This is Part 2 of the Insignificant Trilogy.
We are witnessing a rapid rise in naturopathic populism.
- Up to two thirds of Americans are using non-conventional methods to treat cancer. Naturopathic doctors (see an excellent overview) wear white coats, work in clinics and deceptively offer a simple, painless, ineffective alternative to modern medicine.
- Four in ten in France do not believe vaccines are safe (there is presently a deadly measles epidemic in one French region) and vaccine safety has become an election issue in Italy. Measles cases are up 300% with 20,000 victims last year.
- Sales in organic food, unregulated supplements and bogus detox programmes have been rising exponentially. These marketing opportunists have attracted the big food manufacturers and brands to move into the organic food space to cash in on financial margins built on fear and lies.
- It is almost impossible to find a policymaker today in Europe who will stand up and publicly support agricultural technologies (pesticides, fertilisers, plant breeding).
Over the last decade, there has been a concerted attack on scientific expertise, authorities and conventional practices by a coalition of gurus, anti-industry campaigners, interest groups and environmental NGOs. Naturopaths (defined broadly as those blindly favouring natural methods, substances and treatments over conventional scientific ones) operate across a wide range of disciplines from homeopathy, alternative medicine, organic food and supplements, utilising a network of retailers, producers, lobbyists and media actors. They are zealots (eco-religious fundamentalists) putting forward a naturopathic populism based on fear campaigns, simplistic alternatives and outright lies. Anti-vaxx, anti-chemicals, anti-pharma, anti-industry, anti-trade, anti-science … these agitators have done well by fostering doubts and distrust of experts and regulators while raising an heroic profile of the brave naturopathic guru leading individuals who resists the status quo. This blog will consider how their techniques fit within a populist cult playbook.
In the last blog, I showed how The Risk-Monger considered himself as “insignificant” and contrasted that to the negative human character traits of expectation, entitlement and self-absorption. In this second part, I will argue that this human need to feel significant has been exploited by populist cults. We are in a populist period now, with the recent rise of the naturopathic ideologue as just the latest in a long history of populist assaults on authority and expertise. In the Age of Stupid, however, with a populist-driven social media, the possible consequences from this latest assault on our institutions could be severe and long-lasting.
Zealot Entitlement and Populist Cults
The decline of the expert and public trust in authority is nothing new (and has been around for as long as institutions have existed). A weak institution allows a guru, zealot or dictator to thrive. So whether one is storming the Bastille, burning down the Reichstag or creating fear of a Communist menace, the approach is the same: a small band of opportunists righteously manipulate a vulnerable population with the promise of putting power into the hands of the people (long enough to discredit the institutions and then impose their own cultist authoritarianism).
Zealot empowerment happens when institutional weakness coincides with public vulnerability, where populist leaders can convince large populations of a better life by abandoning the authorities and institutions. Since such moments in history are not based on leadership but rather self-interested dictators or gurus, they are doomed to fail (undermined by the fundamentalists need for domination based on intolerance).
Last December I had written on how the German Green Party was using fascist practices and that we should not be surprised they were considering cooperation with the neo-Nazi AfD party. During the discussions that followed that little missive, it became clear that today’s naturopathic activists are behaving as a populist cult in the same manner as Nazis were in Hitler’s Germany. Movements led by gurus tend not to be very democratic nor tolerant but rather manipulate (fabricate) a populist perception that aims to undermine established authorities. We are seeing a similar rise in anti-institutional populism with the present naturopathic attack on scientific expertise, conventional practices and technologies.
The shift in the worth of individuals
Where did this self-importance of the individual (one that leaves us vulnerable to populism and jingoism) come from? How have the opportunistic gurus been able to so easily exploit our craving to be significant?
The Catholic concept of dignity identifies self-worth only insofar as our existence mirrors the Creator. For centuries, man was seen to be insignificant and humbled in the face of the true authority (co-opted by the dominant institution of the day). In contrast to this, the Kantian concept of dignity, to which Western societies still largely cling and from which our need to defend human rights emanates, identifies an intrinsic self-worth in each individual being a person – that, insofar as we are human, we are all significant. See Kant’s Groundwork as a good introduction to how he revolutionised personal dignity. I would mark this period at the end of the 1700s as the birth of populism and a series of points in history followed where the individual (or certain individuals) is seen to be more significant than the institution.
Kant wrote at the time of the French Revolution and took a keen interest in following the “progress” of humanity. Little did he anticipate how the starving masses could be exploited by the entitled opportunists with a few sharp blades and capacity for populist fear-mongering. Marx and Engels made another attempt at usurping institutional authorities with an enlightened proletariat. History was even more unkind to their idealism, unleashing an authoritarian dictatorship exploited by operatives. The cult of National Socialism and the ideals of American consumerism were further points in history where populist ideals were co-opted by cunning opportunists using advanced forms of deceptive marketing communications tools.
Populism is easily spread on a self-absorbed population craving significance. I suspect that today, with the social media tools that allow individuals to truly embrace and broadcast themselves, this me-craving is at its zenith. And the naturopathic gurus have filled this vacuum of narcissism “divinely”.
There has been an abrupt shift in the cultural narrative against trust in expertise and authorities. During the UK Brexit campaign, Leave politicians like Michael Gove played down expert assessments of the risks of the UK leaving the EU. In the EU glyphosate debate, advice from scientific agencies from EFSA to the BfR were largely ignored, derided as “pro-Monsanto” by anti-industry groups like Corporate Europe Observatory and Friends of the Earth. The recent TV film on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan portrayed government experts as the villains, contrasting them to the heroic soccer moms who saved the city.
Naturopathic populism is a rejection of the scientific elite – the expert. Working from the eco-religious belief that natural is best, this dogma shuns technologies, industry, trade and human rights. Like most populist outbreaks, the single-minded focus has allowed opportunists to provoke fear, offer simple solutions and gain influence. Some might claim that an ND is a doctor or an agroecologist is doing science, but if you only restrict your perspective to natural-based solutions, and disregard an entire class of technologies, any conclusions you draw would be based on a biased analysis. Both agroecology and naturopathic medicine are superstitious religions in white coats.
As societies are becoming more technology based, the need for expertise in strong institutions increases. This is why the present rise in this green, pro-natural populism, spread by anti-technology activist gurus, is so dangerous. Whether it is the rise of manipulative organic food fear-mongers like Vani Hari or Vandana Shiva, anti-industry anarchists like Martin Pigeon or Stéphane Foucart, anti-vaxxers like Jenny McCarthy or Ronnie Cummins or supplements peddlers like Dr Mercola or Wayne Parent, the methodology is the same: undermine trust in institutions and leaders, present the guru as the true authority and promise the frightened, naive audience the hope and significance they crave (via a fear-riddled populism).
Naturopathy is a cult movement with a set of beliefs that reject the present system (against industry, chemicals, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, pesticides …). Like any cult, there are extremists (those who swear off all vaccines, soaps, detergents and any synthetic chemicals) and moderates (who try to live more naturally and are concerned about the impact of technology). But instead of moving out and living their cult ideals with some guru in a hippie commune, today’s naturopaths are using social media to undermine the benefits of technology. They are raising large amounts of money through supplements, media, memberships, referrals and speaking fees then using it to run networked social media campaigns.
Naturopaths fabricating doubt and fear of science and technology are making progress in spreading their populism. The alternatives they are promoting are populist and against the advice of scientists and experts: a fully organic food chain of small local farmers, breaking down the global trade and financial system, decisions based on random citizen science, more choice in alternative medicine, the right to not vaccinate children …
The glyphosate watershed
I saw the EU glyphosate debate as a living example of how this naturopathic populism has reached frightening levels of influence. A few people (around 50 globally) were able to handicap the EU regulatory process for more than two years (and it is only by accident that they had a temporary setback). The activists were using all of the tricks of a cult in fabricating a crisis and pumping out fear and distrust.
- The views of the scientific community were clear: glyphosate is not a health risk, but institutions like EFSA and the BfR were seen to be aligned with industry and their data was not to be trusted while “citizen scientists” like Portier or Séralini were seen to be better placed as voices of the public (despite the hypocrisy of their funding, motives and obvious conflicts of interest).
- The “public” demand to ban glyphosate was an irrational fear that would place severe hardship on farmers and further challenge conventional agriculture. Like any cultist fabrication, the public petition to ban glyphosate amounted to less than 0.4% of the European population (with a substantial percentage being German), but the little manipulators made it look like a populist revolution.
- Naturopaths like Stephanie Seneff were making ridiculous correlations between microscopic trace exposure levels of glyphosate and autism, celiac disease, leaky gut, diabetes, foggy brain … and with the right communications tools, have been able to handicap weak institutions in the EU from making a simple regulatory decision.
- The zealot offensive meant that choosing organic was not enough. The policy drive to ban glyphosate in Europe was an effort to hurt conventional agriculture, deny consumers access to affordable food and deny farmers from being able to farm sustainably with conservation agriculture practices. Only hateful opportunists would do that.
Couple that with the multi-pronged attack in the EU on neonicotinoids (the most advanced crop protection technology) and the fabricated fear of endocrine disruption and the naturopath’s ideal vision of a world without synthetic pesticides is no longer a distant dream (for farmers and the less financially stable, it is a coming nightmare).
But these populist cults are just a small minority of naïve dreamers, confined to hippie communes, right?
This time, it’s different
At each point in the history of zealot uprisings, there was always one authority – the media (often called the Fourth Estate) – to have resisted the demise of proper leadership that followed the populist exploitation. The media could keep the flame of reason and justice alive through the exploitation of the gurus and cultists, while waiting for the zealots to undermine themselves (in true hyena form). Today the media as an established institution is dying, being replaced by activists occupying social media – the populist manipulation tool of choice for entitled gurus and righteous zealots.
Where other populist movements failed (from Paris in 1789, Europe in 1848, Berlin in 1933 or Detroit in 1965) was in the inability of these populations to communicate directly with themselves. Today the cultists can pretend to mobilise masses that not only rise up against the experts and authorities, but also sustain the manipulative message of significance and entitlement via social media. Naked populism now has its own communication tool for the opportunistic zealots to continue to spread fear, ignorance and anti-authority rhetoric.
This relatively small group of gurus produce and distribute their own documentaries, the same faces keep showing up on different series (try sitting through the Truth about Cancer, the Truth about Vaccines or GMOs Revealed…) or promote or fund each other on their networks, hold events and multiply their own research. Social media allows these activists to broadcast a controlled message 24/7 to frighten and attract large audiences. Goebbels would be thrilled.
I have referred to this as living in the Age of Stupid. We have voluntarily surrounded ourselves with those who think like us, in social media tribes, silos or echo chambers that confirm our bias. It is not that we are necessarily stupid but in the comfort zone of only receiving the information we want to hear, from people in the herd who think like us, how would I ever be able to know whether or not I am, indeed, the stupid one. And in such a situation, we become vulnerable to the opportunists who “think like us”, make us feel good about ourselves … and, make us feel significant.
Social media has become the new opium of the masses. It is indeed addictive in how it feeds on the mass appeal of entitlement, expectation and self-importance. We can believe we are being directly fed via a pseudo-personal relationship with an exploitative guru or tribal cult ideologue. Trust is built in this perception of familiarity, proximity and kinship.
We are still locked in an 1840s dichotomy mindset of the masses struggling against some tyrannical power (presently embodied by the industrial corporation). Today though, this populist power is not found in the masses who have “stormed” the institutions, but in a limited clique of manipulators who have convinced the frightened and vulnerable that they are significant. A guru offering hope, via a personalised bot, can lead more than just a cult today – they can change the world (in whatever frighteningly twisted manner they so choose). There are no rules on social media, just opportunities.
In the past, some courageous souls in the media came around and woke us up and restored a sense of rational structure. The authority of the media has now been eroded. “Fake news” is not just the expression of 2017, it is the effort of gurus (from Shiva to Trump, from Mercola to Duterte) to achieve what past populist movements have not been able to: create a true populist media to feed on itself while silencing traditional media. From Washington to Istanbul, from Budapest to Paris and Moscow to Manila, the media voice is being drowned, starved and even infiltrated by political operatives (and in the case at hand, activist naturopaths).
We are surprised how “our” traditional enemy, the Russians, could infiltrate social media and possibly influence the US election. This happens every day on social media, but as long as we keep taking our opium, and loving ourselves, there is nothing to worry about. Traditional media is dead! Long live the Fifth Estate (which an insignificant communications professor based in Brussels has shown, in textbook simplicity, is very easy for anyone to exploit).
The Reichstag is truly burning
Populist revolutions need the masses to rally around a central theme or message. Today the gurus want me to buy into their all-natural, anti-technology, anti-industry worldview. Playing to the narrative, Trump promised a disaffected electorate that he would drain the swamp and kick out the corporate influence. People bought it (despite the evident contradictions).
As mentioned above, I have likened the naturopathic cult view to fascism in Germany in the 1930s in how its advocates (political opportunists, activists, NGOs and the organic food industry lobby) resist dialogue and silence dissent. They have worked on denormalising industry and isolating business actors from the policy table, stifling public debate, launching personal attacks on any scientists who disagree with them and building an alternative view of the world rich in populist rhetoric, guru-bred idealism and promises of significance for the masses. When I read the SumOfUs attacks on expertise, listen to Shivatic attacks on our food chain or see the lies spread by the organic lobby, I see the same manipulations as other populist cults in history.
Populism is built on fear-mongering and demonization. In past populist uprisings, royal excess, the capitalist system, a Jewish conspiracy, a Communist threat … have provided opportunists with the means to rally frightened populations. Taken out of the context of the fear narrative, these threats seem ridiculous, but no doubt, for those embedded in the stories and shared angst at the time, these threats were very real.
Today the populism is built on the threat of that evil company, Monsanto, cancer, autism, exploitation and contamination. When one sees all of the books, documentaries, government actions, mock tribunals and media reports concentrating a public rage against a mid-sized seed company, it is really hard not to see the historic parallels. When I walked into the Monsanto Tribunal, I must confess, I witnessed a room full of hundreds of lunatics, but isolated and left to sing together from their own song-sheet, share their sacred bread and drink from their own special Kool-Aid, I am sure they thought of themselves as articulate and insightful.
Intolerance of the Intolerant
A core characteristic of any zealot, whether religious, political or environmental, is an intolerance towards anyone who disagrees or thinks differently. There is no engagement or dialogue possible, no meeting of minds to develop ideas or reconsider positions. A zealot is locked by some fundamentalist dogma that must be proven correct at all cost. In other words, a zealot is intolerant.
It takes a considerable level of intellectual security to contemplate other ideas or even change your mind. The movie Food Evolution asks that simple question: When was the last time you changed your mind? For those in the organic food industry lobby, the answer is well-nigh never. The intellectually insecure have an interest in proving your ideas are wrong, not in considering your ideas. This takes us back to the first part of the Insignificance Trilogy – these naturopaths feel entitled and self-absorbed. Such elitists could never lower themselves to accepting other ideas put forward by the decidedly less significant. Anti-vaxxers refer to those who vaccinate in the diminutive: “Sheeple”.
When I introduced what I called the overwhelming argument, it was a challenge to the zealots. The Top 20 Reasons Not to Feed your Family Organic article left those eco-fundamentalists with a choice: disprove the 20 reasons all at once or be forced to consider that their ideology was not pure and perfect. Most “normal” people would consider the 20 issues I had raised, if some of them were accepted as true, they would then decide according to how they feel about eating organic. But for the zealot the reaction was different. Like religious fundamentalists needing to prove that everything in the Bible is the Word of God, some tried to prove me wrong on all 20 reasons (their whole worldview seemed to depend on it) while others decided it was more expedient to just attack me personally (negating the need to consider any of my points). I interpreted those latter darlings (most of my social media trolls) as intellectually insecure and integrity challenged.
Now people have the right to believe anything they want and I would be as bad as the intolerant zealot should I try to stop others from worshipping their God, voting for their political icon or choosing to eat or prepare food in a certain manner. But they also need to tolerate my decisions. If, for example, one were to choose to live in a commune where everyone worshipped a tree, rolled around naked in the mud and drank the blood of goats sacrificed on a stone altar, all would be fine with that. But the minute he or she would demand that all others adopt these cult rituals, with an absolute intolerance to those who object or try to question the validity of such beliefs, we enter the domain of unacceptable zealot self-righteousness.
And that’s where we are at with those belonging to the naturopathic cult.
Rather than staying on their hippie communes, pro-organic activists are abusing social media to create public fear and outrage with the intention of getting all of us to submit to their narrow-minded dietary rituals, making farming harder, food more expensive and large portions of the world vulnerable to food security issues (malnutrition, hunger and famine). Rather than choosing to live according to their personal beliefs, these groups are trying to change regulations, foment doubt in the authority of our institutions and impose their beliefs on others.
I don’t think we should tolerate such intolerance.
There are those naturopaths who prefer spiritual healing methods and herbal solutions rather than modern medicine and pharmaceutical developments. Once again, they are perfectly fine to practice their cultist views but the minute these missionaries of madness challenge the scientific institutions with fear campaigns that openly lie and impose uncertainty on vulnerable populations suffering from illness or deciding to vaccinate their children, their ignorance is no longer a personal choice. They become sociopathic, dangerous and indefensible.
Naturopaths may argue that our present institutions are imposing cultist views on a vulnerable population, forcing them to vaccinate or consume GMOs and pesticides. They may claim that this scientific consensus is manufactured by industry (chemical and pharmaceutical companies) with the intention of making vulnerable people sick and more dependent on them. I get that, but naturopaths would have to provide strong scientific evidence and not manufactured doubt. They can’t just scream “Monsanto” any time someone challenges them. For example, agroecologists would have to take all forms of agricultural practices into honest consideration, not just the natural methods that fit their dogmatic preconceptions. Anti-vaxxers would have to show how their dissent is not merely benefitting from herd immunity. Pro-organic lobbyists would have to consider the effects on human health and the environment of all natural and synthetic pesticides. They don’t, because, well, they are not scientific.
Some courageous scientists and experts are standing up to the naturopathic cultists, assessing their alternatives and judging whether they are better or not. For this reason, the activist zealots led by groups like Corporate Europe Observatory and US Right to Know have attacked the credibility of these individuals and the scientific community they represent, isolating them and creating further fear and doubt. Glyphosate is the most recent watershed. This intolerant behaviour has not been well-managed by our authorities and institutions. The European Commission in particular has tolerated the intolerant and have given these naturopaths the voice to undermine regulatory legitimacy. Populist revolts have succeeded in times of institutional weakness (Paris in 1789, Russia in 1917, Berlin in 1933 …) where those dogmatic intolerants fomenting fear and uncertainty had been tragically tolerated.
Today Brussels seems to be in that similar state of institutional weakness, unable to impose its authority on populists seeking to undermine (delegitimise) the entire system. Whether it is Brexit, the immigration crisis, sovereign debt or a benign herbicide, Brussels today is Weimar, with a weak leader undermined by a crafty, ambitious lieutenant. By tolerating the intolerant naturopathic zealots, the entire EU project is being called into question: from comitology to the risk assessment process; from agency scientific advice to the capacity to inform Europeans of their rights and privileges. Brexit did not happen by accident.
But how can we stop this intolerance of the entitled elitists imposing their will on the tolerant (insignificant)?
A post-dialogue world?
The third part of this Insignificant Trilogy will look at how the cults impose their new authority by denying dialogue or a role for expertise. Any populism would do well to block dialogue, condemn opponents to the ideology as threats and put a premium on emotional rhetoric. This Jacobin Terror script has played out in every populist uprising.
This Naturopathic Reign of Terror on science and humanity is where the analysis now turns.