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Cultish, by Amanda Montell, and How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, by Francis Wheen
There are a surprising number of beautiful people who have formed mini cults online, in which they charge for access to their ways of thinking and personal appeal. For some reason, a lot of these individuals have a message that taking one's own life is a noble thing to do (it is not). Amanda Montell, in her new book Cultish, the Language of Fanaticism, covers a couple of the most well known of these individuals.
These criminals almost always start with a concept called a vibe. There is a belief that people give off vibrations, or exist on different frequency levels, or whatever else. This is a real belief today, just as strong as is the belief in God. People today search for videos about vibes because they are looking for ways to improve themselves. They find stars on Instagram and YouTube who sell them guides to increase their frequencies.
All of these vibe promoters online are quite similar. To be successful in this con, the individual must have a certain visual charisma, they have to look a certain way. Montell points out that they are almost always white and young, but they also act with a certain lasciviousness, either through wardrobe or language, which is not accidental.
In one video, one of these women wears a bikini while she kneels on the ground to make mashed fruits and explains how fruit will increase one's frequency. She later moves to suicide encouragement. In another, a charlatan from Sedona charges people $600 an hour to discuss their vibrations and suicide plans. His wardrobe is an overly tight black shirt, and he repeats the phrase I love you to his victims. One is right to wonder, What on Earth is reason for the implied sexual promiscuity?
The answer is that the people who make these videos are sick and demented, and they use eroticism and the language of love as a way to manipulate people. Montell shows us that these charlatans mix misreadings of Hindu texts, their own psychotic self promotion, and modern Christian prosperity gospel to insinuate that if one's life is low vibe, one might as well kill oneself and return his vibrations to the universe. Or, as an alternative, pay these people substantial feels for help incresing vibration levels.
Allow me to state clearly that the arguments marshaled by these YouTube hucksters are wrong. Vibes don't exist. Reincarnation does not happen. And suicide is never the answer. If you feel I am wrong or right about those points, please do feel free to discuss them with me at the shop.
Cultish, which is wonderful, is about more than these videos. Overall Montell discusses how cult leaders, these YouTube criminals, and MLM and new workout clubs use language in psychologically stifling ways. The sections on these modern religious hucksters, though, seem to me to be the most important.
Francis Wheen's book How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World is quite informative and at times amusing. His topics are modern politicians, pre-2004, which is when the book was published, and their sometimes outlandish spiritual beliefs. Readers will be surprised to learn that politicians often have seances, pay for curses to be lifted, and any number of other similar things.
He gives significant weight, though, to the similarities between Islamic extremism and how religion has moved from informing politics in the Western world to at times directing it. How did US leaders, for instance, come to decide to use Christian vs Muslim rhetoric when responding to Al Qaeda's cowardly but vicious attack on the World Trade Center?
The answer, apparently, goes back to 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini orchestrated the Islamic overthrow of Iran. Khomeini was highly regarded by intellectuals at the time, and also by Western politicians.
Wheen tells us, "The weakness of contemporary Islam, according to Khomeini, was its reluctance to apply religious principles to politics, and during his French exile he had embellished conservative theology with anti-imperialist rhetoric borrowed from Franz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre." In the late 70s, Khomeini was adored by left wing intellectuals because they saw him as somebody who was creating a new world based on principles of community. The right came to admire him as well because of how he used religious rhetoric.
Khomeini, it should be said, was a criminal who invoked the image of God as a way to overthrow a country. He was a charlatan, and the current religious leaders of Iran, who are all versions Khomeini, are just as brutal. Khomeini did not believe in God, and the current Islamic rulers of Iran do not either, as those who believe in God, no matter their stated religion, place a very high value on compassion. What these crooks have done is place themselves between the spiritual and the Holy Spirit, and convinced people to worship them instead of God.
Making this point should be easy and uncontroversial, yet at the time, and more so today, there was what Wheen calls a moral relativism mixed with superstition that seemed to make such basic statements impossible to utter. It is as if fear of spiritual reprisal, or perhaps physical reprisal, prevents people from taking positions against orthodoxy.
The subtitle of Wheen's book is A Short History of Modern Delusions, and he does deliver on it. He talks about self help scams, snake oil, voodoo, and how, overall, our world has become removed from classical Enlightenment principles such as critical inquiry, scientific laws, and freedom from coercive rulers.
Classical Enlightenment thinkers believe in Newton's ideas of gravity, a concept that today everybody is taught in school. And yet somehow if a self-proclaimed witch points at an apple and it falls, we will credit her for the feat. Watch modern witches on TikTok... you will be amazed that they have usurped established scientific principles such as gravity and states of matter to convince people that they are the ones causing things to fall or ice to melt. Have we really become so intellectually bankrupt that nobody can marshal a convincing argument that witches do no exist?
Intelligent discourse was a pillar of the Enlightenment. Indeed, these ideas came from essays and books. With all the available media of communication available today, one would think we're in an era of hyper intelligent discourse. Yet, try this…. Here are some quotes Wheen has in his book. Imagine a contemporary politician saying them. Next time you’re in, tell me what you think would happen.
Thomas Jefferson to his young nephew: "question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must approve the homage of reason rather than that of blindfolded fear." Teddy Roosevelt in 1918, "Thank heaven I sat at the feet of Darwin and Huxley." Woodrow Wilson just a few years later, "of course like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised."