Sunday, December 28, 2003


g a t h e r i n g water is a reflective and well-written blog by a Unitarian Universalist seminarian. His recent essay on bible stories and samaritans is wonderful, riskily self-interrogating. I recommend it.

His latest entry is about a movement that's new to me -- cultural creatives. It appears, from his essay, that UUs (and others) are eyeing these folks as a congenial demographic, well worth courting and bringing into one's flock. He casts a skeptical, critical eye on the whole enterprise of designating and recruiting this demographic, whose belief system, it turns out, consists of a goulash of new age, esalen, ecological, spiritual, eastern, earth-centered, systems-theory, bodywork, liberal, activist concepts. All very white, middle-to-upper class, and homogeneous. He does not necessarily disagree with all the values they posit (most of them are treacily self-evident), but to wonder what the purpose might be in creating this category, so much like a marketing demographic. And to wonder at the wisdom of welcoming this particular project into a specific theology.

His discussion of "cultural creatives" piqued my interest and I visited their website.

Disclaimer: I tend to be a bit cynical about things new age. The homology with the french nuage, cloud, is not without import. My ambitious administrator father, after all, the dear Raul Stanati,

morphed into a reincarnationist meditating hypnotist; my rigorously Freudian psychoanalyst became an holotropic breathworks-propounding champion of alien abductions, and my very first beau, a lapsed Catholic, atheistic Marxist, in late life began to channel the spirits of dead Native Americans. Hoo boy. You can see where I hesitate even using the word "spiritual."

The CC website is replete with such images as a woman curled up on a sofa weeping with relief that her proclivity for taking yoga classes has finally been validated. Images of cozy conversations over hot mugs of cocoa and warm cinnamon buns. (Personally, I'd prefer hot chocolate soymilk. What ? No soy ? You gaia-hypothesis-spouting hypocritical exploiters of dairy animals !) And of course there's lots and lots and lots of "sharing."

The founders propose to "hold a mirror" up to these "optimistic, altruistic" folks who don't yet know that they are "cultural creatives" so that they will recognize themselves as a group and feel empowered to "speak more frankly in public settings" in ways that will eventually lead to a more "integral culture." (And sell more books, mutters my inner cynic.) Well, what monster would ever think of arguing with the idea of an "integral culture" ?

The "Cultural Creative" movement is the brainchild (perhaps they would prefer heart child or love child) of Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson. He's a marketing analyst/consultant and she's a psychologist with some Zen background. There is quiz a on their website that let's you find out whether you too might be a member of this elite, a book you can buy to learn more about yourself and the movement, and workshops, symposia, empowerment weekends and retreats you can attend to interface and share with other like minded CCs.

I checked out the Quiz. My eyes rolled so far up into my head I nearly needed an opthomological intervention to retrieve them. There's a checklist of 18 belief statements. Agree with ten, and you're in. Is there a secret handshake ? Let's take #10.

10. ... are concerned about violence and abuse of women and children around the world.

Now who on earth isn't ? But can you imagine the frisson of narcissistic and smug self-satisfaction the potential CC feels as he or she checks this one off ?

or this one

1. ... love nature and are deeply concerned about its destruction.

or this

7. ... care intensely about both psychological and spiritual development

Not just concern and care -- DEEP concern and INTENSE care.

There's lot's more: children, communities, neighborhoods, feminism, helping people, volunteering, maintaining relationships, limiting consumption, disempowering corporations -- all good things, but, jeez, aren't they kind of self-evident ? Ideas shared and lived by many types of "religious" and "humanistic" folks, or just plain nice folks, good folks, regular folks of many diferent stripes ?

And, finally, at #18, there's a sop to diversity, albeit oddly put. Cultural creatives

18. people and places that are exotic and foreign, and like experiencing and learning about other ways of life.

There's not much on their list about matters of racism, homophobia, immigrants' rights. Just this objectification of the "exotic" and "foreign" Other as an experience to be consumed.

There's a whole horrifically juicy page on lifestyles, which thrusts a blunt thumb into the squishy heart of the CC movement as if it were a Gigantic Jack Horner pie and pulls out a quivering plum of a silly and revolting stereotype. Lets take a look.

CCs prefer radio, especially NPR, and reading books over TV. OK, TV is bad. Uh huh. Well that's a no brainer.

CCs are "aggressive consumers of the arts and culture." This reminded me of a phrase I loathe: "voracious reader." Oh, the orality ! It's usually spoken in the first person -- "I am a voracious reader" -- with an air of self-display and smugness. Books (music, movies) as cultural capital. As accessories to one's ego. No different, on one level, than the ostentatious consumer luxuries the CCs scorn.

I asked myself awhile back: why did I find lawn statues of Buddha to be admirable, to the point of coveting one, and the commonplace statue of the Virgin Mary on the halfshell to be tacky ? The answer was bracingly ugly: the one seems exotic and hip, and would be a display of my own hipness. The other ? Ordinary. Which of course I am not, being a closeted Cultural Creative. Yeah, right. We settled on an ironic brace of pink flamingos. Non-denominational. (Well, there's nothing that's not a signifier of something. Deconstrct that, Harry.)

CCs, we learn, are into "stories, whole process and systems" and "symbols that go deep." As opposed to vapid algorithms and shallow symbols, I guess. Oh, yeah, they hate TV ads and kids' TV "more than most Americans." How radical.

And, of course, they "desire authenticity." As in (I'm not kidding) buying "Smith and Hawken garden tools" (whatever the hell they they cost more than my Home Depot rake, which, come to think of it, reeks of Sartrean inauthenticity) and patronizing "the natural foods industry." So it's a branding thing ? We are what we consume ? Authenticity as based on what you buy ? I'm getting the same willies here as I get in Whole Foods when I see the heaped shopping carts of the affluent and educated patrons whose SUVs clog the parking lot, and whose clever undisciplined children, shrieking at the tops of their clever little lungs, run me over with their heaping kiddo-sized carts.

Am I wrong to think that, on one level, a Little Debbie Cake as loathsome as it is, is more, well, honest than a four dollar save-the-rainforest vegan cookie ? Disclaimer: I AM vegan. And I hate how, sometimes, veganism devolves into just another subset of more refined consumerism.

Next we learn that CCs are "careful consumers." They read, of all things, that mag-for-the-masses "Consumer Reports," and are "practically the only consumers who regularly read labels." My late Uncle -- my dear linguistic and naturalist mentor, Peter -- read consumer reports religiously. His political worldview was right out of Rush Limbaugh.

I'm beginning to think we need to add another C to the acronym: CCC for Culturally Creative Consumers.

We read on, in "lifestyles" to discover that CCCs are "foodies" -- now there's an icky term -- who buy "resale" houses that they fix up, deplore "status-display" homes and "tract houses in treeless suburbs," preferring "authentic" styles (Frank Lloyd Wright, authentic adobe, authentic salt box) with access to nature, bike trails and historical preservation (so these are the guys who won't let you paint your house purple and who complain about your lawn flamingos !). Their houses are "nests" with "interesting nooks and niches" with the childrens' space "buffered" away from the adults'. (Kiddos off with the Nanny, I guess, while Mom and Dad engage in their authentic pursuits in their own private living areas.)

So now it's cutting edge to be aesthetically against "little boxes made of ticky tacky" ? I think not. They were lamenting Levittown in the fifties, for goodness sakes ! And who -- in Massachusetts at least -- can afford to buy anything other than maybe half a box made out of ticky tacky ? If that ? I am living in a house that we bought 6 years ago and that we could not afford to buy today. I'm a doctor. I'm not poor.

These CCC dwellings are full, of course, of "crafts" and "art." The decor is "eclectic." Book-filled, of course. And: "Status display happens inside the house and not outside, though it is not blatant: it is a display of personal good good taste and creative sense of style." So a little status display is OK, if it is of the right kind, and is, in fact, a simple statement of "good taste." Am I wrong to find this condescending, elitist, uncompassioante and, again, self-aggrandizing ?

CCCs drive hybrid cars. Or Volvos. Or "well-made Japanese cars." Oh, and they "loathe the process one goes through car at dealerships more than most people do." Such sensitive creatures. Verging on the neurasthenic ! I would argue that one can face even that painful "process" with a self-instructive and humanizing equanimity. I have.. And I am a quasi agoraphobic (as in its root sense -- fear of the marketplace) anti-consumer radical. It was liberating.

The next one kills me: the CCCs (see above) in their affinity for and approval of the exotic and foreign, "are on the cutting edge of vacation travel." As one might expect, they eschew mere cruises and tours for adventurous, spiritual and altruistic junkets to Indian temples, tourist-free back country (they aren't tourists, you know); they like "eco-tourism," "fantasy baseball camps," "save-the-baby-seals vacations" and "help-rebuild-a-Mayan-Village vacations." But not package tours. Never those. Or maybe just high priced, exotic, exclusive eco-altruistic package tours, no, I mean adventures. Are we getting a theme here ? A theme of lots and lots of disposable income ? Of elitism and exclusivity and self-importance ? CCCs, on the one hand, and the irredeemably and unteachably vulgar hoi polloi on the other ?

The next "lifestyle" comment takes the "cutting edge vacation" to ever more refined heights: CCCs are "experiential consumers." There's that consuming again. What hungry, hungry creatures these CCCs are. They are avid for consuming the, uh, experiences sold by the "experience industry" which is opposed to mere consumable "products." Here we've ascended into the realm of the "workshop," the "spiritual gathering, the "vacation-as-self-discovery" -- which must, of course, be "authentic" and provided by "fellow CCs."

Finally, the CC lifestyle is "holistic." Agains, CCs "consume" "personal growth psychotherapy, alternative health care and natural foods." They want to unify the "body-mind-spirit." "Unsympathetic physicians" call some of these preventive-medicine mavens "the worried well." The CC lifestyle is, again, into demonizing, dichotomizing. "Unsympathtic doctors," "tourists," "most Americans" versus the Culturally Creative Consumer.

After reflecting on all this, I can understand matthew gatheringwater's reservations. This is not the stuff of theology. This is the stuff of advertising. Branding. Marketing. It's about "good taste" and buying the right stuff and hanging out with people just like yourself that validate all your own prejudices. It's a club as smugly self-satisfied as any, probably more so. It's about narcissism and grandiosity and pleasure.

I'll take Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and the Berrigans, all the theistic and retrograde Catholic baggage notwithstanding, over this crap any day. And it disturbs me to hear that serious, respectable religious institutions are even giving it a second glance.

No comments: