I spent the formative years of my life on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales. What we lacked in employment opportunities, metropolitan buzz and the aspirational allure of Noosa or Byron Bay we made up for in decent beaches and Russell Crowe-spotting*. (It’s sort of like whale-watching, only with more darbs, swearing and whales.)
And new-age crystal shops.
Back in the nineties, when the Coffs Mall was The Mall (and not Harbour Drive), there were at least three bloody crystal shops within 200m of each other – not to mention at least one shop in Park Beach Plaza and ubiquitous weekend market stalls. There was very little market differentiation as well: they all played synthesised whale songs on CD players the size of toddlers, they all sold crystals in little wicker trays, and they all smelled like a bong water enema – only without the charm of bong water. Or enemas.
New-aged hippie culture was all the rage in northern NSW – was then, still is now, probably. Bellingen was the epicentre of alternative medicine and pseudoscience, but Coffs knew how to turn it on. (The surgery premises my old man vacated on Bray Street later became a colonic irrigation clinic – which we did note with some degree of glee as kids.) Back then the brand of woo we got was imported straight out of America’s south-west: inappropriately-appropriated Native American shamanism, reproduced elements of ‘eastern’ religions (often described as being no more specific than ‘eastern’ or ‘oriental’, tastefully), tye-dye, soul-mates, and dolphins.
So many dolphins.
In Coffs Harbour between 1994-2000, you couldn’t walk a kilometre without bumping into someone in a dolphin teeshirt, or a dolphin anklet, or with a dolphin tattoo or window decal on their car. The new age obsession with dolphins is actually the second worst thing to happen to pinnipeds since Sea World. We loved dolphins so much that town planning and animal welfare be damned, we had a local dolphin-based theme park which I will not name for fear of being an unwilling respondent to litigation.
The problem with all of these signifiers of alternative culture is that they aren’t very aspirational. Nobody wanted to be like the loon in the beaten-up Excel with the Magic Happens bumper-sticker who got hit in the face with the crystal guardian angel hanging from their rearview mirror because frankly, their lives seemed a bit shit. The pedlars of pseudoscience, anti-vaccine sentiment and naturopathy were all shrouded in the same weird hessian-cloaked, patchouli-smelling aura of not-very-fancy and a-bit-too-fringe-for-the-Uniting-Church-set. And it was all a bit scungy – which was fine for the start of the 1990s with Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots, or for the middle of the 1990s when all of us watched The Craft at sleepovers. It stopped being fine at the arse-end of the millennium, however, when polished, hard-bodied pop idols smacked Loreena McKennit out of the way with a lime green inflatable chair.
That this area in Australia is politically dominated by the National Party and the Greens – and not with the two major parties – is telling. The hyper-conventionalism and influence of the mainline denominations and agricultural workers acted as a leveller, and within this ruling paradigm of moderation and conservatism sat conventional medicine. And despite a public health system at times beset with funding worries, extreme doctor shortages and a population of teenagers who were very educationally unengaged, very bored and very keen to experiment with alcohol and velocity, it maintained its dominance and pseudoscience was kept to the fringe – even in these areas.
Having lived in Brisbane for the past fifteen years, it has been interesting to watch the proliferation of alternative medicine and superstitious pseudoscience into the mainstream. In opposition to the sole-operator purveyors of patchouli-scented gobshite arose the corporate quacks: slick, market-savvy and well-heeled. They didn’t look like stringy, under-bathed refugees from Mardi Grass, and middle Australia took to them with organic fair-trade relish.
The people most culpable for the rise of dangerous health fraud in Australia have deliberately engaged the semiotics of the moderates to manipulate the public. Gone are the brown recycled paper and sound of pan flutes coming through a tinny Philips stereo, and in their place are masterful graphic design, reputable-looking social media accounts and tastefully-balayaged waves cascading down Sass and Bide-clad shoulders. Its proponents – the Jess Ainscoughs, the Pete Evanses, the Cyndi O’Mearas – are never too casual in their attire, never too extreme in their comportment, and careful to temper their language. It is a corporately-correct witchcraft, if you may. The majority of posts, public appearances and interviews focus on the moderate elements of their practice: the juice recipes, their morning affirmations, their yoga routines. (There is a post coming one day about the sheer guile it takes for alt-med proponents to appropriate mainstays of conventional medicine like diet, exercise, stress management and preventative lifestyles and claim them as alternative or complementary. I cannot even with that right now.) The more extreme elements of their businesses – anti-vaccination advocacy, Gerson Therapy and homeopathy – have become an almost silent part of their agenda, shrouded in weasel-words about ‘strengthening natural immunity’ and ‘nourishing themselves’.
Most of all, what they sell is aspiration. It is no huge surprise that Belle Gibson drove a Mercedes, or that other wellness bloggers update their blogs from picturesque Sunshine Coast homes (as opposed to posting from their filthy, thirty year old Ikea couch in Banyo). With a natural, chemical-free lifestyle that involves organic raw paleo food and regular dihydrogen monoxide binges (ahem), you too can have the healthy vigour of someone with three times your income! Avoid vaccines, and look at the Chloe handbag you can afford with all the money you save. It is ultimately cargo-cult aspiration and no less manipulative than fashion and beauty advertising – only that you don’t get outbreaks of measles in the community if you buy a Rimmel lipstick.
Anti-scientific rhetoric is now firmly entrenched in middle Australia, and that should terrify all of us. We should be shitting ourselves at this realisation. At least I am.
The semiotics have shifted. Goodbye dolphins (sorry about the unnamed-marine-park-of-questionable-repute again, and please don’t overthrow us), crystals and pan-flutes. Farewell to ‘soulmates’, chakras, heightened planes of reality, and other verbal emetics. We could at least filter that into the crazy-bin.
Instead, we are doing an infinitely poorer job of filtering the aesthetic and linguistic signifiers of the current movement. And it comes at our collective detriment.
*The rumour is he was thrown out of Stetson’s Steakhouse after biting his own brother in a fight. Rumour TBC.