By Patrick Blanchfield
This is the first installment in a new column called Political Feelings: Stories, Scenes and Studies of Religion in American Culture being written by Patrick Blanchfield for The Revealer. Political Feelings is about political affect and the politics of affect in America, and will pay particular attention to questions of religion and religious themes. Blanchfield says of the column, “I’m particularly interested in the affective landscapes of extremism, violence, and civic religion, which I see as both urgently of the moment and marked by subsurface, dislocated temporalities and disguised repetitions: in other words, by traumas. As a site of both collective and individual memory and communal intensity, bound up in both history and present struggles, religion represents a quilting point and nexus for experiencing, understanding, and working through the traumas that are, and that continue to shape, public life in our newly contentious and painful moment.”
When I finally see Deepak Chopra, I am confused, because the only thing he has in common with the enormous portrait photograph in front of which he stands are the rhinestones. In the photo, Chopra’s wearing something between a Nehru jacket and an unbuttoned leisure suit with a clerical collar; here, he’s sporting an untucked blue shirt and jeans, and floats above the ground in a pair of expensive basketball sneakers with translucent red outsoles that look like they’ve been hewn from solid garnet. Chopra in the photo is ageless and well-coiffed, the scleras of his eyes distressingly luminous in a way that suggests some serious Photoshop. Chopra on the red carpet looks as haggard, bleary, and unimpressed as I feel.
But then I see the diamonds.
Scanning the crowd in the YouTube event space, Chopra moves his head, and the dozens of gems that stud the rims of his glasses refract the overhead lights and camera flashes. He’s wearing the same glasses in the photo, where their luster suggests a kind of halo emanating from his temples. Amid the weird pastels and earth tones of Silicon Valley corporate décor their gleam is mesmerizing. Are the diamonds real? It is impossible to tell. Chopra ducks backstage. Perhaps he must prepare. Soon, it has been promised, he will re-emerge to debate Skepticism itself.
The event in question has been billed many ways. It has been billed as a stand against “fake news” on the one hand and as a concerned response to supposed campus intolerance toward “free speech” on the other. It is also a celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of an organization of self-professed skeptics, which publishes a quarterly magazine. And, finally, it is a “live variety science show” featuring sundry celebrities and a white Canadian hip-hop artist who will rap about the wonders of evolutionary psychology.
The event space, located in the YouTube offices, is located above the sprawling arcades of the Chelsea Market, a block-long former warehouse turned into a warren of restaurants and boutique shops. Looking for the venue, I search end to end twice, feeling like an extra wandering on the set of Blade Runner, disoriented among the rush of people wearing strange glasses and earpieces, the rushes of steam and smell from hissing woks and grilling meat. Only by observing a flow of young men and women, all well-dressed and carrying similar-looking messenger bags, leaving from one hallway under the watchful eye of an unobtrusive security guard do I find a table to check-in with a QR code. A ride in a freight elevator later, I am in a converted loft space. A camera crew is setting up, and caterers thread between rows of chairs balancing platters of California Rolls. A wall of screens behind the stage blares the words: TRUTH? HOW CAN WE KNOW? Filtering in from omnipresent speakers, a soundtrack alternates trap instrumentals and Andean flute music. There is an open bar.
Soon enough, things start. TRUTH? HOW CAN WE KNOW? is being broadcast live online by the progressive-leaning The Young Turks YouTube channel; it’s being MC’ed by Jayde Lovell, who hosts a show on its lineup and is the founder of a science-focused PR consultancy. She works the crowd, starting with “Any skeptics in the house tonight?” and lingering on lines like: “There’s only one kind of facts – real facts.” Lovell’s is the most strictly speaking political voice of the evening, though her jokes about Bernie Sanders (“Yes, there is a God, it’s Bernie Sanders”) fall flat.
The event’s real gravitational center is the founder of the Skeptics Society and editor-in-chief of Skeptic Magazine. An academically trained historian of science turned popular writer and public advocate for scientific skepticism, Michael Shermer has a Wikipedia page longer than many Nobel Prize winners and more than a few nineteenth century wars. His organization, the Skeptics Society, is a 501(c)(3) dedicated to debunking pseudoscience and addressing controversies in science education; among other things, it organizes a speaking series in California (where Shermer is based) whose roster has included Bill Nye, Dinesh D’Souza, and various figures associated with New Atheism (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, etc.). The press packet I have been sent makes additional claims. Listed among the Skeptics Society’s “Proudest Moments” is “Investigating the Holocaust Deniers.” “The Skeptics Society was the first organization to delve into the ideas behind this organization,” says the text. “Dr. Michael Shermer interviewed members of this group individually, and published the story in a cover story of Skeptic magazine.” Beneath this, headshots of numerous “Celebrity Skeptics” including “a celebrity illusionist,” a “world-class magician,” Seth MacFarlane, and a propulsion engineer at NASA.
Shermer is friends with Chopra, whom he has promised to “debate” throughout the evening. And so Shermer and Chopra sit opposite each other on stools and talk, sometimes just the two of them, sometimes joined by various internet celebrities and podcasters. There are interludes: that rapper Baba Brinkman performs; a magician bends spoons; and video segment after video segment features Shermer debunking various pseudoscientific misbeliefs or lecturing wryly about the logical insufficiencies of theism. But running through it all is Shermer’s dialogue with Chopra. If “dialogue” is the right word for it. Mostly Shermer talks in wide generalities about the importance of rejecting nonscience and “alternative facts” in favor of “truth” and Chopra responds by asking questions about the ultimate grounding of consciousness or what of the Self endures between our breaths. As the evening proceeds, Chopra’s interventions grow increasingly koan-like (“Where is yesterday now?”) and build to pronouncements like “99.99% of the universe is not empirical,” and “We are all God – in drag.” Shermer, for his part, promotes a campaign whereby people who send him video testimonies about their experiences becoming skeptics will receive a physical card they can carry in the wallet, the better to self-identify as a “Card Carrying Skeptic.”
Shermer and Chopra may present and even think of themselves as radically opposed, but in truth they are sides of the same coin, equally at home here. New Atheism and Skepticism are far from unwelcome in Silicon Valley, and Shermer, with his TED Talks and hot take on “the bias police” and backlash against former Google employee James Damore, fits right in, too. Chopra, for his part, has recently been appointed Professor of Consciousness Studies at Sofia University, a small private institution in the Bay Area, and talks about the lessons he’s learned about human desire by listening in to tech pitches in the lounge of the Palo Alto Four Seasons. He’s also recently released his own Virtual Reality meditation app. “In 20 minutes you get a journey to enlightenment,” he promises, describing his product as offering insights into consciousness that leave René Descartes in the dust: “He was good for his time but didn’t have VR to take it to the next level.” Both men are, in their way, each selling something. Tonight’s gestures at political language (“fake news” and “alternative facts”) are just that, gestures, so many gambits at branding and relevance, current events buzzwords as Celebrity Friends. The only real politics here is money, little else.
I revisit the bar where, as one of the few attendees who is actually tipping, I am greeted warmly. Standing there, I catch a glimpse of the YouTube office down the hallway, guarded by yet another security guard. The fixtures and décor are about what you’d expect – high-tech comfort, with a self-consciously lively chic. The space here is so pristine, so self-consciously new, and hip, and young. Below, the Chelsea Market is also a manicured Disneyland of amusements and pleasures, servicing the tech workers who walk through it each day. The logic seems to be that they can experience New York in all its diversity (which really, as so often, just means culinary diversity) without ever leaving the footprint of their workplace. It feels like being onboard a spaceship, or a cyberpunk arcology – some totally enclosed concentration of resources of cultural capital, at once corporate and hyper-connected, yet also somehow feudal and autarkic. This event, featuring a professional celebrity skeptic and a professional celebrity mystic, feels, in its own way, like a repetition of something much older – priests and philosophes debating as an after-dinner amusement for the Bourbon court, poets and wits earning their keep through banter at the Medici table. The horizon of possibility for contests between belief and skepticism, fact and fiction, truth and lies, all sustained and confined in a hermetic bubble of patronage, wealth, and stardom.
Out of nowhere, Chopra interrupts a panel of podcasters and minor celebrities. He has something to say. He holds his mic in one hand, and shapes his other into some kind of teaching gesture. He grins broadly, and the diamonds in his glasses gleam. A pause, and then: “All knowledge is ignorance.”
Patrick Blanchfield was the 2016-2017 Henry R. Luce Initiative in Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Religion and Media at NYU. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University and is a graduate of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about US culture, guns, and politics at carteblanchfield.com and is on Twitter as @patblanchfield.
Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.