In April of this year Netflix released a documentary series called Wild Wild Country which chronicles the conflict in the early 1980s between a new-age sex-cult in Wasco County, Oregon, and state and municipal authorities and residents who wanted them disbanded. The commune’s leader was the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – a man who would later go by the more popular name of Osho.
As internal power struggles began to tear the cult apart, revealing previously hidden goings-on within the movement, both state and federal officials discovered that people within the commune were breaking the law. Several members within the top echelon of the cult, including Bhagwan Rajneesh himself, were arrested and prosecuted.
Robert Weaver, a former Assistant US Attorney in charge of Bhagwan’s case spoke of the cult leader’s “dark aura” which he felt in his presence. He went on to say that the courtroom artist told him that she had felt the same “eeriness” only once before – when she was in the same room as the Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolutionary movement which many people perceived to have cult aspects.
This is an astute observation which happens to affirm our own views on cult-thinking in politics.
In a previous blog post entitled We Are Better Than Them we’ve written that cult dynamics are not limited to those bizarre groupings of people most easily recognized as cults. Instead, aspects of cult-thinking are present in all of our lives especially when people share the same outlook, pursuits and goals without awareness of the pitfalls. “Cultish behaviour” can be found in big companies and organizations, in government, and in tightly woven institutions like the military. Where belonging and identity are supreme totems – among ethnic, political and religious entities – cult behaviour can be just as acute as in any blatant “cult.”
The court artist’s linking of Bhagwan and the Ayatollah may have simply been equating the appearance and demeanour of two demagogues, but her observation cuts a lot deeper – into the shared psychology and behaviour that made possible and underscored both their movements, and that their particular brand of authority ultimately reflects.