Someone’s Watching…

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Yes, it’s hard to see, but don’t look away. Horrible things happen when no one is watching.

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Let’s talk about Jonestown.

If we are going to talk about cults, and their deadly exploitation of the human need for meaning and hope, we have to talk about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. In many ways, their story is our cultural emblem of what a cult is. The phrase “drink the kool-aid” emerged from this sad case, although it is not accurate. First of all, it was “Flavor-aid” in that vat, and a large percentage of the victims didn’t drink it. Some were injected, in the back, with cyanide. Some were forced at gunpoint to take the poison. There were around 300 children and babies that had no choice. They were fed the poison by their parents (who had some reason to hope it was all a drill or loyalty test, and not really poison) or by Jones’ enforcers. Those babies died screaming in pain.

I now realize, that is the first thing I want to do here: honor the victims of the Jonestown Massacre, by dispelling the trite myth that they all shuffled to their doom like programmed zombies. Or the comforting idea that they were simply so gullible and stupid or needy that they just swallowed everything they were given — crazy cult beliefs, Flavor-aid, abuse, whatever. This is so far from the truth, and demeaning to the dead, it makes me angry. It is important to know the whole story about Jonestown. It illuminates something about how we as a society can intervene effectively to prevent such tragedies in the future, just by paying attention.

Jim Jones had the same bizarre charisma that all cult leaders have. The stories you hear about him are the same as all the others: Charlie Manson, L Ron Hubbard, Shoko Asahara, David Koresh, Adi Da, JohnRoger, etc. Every one of these monsters was/is a “shape-shifter”, in a sense. They could pour their enormous charisma into the form most pleasing to their target audience, leaving an overwhelmingly positive impression. They could also be overwhelming in their contempt, or in their rage, when confronted with criticism. So much so that they could stop any real self-scrutiny within the group before it even began.

It is of the utmost importance to understand the power of such charisma. If you have ever met a real “star”, or someone with what we call “starpower” — that is a similar experience. If you have never interacted with someone that has great charisma, it can be hard to understand the kind of “pull” such a person can have on others. It is subtle and non-verbal; perhaps involving what is commonly referred to as chemistry, or energetics. Non-verbal elements of human behavior are outside the domain of rationality, so long as they are not recognised or understood. This means that we in our rational culture are generally unprepared to deal with them, until we learn enough about them.

Most people never learn that much about it, so when they encounter a person with that bizarre charisma, they take the experience at face value. Instead of recognizing the “master” as powerfully charismatic, and thus someone to be wary of, they are simply amazed at the impact such a person has on them and others. Meeting someone with true charisma is intoxicating, for anyone. In that intoxicated state, people are easily influenced and programmed. Jim Jones was extremely skilled at this. He was an absolute master at the cult long-con, until he went crazy with paranoia from his addiction to speed.

Jones started out with the usual minister scam of faith healing, but he was more thorough than most con-men. He used common tricks like sleight-of-hand and planted cases, but he also drugged people to mislead them or control them. He had loyal followers dig through trash and call relatives of new members under a false pretext, to get information that would make his “healing” more believable. (Sound familiar, scientology watchers?). He was a convincing performer — to this day, there are former members who believe he actually removed cancer from people and whatnot. Now that is persuasion!

Jones cultivated the usual facade of charity and hospitality to lure in new members and gain support from the community. But behind that facade, he was frighteningly effective at reading the politics of his time and playing them to his benefit. Racial disenfranchisement and segregation were matters of great concern. Jones made a cozy niche for himself by exploiting the pain and suffering around those issues. Those who were struggling for equality were shown an ideal community where people of all colors would be respected as peers. Black people saw the promise of relief from the pressure of discrimination. White people saw the promise of relief from the guilt and unease of living in a society that is unjust in their favor.

He also played into the trauma of the disenfranchised, filling them with fear that they would be targeted for challenging “the system” so effectively. As Jones’ addiction and paranoia increased, he did everything possible to sell his congregation on the idea that they were under seige. Even going so far as to fake being shot, so he could miraculously recover, and reap the benefits of being a “risen martyr”. He scared the shit out of his followers, a great way to bond a group together and foster blind loyalty.

These canny ploys reaped numerous benefits for Jim Jones. He had the fierce loyalty of many people who were “helped” by the temple and saw it as a safe harbor. More importantly, he had the deference of local officials whose campaigns benefitted from Jones’ support, who were reluctant to be seen as obstructing someone perceived to be doing so much to help poor blacks and elderly folks. So when reports of abuse and sexual shenanigans and harassment of ex-members surfaced in San Francisco, folks who had used Jones to get ahead in local politics, like Harvey Milk, just refused to pursue them.

When ex-members and concerned relatives spoke about the paranoia and violence and rehearsals of mass suicide, and Jones calling himself God while trampling on the bible — before the Jonestown massacre — no one wanted to take them seriously. This is why Jonestown happened, not because people in the cult were too weak to say no — but because no one was listening. When people did listen, they vastly underestimated the real danger. By the time authorities were willing to take a hard look at the abuse, it was too late. The willful ignorance of the community and larger society is all the shelter any crazy cult leader needs to bring about horrible tragedy. That is why being a watcher is important.

“The price of freedom is vigilance.” That idea is often quoted to justify war-mongering and reactionary foreign policy. I have always seen a different meaning there. There are many kinds of freedom, and cults take away freedom of a kind that can’t be reclaimed by force. For instance, in discussions about freeing prisoners from scientology’s Hole on their Int. Base in Hemet, people sometimes suggest sending in the police. Then the point is made that this would do no good, because the prisoners would deny they are being held against their will. These people lack a freedom of the mind, one they can reclaim only through a willingness to look, and see things for what they are.

There are many kinds of vigilance, but they all involve watching out for potential danger or harm by looking carefully. Very simply: our freedoms are taken from us when we refuse to look at what is really happening. We must be willing to watch, willing to see what is wrong or corrupt, and willing to name it to ourselves and each other. That is the best tactic to avoid being exploited or trapped in a bad situation. Or for someone who is in such a situation to get out, and stay out. Watchers, keep watching!

Some interesting sources:

•Read — A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres. An excellent book with a strong emphasis on the humanity of this story.

•Watch — The Final Report: Jonestown. A good short (45 min) docu from Nat Geo, summarizes evidence released in bits and pieces over the years.

•Blog — Jonestown Apologists Alert. Written by the son of one of the reporters who exposed Jim Jones, and who was targeted by his followers; this blog ain’t hearing no apologist bullshit!

•Listen — the actual recording of what Jim Jones said to his followers leading up to their deaths. [Warning, this is disturbing. But I feel it is important to hear the scare tactics and lies he used to coerce them. As well as people arguing for survival.]

Nick Herbert’s Quantum Tantra

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Here is totally engaging article from one of my favorite blogs: Quantum Tantra. Nick Herbert is a physicist who specializes in quantum theory (and wrote a great introduction to the subject called Quantum Reality) and also a mystical elfin old guy who writes erotic poems to nature. In short, he fuckin’ rocks!

Check out this post where he uses “Bob” Dobbs and Alice in Wonderland to explain some fascinating quantum stuff. He ends the post with a little poem that makes the whole thing worth reading.

Nick Herbert inspires me, perhaps he’ll do the same for you.

“Let’s face it. We are only at the beginning of experiencing and appreciating the inhumanly beautiful mysteries of the quantum world.”
-Nick Herbert

Science vs. Faith; or, Janeway finds religion?

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“False dichotomy” is one of my favorite terms. Here is a definition from Wikipedia. Essentially, a false dichotomy is a type of logical fallacy where two points or sides of an argument are placed in opposition to each other as if they are the sole options to consider. Often the two options are portrayed as mutually exclusive: as in, “you are either for us or against us, there is no middle ground.” When I first learned this term, I fell in love with it, because it illuminated a very popular ploy in our culture that I hate. When people want to pursuade you of their point of view they will often try to polarize it with something that forces you to accept their point as the “right” option.

A good example can be found in the post 9-11 era. Often, the pundits who were carrying water for the White House (as Rush Limbaugh put it in a moment of uncharacteristic honesty) would pin down opponents of White House policy as “hating America” or “supporting the terrorists”. “Why do you hate America?” was a popular response to any criticism. Either you support the president, or you hate this country — that is a false dichotomy. It was very effective for a time.

A false dichotomy ignores the possibility of a third (or more) option, in order to manipulate perception. By presenting people with an either/or dilemma, you can force them towards an option they don’t really want. In-groups of all types, like cults and political parties, use this ploy to cultivate the blind loyalty of their members. For instance, scientology doesn’t have to convince their members that donating more than they can afford is a GOOD idea. They simply have to assert that the only other option is failure to support the “noble” goal of clearing the planet. If that’s what you want, fine. If you buy into this, and you care about being a good scientologist, you will pursuade yourself to take out that second mortgage to up your “status”. The false dilemma does not allow for other possibilties: perhaps a “good scientologist” would refuse the relentless demands for money; or perhaps being a “good scientologist” is a questionable goal if it means being scammed.

Learning to recognize a false dichotomy is useful in being an independent and open-minded thinker. It keeps you from falling back on lazy, black-or-white understanding of matters that are subtle and complex. It makes you suspicious of jingoism and easy answers. There is a bit of mental discipline involved, to train yourself to examine the questions as well as the answers. If the question is skewed by a particular bias, then any answer is of limited value. Questions can easily be framed to exclude certain info from consideration that might undermine a given point of view. Human nature is such that most of us actually use this kind of thinking, in order to justify the easy assumptions and biases we apply to the world. This is normal, and not necessarily bad. It is an expedient way of simplifying the complicated experiences we deal with every day. Who has time to take everything in? It only becomes a problem when you come to depend on it as a way to validate your point of view.

My favorite example of a false dichotomy our culture embraces is “science vs faith”, aka: “mysticism vs materialism”. The idea that these two things are mutually exclusive is a popular one. I would go so far as to say it serves as the unspoken backdrop for a lot of the conclusions we draw collectively, as to what ideas should be taken seriously. The willingness to put faith in religious or mystical ideas is even seen as a barometer of intelligence and rationality. The assumption being, the more mystical, the less intelligent, in general. Those who report experiences that are generally regarded as “paranormal” — that is, unaccounted for by our current science — are seen as foolish or irrational at best. It begs the question: are these two conceptual filters, mysticism and materialism, truly mutually exclusive? I think not. It seems obvious, considering that science does not have exclusive claim to intelligence, reason, or even pragmatism.

Understanding that is key to resolving this false dichotomy, which is based on the unspoken idea that one side or the other does have such an exclusive claim, and there should be a clear “winner” there. This is not confirmed by practical experience. Science functions through precise measurement and accurate and thorough analysis and rectification. In our culture, there is a tendency to equate objective precision and accuracy with a larger sense of intelligence and truth. This is a misleading assumption. These things overlap, but they are not the same. Immediate human experience and perception, although subjective and often “irrational”, are an equally important part of the big picture. Forgetting this can lead to accepting things like e-meters, or doctors’ prescriptions, even when they don’t actually work as promised.

It is a big topic I am addressing, but the point I want to toy with here centers on some simple questions. What happens when your direct, practical experience is firmly outside the bounds of what science can currently measure and explain? Is it ever truly rational or intelligent to dismiss the simple fact of your sensory experience just because you do not understand it? How pragmatic is it to ignore what is happening right in front of you, because it cannot be easily explained? These are questions that have a lot of personal relevance for me. I am a very intellectual and linear person by nature, and when I was younger I had no use for mystical or paranormal matters. If it wasn’t established as proven by good science, it was just an entertaining fiction in my view. However, direct and undeniable experience has forced me to look at the things science cannot explain, and take them seriously.

I think it is not a question of whether the paranormal is “real” or not. It is a question of when science might eventually reveal the mechanisms behind things we experience that are as yet still mysterious. There is no either/or dichotomy here. Why? Because science is incomplete, and so is human understanding. Neither one can claim to have all the answers in any given situation. “No scientific explanation” is not the same as “not real”. “I don’t believe that” is not the same as “not true”. Which leads, oddly enough, to an episode of Star Trek: Voyager that I would like to share with you as food for thought on this question.

The title is “Sacred Ground”. Even if you don’t like Star Trek, or sci-fi in general, I still recommend that you seek out and watch this episode. (Netflix streaming has it; season 3 episode 7) It is an exceptional story that deals quite elegantly with the question of science vs. faith / materialism vs mysticism. The Captain in this series, Janeway, is a woman of science who is strictly devoted to correct procedures and rational decision-making. However, she is also devoted to her obligation as Captain to keep her crew safe. So, when a crew member is dying and the only solution involves faith and intuition, she is put in a fascinating double-bind.

All their technology and analysis can’t help in this situation, and she must trust a “mystical” source for the answer. She must also confront her own assumptions and expectations and set them aside in order to save the day. As usual, time is terribly short so she has to disregard her personal discomfort and take her best shot. Fortunately, she has a very helpful guide. If you don’t care to seek out the episode (although I very highly recommend it) here’s a you-tube summary, complete with terrible mystical music, that covers the high points.

Spoiler alert: of course, she saves her crew member. But she has to let go of her need for an explanation and trust in what she has learned. Thus, she is led to an epiphany — science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Then, of course, the ship’s doctor does eventually find a sci-fi scientific explanation for the whole thing. But this clip shows, by that point Janeway is not much impressed by the “why” .

It is left up to the viewer to decide why she reacts that way. It seems the scientist has learned some respect for the nature and value of faith, as it functions for an intelligent and pragmatic person.

There are different kinds of knowing. That is the idea I offer for your consideration…

Peace.

It All Started With Charlie Manson…

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Why am I a scientology watcher?

There are a couple of motivations — a moral one and an intellectual one. I have discussed my moral impetus in other places. It is simply abhorrent to me to see people’s spiritual hunger exploited and perverted — which is what cults do. I have my reasons for that, but those are deeper waters than I wish to take you into right now. Right now, I want to share a bit of my intellectual mindset as a sci-watcher. Someone who has never been in the cult, but is nonetheless compelled to speak out against it. Why do I care about this, out of all the wrongs in the world?

I have been fascinated by psychology and abnormal human behavior since I was a very small child. If you find that hard to believe, you probably don’t know me. People who know me, know that I am a mutant freak and always have been. I was born scary-smart, and when I entered kindergarten I already knew how to read and write and had a huge appetite for learning. I was tested and labeled and whatnot — a true wonder kid.

My elementary school was THE case (literally) for educational inequality and busing in my city. Busing began when I was 6 years old and it had many implications for a kid like me. I was educated at a time when an extremely gifted little black girl like me was a golden opportunity for all the progressive white teachers around me. Not to indict their motives; it WAS the times. In any case, I was encouraged to indulge every intellectual curiosity.

“Abnormal” psychology was one of my areas of curiosity. I saw the Jonestown images as a child, and the made-for-TV movie. I took it as evidence that people can be fooled into ANYTHING, once something in particular goes wrong. This was typical human nature, in my view; so many examples in history of people following a leader on a crazy or evil mission.

I was far more interested in the “Manson Family”. I saw that TV movie too, and I guess that piqued my interest. But mostly, I was born on the day of the murders, and I always felt marked somehow by that fact. I read as much as possible about the case. (I know far more about those murders than a healthy person should.) It led to an intense curiosity about the strange extremes of human behavior, and why and how people are led to those extremes. Jim Jones was much easier to understand, as a typical authority figure — a minister. No surprise he was able and willing to abuse that authority. Charlie was a homeless, dirty drifter who had spent years in prison. He was no authority on anything other than cons. Yet, he managed to seduce wealthy famous people, strong and capable young men, and sheltered suburban daughters. He enticed some of them to murder. WTF?

My curiosity has always been, what makes people do such things? What is the dynamic between cult master and cult member, that facilitates shocking breaches in general human mores against murder, graft, sexual abuse, and so on? There are a lot of opinions, a lot of facile explanations available in the marketplace of ideas. After years of undergrad and graduate study in psychology, I have encountered most of them. But none that satisfy me. For me, it remains an open question: why and how do people get involved with cults?

Scientology caught my attention in the eighties, and I have watched it ever since. Although I kind of turned away after they bought out CAN, and it seemed they were gaining legitimacy with their celebrity schills. After the apparent progress made by critics in the eighties that seemed to promise an end in sight, that was just too hard to watch. Still, my familiarity with the crazy things that actually happen to people in cults was very helpful in my later work. I just didn’t have the time or desire to keep up with their latest shenanigans.

With scientology in particular, there was a dearth of information, or people willing to talk about it, for a long time after the Time magazine article and subsequent lawsuit. Other cults were mostly ignored, except by the tabloids. There wasn’t much for cult-watchers to see during those dark days of the early nineties. The flowering of the Internet has changed all of that. It is so easy to watch scientology now, and boy is it fun to watch! It remains fascinating to me in a way no other cult can be. It is a current affair, the crazy is not all in the past the way it is with other cults. When you know it is happening NOW, it is much more compelling. You can even communicate with the people involved directly, get information straight from the source.

Of course, finding Tony Ortega’s blog at the Village Voice really renewed my interest. What a surprising and wide-open window into the fascinating phenomenon of scientology’s practices and impact. This is a man who knows his subject, and is committed to reporting on it as thoroughly as possible. Watching this thing unfold in real time is an amazing experience. Then, soon after I began following Tony’s blog, the comments began to function as an extension of the stories. That is the part that got me hooked. Being able to participate in and influence the discussion about this whole topic, in a public forum, is deeply gratifying. All my reading and study, and personal experience, can actually be of service in a small way.

So, now you know more about why I care about the topic of scientology. It all started with Charlie Manson…