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Through wildly successful viral marketing and a faithful fan base spreading the word, The Secret,, a documentary film explaining the "law of attraction" tops Amazon's bestselling DVD list. The companion book of the same name -- and as far as I can tell, an almost word-for-word transcript of the film -- just had the largest reorder in Simon & Schuster history (2 million copies) and is #1 on the New York Times Self Help Bestseller list.
If you are one of like three people left who haven't heard about The Secret -- come on, it was even on Oprah -- let me explain. Australian talk show producer Rhonda Byrne read The Science of Getting Rich, a book written in 1910 by Wallace D. Wattles, in her darkest hour and discovered what she believes is the essential truth -- that "your current thoughts are creating your future life. Your thoughts become things." Translation: if you are thinking about how bad your life is, bad things will continue to happen; if you start thinking about great things, they will inevitably manifest.
Byrne went around with a camera and manifested her own motley crew of entrepreneurs, financial gurus, and pop psychologists -- including the king of the Chicken Soup for the Soul dynasty, Jack Canfield -- to attest to the truth of this claim. I have no qualms with the power of positive thinking. There is sound research that confirms that envisioning yourself succeeding has a real impact on your performance, sports being the most prescient example. At a time when a violent, morally-messy war is going on four years and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, who doesn't need a good dose of wide-eyed idealism?
But idealism is not all the fast-talking "experts" behind The Secret are dishing out. They are also articulating a dangerous message about conspicuous consumption and distracting people from crippling systemic problems.
Both the film and the book are filled with promises about the secret's capacity to attract wealth and "things" -- fancy cars, huge mansions, Rolex watches -- into your life. For example, the book reads: "Make it your intention to look at everything you like and say to yourself, 'I can afford that. I can buy that.'" In a country where the average household consumer debt is $8,000, it appears most of us need no encouragement in pretending we have more money than we do.
John Assarof, founder of a company called One Coach, stars in a hokey reenactment sequence in the film in which he realizes that he has miraculously attracted his new, unconscionably large home into his life. As he is unpacking boxes beside his five year old son, Assarof pulls out his "vision board" -- on which he had pasted images of things he wanted to attract into his life years earlier -- and finds the exact picture of the mansion he newly owns. He explains, "I looked at that house and started to cry, because I was just blown away." His son asked, "Why are you crying?" and he answered, "I finally understand how the law of attraction works."
What is the message to this five year old? What is the message to us all? That the secret to life is the capacity to desire "things" without regard to the environmental or spiritual consequences? That these "things" will somehow satisfy that deep and most universal of desires -- to matter in the world?
I cringe when I think about copies of both the DVD and books flying off the shelves and into debt-ridden, exhausted, and hopeless folks' hands. It is not just the exploitation of their dissatisfaction with their lives that offends me, but the distraction that promoters of The Secret are creating from the very real, systemic issues undergirding poverty.
The book boldly and ignorantly states, "The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts." Tell that to the 36 million Americans living in poverty. Even worse, tell that to the 3 billion people worldwide who live on less that $2 a day.
If The Secret's logic is to be believed, then those who are hungry are not envisioning food hard enough, those without running water aren't imagining the feeling of satiation with enough enthusiasm. It doesn't matter if you are born in the Sudan or San Francisco, according to The Secret's catch-all claim; you can always fantasize your way into "massive wealth."
This point of view neglects the effects of government policy, class, race, gender, geography, and a host of other systemic influences on the kind of wealth -- and life -- one is able to create. It is the good ol' American Dream delusion supersized into ridiculousness. Now you don't even have to work for your wealth, you just have to sit back and dream it into existence. No matter if you are from a poor family, living in a war zone, or a thousand miles from the nearest medical clinic.
In another particularly offensive sequence, Bill Harris, a teacher and founder of Counterpointe Research Institute talks about a gay student who was harassed about his sexual orientation by coworkers and strangers on the streets. Harris explained the law of attraction to the frustrated young man: "He started taking this thing about focusing on what you want to heart...what happened within the next six to eight weeks was an absolute miracle." All the harassment, reportedly, ceased.
Sure, those who look scared are sometimes picked out as easy targets by homophobic jerks with some self-hating steam to blow off, but that doesn't take the responsibility for harassment off of the harasser. This argument is tantamount to saying that those women who fear rape are asking for it.
The idea that people invite abuse or oppression with their thoughts is insulting. The Secret crew only acknowledges this interpretation briefly: "Often when people first hear this...they recall events in history where masses of lives were lost, and they find it incomprehensible that so many people could have attracted themselves to the event. If people believe they can be in the wrong place at the wrong time...those thoughts of fear, separation, and powerlessness, if persistent, can attract them to being in the wrong place at the wrong time." I can't begin to imagine how offensive this claim must be to those who have lost family members under horrific circumstances, like the massacres in Rwanda or the events of September 11th.
If the creators of The Secret wanted to truly empower people, they would focus more on the part of their message that invites people to dream about their best, most joyful lives. This invitation is mentioned in the work, but feels sullied by all of the talk of covetous accumulation and innocent people essentially "asking for it."
The promise of future money is a surefire way to get people to spend money now. Perhaps the purveyors of The Secret see the money message as the sugar that makes the medicine go down, but it seems hypocritical for a group of people purportedly committed to enlightenment to dwell in the material.
I would never claim to know the secret to life, but I have a hunch it has something to do with love, community, joy, and purpose -- not the size of your mansion or the brand of your watch. Further, I think it probably has something to do with alleviating suffering and inequality, encouraging people to think about changing the systems which keep them poor or in danger, not internalizing their failures -- financial or otherwise -- as proof of their own anemic imaginations.
Courtney E. Martin is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body, will be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press next month. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.