Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cult Comfort

Iraq is learning fast about democracy, American-style. A group of Iranians who are opposed to the Iranian government is camped in Iraq, just across the border from Iran. But now the Iraqi government is threatening to break the group up, describing it as a “cult” and its members as “brainwashed” and in need of “detoxification”. Well, now, where do you suppose they got those ideas and that terminology? Clearly they've been keeping an eye on federal and state governments in the U.S. and their approach to weird, fringey, or “just plain don't like 'em” groups, the most recent being the FLDS colony in Texas. You call a group a “cult” and you've instantly labeled them as authoritarian psychos, hysterics, paranoiacs, outsiders, less than human, and not having the same rights as the rest of us. That, in turn, lays the groundwork for invasions, arrests, destruction of families, and a stereotypical list of accusations, one of which is invariably child sexual abuse (with "polygamy" and "firearms possession" running a distant second and third). And in extreme cases – like that of the Branch Davidians who had the back luck to run afoul of Janet Reno – it means wholesale destruction – a literal holocaust – and no one will care, because you've already “thinged” those people out of legitimacy as human beings. This is, in fact, the hidden flaw -- or one of many -- in democracy. It's all about "majority rule" but it gets a bit vague with regard to minority rights... which is why our legal code has thousands of pages devoted to the question (and it's still far from being settled). Paradoxically, an _individual_ who is a member of a minority group has more defined rights than the group he's a member of -- a case of "weakness in numbers", if you will. But his individual rights are typically compromised in proportion to his level of involvement with the group... and if he's considered a "leader", his individual rights basically go out the window.

Plus, sure enough, the Iranian group in question is playing its role to the hilt, saying that they “will never leave their home” and that an Iraqi crackdown would be “setting the stage for a human catastrophe”. They are clearly prepared for martyrdom... and may have an actual yen for it, in fact. So what are we going to see – Waco, Iraqi-style? The stage is certainly being set. Of course it wouldn't be the first time in recent history that an Asian government has acted against a cult – we also had the Falun Gong in China and the Golden Temple (Sikhs) in India. (And, in a sense, China considers Tibetan Buddhism a cult, albeit a very old and fairly extensive one, especially if you include small liberal arts colleges in the U.S.)

Minorities, historically, are usually on the defensive. But this new language that is used in dealing with very small minorities, and the standardized negative imagery that goes along with it, is as much a part of the American scene as it is part of the scene in any other country. In their case, it's usually just another example of simple tyranny, and "ho-hum", what else is new? In ours it's more about the Puritan heritage, for as we all know (unless we never moved beyond our grade-school "history" textbooks) the Puritans were themselves a cult, but they, in turn, showed a remarkable degree of intolerance for anyone who diverged from the party line.

The bottom line to all this is that not only do we not possess the “moral high ground” in these matters, we have managed to set the worst possible examples. And sure enough, anyone looking for an excuse to treat minorities, especially "cults", in a shabby way can just check out our act -- it will tell them all they need to know.

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