Socialism? Religion? Self-help groups? They’re all the same…

“Some things we know we know… Some things we know we don’t know… Some things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Who said that?

No. Not ex-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

It was a 76 year-old American woman presenting a life-changing seminar last night. I am not sure if she stole the lines from him or if he went to one of these seminars and stole the lines from her; I fear it may be the latter.

“Life-change” was the object – “the freedom to be yourself” – You pay £375 for the basic course, £590 for the advanced course and, if you come into the “teens and young” category, you pay £390.

This was just an introductory talk to draw new punters in.

Provided I don’t have to pay, I am a sucker for these things.

On a rainy day in 1969, I went into the Scientology building in London’s Tottenham Court Road. They attached me to a box, asked me questions to which I had to give Yes/No answers but most of which did not have Yes/No answers and then they told me that I was adrift in life and confused but Scientology could sort me out.

I went to an American Christian preacher’s event at Earl’s Court during which he asked any people in the audience who were HIV Positive to come up on stage and he would ‘cure’ them. Some did. He touched them. He told them they no longer had HIV. He told people in the audience to donate to his organisation not what they could afford to pay but more than they could afford, because “God will provide”.

I spent around 25 years in TV promotions and marketing. I am interested in the techniques of persuasion.

I once got told I had definitely won a prize in a time-share company’s draw which I had not entered: anything from a golden carriage clock to a car and luxury holiday. I was interested to see how they could avoid giving me something so I went along to their Leicester Square office where, before you got the prize, you had to watch a promotional film and have a chat with a representative who put forward a surprisingly strong and persuasive argument as to why I would be foolish not to buy the time-share I did not need. Eventually, I got given the cheap carriage clock. I did not ‘invest’ in the time-share.

Last night’s seminar involved around 200 people, maybe 30 of whom were ‘guests’ like me. As soon as I arrived, the phrase “Happy Clappy” leapt into my mind.  I do find innocent American over-enthusiasm very tiring. Surely people must damage their facial muscles by smiling so widely for so long? All that optimism was profoundly un-British and lasted from 7.15pm-10.45pm. The real courses last all day – from ten in the morning until midnight.

The first words by the woman presenting the evening were “I missed you” and there was heavy usage in the first three minutes of phrases like “just amazing” and “such an honour”. I half expected the words “insanely great” to be used and to see the late Steve Jobs emerge with an unexpected new Apple product to enthusiastic applause.

And there really was a lot of applause – and the occasional Whoop! – over the next three-and-a-half hours. Happy Clappy it really was and I was clapped-out by the end of it.

I am not one of Life’s natural Whoopers.

I have nothing against Happy Clappy but it does feel un-British. I could never stomach The Price Is Right with Leslie Crowther, which last night’s enthusiasm faintly resembled, though without the light bulbs.

Instead of guessing the price of and winning prizes, you had to spot your real problems, spot or be helped to spot the immediate solutions and sign up there-and-then for the course.

Last night’s offering was really a pyramid scheme – current participants introduce friends whose lives can be changed – with the addition of a series of increasingly-expensive course levels.

It resembled many ‘self-help’ courses: they are basically substitute religions and are very big on “we are all your support team” language.

Someone said to me: “It’s a con,” but I am not sure I agree. There was some heavy selling going on. If anyone looked susceptible to joining then two, sometimes three people would try to convince them to sign-up for the course, with un-blinking eye-contact enthusiasm.

But I have seen that with born-again or new-born Christians. They have, they believe, found the answer to Life and have had their own lives transformed, so they want to share the joyful good news. I am even prepared to believe Scientology is not the evil world-devouring Behemoth it is sometimes portrayed as but just has lots of genuine believers blinkered by their belief in their own ‘Right’ness into doing occasionally suspect things.

Much like Tony Blair or Socialism. (I obviously do not link those two.)

In 1986, I talked to a girl in a bookshop in Pyongyang in North Korea. She had actually seen – in the flesh – not a photo – the real person – she had seen and been in the presence of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. Her eyes shone like exploding supernovas as she told me the story. It was as if she had seen Jesus.

Socialism, I have always thought, is more of a religion than a political philosophy. Because Socialism has the true answer to life and, if implemented, perfection and a people’s paradise will inevitably follow, as it has in North Korea. If someone of a Militant Tendency persuasion meets a Conservative voter, the Conservative voter is likely to think the left-winger is misguided. But the Militant Tendency person will think the Conservative voter is evil.

Last night, thank God, conversion not extermination was the idea.

I was approached by a very likeable, wide-eyed young man from Slovenia.

“I wanted to travel,” he told me, “but did not have the confidence to travel until I did the course.”

“Where did you do the course?” I asked.

“Here in London.” he replied. “I came here from Slovenia to do the course… And now I am a photographer. I always wanted to be a photographer. I am going to India to take photographs.”

“How do you support yourself?” I asked. “Do you sell the photographs?”

“I have a job working in Starbucks,” he told me.

In religion, people take comfort from the fact they ‘know’ that there are High Priests with a better – indeed, total – knowledge of how the world works and how you can reach that high, ultimate plateau of spiritual and philosophical attainment.

Last night was a religious ceremony with a teacher who was selling courses not a Church or a political party.

“You are already powerful, it just got covered over; you are already free, you just forgot,” was one line.

“You are powerful in the face of failure.”

“When you get balance, you’re able to walk.”

“Make a difference to everyone, including yourself… Everyone wins.”

As in some churches, people in the audience stood up to “share” and to give testimony:

“I realised that I have a very large family and it’s seven billion strong!”

“As soon as you start spending, money comes in!”

“I cured my asthma!”

As the woman leading the meeting said: “This is a miracle space… Your sharing tonight was breathtaking to me… Don’t forget, kick the ‘but’ out of your life and put your butt on the line.”

The basic message of the course is: “No action… No result.”

Fair enough.

And it is probably worth £360 for some people to have a support group to encourage them. There is an attraction in fluent speakers for insecure people adrift in their own lives. But it is not for me.

And I have a nasty feeling that, in order to re-build a stronger person, you have to break-down the insecure person who was previously there. Once you have a support group, how do you kick the habit?

It sounds a tad like training a dog. By the time the dog understands what he is supposed to do, he has become dependent on you.

Someone I met said his life had been totally changed in three days by the course.

But he also told me he started the course in 2006 and he is still doing it.

And I do find it unsettling that they have courses for 8-12 year olds.

I did once suggest to the comedian Simon Munnery that he and I should start a religion by reading lots of self-help books and cobbling all the ideas into a philosophy. It worked for L.Ron Hubbard.

Simon turned me down. I think he was wrong.

I am sure the idea still has mileage.

2 Comments

Filed under Marketing, Philosophy, Politics, Religion

2 responses to “Socialism? Religion? Self-help groups? They’re all the same…

  1. Great blog John. I like to have a look at the crazies too, and like to wander into strange churches, or invite Jehovah’s witnesses in for a cuppa.

    Oddly, I wrote a very similar blog, just 2 days ago, on the fallacy of the “American Dream”, and how much the concept resembles a religion or sales pyramid scheme.

    http://ayeright.com/2012/02/the-american-dream/

  2. Apparently my father used to occasionally invite in Jehovah’s Witnesses when we lived in Aberdeen, listen to what they said then, when they asked, after half an hour, say he wasn’t interested. Life must be tough for them in Scotland.

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