Choose Your Own Adventure: Philosophy, Conspiracy Theory, Cults and the Myth of Tautological Selfishness

There isn't anything especially novel or profound with following one hyperlink to another and eventually realizing, in Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-style, what a long (short?) strange trip it's been. This was one of the first Internet games I remember playing, a little over a decade ago, in which a group of teenage boys would start at some innocuous, mutually agreed upon website, and see who could reach porn first. This type of forward linking may be nice for cocktail parties or killing time in study hall, but it isn't as interesting or fun as noticing the unplanned, backward linking that results from a couple of hours of aimless Internet wandering, usually aided a great deal by links internal and external to Wikipedia. A short attention span helps speed up the process, of course.

So, from start to finish, here is a rough trajectory of where I've been for the last few hours and what I've found interesting along the way. Since I've been out of the blog world for a while, I started with what would normally constitute a daily read,

Will Wilkinson's discussion of the "libertarian vice", which eventually led to...

Henry Farrell's link to Naomi Klein's unintentionally humorous Harper's piece, which argues (according to her Wikipedia Bio) that "the Bush administration's... clear plan for post-invasion Iraq [...] was to build a fully unconstrained free market economy. " Forgive me if I didn't bother to read the Harper's piece itself; I regard Klein as an historical curiousity, worth studying as a subject herself and not so much what she writes. This led to a polled list of the world's "top 100 public intellectuals," within which Klein's presence at number 11 is not so surprising when you consider Chomsky is listed as number one.

From this list to Habermas, to Heidegger, to Arendt, to Walter Benjamin, to Gershom Scholem, to Jewish mysticism, and finally, to the contemporary celebrity cult of the Kabbalah Centre, run by the notorious Philip Berg and sons, and lampooned in a 4-part magazine exposé. Incidentally, this magazine led me on a slight detour to the top American competitive eater, the 100-pound Sonya Thomas.

The academic study of cults and conspiracy theories has interested me for a while, primarily because, when traveling in political circles considered slightly out of the mainstream, you tend to run into cranks who embrace other minority viewpoints, not so much out of any reasoned deliberation, but precisely because those viewpoints are shared by only a small (and assumed priveledged) segment of the population. I've been reading Syracuse poly sci professor Michael Barkun's book on the subject, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, in which he attempts to explain why groups as seemingly distant from each other as UFO believers, Christian millennialists, and right-wing conspiracy theorists have becomes linked, with many believers in each distinct conspiracy theory cross-pollinating with other conspiracy theorists outside their original domain. Barkun argues that stigmitized knowledge is often accepted as true by conspiracy theorists just by virtue of it being stigmatized. Stigmitized knowledge, as Barkun defines it, means "claims to truth that the claiments regard as verified despite the marginalization of those claims by the institutions that conventionally distinguish between knowledge and error - universities, communities of scientific researchers, and the like." Barkus goes on to explain the various mechanisms by which this process occurs - put simply, conspiracy theories all rest, not only on the stigmatized knowledge claims themselves, but on the common and necessary belief that this knowledge became stigmatized for a reason, by a self-interested or otherwise nefarious organization or group of organizations in control of the orthodoxy.

For many believers, belief in the conspiracy theory is for the most part socially harmless, even when doing so entails susceptibility to an ever-widening conspiratorial worldview. After all, from the perspective of a non-believer, it may be a huge waste of time to listen to the Art Bell radio show or attend a UFO convention, but this is no more harmful than other wacky hobbies like stamp collecting and taxidermy. The problems arise when susceptibility to and cross-pollinization with increasingly stigmatized knowledge, such as anti-Semitism (belief in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a factual document and not a hoax is widely shared within conspiracy circles), anti-Hispanic sentiment (such as the belief that Mexicans are invading the U.S. in order to reconquer and seize control over the American Southwest), or the types of conspiracy beliefs shared by someone like Timothy McVeigh, leads to anti-social, actively harmful behavior.

Even more dangerous and disturbing than these sorts of conspiratorial communities, however - which at least benefit from and are kept in balance by some level of intellectual competition with the outside, "orthodox" society - are cults, who also believe in stigmitized knowledge, but spread this knowledge in a much more insular and pervasive way.

In increasing levels of scariness, we have organizations like Landmark Education, which, while not technically cults, employ many cult-like tactics, such as sleep deprivation/exhaustion combined with "hard-sell" marketing techniques. The purpose of the program (apart from whatever benefits claimed by its adherents), is to sell expensive, new-agey motivational speeches, with ever-increasing tuition rates the further up the "graduate" ladder you go, with high-pressure (and often peer pressure exploiting group psychology) encouragement to not only sign up for more and more advanced courses, but to encourage friends and family to do the same.

Luckily, despite its widespread success from such humble beginnings, (Landmark's founder was a used car-salesman, trainer of door-to-door salespeople, and all-around shady character), Landmark Education never entered into the realm of religious cults, though it's founder was personal friends with Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard at one point, only to be later excommunicated in a particularly nasty process known as "Fair Game." At least Ayn Rand's cult had that whole non-aggression thing going for them.

Next are intermediate organizations like the aforementioned Kabbalah Centre and Church of Scientology that combine sleezy marketing techniques with preposterous religious doctrines. Both of these organizations market themselves specifically to celebrities, in a shrewd and largely successful attempt to both extract money from these celebrities in exchange for high status/spiritual reward and use these public-figure converts as free advertising to attract more members. While neither of these two organizations force their members into cocoon-like communes with little to no contact with the outside world as more notorious cults do, both do try to insulate their members from external criticism by encouraging members to seek out and surround themselves with like-minded friends and family - either through direct proselytizing or careful selection and avoidance.

Finally, we have the less well-known (at least to people born within the last two decades) but most notorious and dangerous cults. I initially learned about the first of these religious cults, the Children of God (now called "The Family"), in an article in Rolling Stone about a year or so ago. A month or two after I read the RS article, I caught an episode of Law and Order that, apart from some superficial name changes and plot modifications, was clearly based on the murder-suicide incident of Ricky Rodriguez.

Though the majority of the crimes committed by this cult were reported to have taken place in the 70's and early 80's, the notoriety of these crimes received increased media attention in January 2005, when Ricky Rodriguez, born into the cult and intended to be its future leader and messiah, stabbed to death his former nanny, Angela Smith, and subsequently killed himself. Smith had sexually abused Rodriguez as a child - pedophilia and incest were officially sanctioned and encouraged by the cult - though Rodriguez's ultimate target was for the murder his own mother, who also sexually abused him.

The Children of God cult tried to destroy all evidence of this sanction and encouragement of sexual abuse during the 1980's, as it came under increasing legal pressure in many of the countries from which it operated, but scans of the official documents were preserved and can be seen at xFamily.org. The cult continues to exist to this day, and official apologetics (including both outright denials, and partial, qualified admissions) are available on its official website.

The second deadly cult, Jonestown, is even more ourtrageous in the apologetics offered by some of its former members, academics and political sympathizers. I was born two years after the incident, and only vaguely and indirectly heard it referenced through various forms of pop culture. It wasn't until I haphazardly came across this series of links today that I truly learned of the depravity of Jim Jones, his devoted followers, and the apologists who continue to this day to obfuscate what actually happened and try to pin this horror, through the use of absurd conspiracy theories, on the U.S. government, the C.I.A., or global capitalism itself. The horror includes not just the mass suicide/murders of 914 out of the 1,110 inhabitants of Jonestown, 276 of them children, but also the murder of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, a reporter from NBC, a cameraman from NBC, a newspaper photographer and one defector from the Peoples Temple.

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