Aug 13, 2016

Life is Just One Damn Cult After Another: A Note on “The Americans” TV Series

That's probably the appeal of Scientology, I realized recently: not the appeal of joining a cult, but the appeal of joining a better cult.

After all, as Chris Kendall often points out on his Hoaxbusters podcast,
America is just a giant coast-to-coast mind control cult itself. But a very shabby one, of necessity: the scale of the thing makes all its attempts at mythology a bit hokey, suitable only for brainwashing and imprinting schoolchildren, who do indeed continue to “believe” as adults, but now leavened by varying degrees of worldly-wise cynicism, irony, sarcasm, rancor, bitterness, detachment, disaffection, alienation, etc. I suppose occasionally they even get more gung-ho. But typically, they find some better cult (or sub-cult.) Perhaps the “cult” of the Democratic Party will save and purify the broader mass cult. Or will it be the Republicans, or (let's get really outre) the Libertarians. Maybe forget “politics” altogether and become a pop-culture cultist, following one's musical icons, and movie gods... I know people like that. They dress like those hedonistic “rebels,” they drink and drug like them, they form garage bands and play a few local clubs, then (because they're not in the club, as George Carlin famously said) drift into decades of nostalgic reverie, and “deeper analysis” of that music they discovered as young adults. (Let's leave comics cultism out of this, that hits a little too close to home...)

Anyway, so yes, Scientology is not really a change of kind, just a change of intensity: not “Ah, now I have cult leaders!” but “Ah, now I have better cult leaders!” I.e., cult leaders "on the ground," closer to the disciple, more "intense" about the whole thing. These people weren't disappointed that America was a cult; no, they just wanted better execution. Do it right, people!

(And for those who doubt the whole "America is a cult" premise, let's quickly run down some of Kendall's checklist as best I can recall it--- God-like cult-founders imbued with mythological status? We got that, see: "Founding Fathers," aka "powdered-wig men," check. Sacred founding documents and holy writ/scripture? See: Declaration of Independence, Federalist Papers, Constitution, Bill of Rights, check, check, check. Impressive architecture and mystic symbolism? See: Washington, D.C. and various seals and insignia, the flag, the dollar bill, etc. Ritualistic chanting and literal avowals of allegiance to the cult? Get down with the "Pledge of Allegiance," check. Other traditional songs and rituals? You know it. And on and on. The whole founding mythology (history as written by the victors), the "cherry tree" type fables, and then new myths, up to the present day: the cult's propagandists never quit: they build up FDR, JFK (and the death of JFK, lots of intense cultic identification there), Reagan (and anti-Reaganism) and even less charismatic figures---it's all grist for the ongoing mass hallucination. (Not that it isn't "real" in some sense---but the "reality" of it is fodder for the myth-makers and storytellers. And large chunks of it probably are pure figments of Langley's imagination, as Miles W. Mathis argues.))

But what does any of this have to do with the TV series "The Americans" (of which I have only watched the pilot episode.) Well, its premise involves a couple of Russian agents going undercover in Cold War America, pretending to be a normal American family, a suburban husband and wife with two kids. They speak "better English than us," they blend in, they go to the mall and to patriotic events at their childrens' school. But yet they are really members of the Soviet cult---and "Elizabeth's" (the wife's) die-hard allegiance to "the motherland" reveals the mirrored, crude cultism of the two superpowers. It's also quite funny at points, as she coldly notes that she could sense "a weakness" in the American people from the first moment she set foot on that country's soil. Well, darkly funny. Moreso when she tries to subtly argue with her all-American son about the two countries' space accomplishments---"Just being first into space is also an incredible achievement, it's not all about getting to the moon," she says (paraphrasing.)

Philip, the husband, is more lax, open to the enticements of a rival cult---the superior consumer comforts are fine by him. He might even consider defecting, for the right price, and to save his skin. Elizabeth has no perspective on her indoctrination into Cult USSR---it consumes her totally, is inseparable from her own life. She would die before she'd betray it---for, I suppose, how could she live in exile from it? She would be a ghost, an un-person, as in ancient tribal times, when "exile" was a truly severe punishment, a form of death, or perhaps worse than death.

Thus, even if we already see the shabby rigging behind our own lives and "culture," the show is an interesting reflection on that theme. It's about cult members, True Believers, and intensity of cult membership. How about this: they have to keep their secret even from their children. What incredible sacrifice! To raise their own children in the competing USA cult... It would be like a Scientologist going deep cover into the field of psychiatry, I guess, raising their kids as proper Freudians and DSM IV adherents---or something, maybe the analogy's not quite exact... Anyway... "My cult is better than your cult, na-nah-na-na-na..."

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