Friday, February 14, 2014

God Save US

“I am not speaking to the rich in you, or the poor in you. I am speaking to the American in you.”

“Americans are feeling locked out of the system.”

 “I think there’s a basic disintegration in our democratic foundation which is not being addressed by either major political party,”

“The Constitution doesn’t mention political parties; Washington warned us against them,” 

“JFK said, ‘Let us not seek a Republican answer or a Democratic answer. Let us seek an American answer.’ ”

The Magazine

God Help Us

Marianne Williamson’s campaign to save America’s soul, starting with California’s 33rd Congressional District

Feb 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22 • By ZACK MUNSON

Los Angeles
In case you were wondering, things in California just got a little weird. Okay, maybe not “just.” 

Let me be more specific: The congressional election in California’s 33rd District, a coastal tract encompassing some of the wealthiest, most liberal quarters of Los Angeles County​—​Bel Air, Santa Monica, and Beverly Hills, to name a few​—​just got a little weird. 

On January 30, Henry Waxman, the district’s long-serving and notoriously cantankerous representative, surprised everyone by announcing he would retire at the end of this term. Since arriving in

Marianne For Congress / Dana Fineman
Williamson, right, at a campaign stop
 Marianne For Congress / Dana Fineman

Congress in 1975, Waxman has been a dogged champion of progressive causes and a frequent irritant to Republican administrations. 

During George W. Bush’s term alone, Waxman, from his perch on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, launched investigations into everything from the handling of Hurricane Katrina to government contractors in Iraq to Republican National Committee email ethics. Generally speaking, he has been a pain in the collective GOP hindquarters for nearly 40 years.

But with Waxman bowing out, how will things change? A television producer named Brent Roske has declared his candidacy, but it’s purely symbolic, and he’s not actually campaigning. 

Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who made a name for herself by complaining that the Jesuit school’s health plan didn’t cover birth control, floated her name as a possible candidate and then decided against it. 

There is a possibility that conservative Bill Bloomfield, who gave Waxman a run for his money in 2012, will give it another shot, but he has yet to announce (Waxman beat him 54-46 in a district Obama carried 61-37). 

The field remains wide open. 

In fact, at the moment, there is only one candidate running anything approaching a real campaign. Well, maybe “campaign” is the wrong word. It’s more a vision quest. If you live in Waxman’s district, Marianne Williamson doesn’t just want to represent you. She wants to save your soul.

Though perhaps not a household name, Williamson is something of a celebrity: Her self-help books have earned her national recognition, and her weekly lectures on spirituality have made her a fixture in Los Angeles for over 30 years. 

Back in October, having at long last grown tired of politics as usual, frustrated with the Democratic party of which she has been a member all her life, and armed with a large grassroots following (she claims more than 400,000 Facebook fans and 200,000 Twitter followers), she announced her independent candidacy for Waxman’s seat and has been kissing proverbial babies ever since.

New Age spiritual teacher, guru to movie stars, friend of Oprah​—​she is both self-actualized and self-made. Born to a Jewish family in Houston in 1952, by the late 1970s, Williamson confesses, “I was a total mess.” After bouncing “from relationship to relationship, job to job, city to city, looking for some sense of identity or purpose,” she found herself living in New York, “seeking relief in food, drugs, people, or whatever else I could find to distract myself.”

She wallowed in this depression until stumbling across a book that she credits with transforming her life. That book was A Course in Miracles, a 1,300-page spiritual manual (complete with student workbooks and instructions on how to teach it) written by New York psychologists Helen Shucman and William Thetford and published by the Foundation for ParaSensory Investigation (now the Foundation for Inner Peace). 

Williamson heeded the book’s call to become a “miracle-worker.” 

In 1983, now living in Los Angeles, she began lecturing on The Course (as she calls it) at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Feliz. She developed a large following, particularly among Los Angeles’s gay community, which was then being ravaged by the initial outbreak of AIDS. 

By the end of the ’80s, she had helped to found the Los Angeles Center for Living and Project Angel Food, both nonprofits providing assistance to people suffering from HIV, AIDS, and other life-threatening illnesses. 

A few years later, she had to resign the leadership of Project Angel Food after a controversy erupted when she fired several employees for their attempts to unionize. 

In response to numerous media reports of her explosive temper and overbearing management style, Williamson, ever ready to embrace her own weaknesses, nicknamed herself “The Bitch for God.”

In 1992, she wrote a self-help manual, A Return to Love, expounding on excerpts from The Course. A Return to Love’s overall spiritual lesson is that we as human beings are in fact all one being, not under but with God, that all of our minds are actually one mind, and that we have tricked ourselves into thinking we are separate from one another, thus creating fear, which dominates us and throws us into collision with everyone else, who, we need to remember, are really also us. 

According to Williamson, there is only one way out of this destructive cycle, and that is (spoiler alert) a return to love.

Both her book and The Course make liberal use of Christian theological terms, but deploy them as merely symbolic of universal spiritual truths. “The concept of a divine, or ‘Christ’ mind,” we learn, “is the idea that at our core, we are not just identical, but actually the same being.” 

Christ, you see, “is a psychological term” and “ ‘Accepting the Christ’ is merely a shift in self-perception. We awaken from the dream [that] we are finite, isolated creatures, and recognize that we are glorious, infinitely creative spirits.” 

And, not to leave anyone out, Williamson’s book also includes a smattering of references to other religious and cultural traditions:
In Taoist philosophy, “yin” is the feminine principle, representing the forces of earth, while “yang” is the masculine principle, representing spirit. .  .  .
In Christic philosophical terms, Mary symbolizes the feminine within us, which is impregnated by God. .  .  . Through a mystical connection between the human and divine, we give birth to our Higher self.
And so on. And so forth.
Despite its mealy-mouthed pan-denominationalism, Williamson’s counsel is not, as these things go, all that bad: 

We should try to think of others more than ourselves; we should try to treat people with kindness; we should try to replace our selfish and fearful thinking with love. 

[Why try ~ why not just do it?!]

It is all just fuzzy enough about specific directives to appeal to spiritually minded folks who might be turned off by having to do anything, besides think happy thoughts, to achieve enlightenment. 

Perhaps as a result, the book spent 39 weeks on the New York Times self-help bestseller list and brought Williamson national attention (not to mention a lot of money).

In the intervening years, she has published nine more books (five more bestsellers), including, in 2000, Healing the Soul of America: Reclaiming Our Voices as Spiritual Citizens

The book is really a political manifesto, glorifying the protest politics of the 1960s and lamenting, “The invisible order that shot our heroes [i.e., JFK, RFK, and MLK Jr.] did not keep shooting, but began providing goods and services as quickly as possible to distract a grieving generation from our psychic pain.” 

The result of this materialist conspiracy, Williamson feels, has been a disengagement from politics, and Healing offers a broad indictment of the American voting public’s apathy and ignorance. 

“Today’s average American is more apt to rebel against a tennis shoe not coming in the right color than against the slow erosion of our democratic freedoms,” she declares. 

“Today, most Americans are too cynical, or tired, or both, to even approximate our Founders’ courageous repudiation of injustice.” 

The overarching message is that we need to slough off our materialistic chains and apply our great spiritual wisdom, above all our innate love for one another as human beings, to the political problems of the day. 

All we need, in other words, is love.

On my way to meet Williamson at a restaurant in Brentwood, I’m not quite sure what to expect. I’ve never seen a guru before, let alone had lunch with one, and my East Coast prejudices are already starting to get the better of me. I’m half-expecting her to glide into the dining room in flowing saffron robes and to answer my questions in New Age hypno-babble. To be honest, I’m kind of hoping for it. 

But I find her sitting at a corner table dressed neatly in a black pantsuit, mundanely sipping a cup of coffee.

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