On Power, by Matthew Remski

May 6, 2017

One of the most helpful things I’ve understood from professional cult psychologists like Cathleen Mann is that the charismatic leader and the organization surrounding him could be selling any ideology whatsoever. The content of the cult is not the purpose of the cult. The purpose of the cult is to accumulate power. The only real function of the cult’s content is to enhance the mystique surrounding that power.

I remember arguing in great detail with my fellow followers of Michael Roach about whether his teachings on Buddhist emptiness were coherent — either internally, or with his purported tradition. They were neither, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that the more time we spent talking about the riddles he laid out for us, and the more time we spent not being able to answer those riddles, the more we inflated his importance in our lives, the more mysterious he became, and the more power he had.

The purpose of debate was not to actually further knowledge in the lineage. That would assume that Roach had a legitimate position within it, which he didn’t. It was to occupy the emotional labour and attention of the students, which was then co-opted into material and hands-on support. It’s like FB that way: it doesn’t care for the most part what you post here. It cares about whether you’re participating or not. The main thing it wants is for you not to leave. You are FB’s narcissistic supply.

One of the main prayers that Roach taught everybody to say was a reduction of an old Tibetan refrain in which the student requests the teacher to stay close. This got blown up into students weeping at his feet and saying “Please stay, please stay with me.” His email address for years was alwaysstay@aol.com. Attachment disorders? Of course. But the real kicker was that it was Roach who was demanding that we all stay. It didn’t matter what we were staying for. He got us to say what he needed to say, but couldn’t.

I see a potential application of this mechanism to understanding — or rather, stopping the attempt to understand — 45 and the GOP. It’s more than obvious that there is no coherent content, agenda, or worldview beyond the purely libidinal rape-pillage-and-run. Nothing makes sense, and they feel no need to hide that or apologize for it. Their understanding of history, the Constitution, and congressional etiquette is no more detailed than the average Yankee cultic appropriator of an Indian religion. This is all because the content doesn’t matter to them. Power does. That sole value will shift the goalposts of any discussion, create its own language and standards for truth, and hope that you spend time wondering what kind of universe their “reasoning” about things like pre-existing conditions comes from.

This is a grim view, but it might offer a small amount of relief in one important area. It might help conserve a little of the energy burn of misplaced attunement. It seems natural to spend a lot of time asking about how the AHCA could possibly make sense to anyone, to ask: what could they be thinking? But if it’s only always-already about power, they are literally thinking *nothing*. So thinking about them as though they are thinking and feeling like you do inflates their power and mystique while depressing your own. You are puzzling over a riddle that they don’t even care about and aren’t qualified to answer themselves. You’re engaging them on points of government when they have no interest in government, beyond how it can be a further mechanism of their dominance. In the cult, our biggest mistake was to believe that Roach was interested in Buddhism more than in himself. That’s what kept us in the room.

I wonder whether in the end it will be the cult psychologists, experts in altered and trance states, and scholars of New Religious Movements that will ultimately shed more light on 45 & co than the forests of paper we’re currently felling to print our progressive political think-pieces. If they are, I wonder what new pathways of resistance their work will offer.

I appreciate the poetry of “When they go low, we go high.” It feels pure. But I think it’s bringing sticks to a gun fight. I don’t think you can resist power with reason and content. Power doesn’t care. It feels no shame. The challenge would seem to be about how to answer irrational power with something equally visceral and compelling.