Hey, everybody! It’s October 21 and you know what that means! Yes, Halloween is in 10 days, but that’s not what I’m getting at. If you’ve been following the Rapture rabble of the past few months as closely as I have, you’ll know that this is the day Harold Camping, leader of the radical Christian sect Family Radio, predicted the world would end. Yeah, sorry to break it to you but it looks like the end is finally nigh. Back in May, you may have seen some brightly-colored vans driving around proclaiming the same “awesome news,” but this prediction was actually two-tiered. The first part claimed that Judgment Day would come to pass on May 21. God’s chosen people would ascend to Heaven while the rest of us languished in unspeakable torment until the world ceased to be five months later. When May 21 passed and the only form of torment we experienced was the GOP debates, it seemed certain that Camping’s claims of damnation weren’t going to be manifesting themselves.
What dawned on me, however, was a newfound awareness of how many figures can still rally others to their selfish causes, much like a cult leader does. The influence they have on people seeking the answer to life’s most pressing problems can be very dangerous indeed. If anyone doubts the power of a zealot like Harold Camping, they should talk to the people who have left their jobs, alienated their loved ones and forfeited their savings in service to his words. With the end of the world looming, one can hardly blame them for thinking they may no longer need their 401(K). This just further demonstrates the destructive, persuasive power of the cult.
With the Internet more and more readily becoming the go-to tool for anyone with an opinion, it’s easier than ever to convince an unsuspecting public to drink your Kool-Aid. Is it any coincidence that Twitter asks you to “follow” someone you find to be interesting? On that note, let’s have a look at a few of the more notable people who have rallied others to further their own agenda. It’s the Cult of Personalities: Five People Who Organized for Ego.
Stop me if you’ve heard this. Earlier this year, Charlie Sheen left the cast of the inexplicably popular sitcom Two and a Half Men citing severe emotional distress and a lack of adequate financial compensation. At a measly $1.25 million per episode, it was easy to see his point. Things only got stranger, and more quasi-religious, with the release of his disturbing home videos rants against the powers that be at CBS. After being formally released from his contract, Sheen embarked on a nationwide theater tour modestly entitled, “My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not an Option.” The tour sold out in just 18 minutes, breaking Ticketmaster records. Unfortunately, like so many other false prophets, droves of disgusted audience members walked out on Sheen, leaving the premiere show in the first 10 minutes, demanding refunds. Months later, Ashton Kutcher returned to television in Sheen’s place, leaving Charlie a shepherd without a flock. All he has now is a national punch line. Winning? Not so much.
My earlier line about “drinking the Kool-Aid” can be attributed to Jim Jones, the founder and leader of The People’s Temple. A devoted student of Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi, Jones started an interracial ministry in the ’50s with the hopes of supporting integration in Midwestern communities. His mission was nothing less than full integration of the races. The idea was noble enough, but in Jones’ book, the definition of integration also meant sexual dalliances with members of your assembly. A full-on cocaine and hallucinogen addiction didn’t make things any less unsettling. By the time the ’70s rolled around, Jones and his congregation of nearly 1,000 followers had established a makeshift “agricultural project” in Guyana named after Jones himself. “Jonestown” as it came to be called, drew international media attention and calls for investigation when allegations of widespread physical, emotional and sexual abuse broke out among Jones’ followers. When a fact-finding visit by members of U.S. Congress resulted in the murder of several government delegates, including California Representative Leo Ryan, Jones led his followers in an act of mass suicide, persuading them to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid to escape imminent legal consequences. Jones’ actions are one of the more heinous and tragic examples of just how far people looking for leadership are willing to be led.
Remember Taylor Hicks, the gray-haired soul singer of American Idol fame? Neither do most people; but he won it all on the only Idol season I ever paid any attention to. In addition to his prematurely-silvered follicles, Hicks was known for referring to his fan base as his “Soul Patrol.” Previous Idol winners had gone on to multi-platinum record sales, so it stood to reason that Hicks might too if the devoted audience of tens of millions that tuned in weekly was any indication. So fervent was Hicks in his unifying mantra of togetherness, that when Ryan Seacrest asked Hicks how he felt upon learning he had won, he could only scream “SOUL PATROL!” to the heavens. “Who the hell are you?” an apathetic record-buying public replied. These days Hicks is making his living as the Teen Angel in the national touring production of Grease. If that isn’t an aspiration for divinity I don’t know what is.
What’s worse than a pair of rappers who dress as clowns, spray their audience with soda while playing with chain saws and write charming ditties about venereal disease and cannibalism? Their fans. Detroit rap duo Insane Clown Posse weren’t exactly a hit when they putridly oozed onto the music scene in the early ’90s. With charming titles like “Bugz on My Nutz,” it’s a mystery to me as well. Unfortunately, by the end of the ’90s, the ICP had amassed enough of a following to grant their legions of scatologically-minded disciples a title: Juggalos. Your guess is as good as mine as to what porn theater floor the genetic material to make these people was cultivated from. They’re usually disenfranchised white suburban kids donning extra-large T-shirts and jean shorts with motley regalia on them. The only thing more distinctive than their baggy clothing and faux-gold jewelry is their pungent odor as they stand outside the food court KFC munching on Double Downs. The ICP offered up their own explanation of the name in the song “What is a Juggalo?” “What is a Juggalo? Oh, let me think for a second/ Oh, he gets butt-naked and he walks through the streets/ Winking at the freaks/ With a two-liter stuck in his butt cheeks.” Enough said.
Love her, hate her or just don’t get her, it’s impossible to deny that few other figures in recent years have amassed as much public attention on any side than Sarah Palin. A former beauty pageant queen turned politician, Palin of course became McCain’s running mate in 2008. Presumably, this was an attempt by the McCain camp to lure disenfranchised supporters of Hilary Clinton over to his side. The sad thing is, it worked — at least until Palin was allowed to speak. After her first couple interviews, Palin quickly became cannon fodder for late-night television. After handily losing the election for McCain, and resigning from the gubernatorial office amid corruption allegations, Palin relegated herself to conservative punditry. The fact that Fox News picked her up as a talking head not long after speaks to her role as a public persuader. Most notably you can thank her for helping to eliminate the public option from Obamacare by coining the term “death panels.” Much like the current cultural landscape that helped spawn her, Palin has inspired fervent criticism and devout following on both sides of the political spectrum. It doesn’t matter if she never does a single thing again, because for better or for worse we’ve created a new idol, America, and Sarah Palin is it. Congratulations.
As the media makes it easier than ever for loudmouths and blowhards to reach a mass audience, we’re going to be seeing more and more self-righteous zealots professing their own skewed version of the truth as gospel. I don’t offer any easy solutions for how to tune out the good from the bad except this: listen to yourself and believe in your own truth. Having a role model is all well and good, but when it comes to steering the course of your own life, nothing beats personal intuition and common sense. At the very least, don’t mortgage your house or embark on a 20 city theater tour to proclaim the awesome news of your personal revelations. And remember, if a 90 year-old man in a white robe driving a multi-colored van offers you Kool-Aid today, don’t drink it!