Thursday, January 25, 2007
How Amway Changed My Thinking

I have to tell you about what I did last weekend. I got an email the week before asking if I'd take a quick job as a camera operator, 20 hours over three days shooting "motivational speakers" at the convention center. I jumped at it, even though the wage being offered was considerably below the norm -- it's more than I've seen in a while, and as I'd never actually done the job before (not that I told them that) I figured it wasn't that unfair. (Yes, I know I tend to undervalue my work.) I started Friday night, shot all day Saturday (as in, twelve hours sitting at the camera, not counting five hours of downtime), and finished Sunday afternoon. And the time I spent there now counts among the most surreal experiences of my life.

The job was at a conference-type event, running one of two cameras that fed to a pair of huge screens on either side of the stage. Once the event began, it didn't take me long to twig that the phrase "motivational speakers" had been a red herring. The style was certainly in keeping with a motivational speaker (they literally did play a few bars of "Simply the Best" ala David Brent, along with a lot of other music that I have a hard time believing they actually licensed), but there seemed to be a lot of strange, in-group jargon and weird references to "the business" and "the system" and peculiar products I'd never heard of before. It wasn't really my job to analyze the content of the presentations, of course -- I was just there to follow the talking heads with my lens -- but the job quickly became boring and it's not like I could just unplug my higher thought processes.

I had them pegged before the night was over: this wasn't a presentation of motivational speakers (except in the coarsest sense of the word); it was a convention of participants in a huge pyramid scheme. Okay, maybe not technically a pyramid scheme -- they did have a few actual products, even if they didn't spend much time talking about them -- but in every sense that matters, it was Ponzi down to the last sucker. I hesitate to name the company in question, and you probably wouldn't recognize the name anyway -- but trust me, you've heard of them.

I found myself in the strange position of being probably one of the only people in the room who didn't walk in already emotionally and intellectually invested in what was being sold. The rest of the production crew were, I think, independent of the organization (though it's worth noting that the producer dodged telling me the real nature of the event), but they seemed dead to all of it -- they didn't listen and didn't care. And doubtless if I had to cover these events on a monthly basis, I'd quickly become numb to the bullshit, too; but then, I can't imagine actually living much of my working life at this job. After one weekend, I was ready to turn my back on the relatively high wage (though a fraction of the going rate for the job I was doing) just to escape the presence of this bereft worldview.

Anyway, here's how it went: there were "products", apparently mostly energy drinks, protein-fortified "power pudding" (that's my new favorite phrase -- is there anything in the world that sounds inherently less powerful than pudding?), and enormously-overpriced vitamins that you probably just piss away within an hour anyway. But there was surprisingly little emphasis on the products -- the general assumption seemed to be that the people in attendance were beyond pushing actual physical goods on their friends and relatives. No, these people were selling something else entirely -- they were selling selling. Their mission was to bring new "members" into the organization, each one bringing with them a few new sales and hopefully many more new members down the line; everyone "upline" gets a cut of everything everyone "downline" does. The people at the very top, obviously, can get very, very rich. The people at the bottom -- which is to say, pretty much the other 99% -- don't.

But it's still hugely important to those top few that as many of these peons as possible remain in the business; they're the only product any of them produce. So the point of the convention was to shore up the mass's will and hope of success. They screened long slideshows of the top-earners' luxury homes on huge estates, numerous cars, snapshots from their continual jaunts around the world, accompanied by boasts of how few hours per week they actually spend doing the theoretical work, how much better it is than their old jobs as bankers/realtors/teachers/nurses/whatever, and how easy it all comes. All of this while double-fisting can after can of the company's energy drink in every conceivable flavor.

The most frequent speaker -- he spoke no less than four times over the weekend -- was an Australian midget* who told stories so ridiculously tragic that Dickens would've been embarrassed at their mawkish melodrama: the saintly old woman infected with AIDS by her philandering husband; the noble homeless man infected with AIDS who went on to save gang members; the little son of a raging drunk who shat his pants rather than leave the spot where his violent, abusive father told him to stand; who watched his mother beaten to a pulp and was threatened with the same; who was later unjustly beaten himself for the alleged theft an inconsequential item, "... and if you haven't guessed yet, that little boy was ME!" No human being has ever told more stupid jokes about women liking shoes than this man. And not only was he the arch-salesman of the conference, he was also (how predictable) the official preacher. "God loves America best in all the world," he said. "Jesus wants you to be rich; Jesus was rich himself -- you think a poor man needs an treasurer?" "You have to change your mindset! Change your thinking!" For an hour at a time, over and over again.

Every speaker came with a sales pitch: buy my books, they're only $50 each. Buy my lecture series on CD or DVD, $450 for 5 discs -- but for you $375, what a bargain. Subscribe to my newsletter, and buy my pamphlets - $7 for three. Pay $4 per minute to talk with me on the phone, pay $1000 admission to the next function, pay $2500 per day to come spend time with me personally. Don't you see that it's an investment in your success? The only way you'll ever be as rich as me, and have the cars and the yachts and the 400-acre ranch and never have to work or make or do anything ever again, is to spend as much money as you possibly can on these endless, useless piles of crap. I've got a table set up outside.

But it's even cleverer than that. By telling their aspirants that the only way to ensure success is to spend every available moment listening to organization-backed motivational CDs, they create an army of cheerful drones who maintain their own brainwashing inbetween encounters with their leaders. There's no room for questions because they keep the sales patter running through their minds whenever they have free time, at the expense of independent thought or creeping doubt. The business, they're told by disembodied voices day after day, will make you rich, make you thin, make you younger-looking, save your marriage, free you from stress and worry, and with very little effort on your part (they literally made these claims, I swear.) All you have to do is exactly what we tell you to do, and you can't go wrong. The one thing you must not do, though, is think about it -- you'll only fuck it up, we've already done all the thinking for you. The overwhelming concept imparted over the weekend was simple: don't think, just do what we say. And we're telling you to buy our crap, and then to sell it to others.

I mean really, no wonder they're the rich ones.

And then there was the last night's keynote speaker. This was a man who was not at the very tip of the pyramid -- he doesn't own the corporation; those people were never even mentioned during the entire three days -- but as its biggest-grossing salesman ever, he resides very near the apex. If you've watched King of the Hill, picture Hank's father. This man was the spitting image: short, possibly shinless, puckered face, nasal drawl, hobbling across the stage spouting self-important inanities; the only difference was that this man had a white beard and appeared to enjoy dressing up as a viscount. His arrival on stage was treated by the audience with the reverence given to the beloved lord of the manor; people ran towards the stage to take snapshots of the great man and his haggard, over-made-up wife. Successful "leaders" were universally treated as personal heroes by this crowd, not simply as people who'd gotten rich at the expense of others. But they're all Christians, obviously.

For an hour this man disjointedly lectured to the attendees about how people who criticized Wal-Mart were "jackasses" who never built a business themselves -- obviously nobody without a few million in the bank could formulate an opinion worth listening to -- and how Jesus saved him and made him a rich man who could afford to buy his wife three Jaguars and two Mercedes. He was a man who wore a 5-carat diamond on one hand and a 10-carat diamond on the other. The fact that he had hundreds of millions of dollars made him a better human being than those who didn't, smarter and more noble than the teeming masses outside the gate. "I've got three doctor's degrees," he said, "they give 'em to me just for comin' and speakin' at these colleges" ... as if they were proof of his intellect, but barely worth wiping his ass with. I'd have given anything to know what colleges invited him to speak; I'd be surprised if at least two of those three "doctor's degrees" didn't say "Oral Roberts University" and "Liberty University" in fancy script. He was, in short, the vilest human being I've ever seen in person.

So how did Amway change my thinking? Well, it made me glad to have a functionally rational mind, and it made me scared and a little grossed-out by what some people consider a good use of their lives. It helped me realize that on some level this society -- in which I actively participate -- is itself a vast pyramid scheme, in which everyone is promised wealth that can't be sustained. Eventually, somewhere down the line, someone -- you, or me, or a poor brown person in Indonesia -- is going to have to do the actual work, make the actual products, be the one who gets fucked for the financial benefit of someone else; and that there will always be many more people getting fucked than will ever be "successful." But just as the faux viscount isn't actually a better person than broke little me, I must always remember that if I manage to make a life for myself in which I don't spend my days in a plastics factory in Asia, it's not because I'm a better or more worthy human being, or more blessed by god. It made me realize how badly some people want to be led, how deeply they'll invest in other people's ideals, how much effort and thought they'll expend trying to avoid effort and thought. It made me wonder what even the "successful" people did with their lives after they'd won their purported freedom -- they made nothing, produced nothing, created nothing, contributed nothing; they only consumed and sold the idea of consumption. It made me a little ashamed of a culture in which that seemed to be, for many, the highest aspiration they could imagine.

But mostly it made me feel better about being poor. It's a pain in the ass, but at least I'm not like those assholes.

PS: More here. See, it's just like I said.

* Okay, a little short dude.
10:17 PM ::
Amy :: permalink