The New Age Movement; the Politics of Transcendence

By Wasserman, Harvey | The Nation, August 31, 1985 | Go to article overview

The New Age Movement; the Politics of Transcendence


Wasserman, Harvey, The Nation


Last Thanksgiving, Manhattan's Penta Hotel was packed with masseurs, mediums, metaphysicians and New Age mavens. Between speeches, workshops, films and barefoot excursions across hot coals, some 19,000 weekend visitors to this ninth Whole Life Expo sampled items ranging from exotic oils and complex diet powders to massage tables and holistic chairs to minifarms for indoor sprouts, health food candy bars, psychic raedings and--the inevitable throwback to the hippie 1960s--tie-dyed T-shirts.

The convention was one of dozens in the past several years that have brought tidings of the New Age movement to cities across the country. Like the expos themselves, the term evokes elements so diverse and contradictory that the phenomenon seems impossible to define. But there are consistent concerns and a significant (if amorphous) constituency. Many who identify with this groundswell come from traditional leftist roots. But there is a concerted effort under way to transcend some of the old labels and to cultivate alliances with conservatives. "Is the nuclear issue left or right?" asks Peggy Taylor, co-founded, with Eric Utne in 1974, of the influential New Age Journal. "What about the peace movement? Or decentralization? Or home birth? None of these issues really falls into the traditional definitions of what is right and what's left."

The emergence of unusual coalitions in recent years has given the nonsectarin New Age movement a certain transcendent appeal. Ecologists have joined with small-town reactionaries to defeat nuclear power plants. Health food advocates have allied with extreme rightists for unrestricted access to alternative medical care. Conservationism has drawn together groups that disagree strenuously over innumerable other issues but share environmental concerns. even the question of the proper role of small business and entrepreneurship in society cuts across traditional alignments. All those issues have given birth to a constituency that is beginning to define a postindustrial politics.

At the core of the New Age movement are numerous small businesses that sell diet and health products and provide various services, including different kinds of therapy, spiritual and otherwise. More than 200 entrepreneurs paid $700 and more each for booths at the Manhattan expo. With visitors paying $8.50 a day to attend, expo organizers and exhibitors both made money. Similar fairs in Washington, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles have been successful, and more are planned for other cities, including Chicago and Atlanta. In fact, says Alan Leventhal, who has coordinated the speaking programs, the fairs are growing exponentially, with profits going to support a free monthly magazine called The Whole Life Times.

More than 150,000 copies of each issue are distributed nationwide in health food stores and bookstores and the magazine is a rising star in the growing galazy of New Age publications. Many of them are rooted in their communities. Washington's Pathways, for example, draws advertisements from holistic healers, health food restaurants, spiritual retreats and the like. Owned and operated by massage therapist Lou deSable and his wife, Mary Kay, Pathways supplies features and advertising services to a network of eighteen similar community-based papers.

The new owners of the Boston-based New Age Journal changed to a slick-paper format and made a bid for a larger audience with a 1.5 million-piece direct-mail campaign. New Age was originally an offshoot of East-West Journal, started by Michio Kushi, a leading proponent of the macrobiotic diet. East-West prospers and in the past ten years has broadened its concerns to a variety of environmental and political issues. Meanwhile, Utne started the Utne Reader, which prints condensed articles from alternative publications for a fast-growing monthly readership.

Another important voice, Mother Earth News, which claims a circulation of 800,000, has had a wide distribution in health food stores and on campus magazine racks for more than a decade. …

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