Grown-Ups Say the Darndest Things

On May 20,1982, the barnstorming American Renewal Rally, dedicated to “positive thinking,” reached San Francisco. It was held, aptly enough, in the Cow Palace.

Art Linkletter and other luminaries from the optimism industry told thousands of crewcut bulletheaded zombies (and their “gals”) what they wanted to hear: When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are... except that, as one speaker said, anyone paying $15-on-up to be there was already a “winner”: “The losers don’t show.” The marks lapped it up.

But before going into all that, let me confess my bias at the outset.

Diane was always my favorite Linkletter.

We knew we were in for it just by trudging through the parking lot. There were too many piss-poorly personalized license plates; too many fish-signs and other Christian claptrappings. (I was in drag myself, sporting a 40 cent “Good Citizen” button.)

Inside, the audience reminded me of the newcaster’s puzzled reference to the ghouls in Night of the Living Dead: “They look so — ordinary.” The first inspirational orator spoke more truly than he knew when he remarked, “It’s amazing what you can do with nothing.”

Although the speakers paid respects from time to time to God, country, family and especially free enterprise, it wasn’t really a religious or political rally. It was more like the Moral Majority’s version of the human potential movement.

According to a show of hands, almost half the audience was “in sales,” and the speakers all identified themselves as salesmen. The pitch: get sold on yourself so you can sell to others. Attitude determines image, which determines success.

A recurrent theme, as Robert Schuller of the “Hour of Power” TV ministry put it, was: “Impossible is a dirty word.” You can be what you want to be. In this strange world of Rotary Club surrealism, objective reality scarcely exists. “Money flows like water to ideas.” Zig Ziglar ended his spiel as he always does: “See you at the top.” But how can there be a top without a bottom?

One of the funnier speakers was the motormouthed Ira Hays, the “Ambassador of Enthusiasm”: the MC announced that his speech would dispense 117 great selling ideas. The most brutal cynic of the bunch, Hays pushed hard-sell harassment techniques akin to brainwashing. He observed that there’s little real difference between most competing commodities. The salesman’s job is to sell an idea arbitrarily attached to the product.

“How do you get people to do what you want them to do?” By Conformity (“What’s wrong with it?” he cried), Competition, and Identity (getting others to recognize your image). Since anything you write down will come true, make a list. “Success is nothing but a set of skills.” (Or as Art Linkletter later bleated, “The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.”)

Zig Ziglar, evidently a superstar on the circuit, explained that you “can change what you are by changing what goes into your mind,” such as it is. To Zig, life is like a sewer: “The input determines the output.” In a folksy southern fake-hearty manner, he asked: “Have you filed your claim on what life has to offer?” (No, just an unemployment comp claim. I’m also thinking of filing my teeth.) All it takes to prevail is a positive attitude. Don’t call it an “alarm clock”: it’s an opportunity clock, Dagwood! Don’t be alarmed! And that machine that regulates traffic is (that’s right) a “go light.” Ziglar reiated an inane and undoubtedly apocryphal anecdote about inner-city students straightened out by some Skinnerian reinforcement scheme on the theme “I Can!” But he never answered the real question; Why Should l?

The slickest speaker was Denis Waitiey, a honey-tongued homilist who sounds like Dick Cavett or the “Hal” computer in 2001 — not inappropriately, since he supposedly helped train the astronauts for the moon-doggle some years back. Waitley won’t debate your taste in bait as long as you swallow the hook: “If you don’t listen to the Bible, listen to what the psychiatrists say.” With a finger in every pie-in-the-sky—futurism, pop psychology, the Wisdom of the East — Waitley could do a New Age number with minimal reshuffling of catchphrases.

Every crisis, he argued, is an opportunity: worse is better in this, the very best of all possible worlds. In his Velveeta-smooth voice, he shamelessly flattered the audience as “winners”: “You and 1,” he said, “have the edge on the rest.” “Hardening of the attitudes,” he said, “is a deadly disease.” Aphorisms, anecdotes, statistics—this mellow fellow has something for everyone: everyone, that is, who already has something.

Least but not last was Doug Snarr, who, to my surprise, was the only pitchman who had the contrived voice-tremors and other affectations of your garden-variety radio evangelist. The reason this windbag got on stage at all was apparently the old “if you don’t let me pitch, you can’t use my ball” phenomenon: Snarr Communications (of Salt Lake City) is the sponsor of the American Renewal Rally.

We retreated to the Sky Room for drinks for most of his performance. From adjacent tables we’d overhear an occasional word like “leaseback” or “residuals.” Snarr droned on, claiming to have overcome stuttering, but he was no Demosthenes. For sheer tedium, snoring through Snarr can only be compared with performance art at La Mamelle. It was Snarr, in fact, who gave the game away: he urged us to “re-program” ourselves.

The big draw was, of course, Art Linkletter, still telling the same old stupid stories of fiveyear-olds funnier than he’ll ever be. Kids are positive, says Link; adults are negative. Learn to listen, says Link; it’s the secret of successful selling. I wonder if he listened to Diane.

Lest I be accused of bad taste (a charge I freely plead guilty to), let me point out that no one — not even Divine in his/her title role in The Diane Linkletter Story — exploits Diane as cynically as Daddy does. He retells and retails her sorry story at every stop on the optimism circuit. He’s sold her sufferings over and over gain. I may be behaving abominably, but there’s this difference between me and Art Linkletter: I’m not getting rich off anybody’s agony.

Actually, Art’s posthumous prostitution of his dead daughter is fairly low-key. At first, he says, he went on the warpath with his anti-drug crusade — as if being Art Linkletter’s daughter weren’t reason enough, drugs or no drugs, to snuff it. But later he realized his tactics were ineffective, so he switched over to selling the positive-thinking ideology as a drug-surrogate. I’d have considered it trite to say that “religion is the opiate of the people” if it weren’t for the fact that one speaker after another touted the “natural high” to be had from positive thinking— chemically indistinguishable from morphine, according to Denis Waitley. So why not bypass the banality by popping a pill?

Link related an anecdote:

A little old lady accosted him on the street once and said: “If we weren’t nobody, you wouldn’t be anybody.” That sums up ciphers like Linkletter. He’s famous because he’s a celebrity, and he’s a celebrity because he’s famous.

Ira Hays is right: reality’s receded, it’s all a mind game where the winner is the one who sells an image of himself. So who the hell is Art Linkletter to abuse the unexorcised spectre of “’60s madness”? That epoch was awash with illusions but it looks good compared to ‘70s somnolence and ‘80s inanity.

The politics of positive thinking were more assumed than asserted at the rally, but if you cared to look, you’d see the skull beneath the skin. Zig Ziglar said: “We don’t need to just give our President a chance, we need to give him a hand.”

He can have the back of mine!

The only social problems ever referred to were inflation and high interest rates — but you have to have money to worry what’s happening to it.

There’s a lesson in this encapsulation for those who inhabit leftist/hippie/punk politico-cultural ghettos: the bimbos have their self-contained systems, too. Tens of millions of kitsch-culture Pink Boys never went through the “changes” you boast of surviving.

They’re just as solipsistic as you are and there are a lot more of them. You, too, mouth platitudes about attitudes. Wise up! And God bless!

Part III: Appeal To Treason