You bait a trap for a mouse with tasty food. How do you bait a soul-trap for people too smart to fall for conventional religion? With half-truths, of course.
I bailed out of an attempt to induct me into a cult tonight. The cult is called Landmark Forum or Landmark Education, and is descended from est, the Erhard Seminars Training. The induction attempt was mediated by a friend of mine who shall remain nameless. He has attended several Landmark events, praises the program to the skies, and probably does not realize even now that he has begun to exhibit classic cult-follower symptoms (albeit so far only in a quite a mild form – trying as hard as he did to to recruit me is the main one so far).
“But Eric. How did you know it was a cult?”
Oh, I dunno. Maybe it was all the shiny happy Stepford people with the huge smiles and the nameplates and the identical slightly glassy-eyed affect greeting us several times on the way to the auditorium. Maybe it was the folksy presenter with the vaguely Southern accent spewing pseudo-profundities about “living into your future” and “you will get Nothing from this training” (yes, you could hear the capital N). Maybe it was the parade of people telling stories about how broken they were until they found Landmark.
Dear Goddess, hasn’t everybody seen this movie by now? It wasn’t even subtle. They might as well have put up a nine-foot-high neon sign announcing “HI, WE’LL BE YOUR BRAINWASHERS FOR THE EVENING.” The only uncertainty left in my mind is how pathological this particular gang is – whether their cult induction machinery is mainly mechanism for vacuuming money out of wallets or they actually have a core group that gets off on the processing-people-into-compliant-zombies thing.
What makes outfits like this truly dangerous is that they aren’t entirely wrong. That is, their theory of how human beings tick (a jigger of Neuro-Linguistic Programing, a dash of cognitive behavior therapy, a few skooches of transactional analysis, and generally a substratum of Zen-by-any-other-name) actually works well enough that if you do the process you are in fact likely to clean up a bunch of the shit in your life. Even Scientology, the biggest and nastiest of the cult groups traveling as “therapy”, teaches some useful things – Hubbard’s model of the “reactive mind” is pretty shrewd psychology.
The trouble with cults is that they aren’t actually about the parts that are true. They’re about using the true parts to hook you, to condition you into an becoming an eager little propagator of their memetic infection. For that to happen, your ability to think critically about the doctrine has to be pretty much entirely shut down. Fortunately the behavioral signs of this degeneration are quite easy to spot – I would have learned to recognize them back at the dawn of the New Age movement around 1970 even if I hadn’t gone to Catholic schools before that.
I bailed out after about 20 minutes. It was just too drearily obvious where it was all going.
The evening wasn’t done with me yet, though. It was a cold walk from 7th Street to the 15th-Street train station, and my path took me past a Philly cop on the beat and through City Hall. I think the cop spotted the .45 on my hip under my A2 jacket and that could have become unpleasant – carrying concealed is legal in Philly but the police have been known to hassle carriers pretty hard. This one just nodded at me as I walked by. Maybe he’d read the Heller decision.
Pholadelphia’s City Hall is a huge rococo pile of Second French Empire gingerbread with one redeeming feature – four archway entrances lead to a huge central courtyard where, at the exact center of Philadelphia, there’s a big lovely compass rose in the pavement stonework. Well, there used to be. It’s gone. You can see traces of it around the outside. There’s a big rectangular concrete patch where the center was. I mourn – it’s like they ripped the symbolic heart out of my city. By the wear on the concrete it’s been like that for some years, and I didn’t know.
I was still thinking about this when I descended into the 15th-Street station. I was slightly hungry, having not had dinner, and – aha – I spotted an Au Bon Pain, aka “McDonalds for foodies”. So there I am standing at the counter waiting for night-shift guy to make my sandwich. Night shift guy is what you’d expect behind this kind of service counter in this city: black urban dude in his late twenties. Maybe a bit more alert-looking than average but nothing at all remarkable about him.
So I said “I just bailed out of an attempt to induct me into a cult”. He replied – and I will now channel Dave Barry and assure you that I am not making this up:
“The Obama administration?”
Maybe there’s hope for us yet.