Sunday, April 22, 2018

Wild Wild Country, or the Kingdoms of the Cults

By now you've probably heard of--if not seen-- the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's (AKA Osho) cult and their takeover of a tiny city in rural Oregon in the 1980s. It's a fascinating story, one that I remember watching news reports on back in the day quite well.

This being the 80s, the spin generally tended to veer towards, "look at these crazy cultists, up there rutting and chanting and losing their marbles. Aren't they horrible? Isn't this an affront to our American way of life?" To which my response tended to be along the lines of, "Holy crap, that place looks awesome."

Hormones. They cloud the mind.

I was only barely aware of all the conflict-- plus y'know, the bioterrorism-- at the time. But in watching this series it seems fairly apparent--at least to me-- that the real problem there was Osho's Lady MacBeth of a major domo Ma Anand Sheela and her little coven of sociopaths. 

The series is extraordinarily sympathetic to Sheela but a look at the history and her obnoxious appearances on talk shows and what-not pretty much speaks for itself. Evil witch, albeit one who seems to be working to redeem herself.

Mind you, Osho himself isn't exactly my cuppa joe but I do know a few serious people who think he was the real deal. And his operation in India is still going strong, probably stronger than ever.  And he had to be packing some kind of mojo to amass the following he did. 

I don't see the attraction myself, but I am looking at the story through the eyes of the mainstream media, who seem intrinsically hostile to the man and his movement.

Now, it's tempting to dismiss all cults as intelligence cutouts--I've been known to entertain those notions myself now and then-- but I think the litmus test here is how the authorities react to them. If it ends up getting plunger-fucked, that cult probably wasn't a cutout.

So there you have it.

Americans tend to see their government as essentially neutral when it comes to how you choose to conduct your life and associate with others (or at least we used to), but all you need to is step outside the common-accepted social arrangements to see just how fast and how hard the government can bring the hammer down on your skull. 

Any government, really. 

Organizing yourself to exercise independence from the system is not only frowned upon, it's usually crushed, often with supreme violence.

So with cults making the news again, you can't help but wonder; is the transgression here the various crimes they might be accused of, or is it trying to organize yourself in opposition to the system at a time when that system is becoming more totalizing than ever before in my lifetime? 

I'm sorry, I just think that way. Can't help it. Growing up in Braintree and all.

We're hearing now about the arrest of Smallville star Allison Mack for the role of procuring sex slaves for her cult leader, but are we to believe no one knew about this guy's dating methods all along? I remember reading about this particular cult years ago, even the branding business sounds familiar (I don't really care enough about this bunch to look it up--sorry). Is all this some new revelation or did the cult forget to grease the right palms last month? 

I have no dog in this fight-- and I think this allegedly sex-mad bozo is as insipid and dreary as our wayward Miss Mack here is charming and adorable -- but why now? What changed?

Of course we have the example of the Branch Davidian siege and massacre 25 years ago, based on a raft of charges and accusations that have since been proven to be deliberate lies for the most part. 

David Koresh and his group weren't my cup of tea either but I can't help but wonder if the long, flame-throwing arm of John Law wasn't searching around for examples to be made and pinned the tail on that particular donkey. 

Maybe things got out of hand, maybe they went strictly according to plan, who can say? I guess we'll never know. Sucks to be you, Branchers.

You see, that was a different time and you had a lot of folks slapped into reality by the Gulf War and its aftermath. And a lot of those who were looking around, not really liking what they saw much and wondering if maybe there was another way. In that regard it wasn't much different than what the hippie counterculture -- meaning the real hippies, not the LARP hippies of Laurel Canyon et al-- found themselves dealing with. 

Former 60s radical John Sinclair put it rather bluntly when asked in the early 90s what happened to the Movement. "We got our asses kicked, man," Sinclair glumly replied.

So you may notice that there seem to be all kinds of cults out there these days, usually flying beneath the radar of the mainstream media-- who seem primarily fixated on sniffing each other's farts and pretending they're afraid of Trump-- but breakaway communities? Well, if so, they're keeping a low profile. 

Quite wisely, I might add.

The thing is though that the Rajneeshpuram saga really said a lot about America and about how successful communities are built and how they decay. 

Those old cowboys who got themselves so worked up about the Osho nuts were all the descendants of cultists themselves. The Old West wasn't won by nice, obedient, bourgeois types, it was won by religious fanatics, many of whom were fired up by the Third Great Awakening. 

You see, nothing truly meaningful ever gets done without belief and faith. It's only the power of belief in something greater than the mere self that inspires the kind of sacrifice needed to overcome the kinds of hardships and tragedies that any great enterprise requires. 

Once you lose that fire, it's only a matter of time before your culture finds yourself circling the drain. Argue if you like, but the data is in.

Take the documentary Holy Hell-- about the rather odd Buddhafield cult that sprang up in 80s LA-- shows exactly how this works. As cults go, Buddhafield was relatively benign and no one can say that its members didn't have the time of their lives for an enviably-long time.

And it was the cult's devotion that this weirdly-charismatic ex-gay porn star that inspired some pretty impressive feats. Would they have been otherwise sitting around watching TV and snacking on Yodels and Doritos? 

Maybe not, but then again, maybe yes.

Sadly, the problem with cults is that that wonderful dopamine tsunami eventually subsides and you eventually realize that the rest of the world isn't marching lockstep behind you. 

I didn't really get the "hell" bit in this particular story-- certainly nothing even on the same planet of People's Temple or the Manson bunch-- and it has to be said the cult seems to be going strong in Hawaii. But when you believe your guru is a god it can be really disillusioning to discover he's just a cracked actor getting on in years. 

Except for the fact that it was actually a corporate concentration camp created and run by bankers in London, Plymouth Plantation wasn't any different than Rajneeshpuram. The rural folk of Oregon just weren't accustomed to the kind of fanaticism that brought their forebears to those hills anymore. 

They forgot that it was the hot fire of faith that literally moves mountains and makes the deserts bloom. 

I very much sympathize with the original citizens of Antelope's desire to be left alone and be unmolested by a literal army of sex-crazed Californians and their Indian overlords, but at the same time I can't help but feel a deep sense of unspoken regret among them as well. 

Maybe it's the kind of regret you can see among war veterans, who miss the excitement and camraderie of the worst days of their lives. Maybe it's something else.

And sadly Antelope is now a ghost town for the most part. One help but wonder if there wasn't another way.

Mind you, a lot of the natives you see interviewed are indeed the kinds of dipshit hicks that people in New York or San Francisco think everyone outside their city limits is. They just sound ignorant, and I can't help but think the real problem up there were the women not wanting their hubbies getting any big ideas about serving themselves up a heapin' helpin' of some kooky cult strange, seeing as how it seemed to be women who were driving the campaign against the cult.

Of course, seeing as how this particular operation was run by a sociopathic terrorist and all, the opposition was on-target. But the point is that the Antelopeans and the authorities gave a lot of lip service to religion but it didn't seem to be very deeply felt. 

Other than as a cudgel.

And maybe that's the real problem in our sick, dying culture today. You can blame all your woes on the system but if you're not willing to make the sacrifices needed to change it then tough titties, as Sheela once famously said. 

Comfort or revolution-- choose one.

I do have to admit to a certain weakness for the cult experience, having seen it from the periphery as a wee wane. Ironically, this was a cult that can be provably shown to be a CIA operation but that doesn't mean it didn't look incredibly exciting and utterly enchanting to a young, naive laddie such as myself. 

See, the Jesus People movement didn't strike me as some intelligence cutout, it looked to me like the real deal. It looked like religion beyond religion and it gave you the distinct impression that Jesus's arrival was imminent, if it hadn't in fact already gone down.

I still vividly remember seeing all the Jesus People reverberations at the Nazarene college my mother attended and seeing the young Christer hippies seeming to be tuned into a channel I could only hear from a distance. 

It was so powerful--and numinous-- that it haunted my dreams for a very long time. It just seemed like the way it was supposed to be. Sadly, it wasn't. But hey- I was not only highly impressionable at the time, I was hypervigilant. Sue me.

I'm not sure if that experience explains my later fascination with Heaven's Gate AKA the most hardcore Trekkies EVER. It seems odd because the kids I saw at Eastern Nazarene seemed so free and cool and beautiful to my innocent eyes, whereas the Away Team seemed dumpy, dorky and defeated. 

But I've no doubt that a lot of the Gaters started their journey to Rancho San Diego in the same fiery cauldrons of the 70s Jesus People revivals and after that high wore off, found themselves mesmerized by this charmingly-fruity music professor-slash-mental patient, his ditzy-hausfrau co-messiah and their bonkers flying-saucer faith. 

But Heaven's Gate's story doesn't seem in any way tragic or sinister to me. They come across as a fairly Orthodox Gnostic cult--if there could ever be such a thing-- who took it as far as they could, saw the big hammer that the Panopticon was fixin' to bring down on our heads, figured it wasn't going anywhere good and take their chances with this comet business blowing into town. 

It's tempting to write them all off as delusional nutcases but don't forget the biggest UFO flap of modern times was going down a few miles down the road while they were packing their celestial bags.

I doubt Applewhite's paranoia was justified--I don't think the FBI much cared about what a bunch of sci-fi nerds with marginal skillsets believed in-- but I'm sure they were monitored given they were doing their web design work for military clients, among others.

Ironically, just as I know people who I take seriously who don't write off Osho as a fraud, I have heard from folks over the years who will defend Scientology and argue the cult's bad reputation is purely because of government aggro. 

And from the CoS's surprisingly cogent brief against Big Pharma and their happy pills. 

It's the devil's dilemma, isn't it? A rapacious cult with all its weird links to crazy ol' Al Crowley and his cohort of pervs versus an industry that is responsible for so much death, misery and oppression.

I actually had a run-in with the CoS back in the day and I have to admit I found their pitch pretty compelling even if the whole vibe there kind of gave me the creeps. But Dianetics and all the rest of it seem to work for a lot of folks who could buy and sell my worthless ass, so there you go. I lose again.

In this case, I think it's a good idea to keep the concept of "scorpion fight" in your mind and remember that the enemy of your enemy is just as often also your enemy as not.

So, seeing as how we live in a fallen and irredeemable world, I should note that in these times even our cult leaders are flimsy and cut-rate. 

Take this person Teal Swan, for instance, who seems as full of shit as anyone I've ever heard in my life.  Not to mention just plain mediocre at her job.

Swan, who eerily resembles a vaguely-feminized clone of the late, great Peter Steele, is a sad statement on the New Age movement as it continues to insinuate itself into every facet of our daily lives.  Her videos are nonstop carpet-bombings of empty buzzwords and hand-me-down homilies, breezily sprinkled with astonishingly insensitive and callous statements on suicide and human suffering, plus rawboned narcissism. 

But bless Swan's heart for filling a niche and catering to a denatured and demoralized audience desperate for anything to make sense of the chaos of the postmodern world. If you're dying of thirst even piss tastes like the finest French champagne.

And since I'm only 99.5% convinced Teal Swan isn't this Massaro character here in drag I'm obliged to serve up a little taste of his hoohah ragtime too. 

I mean, hey. Lulz. 

Listen, these insta-gurus seem to make major bank if they can rope in enough lost souls into the fold, so it's good work if you can find it. If he wants to fleece a few sheep looking for a shepherd, more power to him. The Buddhafield chappie has been at it for the better part of four decades now, after all.

Maybe I'm just a cranky old coot, screaming at those newfangled cultists to get off my lawn and weren't cults so much more exciting and alluring back in the day? Osho and his bunch with their johnsons and their dirty pillows flapping away in the Oregon breeze, now there was a cult. 

Reverend Moon and his flower-peddlers and mass marriages, there was a cult. Father Yod-- that big Odin-looking fuck with his barely-legal harem and his vegetarian bistro, now there was a cult.

Sadly, the system seems to be marshaling its forces to build its own cult, the pseudo-socialist suicide-cult that seems to be like flies on shit everywhere you look these days. Time was cults arose in opposition to the system but I guess that's why we have all these fall-guys in Washington these days; to create the barest veneer of an illusion that this new death-cultism is somehow rebellious. 

Of course it's not even remotely so. Not even by a million light years.

POSTSCRIPT: I'm going to try to dive into the comments since so there's so much meat on those particular bones, thanks to you kind folks out there. I've been so busy with my day job and research that I just haven't had the time. But I really want to.

However, seeing as we're now living in a world where Elizabeth Fraser's voice is being written into DNA code by top genetic scientists in Switzerland-- no, seriously- I'm not coming off a particularly-nasty bath-salts bender, that is literally happening-- I need to fish while they're biting.

No, really- Elizabeth Fraser's voice is being coded into DNA, specifically designed to last for thousands of years. 

No, you're not on bath salts either.