Cult versus Consultant

Earlier this week, I had to sit through a two-hour presentation on the subject of libraries delivered by a semi-bearded hipster type who spoke in the hushed tones of a suicide prevention hotline volunteer—a consultant, in other words. A guy who goes around the nation telling librarians how wonderful libraries are. The bulk of Carson Block’s presentation was on the power of “and”—i.e., “Instead of asking whether libraries should have books or e-books, books or computers, we need to embrace the and, the idea that libraries can have all of these things, because libraries are amazing places.” His big epiphany pertained to viewing a Gutenberg Bible at the Library of Congress and realizing “this book hasn’t changed since it was printed, but now information changes all the time.”

And it occurred to me, as I was enduring this fusillade of pre-digested tedium, that consultants are a species of being not unlike cult leaders. After all, both creatures devote their lives to fleecing honest folk. However, there is one important difference. Your average cult leader is a hard-working man. I mean, think of all writings of Joseph Smith, though compared to him L. Ron Hubbard suffered from hypergraphia. Developing a powerful system of nonsense takes a lot of work—it has to promise all the answers without delivering, so that the cult member has to undergo constant renewal, and then when he is finally at the higher level wherein a glimpse of the truth is offered, he has devoted so much time and/or money that he cannot afford to believe himself swindled. That takes real work. Plus, cult leaders are always having to stave off dissension in the ranks. 

By contrast, a consultant need not offer anything new. The consultant’s job is to provide for you some distillation of the era’s received wisdom, the general pabulum of generalities. In many cases, consultants are brought in simply to confirm the desired aim of administrators. At Arkansas State University, the administration had for years been kicking around the notion of changing the mascot from the increasingly problematic Indian to the Red Wolf. They hired some consultants to consult them on what to change the mascot to, and voila!—the Red Wolf was their choice. Having someone from outside come and nod their heads at your wishes gives the whole enterprise a veneer of respectability.

For my money, the consultant is a greater evil than the cult leader. The latter offers us patent nonsense that can be refuted—American Indians did not descend from ancient Israelites no matter how much Joseph Smith claimed that was the case, and human beings did not evolve from clams no matter how much L. Ron Hubbard said otherwise. But the consultant tells you things like “Libraries are exciting places,” and yeah, you have to nod your head, because that’s true, after all—you work in a library and think like that already. And then he takes your check, and you wondered why you paid him. And then some other library group sees that you had him over to your place to speak, and they invite him because they know what a dedicated bunch of souls you are, and the cycle repeats. There is no point of dissension because the consultant is not making easily disprovable claims. He is not inveighing against coffee or psychiatry. He is, in fact, telling you something resembling the truth. 

But truth, practical truth, does not exist as a set of vagaries. Sure, great to say, “Love thy neighbor” or “The meek shall inherit the earth,” and you can exist briefly in the flush of transcendence, rather like a marijuana high, before the questions occur to you: “Who is my neighbor, what is love in this sense, and what is the definition of ‘meek’ we are employing in this equation?” Bibles are relatively short compared to all the commentaries produced. Practical truth is a small truth, and small truths, contrary to the host of mystics and literary critics out there, are the only interesting truths. But consultants deny this. They go around the world spouting Upanishad-like verses memorized in various MBA courses, presenting their “bigger picture” as the solution for what ails us. And if we believe, change will happen, right? Don’t we just need enough faith?

So easy, comparatively, to take up arms against the sea of bullshit offered by cult leaders of various stripes. After all, the bullshit served up by the consultant is true, and so much more insidious on account of that.


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