Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Cult of Obama

-- by Sara

Every political news outlet, from the networks to the blogs, is abuzz today with the question: Is the Obama phenomenon a cult?

People -- particularly Hillary partisans -- are eagerly putting this idea out there. I want to make it very clear before I get started that I'm not a partisan of either candidate: there are things about them both that have my skepticism pegged to the limit. Personally, I'm for the Democrat. But when it comes to the topic of what is or ain't a cult -- that's something I know something about. Or, at least, I seem to understand it a bit better than most of the people who are bandying the term around today.

Any number of religious sociologists have assembled various tools and devices to be used in assessing whether or not a group can be classified as a "cult." (So have many members of what can only be termed the "anti-cult industry," which largely comprises conservative Christians seeking to scare their fellow believers into staying in the fold. One must be careful.) Perhaps the most comprehensive of the bunch is the one assembled by folklorist Dr. P.E.I Bonewits in 1979, which laid out 18 behaviors that are common to religious cults:
1. internal control
2. external control
3. wisdom or knowledge claimed by leaders
4. wisdom or knowledge credited to leaders
5. dogma
6. recruiting
7. front groups
8. wealth
9. sexual manipulation
10. sexual favoritism
11. censorship
12. isolation
13. dropout control
14. violence
15. paranoia
16. grimness
17. surrender of will
18. hypocrisy
It's important to note that these criteria describe an overarching pattern: a group needs to score high on at least 10 or 12 of these to be within even hailing distance of "cult" status. On the other hand, just about any group trying to create social change is going to partake of at least a few of these qualities. When people are setting out on a new course, they tend to put out tremendous amounts of energy. They trust their leaders, ascribe all manner of wisdom and magical power to them, accept their words as dogma, and enthusiastically recruit new members. (Or, in this case, voters: Obama is, after all, running a political campaign.) It's offputting at best and worrisome at worst; but as you can see from the list, it takes a whole lot more than that to make any group qualify as a full-blown cult.

There is no evidence anywhere that Obama is running front groups, using his campaign to enrich himself, sexually manipulating his followers, censoring anyone, or insisting that people isolate themselves from the larger society. There are no draconian efforts at dropout control. Nobody's arming up out of paranoia. And "grimness" is about the last word you'd use to describe an Obama event.

A lot of people may be surrendering their will temporarily. Quite a few are expressing as much anger as hope -- perhaps because expressing this much emotion is new for them, perhaps because they were raised in an era of Rush Limbaugh, perhaps because they're new to politics and wrongly think this is how it's done. (Their candidate is in a fine position to deliver some etiquette lessons. I hope he does -- and soon -- because the backlash is forming.) And, no doubt, there will come a time when Obama's True Believers are crushed to realize that he appeared to promise one thing, and then did another. But, again, these are normal parts of any large-scale social change movement: FDR, for example, inspired at least this much devotion among the desperate and Depression-scarred citizenry of his early years in office; and it was that implacable trust and support that enabled him to lead the country through a time of radical change.

It's notable to me that I'm hearing these concerns mainly from aging Boomers who are still nursing the deep wounds inflicted by the savaging of their own dreams, and fear that their children's naive enthusiasm for Obama will lead them into similar disillusionment. And if that's you, well, then, you're right: it probably will. But another word for that is "growing up." If we love our children, the best thing we can do for them on that inevitable day that they see their hero's clay feet for the first time is not contaminate them with our own bitter cynicism. Somehow, we need to teach them -- which means, even if we don't feel it, modeling for them -- that the only right response to disappointment is to step back, think it through, and find another, better way to re-engage the fight. Quitting is not an option. Given the current state of the country and the planet, neither is failure.

So if Obamamania doesn't come close to making the cut as a "cult," then just what the hell is going on there?

What's going on is that we've finally got a Democratic candidate who understands exactly how the Republicans did it. As I pointed out my very first week on this blog, the GOP didn't come to power by talking about plans and policies; they did it by using strongly emotional appeals that grabbed people by the gut and didn't let them go. Theirs was never a movement based on reason. It was, from the very beginning, a movement of hearts and souls. And it was that deep, emotionally sustaining commitment that drew people in so deeply that they were willing to give 25 years of their lives to bringing about the New World Order their leaders promised them. We may hate what they've accomplished -- but we're never going to be able to do better until we can inspire that same kind of passion for change.

And Obama's doing just that. He's tapped into a deeply pressurized seam of repressed fury within the American electorate, and he's giving it voice, a focus, and an outlet. Are the results scary? You bet: these people want change on a scale that much of the status quo should find terrifying. Are they unreasoning? The followers may be -- but as long as their leader keeps a cool head, that's not as much of a problem right now as we might think; and the heat will dissipate naturally in time. Is this kind of devotion even appropriate? You bet. You don't get the kind of deep-level change we need without first exposing and channeling people's deep discontent. Obama's change talk may be too vague for most people's tastes (including mine); but the fact is that if we're serious about enacting a progressive agenda, rousing people's deepest dreams and desires and mobilizing that energy is exactly how it's going to happen. And Obama's the first candidate we've had in a generation who really, truly gets this.

The energy of Obama's rallies scares the hell out of reason-bound, well-educated liberals; but it's nothing new to anyone who's spent time in the overheated revival-meeting atmosphere that conservative politicians have used to rouse their voters for decades. Stirring up their base in exactly this same way is how they won. Our chronic inability to move people like that is why we've continued to lose.

Hillary is going the old route, with more plans and promises. And she's losing. Obama is trying something that's new to Democratic politics -- but that also has a proven track record when it comes to raising and consolidating truly transformational movements. In fact: that kind of change simply does not happen unless you've got this kind of committed mass movement.

This misguided "cult" talk not only misunderstands how social change occurs; it's also giving the GOP a weapon it will use to the hilt if Obama is the candidate in the general election. They're going to demonize those energetic kids as the re-animated zombie ghosts of the dirty fucking hippies of the 60s. And, in a historic sense, they are. They're our own children, emerging to finish the work that their parents got too tired and too disillusioned to finish. For us old Boomers, they're our very last shot at the dream.

We have a choice here. We can either bless them for their energy and commitment, hand them our tattered old ball, and see just how far they'll be able to move it down the field -- even as we stand by with the Bandaids and Bactine, shouting encouragement and coaching tips from the bench, just as many of us have done at a thousand soccer games through the years.

Or we can doom their fresh efforts with our own cynicism, withdraw our approval, make fun of them, and tell them they're going off the deep end by joining up with some crazy mass movement that will never deliver on its promises of change.

But we betray them, our country, and ourselves if we turn around and do to them what the right wing did to us with the "dirty fucking hippies" slander by perpetuating this "cult" meme. It's not factually accurate. And it's not fair to Obama, his growing cadre of followers, or even what's left of our own abandoned dreams.

No comments: