Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Dream Big (And Forget The Secret)

A couple of months ago a reporter from The Wall Street Journal rang me to ask me what I thought about Rhonda Byrne's bestselling straight-to-DVD self-help movie The Secret. I hadn't been paying much attention to it — after all, these folks are telling us that whatever we think about, we attract. You can bet that I wasn't interested in attracting two dozen would-be self-help gurus (and a couple of seasoned self-help pros) in search of paying syncophants.

The WSJ reporter and I marveled at how well the DVD had riffed on the visual vocabulary of another bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, and chatted about how there really is nothing new in the putative "secret" — folks have been selling this "believe it and you will see it" tripe for as long as there have been self-help books and even before.

We talked about the novelty of Bryne's "straight to DVD" marketing approach that's generated a huge book market for her product. And we talked about how tired and desperate Americans must be if they're buying a $34.99 DVD that tells you that the universe is essentially one giant catalog, get your order in any time, supplies are unlimited. And then the Journal ran the piece, using everything I'd shared as background. Good enough. At least word was getting out about the very unsecret nature of The Secret.

But that was all the way back in January — before the Oprah two-episode testimonials about the "miracle" of "the secret." Before the recordbreaking print run for the reorder by the book's publisher. Before the two-hour Larry King Live treatment, which Steve Salerno quips works as a prime time infomercial for this snake oil. Before Cynthia McFadden did a Nightline feature debunking the pseudo-science behind The Secret and I saw my former neighbor Valerie Reiss (Hi Valerie!), who works at Beliefnet.com, talking about The Secret and how it doesn't work well with most faith traditions as there's no place for compassion. Valerie has written an affecting piece about how, as a cancer survivor, the ideas in The Secret roil her.

While all this PR was spinning, I'd been meaning to post about The Secret — because it was everywhere, and because it was so annoying — but I just had better things to think about. I just couldn't focus on it. Didn't want to give it too much attention. And sure didn't want to attract it.

Then Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a wonderful post on her blog about The Secret, and I figured, well said and that's enough.

But today I broke my vow of silence about The Secret. I got a call from NPR's Talk of the Nation to come into their studios in New York and chat with host Neal Conan and Crown Book publisher Steve Ross about self-help publishing and The Secret. NPR is always fun, so I set out in the unseasonably warm March day to talk with them. You can listen in here.

All the while that we were talking about the Byrne bunk that promises if you dream it, it will be, I was thinking about another sort of dream, that "I've got a dream" sort of dream that Martin Luther King, Jr. evoked so eloquently from a podium in the shadow of the Washington Monument nearly half a century ago. That's the sort of dreaming and visualizing that I'm interested in hearing about. That's the sort of "believe it and it will be" that one hopes would make a difference, though we all know that it wasn't just the dreaming and believing, but the marches, the sit-ins, the meetings, the blood, the toil, the sweat and the tears that got us the civil rights legislation that was won.

Still, dreams to do matter, and that is what Stephen Duncombe argues so eloquently in his new book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. Duncombe shows us how progressive activists can harness the power of imagination and fantasy to see our values realized in the world. No self-help book, but genuine help for all of us, check out Dream at a bookstore near you.