Listen…I live in Santa Fe New Mexico.
I came here from Denver after an almost 14 year sojourn in Denver as a refugee of sorts from an intensely immersive experience in spiritual revelation, guru worship and community politics. I thought I knew what there is to know about cult behavior, the proliferation of memes, the sheer power of collective focus and the creation of dogma. I needed a change.
I arrived in Santa Fe to help start a grocery business with some friends and fellow refugees. When that fell apart, I ended up working as a deli manager at the only New York Style restaurant and sandwich shop in town at the time. I knew it was New York Style – or as near as we could manage – because it attracted all the expatriate artists, writers, actors and business people who’d moved here from the Coasts to get away from the traffic and the noise, I suppose.
Since high school I’d been writing and publishing a journal that I’d pass out to friends and a few of the customers I got to know while serving them cappuccinos and pastrami. Some who admired the writing or just enjoyed the conversation began to pitch me to apply as a sales assistant for a locally based publishing house.
At the time, this wasn’t just any ordinary publisher at the time. Bear & Company started as the brainchild of Matthew Fox, a radical and openly gay catholic priest who had been inspired both by the liberation theology born in Central America and the mystical earth based traditions of medieval mystics like Hildegard of Bingen. The company had recently been taken over by a wealthy couple who were steering the editorial direction toward the popular New Age movement that had emerged out of the political ashes of the sixties.
When I came aboard, the company had just published several visionary books by a Colorado based art teacher whom I’d met in my Denver/Boulder days. Jose Arguelles’ book about an upcoming ‘Harmonic Convergence’ had been covered on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and sales for Bear & Company had blown through the roof.
Harmonic Convergence came and went. As with all apocalyptic prophecies it bred some degree of disappointment in those who took it literally or expected some awesome and incontrovertible manifestation of radical change in the outer world. Others like myself, who exist more comfortably in the world of metaphor and myth saw the ‘prophecies’ of Harmonic Convergence as part of what became a massive piece of global performance art. We were able to move gracefully toward the next imaginative performance, the next ritual, the next metaphor.
Looking back, I think that global event truly marked the peak of what’s generally regarded as the ‘New Age movement.’ Not the end by any means, but the marking boundary after which the most popular fantasies, pseudo-religious mythologies and channeled cosmologies began to be less coherent and less taken seriously. It also happened to be one of the first pseudo-religious movements that was seeded across the early private bulletin boards of the Internet. It’s explosion into a short lived mass movement presaged a new era dominated by the influence of digital technology.
While ensconced as a sales assistant I’d written a letter to one of my mentors, William Irwin Thompson, a cultural historian who worked on the boundaries between science and mysticism, and whose books had absorbed my attention for many years. I thought he might be a good fit to the catalogue and my letter asking whether he’d be interested in publishing with us. To my humble delight he replied in the affirmative. We published two of his books, one a reprint and one a cultural critique of New Age thinking. Around that time I’d also become involved in organizing a week long speaking and workshop engagement for a popular psychedelic guru and advocate, Terence McKenna. The event was a rousing success and it put me in touch with the west coast Esalen based community of intellectual visionaries, artists and poets. What followed was a book of speculative conversations between Terence, the English parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake and Ralph Abraham, a chaos math pioneer and associate of William Irwin Thompson.
By this time I’d become part of both the acquisition and editorial effort. The company had gone beyond its very modest beginnings in theological reflection. Having veered toward the booming and more lucrative New Age market we’d arrived at a fork in the road where two paths diverged at greater and greater distance from one another. In one direction, advocated by me, was the slightly fringe but earnest attempts to continue a quest for knowledge and seeking that was more or less in continuity with western intellectual traditions. On the other road was the quick cash and fame and public adoration that could be gained by finding the right meme or popular trends that would attract the fleeting attention of those in quest of some transcendent explanation that could provide relief in a world full of chaos and disorder. Between the serious and critical inquiry with a visionary bent advocated by the likes of Thompson, Abraham, even McKenna and the politically charged messages channeled from the Pleiadians or Twelfth Planet invasions outlined in the work of Zecharia Sitchen there was an increasingly insurmountable gulf.
Things came to a head between myself and the owners in a struggle for influence that I had no chance of winning, and I soon found myself and my family cast out into the world of practical survival by whatever means available. Gone were the days when everything was possible. In spite of all of our speculation and utopian fantasies the new world had mostly failed to manifest to my generation in any recognizable form. Instead the New Age, with its prophets and messiahs and ascended masters, its apocalyptic visions of the ascent of the chosen in mother ships and collection of heavenly astral entities had come more and more to mirror the Judeo Christian mythologies against which so many of my generation had rebelled.
We weren’t the first generation to be disillusioned with the lies and excuses of our forebears, but we were the first to see those lies uncovered on television. Having thus lost our innocence and willing acquiescence, we searched for something we actually could believe in. Turns out we were willing to believe in just about anything. From UFO’s to Gurus to Harmonic Convergence to Jim Jones Rallies, we were willing to try any sort of Koolaid. Like the poster in paranormal investigator Agent Muldur’s office in the generational defining TV series, ‘The X-Files’ we ‘wanted to believe’. Like Muldur we were open to any possibility. Over time we became drawn to reductive explanations that would wrap things up in a simplified picture of what’s ‘really’ going on. Along with an ingrained distrust of authority these took us down paths of private obsessions, with Y2K predictions and UFO sightings and JFK assassination plots. Many found refuge in the more deeply rooted paths of American evangelicalism and were ‘born again’.
The proliferation of cults like QAnon is nothing new. Entire cohorts of seekers have disappeared into the dark rabbit holes of self-reinforced collective denial, where the confusing and isolating ‘real world’ is left far behind. Cult behavior is exactly like a fire in the forest. Once the smoldering starts beneath the quiet surface of leaves and ground cover, the potential for explosive destruction escalates. People are bewildered that your average QAnon follower or conspiracy theorist can accept what, on its face appears to be totally absurd. When shown evidence of incontrovertible facts that contradict whatever it is they believe in, they immediately put the facts through an amazing process of deconstructing reality into a sort of code, and then they reassemble the code to fit their beliefs. It’s an astounding thing to watch.
This shouldn’t be hard to understand. In most people the power of belief far transcends the powers of reason, or even of perception. For a generations steeped in contradictory narratives while the foundations of civilization are shifting, the need to find and cling to manufactured realities can be perceived as necessary for survival. It becomes the very basis for some sense of identity and connection. Reality be damned when a tunnel of explanation embraces you and comforts you and closes you in. With the confusing world outside explained, you and your community of true believers are soon beyond the reach of evidence or facts. In the electronic age, surrounded by the fragments of a deconstructed world, surrounded by screens and mirrors, the need for self identification and self absorption becomes an irresistible pull. When I look into the frightened and angry faces of the QAnon set I see mostly a desperate fear that their whole world could vanish with a thought.
Consider for example in my lifetime the transformation of the Republican Party in the United States, historically the home of both progressive and conservative philosophies, into a refuge for deranged paranoia and fascist cult worship. Over a span of decades I’ve watched with horror as a political party transformed itself at its base essentially into a terrorist organization. This isn’t an accident. At least since the reign of Reagan, an astute product of the dream factory of Hollywood and a promoter of the ‘Southern Strategy’, the transformation has been quite overt. To win national elections in a country growing increasingly diverse, the most paranoid aspects of racist conservative ideology has been deliberately fed and encouraged by those who profit from it. These days the ‘code words’ for bigotry and xenophobia and white supremacy that once hid behind ‘trickle down’ economics and acted as the magic lubricant for its success have mostly been discarded, exposing the weird ideation of fear that lies just beneath a surface of superficial hope and unrealistic expectations. While an aging population of white men and women fight to hold to their place of historical dominance, they inflame the delusions that ignite a fear of chaos in a shrinking base of privilege. ‘Race, abortion, socialism, black folk, and antifa gonna come and ‘steal your money, burn your suburbs, and murder your family’ – anything that separates people into warring tribes is used a tool to attain power or sow the seeds of division. In the end it’s all about the power of those who, like magicians, control the reigns of delusion in a fearful and shrinking majority. Thus are created enchantments so powerful that consensus about common reality becomes increasingly tenuous. The final break occurs when the line of reason held against an ongoing state of emergency is breached. Only through the force of Will and some luck and foresight can a society hold the line against the ‘true believers’ and the rising forces of conflict born of ignorance.
Apocalyptic movements come and go throughout history. How many false alarms does it take to finally outdo and circumvent the mind twisting rationales addressing the lack of results, the failure of ‘prophecy’ and frankly a total and monstrous gullibility? How to overcome the abject embarrassment that occurs when, inevitably, you’ve been totally made a fool of in front of family, friends and the general public? One can always apologize, but then what?
There are two ways to dispel the mysterious cloud cast by cult-leaders and their acolytes. The first and most short-lived victories are won against those who prove to be dangerous by seeking out, exposing and eventually purging the leaders of lies and the promoters of fear. Unfortunately replacements are usually found and when we become complacent they return. The other more long-lasting solution is a battle fought within our own individual and collective imaginations. By turning away, by disciplining our minds to erect walls against the spells and bullshit that surrounds us on screens and billboards and in social networks, and in rediscovering the path of true and open discovery, the forces of light become as strong as the illumination that fills a dark room when a candle is lit.
My personal approach is rather hard line and one of little tolerance. I won’t allow the creeping shadow of conspiracy thinking into my presence. Like with an addiction, I believe there is a firm line between serious inquiry and raving lunacy. I will not permit paranoid discourse to thrive in my presence. Even in small doses it’s advocacy becomes the seed that corrupts our future and degrades the collective consciousness, spreading dangerous poison throughout the body politic. For me, there is no other word for the promotion of mass psychosis in the name of power but ‘evil’.
This kind of thinking will always come and go, whenever and wherever humans fear the uncertain future. It’s no accident that many of those who’ve invested the most in the utopian future guaranteed by New Age thinking have wound up advocating violent fantasies in the virtual ‘community’ of QAnon. These fantasies throughout history, using different buzzwords or selecting different designations for victimizers and the victimized, take inevitably a familiar shape, pitting those within the initiated circle of true believers against everything and everyone who remains outside. For them, the final salvation, the Mothership, always coming, never arrives.