Thursday, December 1, 2016

Book Review: Jeff Sharlet: The Family - an American Tragedy

                                          Mirror image clones joined at the lip

Jeff Sharlet: The Family, the secret fundamentalism at the heart of American Power (Harper Collins, New York, 2008): 387 pages, extensive chapter notes, index. Missing: a glossary to keep track of obscure fundamentalist pressure groups and their front organizations.
"I am not against structure. I am for structure. I just think it needs to be underground", page 218. Doug Coe, elitist fundamentalist militant 

"All the vital activities of industry, commerce and government are carried on by corporations and other formal organizations. Such bodies are constantly growing in size, and hence the top leadership is continually growing in power and influence.
           We have entered an era when the masses of the people are dependent upon a rapidly diminishing number of leaders for the determination of their patterns of life and the definition of their ultimate goals. It is the age of minority control", page 143. Abram Vereide, elitist fundamentalist militant

" 'An epochal opportunity is ours', one of his tracts had advertised to the new men of his congressional Fellowship back in 1942, 'to control the future of America by the simple strategy of controlling the character and ideals of a relatively small majority of {college-age} men and women. Hitler long ago perceived this strategy, and established his elaborate system of .. leadership training. The democracies have been asleep'.", page 217. Abram Vereide

            For one who has lost their belief in Lighthouse America, beacon of hope to the world's oppressed, The Family does not shock so much as confirm and complete their understanding of America's decline. The book will be a great shock, methink, for secularists who can only see religion as as a vestigial force, a relic of primitive ages when Myth, not Science, served to explain the world and our place in it.

         The Family documents how, far from being dead, religion and the rising tide of social reaction are forging powerful new symbiotic linkages. Post-modern society, we learn, is being steered toward a destination neither envisioned nor desired by the founders of the Enlightenment nor their successors.

           This was not an easy read for me. The first three-quarters of the text is a history of the current fundamentalist revival (post World War II, USA). I found it tedious and overwritten. I wished an editor had taken a weed whacker to the manuscript and hacked out 20 - 30% of the superfluous matter. I felt that the numerous intertwining narratives of bit actors obscured, rather than elucidates, whatever points Sharlet is trying to make.

           My opinion changed during the last one hundred pages. The last quarter of the books is a freestanding narrative of Sharlet's investigation of the various groups, churches, schools and organizations which constitute the network known to insiders as The Family (also known as The Fellowship, The Brotherhood). As Sharlet himself intimates, The Family is not an easy concept to grasp. Like the Islamic jihadist organizations which it preceded, The Family is fluid, omnipresent, interconnected and polymorphous, constantly generating offshoots and mutating into new forms as circumstances require. Like Islamic jihadism, the informal American fundamentalist network in its international extension is hard to pin down, define, isolate geographically or in terms of class, nationality, race or even psychology. (Some interesting parallels to say the least.. note 1)

           The Family, as it exists today, may be described as a loose informal network of American fundamentalist activists and groups. Their goal is, baldly, World Theocracy (Islamic State style.. mirror image clones joined at the lip..) A "Christian" Theocracy led by that most exceptional of all nations, the United States. 

"The voice he heard was his own, his prayers, transformed by his inverted theology into revelation. What he wanted was what God wanted.. And what the Family desired, from Abram Vereide to Doug Coe to Bengt, was power, worldly power, with which Christ's Kingdom could be built, cell by cell", page 51

Spiritual arrogance, hubris and delusion raised to the highest power: mistaking one's will for God's - under the guise of a false self-serving "humility" which sees wo/mankind as "worthless sinners".

            The Family (Brotherhood, Fellowship) includes America's "elite": CEOs of multinationals, powerful neoconservative politicians at the State and Federal level, the Officer corps of the military and Christian university students. A prefered method of outreach is the Prayer Group - or "cell", following the example of the early Christians during their persecutions and revolutionaries of all ages and cultures. A loose (semi-)informal network of cells encourages intense personal interaction, efficient mutual / group indoctrination and the elaboration of highly effective "on the ground" tactical engagements. A cellular network allowed Christianity to survive several persecutions to become the Number One religion on earth today. And let us not forget, a revolutionary cellular network allowed Communism to rise to become a very serious threat to monopolistic Capitalism! Of course, Internet interconnectivity facilitates cellular interaction and organization: witness the work of terrorist groups like ISIS (or Right Wing extremists in Europe and North America).

           As is the case with ISIS, the actual philosophy and psychology of Prayer Groups (other names are used) is surprisingly hard to pin down and define. On the one hand, the "elite" are required to submit to God's Will and do His Bidding. Which raises the thorny questions: what is God's Will? How do we know it? 

          Apparently - as an unchallenged assumption on the part of Family members - the Divine Will coincides with unregulated "Free Market" capitalism and minimal environmental and worker protection. If I read Sharlet right, it is as dumbly and blindly self-serving as that! (Sharlet's documentation seems impeccable, a few exceptions aside. Sceptics - always a healthy starting position! - should check out his references given in the notes; quite a few are on line.) 

           What makes the Family really dangerous - beyond its arrogance, power and depth of self-deception - is their recent (post 1960) fusion with / control of popular fundamentalist Christianity. For example, Family members or sympathizers produce textbooks for self-schooling fundamentalist parents of for use in school districts controlled by Family friendly politicians. Such texts deny the reality of Darwinian evolution and teach that the Book of Genesis gives an accurate account of the creation of the world, thus weakening the appeal of scientific, fact-based argument to young people. These guys really know how to fly under the radar, invisible to self-contented and somewhat contemptuous Liberal commentators. Yet their influence on young minds seems to be growing. Recent polls indicate that 50% of Americans do not accept Darwinian evolution as "factual" or "proven".  In Canada, that figure is only 25%. In Western Europe, where American fundamentalism has less taken root, even fewer people reject science.

An Open Conspiracy. Several times Sharlet notes how Family members consciously avoid seeking publicity.

"I am not against structure. I am for structure. I just think it needs to be underground", page 218. Doug Coe, elitist fundamentalist militant 

           As a Christian theocratic elite, The Family wants to work through backroom politics, elite speaking to elite, the Old Boys' Club - Democracy be damned! The recent fusion with / control of popular fundamentalism, Sharlet believes, augurs no good. To be blunt, it smacks of the kind of (mass) psychological manipulation, responsible for the 20th century's bloodiness: Communism, Fascism (but also, for its long term negative environmental consequences, Consumerism). Sharlet chillingly provides numerous citations, written, printed or spoken, of Family members' admiration for fascists, communists and dictators. Such admiration makes a certain cockeyed logical sense: if God speaks to you personally through the networks' cells, you possess Absolute Truth, you therefore have no need of debate to discover truth. It follows that Democracy's untidiness and uncertainty are not for those whose soul and will have been enflamed by "God's" Will.. 

"'Yes', Coe told us, "it's good to have friends. Do know what a difference a friend can make? A friend you can agree with?'. He smiled. 'Two or three agree, and they pray? They can do anything. Agree. Agreement. What's that mean?' Doug Coe looked at me. 'You're a writer. What does that mean?' 
         I remember Paul's letter to Philippians, which we {a bible study group Sharlet had joined in order to study it} had begun to memorize. Fufill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded
          'Unity', I said. 'Agreement means unity.'
          Doug Coe didn't smile. 'Yes', he said. 'Total unity. Two, or three, become one. Do you know,' he asked, 'that there's another word for that?'
           No one spoke.
           'It's called a covenant.  Two, or three, agree? They can do anything. A covenant is.. powerful. Can you think of anyone who made a covenant with his friends?'
           We knew the answer to this, having heard his names invoked numerous times in this context. Andrew from Australia, sitting beside Coe, cleared this throat: 'Hitler'.
           'Yes,' Doug Coe said. 'Yes, Hitler made a covenant. The Mafia makes a covenant. It is such a very powerful thing. Two or three agree.'" Page 54

           The meeting this quotation comes from could be considered a form of political indoctrination of intelligent, but naive and rather socially isolated, young college men from well-to-do / wealthy families. The anti-democratic elitist vision expressed is patently evident. Less evident, the covert, Machiavellian  ethic: God's Will, which works through established "elites" is above the law, outside any consideration of a "common humanity". Hitler and the Mafia are, after all, not known to be altar boys..

             Another piece of evidence for the danger the Family poses to Democracy: the Family's capacity to clone cells / Prayer Groups among the elites of countries under the sway of the American Imperium: Egypt, Indonesia, Brazil, post-war occupied Japan, Indochina, India.. Since their real goal is Power (wielded in God's Name to bring about His Kingdom on Earth), Family cells may, in practice, include non-Christians - a rather curious ecumenicism for theocratic globalists!! Foreign Prayer Group members are drawn from local elites heavily implicated in the civil rights abuses, corruption and drug running which the cynical Pax Americana authorizes: Egypt's autocratic military governments, murderous Indonesian and African regimes, the obscene Pinochet regime installed by CIA coup in Chili ("the Other 9-11": September 11, 1973, the overthrow of the democratically elected Leftist Allende government)..

             All in all, it is neither a pretty nor an edifying picture: religion "instrumentalized" - prostituted - to the service of the multinational corporate elite. The Family's true function, if I read Sharlet rightly, is to grease the wheels of the universal (American based) corporate elite.

             Fascism: control or seizure of the State by the Corporate Elite  

           It is a scary image of America. The Family was published about eight years ago. The recent election of Donald Trump gives credence of its essential correctness. Once again, the Corporate Elite will fleece the masses by directing their anger - raised by globalization's negative impacts - onto scapegoats. Witness the racism, sexism, xenophobia flooding the media and, especially, the Internet lately..

             These are dangerous times we live in. If there is indeed a silver lining to this turmoil, it will lie in the demonstration of inability of the "System" to confront the mounting tide of planetary challenges. While The Family is not an easy - or comforting! - read, it is essential reading for those who want to get a handle on the rise of authoritarian political views and movements today, what is their true source and inspiration or, alternatively (as in the case of Al Queda or ISIS) what they are reacting against.  

"When Buchman spoke of Christianity's 'new illumination', 'a new social order under the dictatorship of the Spirit of God' that would transform politics and eradicate the conflict of capital and labor, Abram took him literally." Page 128


1- The psychology of groups like ISIS is hard to quantify or qualify. Members may be rich or poor, foreign or native born, male or female, conventionally religious or not, well integrated socially or not, idealistic or criminally motivated, and so on. Some social psychologists blame the Anomia (sense of meaningless or drift), typical of industrial urban culture. They point to the lack of "Life Narrative" (sense of purpose and value in one's life) and the lack of a sense of Community in modern society as causal or contributing factors  to the success of terrorist recruiters. These are certainly contributing factors. In addition, the misguided and misdirected attention of Western powers in the Mid-East has provided a reservoir of long standing greivances to avenge. Specific events in the Mid-East have then served as "nuclei of crystalisation", as triggers or detonators for the radicalization of disaffected young people, particularly in Western Europe (but also here in North America). An overarching source of frustration has been the failure of the West to launch a Green Technological Revolution in the Third World in the eight decades following World War II. Rising expectations frustrated by chronic unemployment and underemployment in burgeonning youthful populations. Can't ask for better Social Dynamite than that!

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