Something sort of weird happened yesterday. I responded to a tweet – on @Mikel_Jollett’s twitter feed. Reflecting on the the rally about to happen in Tulsa, he commented that it smacked of cultic activity – and he cited his own history having been raised in, and then escaping from an actual cult – Synanon – a story he tells in his recently-released novel Hollywood Park (check it out if you want a heart-rending read – and add to the experience by reading the book while listening to the accompanying album of the same name by The Airborne Toxic Event).
I’ve spent a lot of my life studying cults. I was born in one, we escaped when I was very young. We witnessed mass denial, magical thinking, abuse, violence. And I just want to say for the record there is a cult gathering happening in Tulsa today.
This is a screenshot of my reply and his response:
In addition to being a remarkable writer – of songs and articles and, now, his first memoir – Mikel shares his strong voice with his many followers on twitter. My comment – referencing my days in academia, has now been seen by closing in on 100 000 people – and liked more than 2300 times.
I know that those numbers aren’t particularly high in the relative scheme of the social media world/s, but in my little corner of twitter, with my 300-some followers it’s a pretty significant jump in the number of interactions I usually get.
But this isn’t about my 15-minutes of (relative) fame in the twitterverse. A couple of things have come out of some reflection on the response to an observatory tweet drawn from my experience and research in that former academic life.
Historically and sociologically, apocalyptic thinking develops as a response to the perceived disparity between expectations and societal realities. When we are unhappy in our current situations, we project a better scenario to come at some future date – if things are fulfilled as prescribed.
In historical literary and religious traditions, the better scenario generally comes after a cataclysmic and status changing event of some kind that trashes the social or cultural system that is causing the disconnect between expectations and reality. The new reality is posited to be one of justice – as perceived by the person who is unhappy with the current status quo. Religious apocalypses promise salvation as the aftermath of the period of trial and unhappiness.
Cults gather followings out of this same feeling of social anomie – and the same promises made that are found in historical apocalypses. A charismatic leader plays upon the discontent and disconnect of people and promises better things as long as they follow and obey.
The demands of the leaders don’t start off as extreme. Most humans do not seek out opportunities to do harm and violence. Soon though, the blind allegiance that is demanded escalates until abuse (of self and others) and violence become ‘reasonable’ if such things will permit the restoration of rightful place in a society that has rejected them.
Many of Trump’s followers feel threatened by a progressive move away from the guarantee of their privilege based in the colour of their skin. He is a figurehead who promises a return to the days in which they held their ‘rightful place.’
Some who cling to the idea of the feasibility of the current GOP are simply protecting their own interests – ensuring that their wealth remains untaxed, and their investments in health care for-profit, private education for-profit and fossil fuels (obvs for-profit), to name a few examples, are unthreatened. (And also that their places of worship don’t have to pay taxes – and can exert as much influence over politicians-for-sale as possible, despite what Jefferson had to say about ‘separation between Church and State’ and mis/interpretations of that First Amendment thing – which is taking a beating these days. But that’s a rant for another day).
But many of the followers of Trump’s messaging and movement are just trying to fit somewhere in a world which is leaving them behind. This messaging and movement are destined to fail – they just aren’t tenable. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, too many bells have been rung to permit any real unringing. It doesn’t mean the struggle isn’t over – and it certainly doesn’t mean that the path to social change will be easy in the days, weeks, months and years to come, but I’m really starting to believe that this backslide movement is running on fumes.
Trump’s Tulsa rally, which, as we know today, was incredibly poorly attended – despite early reports of 100s of thousands of tickets having been purchased (bravo all you young folk who bought tickets with no intention of attending) – smacks of the last gasps of desperate people. After 3 1/2 years his followers aren’t, actually, seeing a reversion back to their perceived golden age when they lived high off the hog. Or were, at least, ‘better’ than those Black folks over on the other side of town.
Despite the Jones-esque attempt to lead thousands to death-by-COVID-infection, the fact that the turnout to what was supposed to be the reopening of the campaign to continue the cult was so sad and pathetic makes me feel that even the cultists are starting to get it. That guy is all about that guy. Not the little guy. No matter what the propaganda says.
The other thing that offers a bit of hope in these exhausting times is that for all the views and likes on my viral-ish comment of yesterday, there were only a handful that were violent and hateful in nature. And those few that were got handled quickly and comprehensively by others in the threads – I did not have to feed many trolls at all. I muted a few – and reported a couple of obvious bots, but for the most part the discussions were polite and, seemingly, legitimately interested.
There were also some positive interactions – and sincere questions – that are making me think that people out there are doing more than just reacting. I had a brief discussion with a woman whose bio says she is a former Senator – a former GOP Senator – who wanted to know how to ‘deprogram’ these followers once a new government is installed after next November. She was gracious and respectful in her questions and responses.
Unfortunately ‘deprogramming’ isn’t a thing. And there will be no quick fix. This is going to require generational change, based in equitable access to education that teaches actual history – not the narrative that most were raised to believe. Willful, selfish ignorance has been the norm for too long.
The narrative that has been shared in public school curricula has significant gaps in information that is required for people to think independently and critically. They can’t do so with a redacted history. We need to ensure that those who set the curricula don’t get to leave out the bits that make them personally uncomfortable – things like genocide, and systemic anti-Black racism. We need to emphasize the reality that both race and religion are human-created constructs – and, as such, can and should be deconstructed.
The Wikipedia says ‘virology’ is the study of viruses – particularly their “structure, classification and evolution, their ways to infect and exploit host cells for reproduction, their interaction with host organism physiology and immunity, the diseases they cause, the techniques to isolate and culture them, and their use in research and therapy.”
Cults and viruses share a lot of characteristics – which makes right now a particularly appropriate time to examine the structures, classifications, evolution, exploitation and interactions of both. Doing so will help us see through to the other side of both this pandemic and the cultic subversion of humanistic values that promote progress and equity.
Rooting out and overcoming disease takes time and investment – and listening to those who are experts at isolating the causes of infection and using the findings to produce the therapies needed to overcome the virus. I’m optimistic – cautiously, but optimistic nonetheless – that we are beginning to have the conversations and take in the in-and output of those who are expert and experienced in the ways to affect significant and positive change.