Sunday, March 3, 2024

Review: Conspirituality by Julian Walker, Matthew Remski and Derek Beres

There's a banger of a long-form essay somewhere here. Unfortunately, in book form, the argument felt a bit padded.

This book took a closer look at a fascinating phenomenon that came to a head in 2020-2021 during the height of the COVID pandemic: the surprising affinity between far-right/fascist politics and the health and wellness industry. As the authors point out, this is not a novel phenomenon: the story of yoga's westernization is one of colonial anxiety about racial decline, while the history of eugenics has long married a health-conscious striving for purity with racism and reactionary politics:

So at the start of the modern yoga movement (...) we have a bizarre colonial collision. Europeans, afraid of racial decline as the borders of empire became porous through global trade and increased long-haul travel, concocted an exercise ideology to defend and restore the once-proud national body against corruption. Indian modernizers grabbed hold of this strongman aesthetic, mingled it with Scandinavian gymnastics, and then consecrated it with yoga exercises reconstructed from the medieval period. They faced east to salute the sun and sculpt a new national body, purged of foreign influences and colonial shame, a body that can carry a torch of ancient wisdom onto the modern global stage.

By 2020, the health and wellness industry had evolved into a network of small businesses, magazines, multi-level marketing corporations, and social media influencers. Facing rising rents and the cut-throat competition of capitalism, those who were able to earn a living in this sphere often found themselves needing to combine many aspects of these industries. Yoga studios discovered class fees were insufficient for making rent and so sold yoga instructor classes (a sort of MLM scheme) and essential oils (often via MLMs) and became instagram influencers. The philosophy of the wellness industry aligns perfectly with capitalism: you alone are responsible for your own health; your choices (and purchases) and hard work can lead you to success.

COVID was a perfect disaster to radicalize this group of people. On the one hand, (necessary and reasonable) restrictions against gathering in person prevented many of these businesses from operating. On the other hand, the individualistic approaches of the wellness industry were particularly ill-suited to combat health issues that required entire communities to act in unison to protect their most vulnerable. The wellness community was already primed to be skeptical of the medical community; vaccine skepticism was already high and herbal solutions and other such remedies were often preferred over clinically proved treatments. This group found a natural political ally with another group with similar distrust in collective solutions over individual rights, fury at government-mandated limits to in-person business operation, and skepticism over institutional health guidelines: the alt-right.

The authors explore how both extreme political parties and wellness industry proponents show overlap with cults. Members of these groups similarly dismiss evidence that does not fit within their worldview (using distrust of institutions, etc, to do so) and burn relationships with people that resist their beliefs. At least one of the authors was a survivor of a cult, and recognized many common patterns of the alt-right and wellness community rhetoric in their own experiences.

One of the strengths of this book was its empathy for all parties involved. The frantic communications from the government in the early days of the pandemic were confusing and contradictory, if understandable. The medical community has behaved in ways that corrode trust: events like the Tuskegee Syphilis trial are a stain upon our professsion, while at the individual level, busy doctors often dismiss patient concerns or fail to treat them like holistic human beings. Those who care for people that have become wept into proto-fascist politics have to find a line somewhere that allows them to maintain a relationship with those they love without being enablers themselves.

The authors don't quite have the answers for solving this problem, but because it is so multi-faceted it is a really hard nut to crack. Improve scientific literacy (and that includes not just pointing to peer reviewed articles as the arbiter of All Things True), integration of health within community networks in ways not mediated by money, regaining of trust between institutions and people. How do we get there in a way that doesn't further provoke the frustrations of people upset at government overreach?

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