CULT MA­NIA

Michael-Oliver Hard­ing ex­plores why cults are back in the zeit­geist —and why the par­al­lels with our real-life echo cham­bers might have some­thing to do with it.

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Did you love Net­flix’s Wild Wild Coun­try? Us, too. So we asked Michael-Oliver Hard­ing to fig­ure out why. (Spoiler: Trump has some­thing to do with it.)

As a child of the ’90s, I was first ex­posed to our col­lec­tive train-wreck-like fas­ci­na­tion with cults in the spring of 1997, when 39 mem­bers of Heaven’s Gate took their own lives in San Diego, be­liev­ing it would get them onto an alien space­craft. And grow­ing up in Que­bec, I’d of­ten hear about the high-pro­file pub­lic­ity stunts of Raelians, whose fol­low­ers be­lieve that life on earth was sci­en­tif­i­cally en­gi­neered by an ex­trater­res­trial species named the Elo­him. The free-love-minded Raelians would dis­trib­ute con­doms at the en­trance to high schools, claim to have cloned the first full hu­man be­ing and or­ga­nize in­tern­ships that taught the fun­da­men­tals of a cos­mic and or­gasm-in­duc­ing meditation tech­nique.

Hav­ing what’s ar­guably the world’s largest UFObased religion in my own back­yard—the Raelian move­ment set up its world em­bassy UFO­land com­pound just out­side Val­court, Que.—made me won­der

about the kinds of peo­ple who re­lin­quish some of their crit­i­cal-think­ing fac­ul­ties in the hopes of achiev­ing a greater sense of pur­pose and be­long­ing. Lawrence Wright, au­thor of Go­ing Clear: Scien­tol­ogy, Hol­ly­wood and the Prison of Be­lief, ar­gues that all hu­mans are vul­ner­a­ble but cult ad­her­ents are par­tic­u­larly reliant on ab­so­lutes. “I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in re­li­gions and why peo­ple be­lieve one idea rather than another,” he ex­plains in the doc­u­men­tary based on his book. “I’ve stud­ied Jon­estown and rad­i­cal Is­lam; there are of­ten good-hearted peo­ple, ide­al­is­tic but full of a kind of crush­ing cer­tainty that elim­i­nates doubt.”

From the ter­ri­fy­ing desert com­mune of the Man­son Fam­ily to the spir­i­tual re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of A-list celebs drawn to Scien­tol­ogy, pop cul­ture has long been ob­sessed with the plight of those will­ing to blindly sub­scribe to a fringe ide­ol­ogy. And lately the topic of cults seems to be beck­on­ing our at­ten­tion at ev­ery turn, with Net­flix’s much-talked-about true crime series Wild Wild Coun­try, about the con­tro­ver­sial In­dian guru Bhag­wan Shree Ra­jneesh; Hulu’s fic­tional cult drama The Path; “I Ad­mit,” R. Kelly’s 19-minute R&B re­sponse to al­le­ga­tions that he ran a sex cult; and the im­pend­ing high-pro­file tri­als of the mem­bers of NXIVM, another sex cult in up­state New York, now linked to Sea­gram heiress Clare Bronf­man and Smal­lville ac­tress Al­li­son Mack. That’s with­out men­tion­ing Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story’s cult-themed sev­enth sea­son and HBO’s Rap­ture-es­que The Left­overs, which fea­tures Liv Tyler as part of a chainsmok­ing, blasé-look­ing all-white-clad cult known as the Guilty Rem­nant.

So why this sud­den spike in cultish en­ter­tain­ment? Com­ment­ing on Wild Wild Coun­try’s re­cent Emmy nods and broader cul­tural res­o­nance, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Mark Du­plass told Dead­line that he loves how view­ers are able to iden­tify with the series’s niche re­li­gious move­ment, given that “no­body in this coun­try is iden­ti­fy­ing with any­one right now who doesn’t be­lieve ex­actly as they do.” And he has a point. The rapid po­lar­iza­tion of po­lit­i­cal dis­course in the United States and also abroad is mak­ing peo­ple less in­clined to feel any em­pa­thy for those with dif­fer­ing world views and more likely to re­treat even fur­ther into their ex­trem­ist en­claves.

Take, for in­stance, the vi­ral video of a New York City lawyer threat­en­ing to call im­mi­gra­tion on em­ploy­ees and cus­tomers for speak­ing Span­ish at a Fresh Kitchen. Or that of a Black Lives Mat­ter Toronto or­ga­nizer call­ing Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau a “white su­prem­a­cist ter­ror­ist” at an anti-Is­lam­o­pho­bia rally shortly af­ter the Que­bec City mosque attack. On the sur­face, these two news items couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent: One shows an un­war­ranted tirade ini­ti­ated by a racist client; the other, like-minded mem­bers of a com­mu­nity com­ing to­gether to ex­press their anger. Nev­er­the­less, both seem symp­to­matic of what hap­pens when peo­ple stop en­gag­ing in di­a­logue and re­sort to shout­ing matches. And, ul­ti­mately, could chant­ing mantras such as “Lock her up” at Repub­li­can ral­lies and gra­tu­itously call­ing peo­ple out us­ing im­mutable iden­tity mark­ers stand as mod­ern it­er­a­tions of cult­like be­hav­iour? Wear­ing over­sized capes and at­tend­ing clan­des­tine re­treats in se­cluded forests might not be so »

pop­u­lar in 2018, but pun­ish­ing those whose per­spec­tives are deemed hereti­cal to a move­ment ap­pears to be all the rage at both ends of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum.

Of course, the Trump cult is way scary. First and fore­most be­cause even fel­low Repub­li­cans and the pres­i­dent’s own son seem to ac­knowl­edge he’s run­ning a cult. Take Trump Jr.’s an­swer to Repub­li­can sen­a­tor Bob Corker’s re­mark that the GOP is fast de­volv­ing into a cult: “If it’s a cult, it’s be­cause they like what my fa­ther is do­ing.” When some­one from Trump’s own party dares to con­tra­dict his ver­sion of re­al­ity—like when Sen­a­tor Marco Ru­bio was chas­tised on Fox News for not fol­low­ing the pres­i­dent’s lead in rec­og­niz­ing the “tal­ent” of North Korean dic­ta­tor Kim Jong-un—you have to won­der how many other party mem­bers are hold­ing back for fear of be­ing ex­com­mu­ni­cated. As a head of state, when your sup­port­ers and the me­dia out­right re­ject any in­ter­pre­ta­tion of re­al­ity that con­tra­dicts what you’ve said, you have to con­grat­u­late your­self for tak­ing a page out of the cult play­book.

While in no way com­pa­ra­ble to the fear mon­ger­ing and sheer ver­bal (if not out­right phys­i­cal) vi­o­lence of the alt-right, the dam­age be­ing done at the other end of the spec­trum can also be per­ni­cious. While it’s en­tirely jus­ti­fied to ban hate speech tar­get­ing marginal­ized groups, it’s quite another to dis­cour­age peo­ple from ex­press­ing ideas con­sid­ered un­com­fort­able or un­re­solved. The dan­gers of group­think ap­ply to the left as well, and it has con­trib­uted to mak­ing Trump’s as­cent so spec­tac­u­lar. When con­tro­ver­sial speak­ers such as Bri­tish polemi­cist Milo Yiannopou­los are pre­vented from speak­ing at pub­lic events (thereby shut­ting down the pos­si­bil­ity of chal­leng­ing their short-sighted world views), when trig­ger warn­ings are is­sued at Cam­bridge Univer­sity to flag “po­ten­tially dis­tress­ing top­ics” in Shake­speare’s plays and when Bri­tish broad­caster Cathy New­man spends a half-hour try­ing to shame Toronto psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Jor­dan B. Peter­son for his im­pas­sioned con­tempt of post­mod­ernism in­stead of un­pack­ing what he ac­tu­ally says, you re­al­ize just how con­tained the al­go­rith­mic bub­bles we live in can be. “In or­der to be able to think, you have to risk be­ing of­fen­sive,” Peter­son tells New­man when ques­tioned about his right to of­fend. On that mat­ter, I’m with him, as the op­po­site—cen­sor­ing your ideas out of a fear that they may ap­pear “di­vi­sive,” to bor­row a word New­man re­peat­edly uses dur­ing the in­ter­view—might re­sem­ble some­thing akin to The Hand­maid’s Tale’s to­tal­i­tar­ian Repub­lic of Gilead.

Among the many mark­ers of cult­like be­hav­iour iden­ti­fied by the Amer­i­can Fam­ily Foun­da­tion, you’ll find lead­ers us­ing guilt to con­trol their mem­bers and an over­ar­ch­ing “us ver­sus them” men­tal­ity. Left- and right-wingers alike could be ac­cused of such ma­nip­u­la­tive tac­tics. Peter­son’s dis­missal of an­thro­pol­ogy and so­ci­ol­ogy classes as “in­doc­tri­na­tion cults,” for in­stance, merely re­in­forces car­i­ca­tures about left-wing ac­tivists in­stead of fram­ing his cri­tique in shades of grey. But it’s hard to rise above the cur­rent phe­nom of 24/7 preach­ing and on­line in­for­ma­tion co­coons, where fol­low­ers chase en­light­en­ment by binge-watch­ing hours of con­tent on YouTube or so­cial me­dia plat­forms that will con­ve­niently val­i­date their world views. That’s be­hind Peter­son’s rapidly as­cend­ing pop­u­lar­ity but also that of fig­ure­heads of much graver con­cern: con­spir­acy the­o­rist Alex Jones’s In­foWars plat­form or even the so­phis­ti­cated pro­pa­ganda of ISIS—one of the most suc­cess­ful cults when it comes to on­line re­cruit­ment and self-rad­i­cal­iza­tion.

So what to make of our re­newed in­ter­est in cults, and should we be con­cerned about the seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able di­vi­sions we face? I’m a firm be­liever in the power of the fifth es­tate to take gu­rus, spir­i­tual lead­ers and as­sorted ex­trem­ists to task on their most du­bi­ous claims. I’ll never for­get when Rael—birth name Claude Vo­ril­hon, self-de­scribed “gar­dener of our con­scious­ness”—ap­peared on Que­bec’s top-rated talk show Tout le monde en parle in 2004 with his top­knot of hair to pro­mote a Play­boy spread fea­tur­ing three top­less fe­males from his so-called Or­der of An­gels. The pull-no-punches TV panel picked apart the guru’s out­landish call to cre­ate a ge­nioc­racy as well as his bold­faced claim that he had used women’s wombs for cloning ex­per­i­ments. Once that TV ap­pear­ance was over (it’s still reg­u­larly cited in me­dia cir­cles nearly 15 years later) and the man’s wonky as­ser­tions had been de­bunked, few peo­ple could claim with a straight face that they sub­scribed to Raelian­ism, and the move­ment even­tu­ally had to put its UFO com­pound up for sale. Think of it: A sin­gle en­ter­tain­ment talk show played a piv­otal role in chal­leng­ing the mind-ma­nip­u­la­tion tech­niques of a prom­i­nent in­ter­na­tional cult. I’m guess­ing that that me­dia ap­pear­ance didn’t help with its re­cruit­ment ef­forts.

As the first NXIVM trial gets un­der­way and Trump con­tin­ues to con­found what many ex­pect of world lead­ers in the 21st cen­tury, we have to re­mem­ber to think crit­i­cally about claims be­ing made at ei­ther end of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. In a world that seems like such a messy mine­field, where the po­ten­tial to be shamed or si­lenced for hav­ing an in­de­pen­dent thought seems so great, we must re­mem­ber to be coura­geous, speak up and, in the wise words of one great Cana­dian heart­land rocker, keep on rockin’ in the free world.

I’m a firm be­liever in the power of the fifth es­tate to take gu­rus, spir­i­tual lead­ers and as­sorted ex­trem­ists to task on their most du­bi­ous claims.

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