A Conflict of Interest?

I’ve had a subscription to The Atlantic for about a year now and find it increasingly unreadable. They’ve entrusted advice on dealing with Iran to Jeffrey Goldberg (an attack is inevitable!) and Henry Kissinger (an arms race and “limited” wars!). To write a puff-piece on Google’s news apparatus, they dispatched James Fallows, who in the middle of the story confesses that he’s a personal friend of the company’s CEO. Little articles spread in between are sometimes written by participants in the industries which they’re writing about. That’s fine for an insider rag, but it’s not exactly journalism.

Worst of all, though, and most troubling, are the advertisements. In the latest issue, Fallows has another puff-piece, this time about “clean coal.” Thirty pages earlier, there is literally a full-page ad for the website AmericasPower.org, a project of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. And that’s on top of ads throughout the magazine for Chevron, Shell, and ExxonMobil. In fact, if such ads are of any significance (and they are), that same issue of The Atlantic sticks the magazine with conflicts of interest on a whole range of hot-button issues of the day, including the insurance industry (Allstate, UnitedHealthcare, MetLife), high finance (Credit Suisse, Chuck Schwab, Bank of America, Fidelity, Barclays, Ally, Ameritrade, T. Rowe Price, HSBC), militarism (United Technologies, Lockheed Martin), and the automobile industry (Cadillac, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz, Smart, Toyota, Nissan). I’m also glad to see they’ve been bought by my own publisher. Maybe that’ll score my forthcoming book about God a review by Christopher Hitchens.

But, hey, they’re making a profit. More than KtB can say.

Fortunately, I also get another magazine: Harper’s. (Disclosure: KtB founding editor Jeff Sharlet is a contributing editor there.) Aside from the same Chevron ad at the front of the book with a pair of smiling African women, the scene is pretty different from The Atlantic. The ad that caught my eye most in the current issue, and made me wary of trusting the magazine’s metaphysical commitments (which are at risk of being deployed in subsequent articles about Alcoholics Anonymous and Brooklyn Hasidim), is this one:

This comes from Alpha Publishing House, subsidiary of a tax-exempt religious organization called the Humanetics Fellowship, which specializes in publishing the works of white-collar guru Richard W. Wetherill, who died in 1989. Titles include such wonders as How to Solve Problems & Prevent Trouble, Right Is Might, Suppose We Let Civilization Begin, and Dictionary of Typical Command Phrases. A bit of an excerpt from the first pages of the first:

This book is a kind of behavioral textbook, and while the information is presented on a nonreligious basis, everybody is entitled to seek God as best he can. Many persons say that this book helped them to find God. When understood, it will help people to find desirable objectives of all kinds. The reason is that it removes mental blinders that have kept people living in unsuspected darkness.

On first glance it all sounds to me like a far less imaginative version of L. Ron Hubbard’s early self-improvement works. Hubbard, too, was an expert in the spirituality of bureaucratic organization, and later published an enormous, multi-volume work on the subject as well as founding a special ministry of Scientology for “management technology.”

One difference, though, according to a conservative blog: Wetherill’s ideas are the religion behind liberal fascism. This is apparently because he imagined a utopian future would arrive when we learn to follow “nature’s law of absolute right”:

    1. Receive information
    2. Look at the reality that it represents
    3. Study the implications of that reality
    4. Take the action that reality calls for.

It’s that simple. Would that it were! Maybe KtB would even be able to turn a profit.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.