Psychotherapists figured out a long time ago that a roundabout approach is necessary if you want to tease out the origins of any serious psychological problem. You won’t get there by any direct approach, since the defensive maneuvers the patient uses to keep from thinking about the real source of his problems will keep you from getting there either. That’s why dreams, slips of the tongue, and the like played so large a role in psychotherapy, back before the medical profession stopped helping people understand their problems and settled for the more lucrative option of drugging them into numbness instead. That strategy is also a viable option when the craziness we need to understand belongs to a society—ours, for example—rather than an individual.
With that in mind, let’s start with an odd habit of conversation that came up with obsessive frequency a few years back, whenever well-to-do Americans got talking online about what they thought poor people ought to eat.
That used to be a surprisingly common habit among the socially conscious chattering classes, though it seems to have died out of late. Central to many of those discussions was the very modest amount of money paid by the main US food aid program for the poor, which used to be called food stamps and is now called SNAP. As with most forms of welfare in the US, the amount varies from state to state and is subject to regulations of more than Byzantine complexity, but the average until recently worked out to around $4.15 per person per day.
Now it so happens that you can keep yourself well fed on $4.15 a day—I’ve done the equivalent for extended periods, for reasons I’ll get to in a bit—but you can’t do this if you eat the kind of diet that people in the privileged classes think that everyone ought to eat. That, in turn, was the only kind of diet that people in these conversations were willing to talk about. They wanted to talk about salads and fresh fruit and the sort of low-calorie diets that only count as adequate nutrition if the most strenuous thing you do all day at work is walk to the water cooler to gossip with your fellow cubicle inmates. Since you can’t afford that kind of diet on $4.15 per person per day, they did a lot of emoting about the plight of the poor.
If you wanted to see the flipside of that attitude, all you had to do was mention rice and beans. Poor people of nearly every ethnic group in this country enthusiastically eat some variant of that dish, and for good reason: it’s tasty, it’s filling, it’s nourishing, it provides an ample supply of calories and protein for people whose work days involve robust muscular effort, and best of all, it’s very, very cheap. Until the latest round of food price increases, you could feed yourself a hearty daily serving of rice and beans for rather less than $4.15 a week, and have something north of $24.90 left in your weekly per-person budget to provide yourself with other foods, including the less expensive varieties of vegetables and fruit. You’d think that this would be an obvious thing to discuss, right?
Not a chance. If you even mentioned rice and beans in these conversations, you could count on getting shouted down. You’d be accused of racism and cultural appropriation, you’d be accused of being condescending to the poor, you’d be haughtily informed that poor people don’t have the time and energy and kitchen facilities to cook beans, and so on. You’d be denounced up one side of the internet and down the other for daring to suggest that poor people might like to eat what, after all, a very large number of poor people like to eat.
I spent quite a few years as one of those poor people, by the way. You know all those stereotypes about writers living in garrets and scraping by on next to nothing? They reflect a straightforward reality. If you write full time as a freelance author, unless you’re insanely lucky, you’re going to be very poor for the first decade or so of your career, because it’s not until you have a substantial backlist bringing in royalties that your income will amount to much. A little over 25 years ago, once I’d sold my first book manuscript, my wife and I sat down, discussed the matter, and agreed that we would get by on her very modest income while I pursued a writing career. It worked out, and my writing now supports us both with ample room to spare, but we spent quite a few years there living very frugally—and yes, we ate a lot of rice and beans. They still appear tolerably often on our dinner table, because they’re tasty, nourishing, and cheap. (Just because we have more money these days doesn’t mean we throw it around wastefully.)
And the claim that poor people don’t have time to cook beans? Wander down to the dollar store here in down-at-the-heels East Providence and you’ll find bags of dry beans for sale, along with a lot of other ingredients for home cooking. You’ll also find inexpensive crock pots, which sell steadily—everyone poor knows that you can load up a crock pot with dry beans and water, plug it in, and go to work or to bed, and when you get home or wake up you’ll have a pot full of cooked beans; get a pot of rice on, fix anything else you have in mind, and thirty minutes later the meal’s ready. Beans and crock pots can be found in dollar stores in every other down-at-the-heels working class neighborhood I’ve lived in, for that matter, and I’ve lived in quite a few.
So the shrill response to rice and beans you could get so reliably when well-to-do people talked about what poor people ought to eat had nothing to do with the realities of what poor people actually eat, or can afford to eat, or might want to eat. It served a different purpose. What that purpose was—well, we’ll get to that in a bit.
Not long ago I found myself recalling all that spluttering about rice and beans after reading some equally shrill diatribes about an ostensibly different subject. Those of my readers who follow the vagaries of the waning Neopagan movement may know that the latest tempest in that pentagram-spangled teapot is the insistence by social-justice types that it’s cultural appropriation to use tarot cards. The claim is that tarot cards were invented by the Romani people, and anyone who’s not Rom and uses them is a (insert your favorite string of fashionable wokester insults here).
As it happens, that claim isn’t even remotely true. The first version of the tarot was invented between 1415 and 1425 in Milan by Marziano da Tortona, secretary to the Duke of Milan—this was documented years ago—and it began a process of evolution that gradually led to the tarot as we now have it. It was originally a card game, and it got put to use in divination about the same time as other playing cards, sometime before 1750; Bologna and Paris were the two urban centers from which tarot divination spread. None of the documented early tarot diviners were Rom, though the Romani took up tarot and adapted it to their own needs with their usual deftness a little later on. Don’t try telling any of this to social-justice types, though. Among the woke these days, pointing out that someone is mistaken or lying—especially when they are—makes you a (insert your favorite string of fashionable wokester insults here). That attitude makes things very easy for scoundrels and con artists, sure, but as far as I can tell, that’s a feature, not a bug.
To some extent, the denunciation of tarot cards is simply a function of the culture of competitive offendedness that plays so large a role in the culture of the well-to-do these days. One of the best ways to outflank your fellow members of the comfortable classes, whether the rivalry is merely everyday one-upsmanship or aims at higher stakes, is to show that you’re more easily offended by invisible injustices than anyone else. That’s become especially important these days, as layoffs accelerate at universities and corporate media outlets, and the number of jobs available for would-be flunkeys of the Establishment drops further with each passing week. Yet there are other factors at work, and one of them is the pervasive presence of atheist entryism in the Neopagan community.
Entryism? That’s the strategy of joining a group that exists for some purpose unrelated to yours, getting established there, inviting in your friends, and then using every sleazy trick in the book to take over the group so you can use it to promote your own agenda. That’s long been a typical gimmick of certain fringe groups in American society, notably Marxists and the Ku Klux Klan. Those of my readers who were around in the 1970s may recall, as I do, the way that so many organizations that might have accomplished something were taken over by Marxist cadres associated with the New Left and promptly run into the ground. More recently, the Occupy movement was wrecked in exactly the same way, by exactly the same means.
But not all entryists are Marxists, or for that matter Klansmen. It was about fifteen years ago, as I recall, that people started elbowing their way into Neopagan groups, insisting on the one hand that they were Neopagans and on the other that they didn’t believe in gods or magic. In fact, they were offended by talk about gods and magic, and they insisted that Neopagan groups had to be inclusive and make them welcome, by discarding all this talk about gods and magic so the newcomers would be comfortable. I’m sorry to say that a large number of Neopagan groups were clueless enough to fall for this line of cant and let them in. Once the entryists got ensconced, they doubled down, and the Neopagan movement is now imploding in the usual manner. It wouldn’t surprise me if the destruction of Neopaganism was the goal all along; this is exactly the kind of scheme I can imagine James Randi dreaming up in his inglorious last years, for example.
To judge by other examples of entryist tactics, the campaign against tarot cards is in part one more attempt to force recalcitrant Neopagans to surrender the last shreds of their beliefs and conform to the dogmatic atheism that is, after all, the officially approved conventional wisdom in the industrial world these days. Readers who don’t happen to belong to a Neopagan faith might want to treat all this as an object lesson. In particular, any of my Christian readers who wonder why their churches have stopped talking about God and started talking about social justice instead might want to consider whether a similar process has been under way a good deal closer to home.
But I think there’s a good deal more involved here than entryism, and more even than the increasingly savage competition for status that drives so much of today’s social justice scene—“Look at me, I’m more easily offended than you are!” The reason I think there’s more to it is that it’s part of a much broader push. Consider the corporate-media outlets that are trying to define spirituality as thoughtcrime in the full Orwellian sense of the word. Here’s one screed which sets out to tar the entire New Age movement with the brush of Trumpism; here’s another, which paints in the same medium with an even broader brush. The label being deployed in these efforts is “conspirituality”—a newly coined portmanteau word that equates spirituality with conspiracy theory, and is also being equated with mysticism, occultism, alternative medicine, and other things that our self-defined lords and masters find objectionable just now.
You can see the same dynamic at work even in contexts that, until recently, were among the bastions of middle-class privilege in the United States. I’m thinking here of a recent article in that bland corporate mouthpiece The Atlantic which took aim at private schools. Those of my readers who have children, and want something better for them than the bleak parody of education offered by public schools these days, can expect soon enough to be labeled a (insert your favorite string of fashionable wokester insults here). I doubt it will stop there, either.
What makes this fascinating is that not all that long ago, mysticism, occultism, alternative medicine, and certtain other well-domesticated modes of mild dissidence were distinctly fashionable among the managerial classes in our society, and indeed were supported and fostered by the Establishment. Fortune 500 corporations were paying good money to teach their employees mindfulness meditation and put on “positive thinking” seminars, and a significant share of the well-to-do practiced hatha yoga, dabbled in Buddhism, and went on the occasional shamanic retreat. Alternative health care was fashionable, too, so long as it was expensive enough to serve as conspicuous consumption, and so were a variety of fad diets, since those make a fine opportunity for the well-to-do to parade their wealth in front of their friends, and for aspirants to the managerial class to parade their loyalty to the status quo. Thus it’s not accidental that so many people who take up a vegan diet, the most popular of the lot, eat plenty of exotic and expensive foods. (It doesn’t have to be done this way—you can thrive on a vegan diet involving plenty of rice and beans, and other cheap foods—but if you want to see a fine display of class snobbery, try mentioning this in the upscale vegan venue of your choice.)
What we’re witnessing is thus the opening round of a sharp redefinition of what counts as acceptable behavior for the privileged classes in American society. If this keeps up in the years immediately ahead, and I expect it to do so, the whole range of popular spirituality and alternative culture that played so large role in the lives of the well-to-do from the late 1960s to the late 2010s will be condemned, and those who participate in any of those things will get to choose between their commitment to Buddhism or yoga or what have you, on the one hand, and their social status and high-end employment on the other. I’m sure I don’t have to tell my readers which way I expect most of those frogs to hop.
Those of my readers who belong to the comfortable classes and are involved in pop spirituality and alternative culture may have some hard choices ahead, in other words, and those who make any significant part of their living by marketing any of these things to the well-off may want to start looking for new income sources. To my mind, though, what this says about the current state of elite culture is far more important.
Social elites that are secure in their power make a point of providing their members with a range of venues for ineffective dissidence. It’s a way to let them blow off steam and feel better about their status as cogs in the machinery of power. Sex and spirituality are common themes of this sort of ritualized faux-rebellion—not the only such themes, to be sure, but they’re among the most popular, as they tap into basic human drives that aren’t usually well served by the payoffs of participation in the middle ranges of political and economic hierarchy.
When Queen Victoria’s England was a global hyperpower and nations around the globe trembled before British fleets, accordingly, British gentlemen were tacitly permitted to violate the strict sexual norms of the day—London at that time apparently had more sex workers per capita than any other city in the world—and to reject privately the Protestant Christian faith that was mandatory in public. In exactly the same way, during the years when the global hegemony of the United States was at its zenith, sexual shenanigans and alternative spiritualities were among the safety valves that allowed the flunkeys of the Establishment to feel rebellious while still doing exactly as they were told in every way that counted.
When social elites feel their grip on the levers of power slipping, by contrast, they very often clamp down on the mildly dissident habits they encouraged during more comfortable times. That happened only in limited ways in Victorian England—most of the British elite class didn’t notice the waning of their empire until it was already out of their hands—but the shock that spread through England’s gay community when Oscar Wilde was sent to prison is legendary, and shows the way that boundaries shifted and long-neglected rules got enforced once the long afternoon of England’s power began to tip visibly toward evening.
A great many people with six- and seven-figure salaries who dabble in spirituality may be facing a comparable shock in the months and years ahead. Spirituality is taking on the status long since accorded to rice and beans: flags marking territory that has been defined by elite culture as outside the pale. Back when the well-to-do were emoting about the diet of the poor, to suggest eating rice and beans was to define yourself as insufficiently loyal to the status signals of privilege; in the near future, using tarot cards, practicing meditation or yoga, and failing to agree enthusiastically enough with the latest denunciations of spirituality by allegedly serious thinkers will land you in similar trouble.
Mind you, this needn’t be any significant inconvenience to the spiritual traditions in question. One of the most charmingly clueless notions held by the well-to-do in America these days is that they are the only people who matter, and what they reject can’t possibly be embraced by anything but a crazed minority on the fringes. Au contraire, the preferences of the 20% or so of Americans who belong, or aspire to belong, to our society’s comfortable classes carry no clout at all outside the increasingly airtight bubble in which they live. As often as not these days, the more loudly the talking heads of the Establishment reject something, the more enthusiastically people outside the bubble take it up. This isn’t a small phenomenon, either; last year, when Democrats called for a boycott of Goya brand products, sales of that brand spiked to ten times their normal level. (The president of the firm accordingly gave Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who launched the failed boycott, an award for Goya salesperson of the month.)
There are already traditions of esoteric spirituality that have found welcoming homes outside the bubble. The Ascended Masters teachings, which branched off from the Theosophical movement in the early twentieth century under the colorful guidance of Guy and Edna Ballard and has become one of this country’s most interesting and least discussed spiritual movements, is one of them. Another is Heathenry, the lively movement that has revived Norse and Germanic polytheism. To judge by the intelligent and interested questions I field regularly from a range of populists and conservatives, including quite a number of devout Christians, there’s plenty of room outside the bubble for more systems of thought and practice that take the spiritual side of human experience seriously, and do useful things with them.
What remains to be seen at this point is which traditions of esoteric spirituality will find their way outside the bubble, and which ones will waste their last chance at survival trying to cling to an association with privilege as the privileged turn their backs and walk away. That process of sorting bids fair to have a very large impact on the future of spirituality in North America and elsewhere in the centuries ahead. The charmingly clueless notion referenced earlier in this essay is even more mistaken when applied to spirituality than elsewhere; over the long run, it’s not the spiritual hobbies of the well-to-do that matter, it’s the teachings that have something to say to ordinary people in difficult times. Those spiritual traditions that get flung into the outer darkness by the Establishment of our time thus have nothing to fear—and they’ll find a hearty meal of rice and beans waiting for them when they get there.
All metaphor aside, any of my readers who haven’t yet learned the simple process of fixing rice and beans might want to do so. As already noted, it’s filling, nourishing, and tasty; it causes snobs to go into convulsions of loathing firmly rooted in class prejudice, and that’s always entertaining to watch; and it’s very, very cheap—and that latter may be of more than usual importance in the not too distant future. A number of indications suggest, to be precise, that something else that was flung into the outer darkness a few years ago may not stay there much longer.
Peak oil is back. We’ll talk about that next week.