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One Nation under Many Gods: In a Fractious and Fractured Political Age, New Age Mysticism Still Unites Americans

 A version of the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States printed in a 1909 U.S. Government booklet on the Great Seal. According to Henry A. Wallace, this was the version that caught his eye, causing him to suggest to President Franklin Roosevelt to put the design on a coin, at which point Roosevelt decided to put it on the back of the dollar bill.

 

A newly published article at Salon by Mitch Horowitz is typically insightful and well-written, and well worth your time.  And despite the headline, it’s not really about Steve Bannon. I mean, yes, it does contain the revelation that Horowitz knows Bannon, and that his view of the man diverges sharply from the widespread popular one that reigns in the mass media:

Although the media have characterized Bannon as the Disraeli of the dark side following his rise to power in the Trump administration, I knew him, and still do, as a deeply read and erudite observer of the American religious scene, with a keen appetite for mystical thought.

But the article’s overall topic is much broader, as indicated in the provided editorial teaser: “If you think New Age alternative spirituality is solely the domain of lefty hippies, you don’t know your history.” In just under two thousand words Horowitz discusses such things as the influence of Manly P. Hall on Ronald Reagan, Madame Blavatsky’s promulgation of the idea of “America as the catalyst for a revolution in human potential,” Donald Trump’s association with Norman Vincent Peale, FDR’s decision to put the eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States on the dollar bill, Hillary Clinton’s visioneering meetings Jean Houston (who once told Bill Clinton that he was an “undeveloped shaman,” at which point he got up and walked out), and more. Horowitz’s basic point is that none of this represents a conspiracy, notwithstanding the claims of the paranoid conspiracy theorizing crowd:

Rather than fomenting secrecy or subterfuge, America’s embrace of esotericism is often characterized by a chin-out earnestness, something that many observers and conspiracy-mongers miss.. . . . Today, cable television producers and radio hosts often urge me to postulate some kind of occult “pact” between the Bushes and the dark side (cue up Skull and Bones). But such things are fantasy. The truth is, Americans have always been, well, a little strange. As a historian, I feel affection for that aspect of American life. Shadowy figures have long hung around the fringes of power in many nations; but rarely have they done so with the ingenuousness and transparency of those I’ve been considering.

And to cap it off, he ends on a note that is positively eloquent and inspiring:

If there is a central principle in American life, one valued across our political spectrum, it is a belief in the protection of the individual search for meaning. The presence and persistence of esoteric and unusual religious ideas in our political culture, including in its most conservative quarters, serves as evidence that that core principle is still working. In the U.S. military, religiously observant service members and veterans can now choose among more than 65 “emblems of belief,” including pentagrams, druidic symbols and every variety of mystical insignia. We are truly one nation under many gods — a fact that unites us across our fractured political divide.

FULL TEXT: “Steve Bannon and the Occult: The Right Wing’s Long, Strange Love Affair with New Age Mysticism

Teeming Links – June 13, 2014

FireHead

In a truly horrific instance of mythic and memetic madness, Slender Man has now inspired two teens to try and murder a friend and (apparently) a daughter to try and murder her mother. For those who aren’t aware, Slenderman is “perhaps the Internet’s best and scariest legend,” a daemonic/demonic monster that was created in full view over the past few years by a collective Internet fanbase and that now stands as “a distillation of the most frightening images and trends” in both supernatural folklore and current pop culture (especially the horror genre). In Slenderman we can trace the birth and evolution of a modern monster that has now, in some sense, stepped out of daimonic-folkloric hyperspace and into the literal-factual realm.

Slender_Man

Awesome: Behold the Dystopia Tracker: “Our goal is to document, with your help, all the predictions in literature, film or games that have been made for the future and what has become reality already.”

Arts and culture writer Scott Timberg worries that people who read will become monkish outcasts in a cultural of digital distraction: “Are we doing our son a disservice by allowing him to become a deep and engaged reader? Are we raising a child for the 19th century rather than the 21st, training him on the harpsichord for an Auto-Tune world?”

A. O. Scott reflects deeply on the relationship between art, work, and financial success in a money-obsessed culture.

Roger Scruton analyzes the problem of scientism in the arts and humanities: “This is a sure sign of scientism — that the science precedes the question, and is used to redefine it as a question that the science can solve. . . . [There] are questions that deal with the ‘spirit,’ with Geist, and therefore with phenomena that lie outside the purview of experimental methods.”

Cultural and intellectual historian Sophia Rosenfeld observes that Americans have become tyrannized by too many “choices” in a culture dominated by the neoliberal market model of universal consumerism.

Mitch Horowitz traces the fascinating friendship and mutual inspiration of Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan.

Al Gore says the violations that Edward Snowden exposed are greater than the ones he committed.

Comparing_Religions_by_Jeffrey_KripalJeffrey Kripal’s new book Comparing Religions is the first introductory textbook on comparative religion that makes a major place for the paranormal as such. Chapter 8, for example, is titled “The Religious Imagination and Its Paranormal Powers: Angels, Aliens, and Anomalies.” In a recent two-part review (see Part 1 and Part 2), religion scholar and UFO theorist David Halperin writes, “More than a textbook, it’s an initiatory journey. . . . Do UFOs figure in any other textbook of comparative religion?  I haven’t seen it. . . . One of Kripal’s former students, he says while introducing his subject, felt each day as she left class that her tennis shoes had just burst into flames, that she had just stepped onto some very dangerous, but very exciting ground.’ Some will surely have this reaction.” The publisher’s companion Website for the book contains much of interest, including “Six Guidelines for Comparing Religions Responsibly” and detailed summaries of seven religious traditions.

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
“Slender Man” image courtesy of mdl70 under Creative Commons / Flickr

Looking for a still point amid our digital cacophony? Consider writing in longhand.

From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, I kept a longhand journal. It was where I learned the sound of my own inner voice and the rhythm of my own thoughts, and where I gained a more conscious awareness and understanding of the ideas, subjects, emotions, and themes that are, through sheer force of gravitational passion, my given subject matter as a writer and human being.

This writing discipline, which was powered by a combination of conscious will and involuntary compulsion (so deeply intermixed that I could never fully figure out where the one left off and the other began), began to alter itself spontaneously with my plunge into Internet culture circa 1995. To condense a very long story to a single sentence, almost from the very minute I entered the Internet fray, my desire to write by hand began to dwindle until it almost disappeared — but it remains something that I deliberately return to from time to time for inner recalibration and recentering, and I invariably find it so full of beneficial, soul-healing effects that I wonder every time why I ever abandoned it to begin with.

Now comes digital culture commentator Tom Chatfield, writing in City Journal about information age anxiety and the danger that we will be utterly swallowed by the vortex of digital noise and distraction that we have created. And he talks cogently about this very issue: the relationship between, and in fact the conflict between, the clear-souled act of writing by hand and the swirl of digital noise and distraction that otherwise cocoons us:

I have noticed, for example, that I think and feel differently depending on whether my cell phone is switched on or off. The knowledge that I am potentially contactable subtly alters the texture of my time. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 67 percent of American adults have experienced “phantom” rings, thinking that their phones are vibrating or ringing when they aren’t. I now try to build some uncontactable time into each of my days — not because I fear technology but because feeling able to say no as well as yes helps me take ownership of my decisions. Without boundaries, without friction, value slips away.

I sometimes write in longhand simply to re-create some of this friction. When I write with a pen on paper, words flow with the sense that they exist just half a sentence ahead of the nib. The mechanical slowness of writing helps me feel words as objects as well as ideas, with a synesthetic pleasure in their arrival. Composing into a physical notebook helps writing and reverie mix, often unexpectedly: sentences and phrases arrive out of the blue. Pens and paper are themselves simply the technologies of another era. There’s no magic in them, no fetish to worship. It is the experiences they enable — not what they are in themselves — that I value, alongside the gifts of more recent innovations.

Yet I struggle to live up to my own plan. I check my e-mail too often. I ache for the tiny endorsement of a retweet. I panic at an hour’s loss of cell-phone reception. I entrust ever more of my life and library to third parties, from Amazon to Apple, whose “ecosystems” seem to absorb me.

Where is the still point of the turning world where I might stand, understand, and take back control?

— Tom Chatfield, “Anxious in the Information Age,” City Journal 23.3 (Summer 2013)

I can tell you that my own experience parallels that of Mr. Chatfield with uncanny precision. Perhaps yours does as well.

Relatedly, I encourage you to go and read Mitch Horowitz’s recent article about taking a “massive leap forward in your writing through one simple exercise.” And what is that exercise? It’s very simple, and also simply revolutionary, says Mitch:

First, identify a piece of critical writing that you admire — perhaps an essay, article or review — but above all, something that captures the vitality and discretion that you would like to bring to the page. Then, recopy it by hand.

In the action of copying the piece by hand — not typing on a computer or tablet — you will discover the innards and guts of what the writer is doing. Writing by hand, with pen and paper, compels you to become mentally and even physically involved in picking apart the work. You will gain a new perspective on how the writer says things, how he deploys evidence and examples, and how his sentences are designed to introduce details or withhold them for later.

— Mitch Horowitz, “How to Take a Massive Leap Forward in Your Writing through One Simple Exercise,” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2013

Mitch goes on to describe how his hand-copying of an article by Jack Curry in The New York Times “reinvigorated my own passion for writing — and led me to focus on metaphysical history, which resulted in my two recent books: Occult America (Bantam, 2009) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, Jan 2014).”

Again, my own experience parallels what’s described here, because I myself have gotten enormous authorial mileage from copying down by hand the work of other writers.

And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I’ve got to log off, pick up a pen, and spend some time blackening a few pages in the notebook (as in, a bound stack of real paper pages, not a petite laptop computer) that awaits my real-world attention. But before I do, if any of this speaks to you, then I suppose the upshot is obvious: go thou and do likewise.

Teeming Links – August 27, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening word simply has to go to Ben Godar, who, in a marvelous little piece for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, offers exactly what we’ve all been frantically (if unwittingly) yearning for during our past two decades of seeking total fulfillment in cyberspace:

Are you tired of being in the slow lane with your current internet provider? Switch over today and we promise speeds so fast, you will lose your faith in God.

DSL can lag, especially if you’re far from the access point, and the cable companies are notorious for outages. But with our premium service, you can rest assured you will be always fast, always on and always alone in the universe.

No more waiting for that web page to load, that attachment to download or that divine spirit to listen to your prayers. Once you’re online with us, you will be surfing the web, sharing files and accepting the random folly of existence faster than you ever dreamed.

. . . While you may experience a profound sense of ennui at the realization that your existence is lonely and temporal, it will soon be washed away as you stream Netflix while surfing the web . . . without that annoying buffering!

— Ben Godar, “Our Internet Speeds Are So Fast, You Will Lose Your Faith in God,” McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, August 23, 2013

* * *

The Confidential Memo at the Heart of the Global Financial Crisis (Greg Palast for Vice)
“The Memo confirmed every conspiracy freak’s fantasy: that in the late 1990s, the top US Treasury officials secretly conspired with a small cabal of banker big-shots to rip apart financial regulation across the planet. When you see 26.3 percent unemployment in Spain, desperation and hunger in Greece, riots in Indonesia and Detroit in bankruptcy, go back to this End Game memo, the genesis of the blood and tears.”

Economic Fears are Fueling a New Twist to Horror Film Genre (Le Monde, via Worldcrunch)
“[T]he end of the world as represented in several contemporary productions should not be seen as a millenarian threat but rather as the disappearance of a social bond that was damaged by the general workings of the economy. . . . [T]he fantasy of these extravagant tales hides a more tangible dread, that of dispossession, as if these nighmarish scenarios were born from the crisis of a globalized economy.”

Fukushima leak is ‘much worse than we were led to believe’ (BBC News)
Take note: this is a real-world disaster movie unfolding right before us. “A nuclear expert has told the BBC that he believes the current water leaks at Fukushima are much worse than the authorities have stated. . . . Meanwhile the chairman of Japan’s nuclear authority said that he feared there would be further leaks. . . . In a letter to the UN secretary general, [former Japanese ambassador to Switzerland] Mitsuhei Murata says the official radiation figures published by Tepco cannot be trusted. He says he is extremely worried about the lack of a sense of crisis in Japan and abroad.”

Appletopia_by_Brett_T_RobinsonAppletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs (Brett T. Robinson, Baylor University Press, 2013)
A new book, published just two weeks ago. Here’s a portion of the official publisher’s description (and also see the next two items below): “Media and culture critic Brett T. Robinson reconstructs Steve Jobs’ imagination for digital innovation in transcendent terms. Robinson portrays how the confluence of Jobs’ religious, philosophical, and technological thought was embodied in Apple’s most memorable advertising campaigns. From Zen Buddhism and Catholicism to dystopian and futurist thought, religion defined and branded Jobs’ design methodology. . . . As it turns out, culture was eager to find meaning in the burgeoning technological revolution, naming Jobs as its prophet and Apple the deliverer of his message.”

How Steve Jobs Turned Technology — and Apple — into Religion (An excerpt from Brett T. Robinson’s Appletopia at Wired)
“Apple product launches and conferences remain sacred pilgrimages where Apple fans can congregate, camp, and live together for days at a time to revel in the communal joy of witnessing the transcendent moment of the new product launch. . . . The question that remains is whether this mode of perception brings us any closer to recognizing the transcendent hidden at the heart of that which is not digitized or downloaded.”

The Faux Religion of Steve Jobs (Brett T. Robinson for CNN)
“Baked into Apple products is a troubling paradox. Like a technological Trojan horse, Apple products assail our senses with sumptuous visuals and rich acoustics while unleashing a bevy of addictive and narcissistic habits. The ‘i’ prefix on Apple devices is a constant reminder that personal technology is ultimately all about us.”

Learning how to live (New Statesman)
“Why do we find free time so terrifying? Why is a dedication to work, no matter how physically destructive and ultimately pointless, considered a virtue? Jenny Diski urges you to down tools while you can.”

Let’s Get Lost (Bookforum)
A novelist and inveterate traveler seeks life off the grid. “Nowadays, when cell phones track their owners’ whereabouts, while drones stalk people even in rugged hinterlands in order to kill them for secret reasons, the idea of getting away from it all and building someplace happier, such as Merry Mount, seems more far-fetched than ever. What’s an American to do?”

United_States_of_Paranoia_by_Jesse_WalkerRobert Anton Wilson & Operation Mindfuck (Disinformation)
An excerpt from the new book United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory by Jesse Walker, focusing on the role of the Discordian Pope, RAW himself. Of special interest here to those who didn’t previously know it is that the famous “Operation Mindfuck” talked about by Wilson and Robert Shea their classic Illuminatus! trilogy was real, and the novel was written as one of its major elements.

Aliens, Insectoids, and Elves! Oh, My! (The Vaults of Erowid)
A thoroughly fascinating rumination on encounter experiences with aliens, insectoids, aliens, demons, spirits, and other “entities,” especially as connected with the use of psychedelics/entheogens. From the forthcoming book DMT Underground: A Compendium of Unauthorized Research, edited by Jon Hanna.

One_Simple_Idea_by_Mitch_HorowitzPositive Thinking, Seriously (Mitch Horowitz for The Huffington Post)
Mitch is of course the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin. We have referred to him and his work many times here in the past. His new book One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life is scheduled for publication in January 2014. In the linked article, he briefly talks about the fact that nowadays “positive thinking is the closest America has to a national religion. It is the foundational idea of business motivation, mind-body medicine, prosperity ministering and much more.” He also shares the following wonderful mini-documentary, which I heartily encourage you to watch.

Recommended Reading 27

This week’s recommended reading covers Morris Berman’s diagnosis of, and prognosis for, the waning of our modern age of capitalism; the end of economic growth due to peak oil; a call from Jaron Lanier to recognize the wizard’s trick of delusion that we’re all pulling on ourselves with technology; a reflection on the soul tragedy of a culture of 24/7 digital connectedness; a report on the nefarious collusion of corporate funding in scientific research and reporting; a cool article by John Keel on the birth of flying saucers as a cultural phenomenon; an interview with the creator of a new multimedia project based on lucid dreaming and stretching the boundaries of conventional storytelling; a consideration of the enduring mainstream impact of occult/esoteric/”New Age” ideas on American culture and society; and words about Swedenborg and visionary mysticism and spirituality from Gary Lachman and Mitch Horowitz. Read the rest of this entry

Haunted by Our Amnesia: The Forgotten Mainstream Impact of the Occult/Esoteric “Fringe”

It’s amazing what you don’t learn in school. Even more so, it’s amazing how much “common knowledge” has absolutely nothing to do with the actual facts. I’m not talking about folk wisdom here but the  assumptions that the majority of supposed experts cling to when discussing the reality that underlies our common lives.

Mitch Horowitz, Editor in Chief of Tarcher/Penguin, has been working for several years to mitigate some of the amnesia that has arisen around our collective history. In his book Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, he exposes a few of the forgotten influences that have shaped the American consciousness, from former Vice President Henry Wallace’s engagement with the Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich to the fact that the very materially minded Mohandas Gandhi’s engagement with the Bhagavad Gita was influenced by his relationship to the Theosophical Society in the U.K.

In an article for The Wall Street Journal on filmmaker Vikram Gandhi’s recent documentary Kumaré, Horowitz outlines the process that slowly softens these facts until they become part of the culture: Read the rest of this entry