briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Briefing

Thursday, August 15, 2019

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, August 15, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

When Brands Trip Over Themselves: The Intersection of Woke Corporations and Political Controversy

A very interesting development at the intersection of a woke corporation, American politics and the new American Gospel of health and wellness. As was reported in the Washington Post, “Luxury fitness brand SoulCycle and Equinox faced a chorus of calls for a boycott last week over news that Stephen Ross, the billionaire chairman of the company that owns the fitness boutiques, was hosting a lavish fundraiser for President Trump at his home in the Hamptons.”

The story about Christopher Ingram continues, “Research shows that boycotts tend not to do long term damage to company’s bottom lines and that only about a quarter of them bring about desired change at the institution’s targeting. But,” said the Washington Post, “SoulCycle and Equinox are nonetheless especially vulnerable to the effects of a boycott because of how they market themselves as lifestyle brands.” That according to research by Mary-Hunter McDonald and Brayden King. They are identified as management professors who have compiled an extensive database of hundreds of corporate boycotts.

This really is an interesting intersection. You have companies that have sold themselves as lifestyle brands, making very clear moral statements and then you have moral outrage when these brands are seeing them violate their own commitments to their consumers. And then you have supposedly woke corporations, woke brands that have sold themselves on a moral statement and an outrage customer base because the chairman of the board of the company that owns those brands held a fundraiser for the other team. The other team in this case being the President of the United States, Donald Trump.

Then behind all of this, is indeed, that new American religion of health and wellness. It all comes together in this one headline story. The man at the center of the story is Stephen Ross, he not only is the billionaire chairman of the company that owns these two brands, SoulCycle and Equinox, he also owns the Miami Dolphins and he has run into controversy there too.

AP reporter Steven Wine tells us, “Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is defending his support of longtime friend Donald Trump after being criticized about it by one of his players.” The comments were made by Dolphin Kenny Stills in response to a report in the Washington Post that Steven Ross had then planned to host a fundraiser for the president of the United States. Stills, the Associated Press tells us, “Tweeted a screen capture from Ross’ anti-racism RISE initiative’s website and wrote, “You can’t have a non-profit with this mission statement then open your doors to Trump.”

Well, recall that that Washington Post article said that these two brands, SoulCycle and Equinox are particularly vulnerable to the threat of a boycott. Now, the reality of a boycott. Why would they be particularly vulnerable? Well, it is because they basically have branded themselves as being corporations that are tied to a very liberal, moral and social agenda. They have tied that to the idea of wellness. They have sold themselves as brands, but they’re also selling a lifestyle. And what makes this particularly interesting is that they are obviously selling a moral worldview as well.

As Christopher Ingram of the Washington Post tells us, SoulCycle, for instance, sells itself as a meditative fitness experience that’s designed to benefit the body, mind and soul. Well, let’s just pause there for a moment and remember that we’re talking about a fitness boutique, a fitness center. We are being told that it can nonetheless offer benefits to the body, mind, and soul. We can understand the body, we can even imagine the mind, but when it comes to the soul, let’s just state that that’s an overreach for any corporation.

SoulCycle, one of the two brands that is controlled by Stephen Ross, “Positions itself as a company that is pro-woman and pro-LGBTQ,” and according to the Post it partnered with the NAACP legal defense fund to organize fundraising rides during black history month. Again, we’re talking about political and moral involvement by major American corporations. We’re talking about brands that are not only branding themselves with their obvious products or services, they’re branding themselves with a certain vision of the entire society.

At one point we can simply observe, that’s an awful lot for any corporation to bear, but these corporations aren’t being forced into this situation. They have chosen it. This is a part of their brand strategy. This is how they are trying to turn an idea of a brand into cold, hard cash, but some of that cash is running away.

That was SoulCycle. The Post tells us similarly, Equinox’s tagline is, it’s not fitness, it’s life, “The company goes big on pride month promotions. In 2018, it unveiled a line of one of a kind luxury products that would feature extraordinarily committed people and organizations.” Now before I read you the next sentence, I just want to assure you, I am not making this up.

The Post reports, “Offerings included lipstick made from blank newspaper pages from the Washington Post and perfume ‘infused with the actual DNA of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.’” Yes, you didn’t know you wanted it, but Equinox is offering it to a few privileged customers.

The next paragraph of the Washington Post article is even more interesting than what came before because it tells us something new. The reporter tells us, “Leaders of many companies believe that marketing themselves in similarly “pro-social” ways will insulate them from criticism.” This according to the research by the two professors McDonnell and King who wrote, “Proactive social responsibility is thought to deter activists from opportunistically launching campaigns against a company.”

Let’s rewind that. We are told that these companies are branding themselves as pro-social in a proactive way as a defense strategy before any controversy arises “to deter activists from opportunistically launching campaigns against a company.” Now we’re being told in the Washington Post, this is actually how it works. Activists for various causes are arbitrarily and opportunistically targeting some companies before there is even a perceived controversy to create a controversy in order to further their own activist purposes.

These companies are branding themselves on the cultural left because it’s really clear, it’s the cultural left that they fear. They are also marketing themselves in highly wealthy, highly educated, highly urbanized environments, where very socially liberal positions are the norm. They want to identify with those positions. They want to identify with the LGBTQ movement. They want to identify with feminist causes. They want to identify with all kinds of causes.

But as the Washington Post is reporting, SoulCycle and Equinox now find themselves in a very awkward position. They have branded themselves in just that way. And yet, according to The Post, the fact that the chairman of the company that controls the brands is hosting a fundraiser for President Trump, it appears to many including the activists, to be a violation of the very brand that the companies have tried to market to the public.

The two professors put it this way, “Firms that actively engage in pro-social activities and implicitly make claims about being socially responsible appear to synchronously be making themselves more shame-able.” This is academic speak, synchronously means at the same time, but it is really interesting to notice the kind of branding here. Some of this is almost Orwellian again. We are told that these companies are pro-social. What’s interesting about that? Well, it is a certain kind of branding in and of itself.

If you can say you are pro-social, these positions are pro-social, then those who hold any contrary position are, well, presumably antisocial. And then you also see where all of this marketing is described as companies trying to demonstrate themselves being socially responsible, but notice that social responsibility scale is entirely in the control of the cultural left. An outrage against the two companies was also reflected in an article by James Hamblin published at The Atlantic with the straightforward title, the Hypocrisy of SoulCycle. The subhead, “When gyms sell themselves as a sense of identity, eventually they have to define what they stand for.”

Now again, just pause for a moment. Since when did a gym represent a sense of personal identity? Well, in our hyper marketed hyper politicized age, that’s been true for a long time and not just for gyms. Hamblin writes, “Last week, many Equinox members, including celebrities, announced on Instagram that they were leaving as an act of protest. Momentum,” he says, “Gathered rapidly in the days after The Washington Post reported that Stephen Ross, an owner of Equinox and its sibling luxury-fitness company SoulCycle, would be hosting a $250,000-a-seat fundraising lunch,” that’s an expensive lunch I’ll interject, “For President Donald Trump.”

The Atlantic then said, “Many saw this as a forced choosing of sides.” Well, forced why? Well, it has to do with what can only be described as peer pressure. It’s not in the text, it’s under the text. That is to say that these brands have marketed themselves to people, not just so that the individual customers themselves will feel like, I am the kind of person who would go to Equinox, I’m the kind of person who would go to SoulCycle, but precisely so they can tell their friends, “Hey, I’m headed to SoulCycle. Hey, I’m an Equinox kind of person.”

But when this kind of social controversy arises with the brand, it just turns out that this kind of peer pressure might work in entirely the opposite direction. “Oh, you’re an Equinox kind of person. Oh, you still go to SoulCycle. I guess you’re not woke, you’re not socially responsible. You’re not pro-social.” In an instant, just going to a gym can turn out from a, you’re one of us situation, into a you’re one of them.

But the article by James Hamblin in The Atlantic points out that these companies put themselves in this position. They did this to themselves. Equinox has used the slogan, “Commit to something.” It’s not talking about an exercise regimen. Is talking about a way of life, is talking about a moral worldview. It turns out that the brand had used the advertising agency Wieden Kennedy. And we’re told that in an article in Adweek, that agency’s creative directors, speaking of Equinox, said that they had done research in order to find stories revolving around real people that would embody commitment in a world where commitment is often lacking.

Guess what kind of issues came back? Well, gender and sexual equality, again, we thought we were talking about a gym here. Speaking of the advertising that came in this campaign for Equinox, The Atlantic tells us, “These dedicated professionals became the faces on the billboards for the gym. Fitness models dressed as people who are committed to serious and consequential causes. Causes,” said The Atlantic, “That are barely even tangential to exercising. The sales pitch is a bigger picture of character and ambition: This is an Equinox member, and if you join, you can be that person.”

Hamblin describes the quandary eloquently when he writes, “If gyms sell people on the idea that a gym affiliation is part of their identity, gyms can’t really be surprised when people quit because they no longer identify.” He continues, “Brands have the option of forgoing identity branding: We just sell hammers. If you like our hammers, buy them, they are good. But once,” he says, “brands invite people to incorporate an entire ethos into their sense of self, expect that those people will judge the company by their own moral standards.”

Perhaps one of the most important issues for Christians to ponder is the fact that in the marketplace now everything is being politicized, everything is being moralized and furthermore, in an individual way, you and I are being branded as the kind of people who use these brands one way or another. One very interesting demographer looking at the breakdown of brands in a hyper-partisan age, points out that one of the most interesting ways you can describe a congressional district is whether or not it is a Whole Foods district or a Cracker Barrel district. It turns out that they vote very, very differently. Even as their shopping habits and their dining habits are very, very different.

But no one seems to be asking the even more fundamental question in looking at this kind of coverage in the New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic, why is all of this being described in virtually religious terms, and I’m using that word intentionally. This is religion. This is religious. People have often spoken that way saying that they are religious about going to the gym, meaning that they’re very committed to their exercise regimen, but as you can tell, we’re talking about an entirely new dimension here. We’re actually talking about branding a spirituality in the form of a gym branding experience, which is after all, about a lifestyle and a whole lot more.

Part II

From Self-Help to Self-Care: It All Still Revolves Around the Self

Next to, this transition in the culture was actually well covered in the New York Times in an article by Kate Carraway. The headline, “When Did Self-Help Become Self-Care?” The subhead, “What began as a method of improving one’s life has become something much kinder, and stranger.”

Carraway writes about the morphology of the word wellness. She said, “Wellness is a word that has come to encompass our latest dominant socio-cultural obsession. How to take care of ourselves in the world. It may, at one point,” she says, “have been popularly understood as an extension of self-help, a category of literature and speaker circuits that is devoted to personal optimization and often, productivity. But more recently,” she says, “under the potent influence of millennial values, wellness has been positioned and marketed as self-care.” She continues, “This wellness is softer, gentler, more forgiving than its self-flagellating forebear. Definitely more fun.”

Even as we’re speaking about this context, it appears that wellness means, “I’m not going to be hard on myself, I’m going to be easy on myself. Everything revolves around me. It revolves around myself. This new cultural moral imperative is that I must take care of myself above everyone and everything else because if I don’t take care of myself, no one is going to take care of me and this is a very dangerous world.”

Danger here being redefined in various kinds of emotional ways, and the most important obligation I bear to myself is to take care of myself. If anything, this might be the fastest growing new religion in America. And again, it is a religion. This Times article’s really interesting. Consider this paragraph. “Self-care is often critically characterized as a market for purchasable experiences like massages, manicures and ‘me time.’” Yes, that’s the expression in the newspaper. Me time, quotation marks are around it.

“But its origins are in a series of loose, secular rituals meant to calm the nervous system, and are informed in part by the work of feminist writers of color, including Audre Lorde and Bell Hooks, both of whom wrote about caring for one self in oppressive conditions. In “A Burst of Light,” Lorde writes, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.””

Demonstrating the shift in the culture from self-help to self care, The Times tells us that on Instagram, “The axis of millennial life, there are about two million posts tagged #selfhelp, while there are around 18 million for #selfcare.” The report then goes on to tell us, “Those form a soft-focus sea of cups of tea, journals, hand-drawn quotations, bed-nests of blankets, books, cats and snacks, basically anything that might make someone feel good.”

Recognizing this transition in the culture, Carraway writes, “It’s far removed from the self-help-style wellness that emphasizes labor and self-denial: punishing exercise classes, cleanses, detoxes and restrictive diets. That all might feel increasingly irrelevant in the context of the low-wage, ultra-precarious and generally diminished economic circumstances that millennials have found themselves in, and in the context of the anxieties of this era. The self of established, self-improving, self-help seeks to conquer. The self of the newer, kinder, weirder self-care,” says Carraway, “Seeks nourishment instead.”

One of the interesting dimensions of Kate Carraway’s article both implicitly and explicitly is that the biggest audience for this new worldview is female. Even as many of the leading figures in it are also female, the male figures are very popular in a female audience or readership. Again, we’re back to brands. Much of this is branded and it is branded with a certain kind of spirituality tied to a certain vision of health.

Carraway reports. “Gwyneth Paltrow is a kind-of Gen X corporate wellness avatar, the Oz of an industry that confidently depends on women trying to mitigate their various anxieties.” She goes on to say, “Her Goop empire sells self-care products, often at exclusive price points.”

The next paragraph, “Other wellness entrepreneurs serve the kinds of seekers who want spirituality and connection and self-awareness along with, say, great skin.” She continues, “These include Amanda Chantal Bacon of Moon Juice, a nu-groovy operation that specializes in juices and adaptogenic dusts.” I’ll just insert here. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of the existence of anything described as an adaptogenic dust.

The article continues, “Erica Chidi Cohen, a co-founder of LOOM in Los Angeles, which offers support around sexual and reproductive health and parenting; Ty Haney, the founder of Outdoor Voices, described as the Austin, Texas based “you-do-you” apparel brand; and Liz Tran, who founded Reset, a new wellness space, or sanctuary,” yes, the word here is sanctuary. “In Manhattan that offers classes and workshops in the “formation of the integrated self.”” Now again, note not only how all of this revolves around the sovereign self, but notice how essentially spiritualized this vision is.

Another very perceptive point in the article by Carraway points to the fact that the shift from self-help to self care is a shift from authority to an absence of authority. Actually to me, she describes this new reality as the “me-archy,” as an anarchy. She notes this pattern, “While self-help-styled wellness involved a top-down, rules-based wellness orthodoxy, which does of course,” she says, “Work for many women, newer, self-care-specific wellness is an easy sell for women on a heroine’s journey with their bodies and feelings, through sun signs, human design, snail-mucus face masks or blunts. Whatever works.”

And yes, you heard it right. I did just read from the New York Times a serious reference in a serious article to a product described as a snail-mucus face mask. Something I should note that Frasier and Niles Crane could not even have imagined just a generation ago.

Part III

The New American Religion of Wellness: And Make No Mistake, It Is a Religion

But next we need to note that just nine days earlier, in the very same newspaper, an OB-GYN wrote an article criticizing this trend. The headline, “Worshiping the False Idols of Wellness.” The subhead of this article, “Charcoal, toxins, and other forms of nonsense are the backbone of the wellness-industrial complex.”

Here again, note that very interesting expression, “the wellness-industrial complex.” This is big, and I do mean big money. But this physician’s point is made very clear in her opening sentence when she says, “Wellness is not the same as medicine. Medicine,” she says, “Is the science of reducing health and disease and increasing long and healthy lives. Wellness,” she says, “Used to mean a blend of health and happiness, something that made you feel good or brought joy and was not medically harmful. Perhaps a massage or a walk along the beach. But,” says the doctor, “It has become a false antidote to the fear of modern life and death.”

She points to the age that much of this modern wellness obsession, “Takes medical terminology such as inflammation or free radicals,” and in her words, “Levigates it to the point of incomprehension. The result,” she says, “Is a do it yourself medicine for longevity that comes with a confidence that science can only aspire to achieve.” She talks about some of the products being marketed. She writes, “So let’s take the trend of adding a pinch of activated charcoal to your food or drink. While the black color is strikingly unexpected and alluring, it’s sold as a supposed detox.” She then writes, “Guess what? It has the same efficacy as a spell from the local witch.”

I said it was big business. This doctor reports that dietary supplements alone (she describes that as the backbone of the wellness movement) makes up a $30 billion a year business. That’s $30 billion a year. She goes on to say that medical studies indicate they have no value for longevity. Well, whether or not it has anything to do with longevity, it does have a great deal to do with self-identity and self-awareness and that’s one of the points made in that article in the New York Times.

Part IV

Goat Yoga in the Congressional Cemetery: The Most Interesting Critters Aren’t the Goats

But finally, we’re going to shift to an article going once again to the Washington Post. This one is not about wellness. It’s not about the intersection of woke corporations and political controversy. It’s about goats… in a cemetery, in particular the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C. And if you ask why the goats are there, well, consistent with the theme of The Briefing today, you might not be surprised that they are there for goat yoga in the Congressional Cemetery.

Orient Donovan Smith writes, “A gentle breeze blew through the Congressional Cemetery in southeast Washington, a more than two-century-old site whose weathered headstones stand in tribute to some of the District’s most notable residents.” He also says that the atmosphere was solemn, “Except for the bleating of no fewer than 15 baby goats.” The reporter continues, “They were there, of course, for yoga.” We are told, “It was Washington’s first foray into goat yoga, an activity that pairs meditative poses with what amounts to an all-ages petting zoo. The concept,” we are told, originated in 2016 in Oregon, at a birthday party. “It was never meant to be a thing. But now it’s a thing.”

What makes this story, this final story even more interesting is that the people who seem to be most offended about goat yoga are the people who take yoga seriously. This they say might be something, it might be a thing, but it’s not yoga. Viswanatha Gupta identified as a postdoctoral researcher at a London university said, “Yoga needs a lot of effort. It’s not doing some poses and playing with animals. It’s divine.”

The article also cites David Gordon White, identified as a professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He said, “Yoga involves concentration, and I find it hard to fathom how you could be concentrating on anything when baby goats are running around.” And not only running around, I remind you, but running around in the Congressional Cemetery.

Some of the people who showed up for goat yoga in the cemetery evidently found it absolutely exhilarating. One woman said, “I love the cemeteries, I love yoga, I love animals, so I could not miss this.” One of the organizers said, “Just watching them interact with the babies, I was like, okay, my heart’s filled with joy. I’m done. I can die happy now.” Another interesting twist is the fact that the individual who most wanted to have goat yoga in the Congressional Cemetery was the director of the cemetery, Paul Williams.

He said, “I tried everything I could for about a year to get goat yoga and the Health Department just put up every obstacle they possibly could.” He recalled a meeting in which lawyers “had the law books all spread out on the table and said, ‘This is not happening.’” But the goats, with the Congressional Cemetery director, won and it did happen.

And no, once again, I’m not making this up. It turns out that the lawyers were pointing to a District of Columbia Animal Control Act of 1979 that says that for public health reasons, human beings are not to physically engage with goats. And so, the District of Columbia Council, actually, according to the Washington Post, “Expedited the issue by tacking a farm animal provision onto a bill that overhauled the District’s vital records system. The bill passed in October, allowing goats and sheep into Washington for the purposes of, among other things, “participating in yoga or similar activities.”

In conclusion, I guess one way to imagine the vast worldview transformation that has taken place in the United States just over the last period of less than 200 years: just imagine trying to go to President Abraham Lincoln and explaining to him that what is being held in the Congressional Cemetery is goat yoga. But this is America in the year 2019 and the most interesting critters aren’t the goats. Clearly, the most interesting creatures are the human beings.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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