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Wednesday, 05 July 2006 00:00

In need of help

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Steve Salerno’s SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless (ISBN 1-40005409-5, $24.95) is not only an attack on the self-help movement — SHAM is the acronym for Self-Help and Actualization Movement — but also a very amusing book.

Salerno, author of numerous magazine articles, a former editor of Men’s Health, and a teacher of journalism, has no qualms about punching hard against the frauds and fakirs who make up the bulk of the bloated self-help industry.

In his chapter titled “Put Me In, Coach, I’m Ready To Pay,” Salerno takes aim at “life coaches,” a title which apparently anyone can claim.

For $3,000 an East Rochester, New York, couple, John and Seran Wilkie, will fix your life through the magic of — Seranism! That’s their eponymous title for their 30-hour course on how to put your priorities in order, live a happier life, work less, earn more, and (in today’s iffy economy) save your struggling small business, if you have one. Seran Wilkie, a religious junkie and former teacher of statistics and computer programming, has no formal training in psychology. Even so, she seems herself uniquely qualified to expound on the keys to happiness and help each person find his or her singular version of it.

“Say you have a boss who’s just stupid and he’s driving you crazy,” she posits. “Ask yourself, “If he’s so stupid, how is he driving me crazy?”

He must be pushing some button on me, and where is that button? And so forth. The program helps you see what really is.” So far, the Wilkies say they have provided such enlightenment for about 300 people.

And on it goes for 260 pages, a look at the shearers and those who are willing to be fleeced. My favorite pages were the ones about Dr. Phil — I’ve only heard his name, never watched his show, and still found Salerno hilarious on the subject; the chapter titled “You Are All Diseased,” which dealt with addictions; and the sketch of Dr. Laura Schlessinger only because I so loathed her annoying voice these many years. Typical of these writings is the look at Dr. Laura, which begins:

“What to make of a doctor who isn’t a doctor ... an Orthodox Jew who isn’t an Orthodox Jew ... a crusader against pornography whose naked come-hither image is splashed all over the Internet ... a critic of premarital and extramarital sex who’s indulged in both ... a champion of family values who was so far removed from her own mother’s life that she didn’t even know it had ended till months later?

Boooooo, Dr. Laura. As Gomer Pyle might say: Shame, shame, shame.

Salerno backs up his attacks with statistics and basic facts. He also extends his look at our SHAM society by examining the broader ramifications of a society comprised mostly of victims and then addressing the demagoguery of profiteers like Jessie Jackson, Gloria Steinham, and John D’Emilio. These three individuals, who claim to speak for Blacks, women, and homosexuals respectively, have earned enormous incomes by speaking out for groups that may or may not agree with the stances taken.

If you’re looking for a hilarious but also sobering — are we all really this stupid? Apparently so — portrait of a largely American phenomenon, put SHAM on your summer reading list.

•••

If, however, you are looking for the antidote to the self-help movement’s SHAMans and false gurus, you should proceed directly to your favorite bookstore, library or internet book sit, and purchase a copy of Dale Ahlquist’s Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton (ISBN 1-58617-139-9). Chesterton, one of the 20th century’s most quoted authors, is in good hands in this synopsis of his thought. Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society, has written another book on Chesterton, and has edited his epic poem, “Lepanto.”

Though any Chesterton fan would probably appreciate this book, it strikes me as particularly handy for those of us who are relatively newcomers to this great writers articles and books. Common Sense 101 contains biographical information about Chesterton, tells us something of his literary life, and makes clear his impact on the twentieth century both as a writer and as a sort of prophet for our own age. Especially effective is the way Ahlquist combines Chesterton’s thought with his own interpretation of that thought. Each page contains quotations from Chesterton to illuminate Ahlquist’s commentary. And who would not want to quote from a man who could express himself in this way:

The most absurd thing that could be said of the Church is the thing we have all heard said of it ... that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages ... The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.

Men in a state of decadence employ professionals to fight for them, professionals to dance for them, and a professional to rule them.

There are two ways of dealing with nonsense in this world. One way is to put nonsense in the right place; as when people put nonsense into nursery rhymes. The other is to put nonsense in the wrong place; as when they put it into educational addresses, psychological criticisms, and complaints against nursery rhymes.

(This last paragraph, though nearly 100 years old, seems aimed at SHAM.)

As Ahlquist’s title implies, Chesterton was a proponent of common sense, of logic, of a solution that made sense.

“If men cannot save themselves by common sense,” Chesterton wrote, “they cannot save each other by coercion.”

In SHAM, Salerno’s hidden message is that men and women have lost some of their common sense. If you feel in need of some common sense yourself, read these books.

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