What Makes a Cult a cult?

Fascinating article from the New Yorker seeking to explain irrational behiaviour.

In “What Makes a Cult a Cult”, Zoe Heller’s piece published in the July 12th and 19th print issues of the New Yorker, she examines the phenomena of cults and irrational beliefs in her review of “Don’t Call it a Cult” by Sarah Berman. Berman examines the NXIVM cult let by Keith Ranier, who was recently sentenced to 120 years in prison. Ranier told his female members that they had Nazi leader ancestors and to shift the bad energy, they had to have yogic sex with him. Worked for a while.

One explanation for why people hold beliefs that contradict logic is that we’re hard wired to understand the world through narratives, including those that defy logic. Each cult/religion/movement has its own story that gives believers meaning and purpose, and lets them believe that they are playing a role in making the world a better place.

The main insight I took from this article is a proposed explanation for why these groups exist and prosper. Heller writes “some scholars theorize that levels of religiosity and cultic affiliation tend to rise in proportion to the perceived uncertainty of an environment. The less control we feel we have over our circumstances, the more likely we are to entrust our fates to a higher power….(A classic example of this relationship was provided by the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, who found that fishermen in the Trobriand Islands, off the coast of New Guinea, engaged in more magic rituals the farther out to sea they went.) This propensity has been offered as an explanation for why cults proliferated during the social and political tumult of the nineteen-sixties, and why levels of religiosity have remained higher in America than in other industrialized countries. Americans, it is argued, experience significantly more economic precarity than people in nations with stronger social safety nets and consequently are more inclined to seek alternative sources of comfort”

This is relevant to today with Qanon, whose members believe the government is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. It has already made many prophesies that have not come true. What happens then? According to psychologist Leon Festinger who proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance in 1956 in a classic study, when predictions fail, many get disillusioned and discard their beliefs, bud a portion double down and finds new ways to justify their beliefs (the “real” event is yet to come and this is all part of the plan). This makes me think that Qanon is not going away even if it’s diminished.

Heller’s article is filled with fascinating anecdotes and is worth a read.q

Hitch-22, Read by Hitch

If you haven’t had a chance to read Christopher’s insightful and entertaining memoir, Hitch-22, you can listen to the audio, read by the author himself. These videos posted on YouTube (in two parts) may be taken down from time to time (but hopefully reposted), so you should check them out now. Hitch wrote this at the peak of his career, not knowing that it would also be toward the end of his life. We are fortunate that he didn’t wait until what he thought would be close to the end of his career to write this, as people typically do,

Hitch look-a-like plays an atheist in “Say Your Prayers”

There’s a new black comedy out, “Say Your Prayers“, described on IMDB as “Two orphaned brothers turned radical Christian hitmen venture to rural Ilkley under the instruction of Father Enoch). Their mission: assassinate Professor John Huxley, famed atheist writer.”

John Huxley is played by Roger Allam, who looks, as I’ve often thought, a lot like Hitch. What do you think?

The 2019 Hitchens Prize awarded to George Packer

The 2019 Hitchens Prize was awarded to writer George Packer for his essay, “The Enemies of Writing”, published in the Atlantic in January, 2020.

The prize is awarded annually by the Dennis & Victoria Ross Foundation “to an author or journalist whose work reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry,‭ ‬a range and depth of intellect,‭ ‬and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence. The Prize is named in honor of the late Christopher Hitchens,‭ ‬a writer whose career was a rare if not unique expression of those qualities.‭”

From the DVRF Website: Dennis Ross, the president and director of the Dennis & Victoria Ross Foundation, said of Packer: “We are very pleased to award George Packer the 2019 Hitchens Prize. Christopher Hitchens’s career set a standard of intellectual seriousness and integrity that continues to inspire and is our benchmark for the prize. George’s work meets that standard in every measure, and offers its own inspiration for journalists working today. We take great pride in adding him to the roster of Hitchens Prize winners.”

Here are the previous winners:

2018 – Masha Gessen, Journalist and Author
2017 – Graydon Carter, Editor
2016 – Marty Baron, Executive Editor of The Washington Post
2015 – Alex Gibney, Documentary Filmmaker

James Randi (1928 – 2020)

This past Tuesday, October 20, we lost one of the great defenders of the skeptical mind. James Randi, also known by his stage name The Amazing Randi, was a stage magician (amongst other things) who devoted much of his life to debunking pseudo-science including spoon-bending and the paranormal. He touched many lives and was an inspiration to many in the LGBTQ community when he came out in his 80s. I had the opportunity to meet him at the 2017 North Eastern Conference on Science and Skepticism. We spoke briefly about Hitchens, whom he greatly respected. For more on that event, see the posting I did at the time as well as his NYT Obituary and the 2014 documentary An Honest Liar.

Also see his tribute to Hitch: We Lost A Giant.

Good news for Trump. Bad news for Democracy.

Senate Republicans have removed from a necessary intelligence bill requiring presidential campaigns to report foreign election help. Why would they do this? How much more evidence of corruption do we need? Congratulations Vichy Republicans.

Note to readers: Some have noticed this blog becoming more political, which is true. I think the times demand it. The description of the blog states that it is about Christopher Hitchens and his ideas. This falls under the idea of anti-authoritarianism and anti-corruption. Hitchens became a U.S. citizen because he valued our Constitution including its checks and balances. If you need evidence for this, read his books on Thomas Paine and on Thomas Jefferson. They are great reads and necessary for understanding Hitchens. ( I will repost this explanation in a separate post).

I’m including the following for the Republican senators:

Source: history.com

When the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, they represented a loosely held confederacy of Atlantic states recently freed from British rule. If the American experiment was going to work, the founding fathers knew that they had to insulate their new republic from deep-pocketed interests and old alliances from Europe. 

Through a course of heated conversations and compromises, safeguards against foreign influence as a corrupting force were built into the Constitution.

“The founders had just broken free from one empire, and the idea that some other empire was going to swallow them up was a constant source of fear for them,” says Mary Sarah Bilder, law professor and constitutional historian at Boston College Law School, and author of Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention.

American statesmen like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were no strangers to the backroom deals and soap-opera plot lines of 18th-century European politics. Gift-giving was common practice among foreign dignitaries, as was bestowing of titles of nobility on foreign political friends. Intermarriage of royal families was another classic way to bind the interests of two nations together.

If the United States was going to be different, the framers needed a founding document that fully recognized and defended against the corrupting influence of foreign money and power, particularly on the president.

Article II of the Constitution gives such power to the president to run the executive branch that a president under the influence of a foreign nation would be far more dangerous than any other single individual,” says Stephen Saltzburg, professor at The George Washington University Law School. “That kind of conflict, between loyalty to the United States and loyalty to a foreign nation, would be intolerable.”

Two Key Provisions Protect Against Presidential Corruption

To guard against such conflicts and provide a remedy for a worst-case scenario of presidential corruption, the founders built two key provisions into the Constitution: the so-called “emoluments clause” and the power to impeach a president.

READ MORE: How Many U.S. Presidents Have Faced Impeachment?

The emoluments clause is laid out in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution: “And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State.”

No gifts, no titles of nobility—the Constitution bars American presidents, ambassadors and elected representatives from even the appearance of quid pro quo. But several members of the Constitutional Convention argued this clause alone wasn’t enough to hedge against corruption of the highest office in the nation. Congress needed a remedy, a way to punish a president who crossed the line.

The Necessity of the Impeachment Clause

In James Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention, he says that Gouverneur Morris, author of the Preamble to the Constitution, didn’t originally see the necessity of impeachment until he considered the specter of foreign corruption.

“[The Executive] may be bribed by a greater interest to betray his trust; and no one would say that we ought to expose ourselves to the danger of seeing the first Magistrate in foreign pay without being able to guard against by displacing him,” said Morris. “One would think the King of England well secured against bribery. Yet Charles II was bribed by Louis XIV.”

In the 17 century, Charles II secretly accepted money from the power-hungry French King Louis XIV in exchange for selling off parts of England to France and publicly converting to Catholicism.

Charles II receiving the Duchess of Orleans at Dover, 1670. King Charles II of England and his sister, Henrietta Anne Stuart, negotiated the Secret Treaty of Dover, an alliance between England and France against the United Provinces of the Netherlands, in 1670. Henrietta was very close to Louis XIV of France, who was her brother-in-law. 

Charles II receiving the Duchess of Orleans at Dover, 1670. King Charles II of England and his sister, Henrietta Anne Stuart, negotiated the Secret Treaty of Dover, an alliance between England and France against the United Provinces of the Netherlands, in 1670. Henrietta was very close to Louis XIV of France, who was her brother-in-law. 

Print Collector/Getty Images

By including both the emoluments clause and congressional impeachment powers in the Constitution, the founders believed they had a two-pronged attack against foreign influence. As Edmund Jennings Randolph said at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788, “It is impossible to guard better against corruption.”

In George Washington’s 1796 farewell address as the first president of the United States, he issued a stern warning against the poisonous influence of foreign governments on the affairs of the young nation.

“Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence… the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”

While Washington resisted foreign influence as president, the framers of the Constitution recognized that the possibility of a corruptible American president was real.

“In the words of the constitutional scholar Cecilia Kenyon, many of the founders were ‘men of little faith,’” says Bilder. “They fundamentally believed that people’s private ambitions and thirst for more power or money were powerful motivators. You couldn’t rely on the goodness of human nature. In fact, you had to create these redundant structures to guard against it.”

Fake News, Useful Idiots, and Banana Republicans

Trump lies happen at such an astonishing pace, that it is difficult to keep track of them. There is substantial evidence for this from the tally kept by the Washington Post (18,000 as of April 2020) to Forbes noting an increase in the rate of lies (23.3/day up to 23.8/day during corona) to the Trump Lies Project sponsored by the New York Times.

The lies are part of a larger story. While he’s great at producing lies from his own mind, extemporaneously, like a great jazz improvisor, he also adopts and promotes destructive Russian created conspiracy theories.

Russia has a long history of exporting chaos and disharmony, with the goal of undermine the idea of democracy. A dramatic example is Pizza-gate, where Hilary Clinton was accused of running a child sex ring from the basement of a pizzeria. This caused deranged Trump supporter to shoot the place up with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

The above video, The Seven Commandments of Fake News, explains how the Soviets created and spread fake news (the retro term is disinformation). It breaks the method down into seven key steps. A key step entails finding a ‘useful idiot’; someone who spreads the news unwittingly. Trump is Useful Idiot Number One. To compound the damage, he’s taught his base to believe only him and to distrust legitimate news sources. Many followers of his cult genuinely do not know any better.

Who does know better? The Republicans in Congress. Self-serving cowards like McConnell, Graham, Cruz, Rubio, Collins, Johnson, McCarthy, and the rest of the rotten lot. Our history is filled with principled men and women who risked their lives to defend our principles. The threat not of death, but of being given a nickname by the Dear Leader, was enough for them to drop their principles like a hot rock. They are beholden to an irrational and angry base they helped create by staying silent when convenient lies were told, like the birther conspiracy.

There are consequences to this cowardice. After voting not to impeach Trump, Senator Susan Collins said she thought he learned his lesson. Her expectations were not fulfilled. Trump went on to label Covid-19 a hoax, jeopardizing the lives of many who could have been saved by early intervention, and to order armed officials to use rubber bullets and toxic gasses on peaceful protestors for the sake of a photo op.

The Vichy Republicans have shown that they are incapable of protecting their constituents, defending the Constitution, or speaking out against injustices. This is banana republic stuff. They are an embarrassment and, like him, must be removed.

A quick disclaimer: Before anyone says this has nothing to do with Hitchens, it has everything to do with him. He defined the fight of his life as being against totalitarianism, which includes protecting free speech and truth. See previous post, “Taking on “What Would Hitchens Have Thought?”.