An online friend of mine posted part of an email from his son where his son railed against stupid people voting. Because, I assume, he believes it is stupidity that will be the cause if the far right gains Presidential office this coming election. Now, while I do not have a very high opinion of the collective American IQ, I think that it is a mistake to think that stupidity is the motivator. Perhaps even a dangerous one. Because stupidity and ignorance can be ameliorated with the right information and a little (okay a lot) of patience. But the things that motivate people to gravitate toward extremism? They are much more nebulous and harder to weed out.
I have an up close and personal experience of what far right religious and political extremism is all about. I was raised in it. We aren’t talking Assemblies of God here, we are talking full on lunatic fringe Christianity with whackaloon politics. A cult, in fact. An honest to God one with communes and everything. I have spent years coming to terms with the why of it. Why my father was drawn into it. Why he couldn’t see it for what it was. Because my father is not a stupid man. He is brilliant in his own way. And yet…he bought all the craziness with nary a question.
There was a lot of damage done to the children of that cult. Which caused us to find each other. We have a private group where we can talk about all the things that other people just don’t grok. And they are things that apply just as readily to our current political climate as they do to the religious cult they are about. The reasons are the same. Heck, in some cases the people are the same.
It is hard to know where to start the explanations about what the Move was and what was done to the children of the first generation of members. It isn’t that I can’t put into words what it was like, it is that there is so much that has to be understood before you can really grasp the whole picture. The few times that I’ve talked about it to people they didn’t really get it. They were interested, even sympathetic, but they couldn’t understand it because they weren’t there. I ended up feeling something like a particularly interesting lab specimen with mysterious origins. Poke, prodded, questioned…but not understood.
For that reason it is sort of a relief to suddenly be in contact with the generation of people that experienced it. They know what “the chair” is. They share my cheese fetish. And my vague distaste for end of the world eschatology that is complicated by my fascination for it. Most of them gorged on music and TV and anything else that was forbidden when they left. Partially out of rebellion and partially because they had no internal tools in place to know how to moderate things on their own. So that part, the being understood part, is a good thing. Even though it is wrapped in a package that meant I cried more nights than I didn’t when I first confronted it all.
So, where to begin? I suppose in order to understand the Move and what it was it is necessary to talk about the guy who started it all. Rather than rewrite something that has already been written, here are some links that will explain his background:
There has actually been quite a bit written about him and the Move. Not all of it is accurate. In fact, some of it is completely made up. Sex outside of marriage was never part of it as a condoned thing, for example. And while there is a higher than normal incidence of child molestation that is more a function of what predators are drawn to (schools, churches, isolated communities where they have unfettered access to children) and the fact that the people in charge lived in absolute fear and separation from the legal bodies that are part of the wider world. They chose to handle such things internally (yes, just like the Catholic church) and unfortunately for the victims they did not have the first bloody clue what they were doing.
It is true, however, that they broke apart families. Also that the overweening theme was to give up all individuality and personal freedoms for the good of the commune. Here is a quote from someone who views this as a good thing. I include it because for all I vehemently disagree with the philosophy behind it, it illustrates the central concept rather handily:
“The people in all the communities, except Shepherd’s Inn, give 50 percent of their income to the community. I understand that Blue Berry Farm is moving to total community (giving up all private possessions). Shepherd’s Inn is moving that way also. They seem to recognize that they can not have total unity with their brothers and sisters as long as they hold on to their own possessions.”
If I could find a quote about the notion that it was your job to submit to the will of the community I would include that, too. However, for all the reading I’ve done, no one I’ve found has explained that succinctly. So I will have to do it myself.
Submission is not a foreign concept in any even slightly Orthodox church body. Most flavors of Christianity include at least lip service to the concept. The Move’s interpretation and implementation was a tad bid different, however. For them, submission meant that you had to have permission to breathe from the leadership (they are called “elders” and that is what I will refer to them as from now on.) If you wanted to visit another commune, you needed permission from the elders. If you wanted to go into town to shop, permission from the elders was required. Permission was required for what job you did either on or off the commune. They also dictated things like who you could marry, how many children you should have, who you could associate with, and in some cases what your standard of living was down to the quality of your housing and what you could eat. Even what type of education you received was decided on by them. It had very little if anything to do with you and everything to do with what they thought was best for the community.
I didn’t experience the full effect of this because I did not live on the commune. My father’s role in the community was to provide a base of operations in town where these people could come and do whatever it was they were going to do while there.
So I lived in 3 worlds, more or less. The Holiness group (which is a whole ‘nother bunny and worth a post of its own) where I went to school, the world at large which was a part of my father being a conduit for the Move, and the Move itself. It was the Move that colored everything else. I learned early the hard way that some things were not to be mentioned which is another story for another time. Even my best friend, the one who was a keeper of my secrets, did not know all of it. .
Which brings us to the personal and what all that meant for me and the other kids. I wish I could find a copy of the “Divine Order for Raising Children” pamphlet that Same Fife wrote. All I managed to dig up was a reference to it in a table of contents for a CD of his various pamphlets. There are 58 of them. He was almost as prolific as me. Without the pamphlet in front of me I will have to wing it.
It would be trite to sum it up as beat them into belief, but, that is what it amounted to. The primary focus was punitive physical punishment, but there were ideas in it that were more insidious. Things that led to the psychological abuses that in some ways were much worse than the physical. It left an entire generation of us with either shattered faith or wounded souls and minds or both. When your heart is broken by those you should be able to trust before you hit puberty, when it happens continuously and adulthood is your only escape, it takes longer to heal than it might otherwise. People say that kids are resilient, and in some ways they are, but what you are exposed to when you are a child never leaves you when it is a way of life rather than a single incident or just a period of unpleasant. And when it is evil? Finding your way to being whole is much more difficult.
The “spankings”, when they did not get out of hand, were not overly abusive. Not in and of themselves. What was abusive about them was two-fold: 1) You could be spanked for anything, even having the wrong look on your face 2) Any adult in the Move was allowed to spank you.
There are some people who should never be given that kind of power over children.
The way they saw it, children belonged to the community. We were, for wont of a better word, a resource. It was their job to make sure that we were trained to obedience and compliance in all things. To the point that individuality was frowned upon. And punished.
How does an entire group take up that sort of aberration in child rearing philosophy? Pretty simple, really, they lived in fear and fear is a great motivator. They believed that they were called to be the last remnant of the church on earth during and after the tribulation. And that if they obtained “sinless perfection” they would rule. They also believed that this was going to happen any minute now. In concert with this was the belief that there were inimical spirits that were constantly attacking and attempting to thwart this quest for sinless perfection. Children in particular were seen as targets of these spirits. Our perfection was in constant danger of being marred. In the pamphlet I mentioned Sam Fife said that their job was to “Apply the five-fold ministry to the backside of the desert.”
What does that mean? Basically make us compliant by every means they had at hand. That way, when the tribulation happened, we would be safe. We wouldn’t be claimed by the Beast and sentenced to an eternity in hell.
On its surface, it is perfectly understandable why parents would accept this. Once you believe it is the only way to save your child it is easy to accept the severity required. After all, if the child would die unless you amputated a limb, you would amputate the limb. What is hard for me to understand are the people who didn’t engage in these things, who seemingly did not buy into the harshness of the punishments and yet did nothing to stop them. The woman who was in charge of the greenhouses, for example. Hers was a safe space. She was gentle and kind and when I talked to her about some of it she was sympathetic. She never ratted me out for questioning, which was not true in other cases, but she never tried to stop it either.
She is probably the reason I do the plant thing now and why I find it so soothing. That island of calm she provided planted the seeds for part of who I am. But still…if I ever decide to find her I want to ask her why. Why did she do nothing? Did she not realize that her inaction was an action? That her failure to speak out made her complicit?
I think I know why, though. Because she was as bound by fear as the rest of them. People who spoke out and who stuck to their guns had a habit of being banished. They were judged to have a “spirit of divisiveness”. They were usually subjected to “the chair” and prayed over for hours and hours and if they did not break under that onslaught they were simply driven into town and dropped off. It was the rare individual that ended up being driven into town, however. Because the belief was that if you were not part of the Move, you were a lesser being. You would not rule the world with Christ. Worst case scenario you would go to hell. The communes and their satellites — like my childhood home — were the only safe places to be. Everywhere and everyone else was an enemy.
Was that cowardice on her part? Maybe, but it was a carefully cultivated cowardice. Fear turns people into cowards and cowards are easier to control. I can forgive her for that, but I still want to know why. I’m big on why. Even though I can’t always answer that for my own actions.
Now the part I’ve been avoiding. I’ve given you enough background to choke a horse…because I don’t like talking about the personal memories. Partially because they drag up things that I have kept buried for a long time and partially because it is difficult if not impossible for most people to really understand. But it is the heart and soul of what can happen when the leadership is corrupt.
I’m still avoiding. Ooops. Okay, I’ve made a couple of references to “the chair”. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? It was. I first experienced the chair when I was 10. In the past few months of comparing notes with people I’ve discovered that I may hold the record for the youngest person of my cohort to be subjected to that. The next youngest that anyone recalls was 14.
The summer I was 10 I was sent to spend the major portion of it on The Land — the name of particular commune we were associated with — to learn discipline and to overcome my “spirit of laziness”. This was because I had slacked off in school the last semester and gotten a couple of Bs on my report card. I could have gotten As, true, but the punishment did not fit the crime. So the rest of the family went on vacation somewhere and I was shipped off to the middle of nowhere AK to work. The first couple of weeks were okay. It is hard on a 10 year old to spend all day pulling weeds or doing dishes and then sitting through church services every night. But it doesn’t do any real damage.
Right around the end of week two I was helping to pull weeds from the kale beds and I started to sing to myself. Yes, once upon a time I could actually sing in front of people without embarrassment. The song was head, shoulders, knees and toes. Only I was singing it in Hawaiian. Which had been taught to me in Girl Scouts. A man named John Cheever demanded to know what I was doing. I told him singing. He said not to sing nonsense. I got rather indignant at this at informed him that it wasn’t nonsense it was Hawaiian. He failed to believe me and things became heated. I never had any real sense of self-preservation back then, and I never knew when to back down.
I was punished for my disrespect, lying (even though I wasn’t) and accused of having a spirit of silliness. I was also punished for and accused of mocking the gift of tongues. Which, okay, a repetitive song sung in Hawaiian does sort of sound like someone speaking in tongues…it is all those vowels and hard consonants…but they could have bothered to figure out if I was telling the truth. The spanking was public. They did that a lot, used the punishments of children as an object lesson to the others and a way to ensure maximum humiliation I’m pretty sure. In some ways it was better when it was public. More humiliating but also more controlled; less apt to get out of hand.
Problem was, by the age of 10 I had been spanked so often, for so many things, and usually unjustly that it no longer had the desired effect on me. Instead of making me contrite or even causing tears it just switched me off. I took it because there was nothing I could do about it, but I did not react to it. Stoicism in a 10 year old receiving a public spanking did not go over big. Especially when I refused to admit to anything after it was over.
So they decided that I was to be shunned until I admitted to the error of my ways. This meant that I was not to talk to anyone and no one was to talk to me other than to give me directions on what I was supposed to be doing. I had to sit at a table at the back of the room during mealtimes. I endured that for about a week. And then one day I just decided that maybe I couldn’t make them talk to me but they couldn’t stop me from talking. So I talked. I carried on one sided conversations with anyone in my path. I think they may have had a meeting about this because that night I was surrounded by a half dozen of the elders and made to sit in “the chair”.
For hours, I don’t know how many, people laid hands on me and prayed for me as if I wasn’t there. They told God all the things that were wrong with me and asked for him to remove the spirit of rebellion and the spirit of mockery that I was under the influence of. They spoke in tongues, they told me that if I did not repent and recant that I would be lost. That demons would possess me. That I was evil. That I was wrong. That I was headed for hell.
Eventually I broke. I didn’t believe; never that. But I wanted it to be over. I was hungry, I was tired, I was afraid and I was a 10 year old child. So I told them what they wanted to hear. And I made it convincing too. Then they were all happy and tearful and hugging me. It revolted me. I did not want them to touch me. I just wanted to go to sleep and escape them. The rest of that stay I did not interact with anyone any more than was necessary.
This is not extreme. It may seem that way, but compared to some incidents in my life this was positively civilized. There was not a month in my life where something like this did not happen. Some of it I caused because, perversely, I knew it was going to happen anyway and if I made it happen at least I had some control. Getting in trouble for actual disobedience was better than getting in trouble for refusing to admit to putting socks behind a table when I hadn’t. Or at least it seemed better to me at the time. Kids aren’t wholly logical.
I escaped whenever I could. I don’t know what would have become of me if my best friend’s family hadn’t been on the approved list. Probably I would have clocked up 200 hours of volunteer service a month at the hospital rather than 100.
So, this is the other part. I’m sure that some of you can see the shadows of it in my personality maybe even better than I can. Now you know where they come from. I have tried for most of my adult life to weed out these things but some weeds have deep roots and if you dig too close to them they tend to sprout and bloom anew. Even if they have been dormant for a long time. But it is something that had to be done.
Hmmmm….this may explain to you why I am so resistant whenever that topic comes up. It isn’t that I don’t believe that such things exist it is that in my experience people who make them a focus turn them into an excuse for any number of things and often times just default to blaming whichever spirit fits in with their preconceived notions. In the story I just told you if there was a spirit of anything involved it wasn’t targeting me, at least not directly. It was goading the people who punished me into their actions.
So what does all this have to do with why people believe and vote for stupid things? Well…it is all rooted in the same thing. Fear. Not necessarily the same fear for each person but fear of something. People who join cults or swallow crazy political ideologies are almost always either broken or on the outside in some way. These fringe groups fulfill a need in them. For many it is as simple as a need to belong. These groups give them that. They suddenly belong to a group that convinces itself that it is better, more right, than all the other groups. The fear of being alone, of being unaccepted, is a powerful blinding agent.
For others it is a need for security and someone to blame. These groups give them that. They tell them that if they band together, if they vote this way, they will be saved from whatever it is that is threatening them. They go even further by giving a face to the nameless threat. The religious blame spirits. Others blame liberals. Blame immigrants. Blame communists. Blame Muslims. The who is flexible depending on what is the public fear du jour, but what they will do is always the same. They will take your jobs. Your guns. Your children. Your very way of life.
My father did not become a right wing conservative and then later a cult member because he was stupid. As I said in the beginning, he was brilliant in his own way. He became those things because he was broken. Without going into gory details, he was a surprise baby born when my grandfather was 60 to an alcoholic mother. They divorced when he was in grade school. Because of the era in which this happened his sisters would not let him stay with his father. And his mother was incapable of raising him.
Granted, grandpa was born in 1892 and had different ideas about what was normal…but he still would have been a better option than being shuffled around from sibling to sibling the way dad was. When he grew up he knocked up my mother and then entered into a loveless marriage that he refused to let go of out of fear for me and my siblings, I believe. He didn’t want us to bear the stigma he felt he had.
As a result of all this my father was less than grounded. I don’t think he really knew who he was. He was insecure and felt a complete lack of control in his life. So along comes the conservative Christian political movement and they tell him “This is what you must do to be successful and respected by those with power.” And he was very successful. He did gain a lot of respect in his field and his social group. Unfortunately, the more deeply he became involved in those circles the further removed he became from truth and reality. He stopped listening to music that wasn’t Christian. He stopped reading literature. He stopped associating with anyone socially that was not in that group. And that is how they get you.
If you have a really deep seated need to belong and a fear of failure or loss? They tell you “Do this and we will accept you.” And they do. You lose what little perspective you have because you stop measuring against opposing ideas. The further and further you go down the rabbit hole and the more it takes to pull you out of it. The easier it becomes to view anyone different from you as not as valuable, not as deserving. Because if you give them the same rights you have? They will take yours away. No, it doesn’t make any logical sense, I know that. It plays on emotion with is much more deep seated than intellect.
I am trying to find the point here and failing. I think what all this leads up to is that no one wakes up one day and stupidly says “Yes, this is a really good idea.” and votes to take away our freedoms. It is a process. People are led by degrees to believe/vote for stupid things. They grow up in it, they have a life like my father’s, they are complicated and imperfect. But it is all something that is learned. Not just inherent.
And it can be unlearned. I unlearned it. Granted, I never really bought most of it…but…there were still things that I believed that I had to unlearn. The universe had other plans for me than to live in fear of the other. It let me make a bunch of big mistakes and then put me in the path of all the people I had been taught to fear. Those people are what helped me to find reality. They didn’t do it with doctrine or propaganda or pointing out how wrong the people that raised me were. They did it by one simple thing. Loving me. Accepting me for who I was in spite of my differences and sometimes prickly nature. And if I can be changed by the simple expedient of unconditional love? Anyone can. Even your loud mouthed Tea Party neighbor.
Hmmm…got positively woo-woo there for a minute. Oh well. It is still as true as anything I know.