The Politics of Love and Spectacle

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Marianne Williamson is struggling on the campaign trail. Things are not going the way she wishes. She was seemingly snubbed early on by Vogue with that photoshoot of female presidential hopefuls, though Vogue denies doing so intentionally. She resents that portion of her internet hype that designates her as the “crystal sorceress,” as she does not use crystals. She is continuously battling against the dual attacks by critics for her unacceptable views about vaccines, mental illness, and science and the apparent flightiness of her activism, such as with AIDS. No one seems interested in her actual political views or policy proposals compared to her quirky, memetic rhetoric, which comes closest to literally campaigning in poetry. Broadly speaking, no one takes her seriously, and a concerted effort by more influential forces (like the party she is vying to lead in 2020) seem intent on making that permanent.

I don’t know if that last part is technically true or provable. It is certainly not implausible. Marianne Williamson is in the top-tier of the numerous lower-tier candidates for the Democratic nomination. With her as always are Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang. They represent a trend in the current political climate that prizes controversy over respectability. Though Kirsten Gillibrand has greater name recognition as a senator from New York and greater political experience than all three put together, she polled well beneath them and did not qualify for this week’s debate with her peers Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. Gabbard and Yang have distinguished themselves through bold initiatives like noninterventionist foreign policy and universal basic income, and have garnered a great deal of ire from the respectability faction of the Democrats. Gabbard has been attacked as a Russian puppet; Yang as the figment of embittered 4channers and white nationalists. While Yang only qualified for the debate, all three show no signs of slowing down their campaigns. Enough of the American people, to quote Tony Shaloub in Barton Fink, have “taken a interest.”

This is no less true of Williamson, who has been the subject of numerous longform articles, most recently by one of the New York Times magazine’s best reporters; she has appeared on multiple network and cable talk shows (Full Frontal being the notable exception); and she has guested on any podcast or radio show that will have her, including Chapo Trap House, Pod Save America, The Rubin Report, and The Breakfast Club. Williamson, in other words, is campaigning, for which she came well-equipped after years as a famous self-help writer and speaker. And yet her “controversy” is flimsy. Even among ostensibly sympathetic audiences, such as the one in New Hampshire a few weeks earlier, the core of her message falls flat. No one cares to debate her proposed “Department of Peace” despite legitimate ominous misgivings. No one asks about her “politics of love” or views on reparations, preferring instead to confess their trauma and existential dread about existing in the Age of Trump. In a time when seasoned politicians campaign as healers, no one wants to hear a healer talk politics.

It is no new thing to say that modern American politics thrives on spectacle; this was even so during the previous debates where each of the 20 candidates entered the stage one by one as if entering a gladiatorial arena. At the same time, Americans like to think that they have a sixth sense for finding people who see the spectacle as an end rather than a means and conferring guilt upon them for doing so. Because Williamson counts, in a rather roundabout way, as a celebrity, her motive clearly is continued celebration of herself; and her supporters are either irony addicts or low-information yoga enthusiasts.

Earlier in the summer, I donated money to Marianne Williamson’s campaign, my first ever financial contribution. It was a measly three dollars to see her through to the debates, which of course was totally quixotic. I don’t do yoga, but I do have a somewhat pronounced streak for not taking a lot of things very seriously — so one is more convincing than the other. But is it worth the lulz to waste money I could have otherwise spent on two Snickers bars? Or, for that matter, to endure the endless series of mailing lists to which that contribution magically attached me? The answer is not as easy as some would like it to be.

When I was a sophomore or junior in high school, a friend of mine decided to run for a seat in the student government. This decision was met (relatively speaking) with equal parts fanfare, mockery, and controversy. He and I were a part of the school’s punk crowd. That crowd, by and large, was better known for its commitment to extra-extracurricular activities rather than anything related to academics or the student community; by which I mean my friend was and remains a talented guitarist who later formed a band that, while not to my taste personally, enjoyed notable success in the late-emo era. Nevertheless, he was allowed to run, but not without getting a talking to from a faculty advisor (which I remember happening) about how this was a “serious” matter, and he in turn must be serious in its undertaking. He wasted no time filling the halls with cleverly photoshopped campaign flyers, which must have been as fun to make as they were amusing to see. Not that that this effort persuaded students to elect him.

I cannot remember on what platform he ran, nor, I think, did I have any conception of his platform at the time, at least to the extent that anyone who runs for such things could have a platform at all. I voted for him anyway. But in doing so, was I prophesizing my online “irony bro” status? Was I loving the spectacle for its own decadent sake? Was I being, to put it a bit differently, a nihilistic shitlord supreme? People may have reason to believe that, and I won’t contest them too hard, but I saw and continue to see that act in another way.

It’s fair to see that campaign as having been mostly a lark. You could say the attitude was in the air, coming not long after Election’s theatrical release, and recalling specifically Tammy Metzler’s spiteful spoiler candidacy for student body president against her stooge brother Paul and the platonic meritocrat Tracy Flick. But I chose not to see the real-life campaign with the same cynicism of the film. I was voting less for a candidate than for the noble gesture he embodied, however inadvertently. The gesture that student government’s “seriousness” was only as taxing as those elected made it out to be and that it did not need to be an enclave for the competent, high-achieving usual suspects all the time. Ross Douthat (leaping off Helen Andrews) likes to show how meritocracy has created a new American aristocracy. This theory is not news to anyone who, like me, grew up in one of meritocracy’s many fiefdoms. My hatred for it developed almost in concert with my conception of hatred (and also my conception of “special needs” education), and this vote was my first real stance against it, if only on a personal level.

True, this would not be the last time I placed a “protest vote” since becoming legally eligible in 2002. If I wanted to do so now, I have many options. Tom Steyer seems to serve no other purpose than as a cathartic oasis for an exceptionally news-blitzed normie, just as Mike Gravel (who I “endorsed” in the first issue of Biopsy all the way back in 2008) served his purpose as some other indeterminate logical extreme. Protest votes are seldom placed because the candidate has some more concrete reason to run, let alone to serve the public. And while my Marianne Williamson donation is spiritually in line with my teenage protest vote, it also, quite appropriately, transcends it.

My case for Marianne Williamson does not, much to her probable dismay, rest on her policies as such. A humanitarian “Department of Peace,” for instance, is compelling in theory but more complicated in execution. Enforcing peace, as Hobbes and Orwell can tell you, comes at the expense of freedom and usually in the wake of heinous violence. The two closest approximations of “Secretaries of Peace” we’ve had were Edwin Stanton during the Reconstruction and Gen. MacArthur during the Japanese Occupation, both of which were liberalizing humanitarian efforts achieved through operational dictatorship. No, alas, my case is rooted in the very aspects for which she is criticized.

I can’t say with any confidence right now that her being the successor to Donald Trump is likely. However if she was it would make her America’s first weird president.

That is an odd thing to declare, as the White House has been host to many weird chief executives almost from the beginning: Jefferson, both Adamses, James Buchanan, Calvin Coolidge, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, and probably some others. But these were mere personal eccentrics whose attitudes were incidental in relation to the nation they governed. Not so Williamson, who by contrast is not an eccentric personally but a very cagey reader of national eccentricities.

As a fixture in the self-help industry, Williamson has an expansive hold on the American population, not just those who seek its services but those who, for whatever reason, disdain them. Self-help as a phenomenon is not limited to this country, it grows anywhere liberal capitalism has grown; but it is a particularly American personality, infused with nationally recognized intensity and tenacity to find it within oneself the means to overcome hardship or to achieve redemption from failure or setback. “She ministered to whoever was listening,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes in her New York Times feature, “in the language of self-help, which is the language we are mostly all fluent in now. Just ask the billion-dollar, steep-growth field of life coaching. Just ask the billion-dollar field of motivational speaking.” She continues:

You can preach for people to love their illnesses in self-help; you can tell them that their healing is in their hands. People who look for those books pretty much know you’re speaking about the suffering of the mind, not the body; they understand the metaphors and know how to derive wisdom from them. The people who sought Williamson understood her language of angels and demons and miracles. They understood that those things didn’t take place on an unproven plane of the universe: The angels were our decisions to do better; the demons were our resolve to never try; and the miracle was just that tiny shift in perspective, that tilt toward love, that would change the way we think and act and believe.

But as Brodessor-Akner also writes, this is being “weaponized against her.” Williamson does herself no favors by belaboring her shifting views on vaccine skepticism to whoever asks, which is almost everyone. It makes her appear as an anomaly and figurehead of the fringe. Yet if 2019 does nothing else, it at least makes clear that the fringe is hardly on the actual fringes anymore — assuming that it ever was.

The predecessors to Williamson’s spiritual views are hardly limited to other spiritualists. Before she went on national television and bemoaned the “dark psychic force” of President Trump, William S. Burroughs talked about a “psychic force” directed by the CIA:

[C]urses tend to be hit-or-miss, depending on the skill and power of the operator and the susceptibility of the victim. And that isn’t good enough for the CIA or any similar organization … So what is the logical forward step? To devise machines that can concentrate and direct psychic force with predictable effects. I suggest that what the CIA is, or was, working on at its top-secret Nevada installation may be described as computerized black magic. If Curse A doesn’t make it, Curse Program B goes automatically into operation — and so on.

Though maybe the more fitting predecessor is Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist theologian whose work helped establish the Social Gospel movement. Rauschenbusch wrote of a Christianity that came out of the churches and into the world to push back the corruption of Mammon with “a ganglion chain of redeemed personalities.” According to Joseph Bottum in An Anxious Age, Rauschenbusch’s writing inadvertently “made an ontological role for the Son of God unnecessary, and it pushed Jesus out of the supernatural realm that it had repopulated with the demonic evil of society and the angelic good of a future kingdom — a good manifested by a personal recognition, by a feeling, of the supernatural entity that is social evil in the present world.” The “central demand” of these personalities “is to see social evil as really existing evil — a supernatural force of dark magic.” As Rauschenbusch wrote: “As long as a man sees in our present society only a few inevitable abuses and recognizes no sin and evil deep-seated in the very constitution of the present order, he is still in a state of moral blindness and without a conviction of sin … No man can help the people unless he himself is free from the spell which the present order has cast over our moral judgement.”

Williamson is seen as the bridge between self-help and religious feeling, a connection not lost on religious onlookers. Her connection is as much practical as it is spiritual. Indeed, there’s something very Mainline about her efforts. In addition to her work as a church minister, according to Breddesor-Akner, she gave lectures “at the Methodist Church, at a Unitarian church, at St. Thomas Episcopalian. She attended to communities that most people had forgotten. She started a nonprofit that provided nonmedical services to AIDS patients and another that organized food delivery for the bed-bound.” If this is what qualifies for All-American batshit, there are far worse alternatives we’ve let into the White House.

A weird president rests on a paradox. No one in America is truly “weird” until they become either advantageous to some grand plan or an inconvenience to it. Williamson, like Yang and Gabbard, is an inconvenience to the respectable faction that holds power in the Democratic Party. What that grand plan actually is depends on the day. Sometimes it is “beating Trump,” other times it is “Medicare for all,” other times it is whatever Twitter tells them it is, or still other times it is just preserving its “rightful” place in perpetuity. Ultimately, as I see it, the respectable Democrats’ plan is to careen seamlessly toward political euthanasia. Marianne Williamson, who does not disagree with much of what Sanders or Warren advocate for, presents for them a gentler form of euthanasia. They seem, for whatever reason, to have no interest in gentleness.

“What? Who cares?” –Me

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