And so I was born to a mother who was deeply ambivalent about her religious heritage. On one hand, she taught me that the LDS Church was a cult that was based on a bizarre doctrine; that the prophet himself was a fraud and a plagiarist; that polygamy was an evil institution that oppressed the women and exhausted the men. On the other hand, she taught me that Mormon pioneers were the strongest, most admirable people that had ever lived, whose work and spiritual ethics and dedication to The Great Idea wrought a virtual Eden from some of the most inhospitable country imaginable; that they had been unfairly maligned, persecuted, and suffered because of the envy and bigotry of the Gentiles.
My mother's legacy has left me struggling with a lot of questions about my forebears. My biggest question has always been, What compelled my ancestors to embrace such a cult? What persuades anyone to join cults? And why haven't I, despite my genetic predisposition (as evidenced by a serious flirtation with various religions) ever been remotely tempted to join a cult?
One of the most interesting revelations in Beam's biography is that Joseph Smith was not an entirely admired figure even within his own band of devotees. His "martyrdom" contributed mightily to his subsequent idealization. There was considerable dismay and criticism about Smith's revelations concerning polygamy ("celestial marriage"), and the principle was not shared outside the closest ranks for years (his wife Emma never acknowledged it). Even his closest acolytes saw something sinister and self-serving in Smith's insistence that polygyny was God's will. Yet they eventually accepted the commandment, and with varying degrees of enthusiasm, set forth to enter into plural marriages themselves. And later they embarked on many other dark chapters, including the political shenanigans that led to their violent expulsion first from Missouri, and then from Illinois, and later still, the infamous, long-denied Mountain Meadows Massacre. No, it's not hard to understand why, after reading Beam's book, they were so hated and feared by the frontier residents who had first welcomed them.
Over the last century, the Church has sought to assimilate itself within mainstream Christianity although, Mitt Romney's campaign notwithstanding, it has a way to go to escape its early reputation as a cult, partly because its members persist in wearing "garments," baptizing by proxy Jews who perished in the Holocaust, and indulging in other undeniably odd and -- to many non-Mormons -- offensive practices, not the least of which is to control state politics in ways that clearly violate the will of the majority (and echo the behavior that got them burned out of Nauvoo back in 1844).
What Beam is unable to do is depict the powerful charisma I'd always assumed Joseph Smith must have had. Aside from his bright blue eyes, and a certain way with the ladies (he was nothing if not persistent once he'd identified a likely romantic prospect), he seemed about as charismatic as an insurance salesman. The majority of people who met him were impervious to his charms. And, of course, a few people, including his father-in-law, positively despised him. Perhaps personal charisma cannot adequately explain the success of cult leaders.
And so it was in this frame of mind that I found myself pondering the nature of cults, and wondering if we could fairly characterize various "manosphere" related communities (Dark Enlightenment and other neo-reactionaries, the weird "Christian submissive wife" networks of blogs) as "cults?"
I was watching local activist Lissie's (sworebytheprecious) telephone call with Dean Esmay last night, and it dawned on me: Dean Esmay was speaking like someone who was caught in a cult. Of course, knowing that Esmay has a long history documented online of getting caught up in various forms of quackery (i.e., AIDS denial) probably informs my perception. His need to reach out to "the enemy" at 4 a.m., while at the same time evincing fear that he would be punished for doing so was striking, and may be why Lissie found the conversation so unnerving. The paranoid notion that Esmay espouses that David Futrelle is a kind of "puppetmaster" (or "puppet") of a vast feminist conspiracy is also rather extraordinary:
It's not hard to understand why Paul Elam, with his fierce, grizzled face and Old Testament-style rages, inspires followers to accept him as a kind of prophet, summoned from above to restore the patriarchy. In the manner of most cult leaders, he rules his followers by alternately exalting or expelling them.
Here is what David Futrelle has recently observed:
AVFMers are expected not only to accept Elam’s leadership; they’re expected to accept his distinctly non-consensus reality – a world turned upside down in which men are the real victims of domestic violence and rape and pretty much everything else, a world in which the Southern Poverty Law Center is a collection of evil bigots and his motley collection of misogynists is the true human rights movement of the twenty-first century.
Like a lot of cult leaders, Elam keeps his troops too busy to think straight in a continual frenzy of pseudo-activism. AVFMers are forever brigading comment sections of newspaper articles and YouTube videos in little squads (AVFMers almost always travel in packs), all reciting the same few talking points.
Weirdly, the dynamics of internet discussions can actually reinforce this kind of intellectual conformity, much as Stalin’s control of the media did in his day. No, AVFMers can’t avoid being exposed to facts that contradict the shared (un)reality of their ideological bubble.
But in internet discussions you don’t have to be right in order to convince yourself you’ve won an argument. You just have to be loud and persistent and unwilling to ever give in. You don’t have to convince anyone else of your arguments so long as you convince yourself. MRAs don’t win many arguments on their merits, but they manage to convince themselves they win every one.
The trouble is that when they step outside of their regular stomping grounds on the internet, this strategy – so effective in generating ideological conformity amongst cult members – falls completely apart.
Like most successful cult leaders, Paul Elam has solidified his cult base by recruiting women. "The Honey Badgers Brigade" are an integral part of his self-styled position as grand patriarch and prophet. Cults cannot survive without female converts; they are the most fervent, loyal members and the most willing to sublimate their own egos to ensure the survival of the group. Within any burgeoning religious or political movement, women are the worker bees, zealously serving the agents of their own oppression. Plus they bring the male converts on board! Although I have to admit paying $5000+ to be "love bombed" by typhonblue doesn't sound all that enticing...
In fact, watching the Honey Badger Brigade, I am reminded of Mark Twain's visit to Salt Lake City as a young man in 1861. Finding Mormon women not much to his taste, Twain remarked, "The man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure, and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence."