the creative professions is a couple of years working as an unpaid intern — living on nothing in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Anyone without parents wealthy enough to support such a career launch is priced out of creative work—shut out of these fields.  This, he argued, explains the resentment of Americans toward what can be easily cast as a privileged intelligentsia in the media, the universities, and elsewhere.

Photo David Shankbone, October 6, 2011, New York City.
Used under a CC BY 2.0 Attribution License.

Graeber's talk led me to wonder whether the rise of OWS might be seen, at least in part, as a crisis in the work of care.  Traditionally care had been the unpaid work of women in the home, and to a great extent, it continues to be.  But the move of women into the professional labor force created a gap (this becomes a "second shift" for women who can't afford to buy themselves out of the work of care, but represents a market opportunity for entrepreneurs who find ways to sell in-home care services to those who can afford it.) This shift in how care is provided has created an underclass of low-paid nannies, nursing home staff, and in-home healthcare aids, and, at the same time, has priced most of us out of being able to afford care for ourselves and our families. This situation, in turn, creates a market for new financial instruments such as long-term care insurance. The work of care — the intergenerational debt we owe each other — becomes another site where financiers can step in and capture a percentage.

In Self-Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life, I argued that the self-improvement industry's success is driven by American anxiety about remaining employed or employable, and married or marriageable.  I argued that self-help practices are a form of immaterial labor, where individuals are urged to work on themselves to secure themselves against individual obsolescence and that readers of self-help literature find themselves in a cycle of belaboring themselves in order to remain economically viable. But when work on the self, whether through self-improvement regimens, or through the more traditional respected avenues of higher education, leads only to further immiseration, one has to wonder how long it will be before so many belabored selves seek a new occupation.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Resolution #19: Keep Hoping Machine Running

The marvelous Maria Popova of @brainpickings fame has shown us the most beautiful New Year's resolution list I could ever imagine: the 1942 resolutions of Woody Guthrie.  My favorite: #19.

1. Work more and better
2. Work by a schedule
3. Wash teeth if any
4. Shave
5. Take bath
6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk
7. Drink very scant if any
8. Write a song a day
9. Wear clean clothes — look good 
10. Shine shoes
11. Change socks
12. Change bed cloths often
13. Read lots good books
14. Listen to radio a lot
15. Learn people better
16. Keep rancho clean
17. Dont get lonesome
18. Stay glad
19. Keep hoping machine running
20. Dream good
21. Bank all extra money
22. Save dough
23. Have company but dont waste time
24. Send Mary and kids money
25. Play and sing good
26. Dance better
27. Help win war — beat fascism
28. Love mama
29. Love papa
30. Love Pete
31. Love everybody
32. Make up your mind
33. Wake up and fight

Happy New Year to you all with deep thanks to Maria at Brainpickings for her marvelous curatorial work.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Real Self-Help

Unidentified activist at Occupy Wall Street.

While there are plenty of self-help books to help people feel their fear and do whatever they need to do anyway, few of these books ask people to be as courageous as the folks camped out at the intersection of Liberty Street, Wall Street, and Broadway in New York City. 

This morning my 13-year-old daughter and I walked down to Wall Street to express our solidarity with them, and with the 99% of Americans whose combined wealth barely comes close to that of the 1% who rule our plutocracy. 

After I saw the YouTube footage of what appeared to be the arrest of a 13-year-old girl by the NYPD as she crossed the Brooklyn Bridge yesterday, I realized that it's impossible to just sit this one out.  It's time to step up and say enough to the interests that refuse to pay their fair share and have plundered our nation's wealth for the past thirty years. 

What we found at the Occupy Wall Street encampment were school teachers, nurses, families, tourists, police officers, and journalists. What we saw were families tired of living in fear for their children's futures. What we saw were people who were fed up of living in a world where a tiny minority of corporate interests have gutted our economy through speculation and warmongering. What we saw were hopeful people willing to conceive of self-interest as encompassing the interests of their neighbors here and around the globe. What we saw was real self-help. Occupy Wall Street, occupy America, occupy together