The Golden Age of Quackery

Posted on May 23, 2020



By Jason M. Morgan | May 2020
Jason M. Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

As I was boarding a cross-country flight a few years ago, I noticed that the passengers ahead of me were stopping in the first-class cabin to take pictures with a bronzed, Adonis-like figure who obligingly flashed a smile full of perfectly straight and white teeth for every selfie-seeker. Was he a celebrity?

Wearing a tight-fitting t-shirt that accentuated his bulging pectorals and biceps, the man, who was well into his 40s, settled into his seat between snapshots, amber sunglasses propped on the crown of his head, his expression inscrutable, apart from a palpable aura of self-satisfaction. Who was he? The boarding line slowed to a crawl as nearly every other passenger stopped to click pictures with the man or shake his hand.

When my turn came to pass by him in what had become a de facto receiving line, I looked as closely as I politely could at his chiseled face. I figured him for a baseball star, and, as I had been a diehard fan in my youth, I was vexed that I couldn’t recall his face or his name. Had he been first baseman for the Padres in the early 1990s? Or shortstop for the Braves?

The mystery didn’t last long. Once we were at cruising altitude, the people around me began to talk about a convention in the city we had just left. A woman sitting across the aisle from me was showing others around her pictures on her cell phone of a garishly lit stage, flooded with candy-green and neon-pink lights, on which was standing the man now seated in first class. It was a sales and motivational convention promoting a health drink. The people on the plane were speaking as though it had been a religious experience.

The woman with the picture-laden phone was now kneeling in the aisle right next to me. Overweight and confessional, she was pouring out the details of her life to the person behind me. She knew that her weight was a problem, she said to this near-stranger in coach, but she was trying to stay positive and focus on improving her outlook and her situation. The convention had given her a new direction, a new lease on life, and she was a big believer in the product they had all come to the city to learn how to sell. In delving into health-drink sales with heart and soul, she was hoping for some kind of secular miracle that would remake her from the inside out.

The woman’s interlocutor was not to be outdone. She upped the ante by oversharing about her past. She had been in an abusive marriage, she told the overweight woman (and the dozen or so people within earshot), and had no self-confidence. She came to realize that her husband was keeping her down, but she had been at a loss as to what to do. Then she heard about the health drink, and it changed her life. She could be healthy in body and in mind — and take control of her destiny. She could break free from her abusive husband and set out on a new course, and it was all thanks to the health drink and its super-positive promoter, the man in first class whose name I never learned. (Perhaps it was too holy to be uttered by mortal lips.)

My curiosity was piqued. I had to know what this product was that was changing everyone’s lives. When I got home, I looked up the drink that everyone had been talking about.

It was all a scam. There were numerous reports of fraud and false claims. The toothy Adonis on the plane was apparently a nobody in the world of the enormous Ponzi scheme built around this product — his face did not appear in any of the promotional pictures on the drink’s official website or the sites of those selling the stuff on their own. My guess is that he had simply been an aggressive marketer, outhustled the competition, appeared on stage at a sales convention-cum-rock concert, and had risen high enough in the pyramid to win the acclaim of those below him still striving to leave the lowly ranks of the unnoticed and financially unrewarded.

Last I heard, the federal government and several state governments were investigating the manufacturers and head marketers of the health drink. Perhaps by now the Ponzi scheme has finally collapsed.

What stood out about the episode on the plane was the tone of awe with which the other passengers discussed the muscular marketer and the product he pushed. Those people were not so much greedy or avaricious as they were eager to believe. The health drink was a way to make money, sure, but also a way to reify and reinforce a changed outlook on life. It was invested with something more religious than lucrative or even psychological. This was a confidence trick, strictly speaking, but more properly it should be called a credence trick. “Trust me,” the gold-toothed watch salesman hisses smoothly in reply when asked if the five-dollar Rolex is authentic. “Believe in me,” the health-drink salesman cries as he pumps up the crowd in what is essentially a secular revival tent.

In 1923 G.K. Chesterton famously wrote that “the first effect of not believing in God, is that you lose your common sense.” What have the past ten decades done but proven Chesterton right, millions of times over? As the world has turned increasingly “spiritual but not religious,” it has simultaneously turned, in equal measure, grave but not serious. People are willing to lend credence to anything. There is nothing so outlandishly silly that no one will fall for it. The more transparent the gimmick, it seems, the more people flock to take part in it.

To borrow the title of a 1959 book by Stewart H. Holbrook, ours is the Golden Age of Quackery, when any made-up face and commanding presence, any charism no matter how cheap, can push merchandise on any milling crowd. Is it any wonder that big corporations have done everything in their power to secularize their customer base? Without Christianity, we will buy junk and promises by the bucketful, and we will buy more the next time when the first delivery inevitably fails to fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts. Ours is not a laissez-faire economy but a laicized one. The de-Churched are P.T. Barnum’s dream audience, and the Year of Grace 2020 is witness to a glut of naïfs just begging to be hoodwinked, bamboozled, snookered, and owned. The opposite of Christianity is not some other religion, but plain, old low-level fraud.

Who is not selling snake oil nowadays? Consider, the website founded by actress Gwyneth Paltrow. Peddling “vagina-scented candles,” “spirit-animal rings,” and the wisdom of “shamanic healers” from the Amazon, Goop is a clearinghouse of quirky quack. Nobody, and I mean nobody, has any business steam-cleaning her undercarriage, but Gwyneth’s Goop once famously gushed over the “health benefits” that might — maybe! — come from a lady squatting over a jet of aromatized vapor.

For those who don’t go in for this, there’s nonsense of a geological cast. As shopping malls lose their cachet and give way to payday-loan counters and health-food stores, crystal hobbyists are putting out their shingles and sharing the vibrations of smoky quartz and matrix opal, stones for increasing “positive energy.” Those who want to tap into their creative side, or unleash their feminine mystique, are encouraged to bedeck themselves with rocks and let the good vibes roll.

Consider, for example, “Instagram’s reigning witch influencer, Bri Luna,” as a recent Atlantic article gushed. Luna has “more than 450,000 followers and has collaborated with Coach, Refinery29, and Smashbox, for which she recently introduced a line of cosmetics ‘inspired by the transformative quality of crystals.’” (How many “witch influencers” does Instagram have, anyway?) The primary subject of the Atlantic article, a workaday witch by the name of Juliet Diaz, is said to be part of a “witch renaissance” that’s coincided with “a growing fascination with astrology, crystals, and tarot, which, like magic, practitioners consider ways to tap into unseen, unconventional sources of power.” Diaz, probably not coincidentally, charges top dollar for “anointing oils” and for access to her witch school. She also does “manifesting intentions,” which she sometimes performs while sipping “grounding tea,” and she dabbles in a little mind-reading on the side.

It’s not just rock collections that the “spiritual” have converted into magic charms. If you’ve ever had a bout of insomnia and turned on the TV at three in the morning, you might have seen a shopping channel selling magnetic necklaces, copper bracelets, specially ionized water, patented pheromones, or supercharged vitamins “proven” to improve health, mood, metabolism, libido, luck, or some other mirage that, in our post-Christian naïveté, we desperately want to be real. In Japan, negative ion hotspots were all the rage a few years ago, with TV shows trotting out “experts” testifying to their health benefits and Japanese celebrities holding ion-measuring devices in exotic locales, such as jungles in South America, searching for the ultimate low-ion site on the planet.

You might think you’ve avoided being duped by such obvious quackery, but it’s too early to laugh just yet. Perhaps you practice yoga, the West’s all-time favorite balderdash. Stretching alley cats are more dignified than asana buffs. Arching one’s back into lion poses and wheeling around to grab one’s own foot is, I once thought, the silliest thing on the planet. Now people crank up the heat and do all this while sweating. I was wrong about room-temperature yoga being the “world’s silliest thing.” Hot yoga wins by a country mile.

Yoga isn’t unique though. Fitness crazes are endless. We’ve had Jazzercise, Buns of Steel, Six-Minute Abs, Bowflex, and Zumba. We’ve had Richard Simmons, Billy Blanks, and Denise Austin. What celebrity past his prime, or what ambitious nobody with a video camera and toned glutes, has not produced an exercise video and hawked it for $15 a pop? Pilates was once holy writ among the body-conscious crowd. Today, you can buy old Pilates DVDs for 90 percent off in the bargain bin. Other workout videos you can probably get for even less. Sic transit gloria Fonda.

If you’re like me and have never found a reason to torture with exercise the body God gave you, then you’ve probably steered clear of the leotard variety of quackery. If that’s the case, you very well may have fallen for another quack-pot: fad diets. You could start a different diet each week for a year and still not make a dent in the rich quackery of food cons. I have never followed a diet in my life, but I have watched my fellow countrymen swoon from one fad to the next, cutting out salt, cutting out butter (how could anyone be so masochistic?), swearing off dairy, eschewing white bread, swilling veggie shakes, or, improbably, piling their plates half-a-foot-high with fried ham and greasy sausages. These diets are invariably recommended by honest-to-goodness quacks, phony “doctors” who put on white lab coats and publish science-y sounding books touting the benefits of eating like the French, the Italians, the Chinese, the Arabs, or the Turks. I have never seen a book pushing the Cannibal Diet, but that doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist.

In order to pull off these diets, you have to invest in the meal plans and recipe collections that go with them. These, too, are endless: powders, protein bars, açai berries, and whey concentrate. When all of this splendidly fails to work (diets are like contraception: it’s their failure that the industry is ultimately counting on), there are pills to shed the pounds. This is where the quackery gets deadly. Fen-phen, a diet pill once advertised on mimeographed sheets stapled to telephone poles, has been the subject of an estimated 50,000 lawsuits and $14 billion in claims since the 1990s.

And, of course, there are the false religions. Who could begin to count them? Scientology, which has about as much intellectual heft as an ad for bunion cream, is the “religion” of choice for the professionally vain. But Scientology is just jazzed up sci-fi. For those who go the Bible-based false-religion route, well, take your pick. The other day, I discovered a video of a preacher in China who puts on a Bible-themed stage show in which he contends that Chinese characters are codes for biblical truths. (Imagine if St. Thomas Aquinas had said that one of the proofs for the existence of God was in the shape of the letters of the alphabet!) Or simply turn on the boob tube on a given Sunday morning. Supercilious Victorians dabbled in Ouija boards, automatic writing, and Freudian dream-mapping, but do any of these compare with the toupéed televangelist, face sweating, mugging smarmily for camera number three? Ya got to BELIEVE, brother! Ya also got to DONATE!

It gets worse. The “spiritual but not religious” set has fallen for pet psychics, palm readers, tarot-card flippers, “life coaches,” feng shui masters, and clairvoyants who claim they can “cross over” and communicate with the spirits of the dead. The Church Fathers flicked these kinds of B-team false prophets away with ease 17 centuries ago, but now that we have forgotten all about our heritage, we stand unguarded before the charlatans thronging every day and age. There is something wrong, not with our generation, but with the human heart. Without the Church to guide us, we are powerless against the press of quackery.

Even video games are sold as panaceas, said to improve hand-eye coordination (how much of that does one need, exactly?) and — yes — overall health. When I was a kid, sitting on the edge of my bed and playing Excitebike on a black-and-white TV required mainly holding down the B button on the Nintendo controller. Drooling was optional. Today, people stand up and do archery, play tennis, and box, all through the medium of the video game. Forty years ago, when I wanted to do those things, I would knock on my friends’ doors and we would go do them outside. But the outdoors has been canned and facsimiled, sold as a health product for consumption in a dark living room. Video-game manufacturers apparently don’t expect their customers to blow the illusion by opening the front door. Quackery multiplies forever.

This gets us to the heart of the matter, in a roundabout way. The video game is a simulacrum of real experience, and quackery is a jumble of cheesy, fake-religion hocus pocus and charms. It is essentially pornographic, the passing off of one thing as another, the fraud upon which our entire post-Christian anti-culture has come to depend. Which came first, the faking of onanism as sex, or the faking of therapy as salvation? Trick question: neither. It was the turning away, by slow degrees, of the heart of the West from the crucifix, the Rosary, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the angels and saints, the Liturgy of the Hours, feast days, baptisms, and Christian weddings and burials. It was this denial of our Catholic birthright that opened the void we now try to fill with whatever the hucksters come up with next.

The Golden Age of Quackery signals midnight in the West, four generations after Nietzsche, when God, the gods, and the demigods (of race, nation, and ideology) have passed away. All that remain are the idols — celebrities, gurus, pundits, and charlatans — who spin a line, dangle a promise, sell a cheap knockoff, and make a killing off the gulled masses who secretly hope — hoping against fading hope — that this time the illusion will prove real.


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