Political feelings: Silicon soirée


Deepak Chopra PHOTO/Patrick Blanchfield

This is the first installment in a new column called Political Feelings: Stories, Scenes and Studies of Religion in American Culture being written by Patrick Blanchfield for The Revealer. Political Feelings is about political affect and the politics of affect in America, and will pay particular attention to questions of religion and religious themes. Blanchfield says of the column, “I’m particularly interested in the affective landscapes of extremism, violence, and civic religion, which I see as both urgently of the moment and marked by subsurface, dislocated temporalities and disguised repetitions: in other words, by traumas. As a site of both collective and individual memory and communal intensity, bound up in both history and present struggles, religion represents a quilting point and nexus for experiencing, understanding, and working through the traumas that are, and that continue to shape, public life in our newly contentious and painful moment.”

When I finally see Deepak Chopra, I am confused, because the only thing he has in common with the enormous portrait photograph in front of which he stands are the rhinestones. In the photo, Chopra’s wearing something between a Nehru jacket and an unbuttoned leisure suit with a clerical collar; here, he’s sporting an untucked blue shirt and jeans, and floats above the ground in a pair of expensive basketball sneakers with translucent red outsoles that look like they’ve been hewn from solid garnet. Chopra in the photo is ageless and well-coiffed, the scleras of his eyes distressingly luminous in a way that suggests some serious Photoshop. Chopra on the red carpet looks as haggard, bleary, and unimpressed as I feel.

But then I see the diamonds.

Scanning the crowd in the YouTube event space, Chopra moves his head, and the dozens of gems that stud the rims of his glasses refract the overhead lights and camera flashes. He’s wearing the same glasses in the photo, where their luster suggests a kind of halo emanating from his temples. Amid the weird pastels and earth tones of Silicon Valley corporate décor their gleam is mesmerizing. Are the diamonds real? It is impossible to tell. Chopra ducks backstage. Perhaps he must prepare. Soon, it has been promised, he will re-emerge to debate Skepticism itself.

The event in question has been billed many ways. It has been billed as a stand against “fake news” on the one hand and as a concerned response to supposed campus intolerance toward “free speech” on the other. It is also a celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of an organization of self-professed skeptics, which publishes a quarterly magazine. And, finally, it is a “live variety science show” featuring sundry celebrities and a white Canadian hip-hop artist who will rap about the wonders of evolutionary psychology.

The event space, located in the YouTube offices, is located above the sprawling arcades of the Chelsea Market, a block-long former warehouse turned into a warren of restaurants and boutique shops. Looking for the venue, I search end to end twice, feeling like an extra wandering on the set of Blade Runner, disoriented among the rush of people wearing strange glasses and earpieces, the rushes of steam and smell from hissing woks and grilling meat. Only by observing a flow of young men and women, all well-dressed and carrying similar-looking messenger bags, leaving from one hallway under the watchful eye of an unobtrusive security guard do I find a table to check-in with a QR code. A ride in a freight elevator later, I am in a converted loft space. A camera crew is setting up, and caterers thread between rows of chairs balancing platters of California Rolls. A wall of screens behind the stage blares the words: TRUTH? HOW CAN WE KNOW? Filtering in from omnipresent speakers, a soundtrack alternates trap instrumentals and Andean flute music. There is an open bar.

Soon enough, things start. TRUTH? HOW CAN WE KNOW? is being broadcast live online by the progressive-leaning The Young Turks YouTube channel; it’s being MC’ed by Jayde Lovell, who hosts a show on its lineup and is the founder of a science-focused PR consultancy. She works the crowd, starting with “Any skeptics in the house tonight?” and lingering on lines like: “There’s only one kind of facts – real facts.” Lovell’s is the most strictly speaking political voice of the evening, though her jokes about Bernie Sanders (“Yes, there is a God, it’s Bernie Sanders”) fall flat.

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