Ross Douthat in the NYT riffs on the topic of esoteric knowledge (which I discussed recently in Taki’s Magazine):
The Cult Deficit
SEPT. 27, 2014
… From the 1970s through the 1990s, from Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate, frightening fringe groups and their charismatic leaders seemed like an essential element of the American religious landscape.
Yet we don’t hear nearly as much about them anymore, and it isn’t just that the media have moved on. Some strange experiments have aged into respectability, some sinister ones still flourish, but over all the cult phenomenon feels increasingly antique, like lava lamps and bell bottoms….
Twice in the last few months I’ve encountered writers taking note of this shift, and both have made a similar (and provocative) point: The decline of cults, while good news for anxious parents of potential devotees, might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.
The first writer is Philip Jenkins, a prolific religious historian, who argues that the decline in “the number and scale of controversial fringe sects” is both “genuine and epochal,” and something that should worry more mainstream religious believers rather than comfort them. A wild fringe, he suggests, is often a sign of a healthy, vital center, and a religious culture that lacks for charismatic weirdos may lack “a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry” as well.
The second writer is Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, venture capitalist and controversialist, who includes an interesting aside about the decline of cults in his new book, “Zero to One” — officially a book of advice to would-be entrepreneurs, but really a treatise on escaping what he regards as the developed world’s 40-year economic, technological and cultural malaise. …
Thiel’s argument is broader: Not only religious vitality but the entirety of human innovation, he argues, depends on the belief that there are major secrets left to be uncovered, insights that existing institutions have failed to unlock (or perhaps forgotten), better ways of living that a small group might successfully embrace.
This means that every transformative business enterprise, every radical political movement, every truly innovative project contains some cultish elements and impulses — and the decline of those impulses may be a sign that the innovative spirit itself is on the wane. When “people were more open to the idea that not all knowledge was widely known,” Thiel writes, there was more interest in groups that claimed access to some secret knowledge, or offered some revolutionary vision. But today, many fewer Americans “take unorthodox ideas seriously,” and while this has clear upsides — “fewer crazy cults” — it may also be a sign that “we have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered.” …
Do we have fewer cults or do we just not notice them?
Today, for example, it seems obvious that Freudianism was a cult, but it was treated with immense respect in post-WWII America. Vladimir Nabokov had the aristocratic self-assurance to scoff publicly and repeatedly at Freud, but how many other men of reputation dared?
For example, few called Stephen Jay Gould a cult leader, but the man who told his followers — “Say it five times before breakfast tomorrow; more important, understand it as the center of a network of implication: ‘Human equality is a contingent fact of history’” — can perhaps be understood as the type of soothsayer who tries to hijack the prestige of science for his own anti-scientific purposes in the tradition of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, and L. Ron Hubbard.
Then there’s also the issue that highly successful cults stop seeming like cults and start seeming like inevitabilities. For example, consider the rise of the Harvard-Yale cult. In Presidential elections from 1900-1984, the major party nominees possessed 9 degrees from Harvard or Yale between them, or 0.20 per nominee. But as higher education spread in America, the opposite of what you’d naively expect happened: from 1988-2012, the 14 Presidential candidates had 15 Harvard or Yale degrees, or 1.07 each.
Indeed, five of the last 14 Presidential nominations have gone to old Bonesmen. In 2004, both nominees were members of Skull and Bones, the most cult-like oogah-boogah cult within the Harvard-Yale cult: the most famous relic within Skull and Bones’ windowless shrine/fortress on the Yale campus is the skull of Geronimo, which is there because it was grave-robbed by the ancestor of two Presidents.
The whole point of Skull and Bones is to create a tiny self-perpetuating elite within the small elite of Harvard-Yale insiders: e.g., Secretary of State John F. Kerry (Class of ’66) was one of the Bonesmen who tapped the Class of ’67 Bonesmen who tapped President George W. Bush (Class of ’68). Thus having both Presidential nominees be Bonesmen is just the fulfillment of the plan.
But mentioning this only proves you’re some kind of wacko conspiracy theorist: everybody knows that any domination of Harvard-Yale alumni over Presidential elections is just one of those things that is and ought to be.
But in the intellectual realm, the stagnation he identifies seems readily apparent, since whole swaths of political, ideological and religious terrain that fascinated earlier generations have been mostly written off in ours. As Mark Lilla noted in a recent New Republic essay, it’s not just that alternatives — reactionary, radical, religious — to managerial capitalism and social liberalism are no longer much embraced; it’s that our best and brightest no longer seem to have any sense of why anyone ever found alternatives worth exploring in the first place.
Perhaps the sacrifice is worth it, and a little intellectual stagnation is a reasonable price to pay for fewer cults and Communists.
Or maybe the quest for secrets — material or metaphysical, undiscovered or too-long forgotten — is worth a little extra risk.
Or maybe the real secret is the one you find out inside the Skull and Bones fortress of elitism: It’s now what you know, it’s who you know.
One reason we aren’t as aware of cults is that they have become much more open about promoting themselves. Consider the evolution of cult-like conspiracies among the rich and powerful from the Bilderbergs to Davos. For the last 60 years, the Bilderbergs have been a secret society of billionaires, hereditary monarchs, and intellectuals who get together periodically in luxury hotels for secret discussions of major trends in world affairs and how they can mold them for the good of people like themselves.
But the covert Bilderberg kind of conspiracy seems so James Bond Era-ish. In contrast, Davos is a post-modern conspiracy based on massive publicity: rich people invite journalists to lecture them and then the journalists write articles about how wonderful and forward thinking and open to important new ideas the rich people are, and everybody posts online their selfies with each other. Lately, even the Bilderbergs have started to publish their invite lists to get in on the publicity.
Similarly, consider two cults that grew out of the Golden Age of Science Fiction: the modern cult of Scientology and the postmodern cult of transgenderism and transhumanism, as exemplified by my old MBA classmate Martin/Martine Rothblatt, a founder of satellite radio, and now promoting his/her book Virtually Human about downloading your brain to a computer so you’ll live forever.
L. Ron Hubbard was a hack sci-fi writer with a winning manner who impressed more impressive friends such as editor John W. Campbell (who promoted Hubbard’s Dianetics as a low cost alternative to the Freudian talking cure) and author Robert Heinlein (who, perhaps apocryphally, is said to have given Hubbard the idea to convert Dianetics into a tax-exempt religion).
In the Scientology cult, the exoteric ideas sound pretty plausible (you have various psychological issues weighing you down and you should talk to a trained listener about them), but the esoteric ideas that are finally revealed (it’s the fault of the space alien Thetans!) mostly seem to pass muster with people with a talent for playing make believe (Tom Cruise etc.)
The modern transhumanist movement, including the phenomenon of domineering masculine heterosexual guys suddenly announcing they are women, has ties to Golden Age sci-fi as well. The urge to leap the bounds of sex and death was an esoteric theme that popped up now and then in Heinlein during his long prime, 1939-1966 (e.g., his last short story “All You Zombies”). It then came out of the closet after the societal constraints came off at the end of the 1960s and he returned to writing in the 1970s after major cerebral health problems. (Heinlein was too sane and reasonable a guy to found a cult like Hubbard or Rand did, but you can imagine the temptations.)
But transhumanism always seemed like kind of a wacky egomaniacal libertarian white guy thing. Now, though, it’s edging toward being fashionable via transgenderism as a way for egomaniacal white guy libertarians to get in on the victim parade by standing up for fellow egomaniacal white guy libertarians like Dr. McCloskey. (Is the world “fellow” transphobic?)
But this rising system of nutty belief is structured the opposite of Scientology, which tries to lure you in first before unloading the esoteric crazy stupid stuff. Transgenderism demands that you assent to the crazy stupid stuff upfront:
“Remember that guy you went to MBA school with who was obsessed with space exploration and already had a passel of kids and was supersmart, but was just a giant dick to anybody he thought wasn’t as smart as him (which was everybody)? Well, now he’s the highest paid female CEO in America because, it turns out, he was always actually a woman and you have to call him “her” when reminiscing about him. Oops, I’ve should have said ‘She was always actually a woman and you have to call her “her” when reminiscing about her always being a giant prick.’ I don’t want my career flushed down the toilet like that poor guy in Grantland for getting on the bad side of the Trans Power and their vast numbers of volunteer enforcers.”
In today’s world, the real esoteric cult knowledge, the kind that you have to come to obscure corners of the Internet to learn, is that this is sci-fi libertarian wackiness.
If you want to be a new L. Ron Hubbard, you should put your craziest craziness out in public and dare anybody to prove themselves a low brow bigot by scoffing at it. Don’t hide the Thetans away until Tom Cruise has spent years being prepared to learn about them. Instead, make the Thetans a victimized minority about whom awareness must be raised. Assert that a tiny percentage of humanity (i.e., your followers) are the descendants of a supersmart alien race, and that this poor minority has always been oppressed and victimized by the human majority for their secret superpowers.
Something like that just might work.