By Garin Hovannisian | October 1, 2006 |
C.J. was a changed man. His curly, blonde hair snaked into an anarchic afro. His face was unshaven. His shirt, faded and bleached, was half-tucked into oversized jeans. I hadn’t seen C.J. in two years. Back in high school, he was a real character-a no-nonsense, call-it-like-it-is skeptic, cynic, libertine, jokester, joke, poet, soccer star, recluse, opinion-maker-an alpha to the alphas, yet entirely content in his own thoughts, a bully to (and of) no one. His dream, he used to say, was to live in isolation on a twenty-acre plot of Midwestern forestry-just him and his gun, untouched by man or government. I expected never to see him again. But in April 2005, on the student thoroughfare of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)-a menagerie of hyperactive campus propagandists-the familiar creature was hard to miss
A few months before at his city college, C.J. had been approached by a few young activists who pressed him to attend one of their weekend retreats-a “cadre school,” they called it. Grudgingly, C.J. decided to go. When he returned, he abandoned his school, his home, his friends, his personality, his humor, and every vestige of his past. He moved into a veritable commune as a convert to the mission, army, and cult of Lyndon LaRouche. Defender. Janitor. Distributor. Point-man. Middleman. Yes man. C.J. was doing it all.
On Bruin Walk, looking into my eyes for the first time since high school, he was already recruiting. He handed me a pamphlet. “You know about LaRouche?” he asked, soaring through the awkwardness without the slightest hesitation or embarrassment. I nodded, but I could not pay attention to his words. My mind was fumbling with questions. What had turned the old recluse into a pamphleteer and peddler? Was it a spiritual enlightenment that he was eager to find? Was C.J. playing a sinister practical joke that he, if anyone, could pull off? Or was he…brainwashed? In search of answers, I enlisted in the LaRouche Youth Movement (LYM).
On Wednesday, April 27, I attended my first meeting. The Los Angeles headquarters of LYM are contained in a small, decrepit two-story house in Eagle Rock, California. Its rooms are packed with LaRouche literature, videos, posters, campaign material, and junk food. The largest is the telephone room, where volunteers work the lines with potential recruits. It comes eerily close to a telemarketing station, a boiler room filled with sleazy hacks selling faux-politique-a pseudo-intellectualized statism-with the requisite inflection and lure. Except it’s not old people being gypped (though LaRouche sat in jail for five years for fraud and extortion). It’s meaning-thirsty college kids.
I maneuvered into the library and examined the collection, in my habit of judging a man by his books. Plato. Kepler. Gauss. Leibniz. Bach. Anderson. Poe. Schiller. And of course, LaRouche. A few Germans I hadn’t heard of, sure, but this was basically it. Excepting LaRouche webcasts, lectures from his representatives, and LaRouche’s own books and articles, this is LYM’s intellectual kingdom. Aristotle is banned. The Western Canon has vanished, without fingerprints. And don’t bother with Sir Isaac Newton, a fraud, plagiarist, and conniver. Only “pro-mankind” intellectuals make it into the library. LaRouche soberly asserts in an article, “Galileo, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, the notorious Adam Smith, and the famous Rene Descartes, were, like Bertrand Russell and his devotees, systematically insane, in the strictest formal use of the term insane.” Evil. Insane. Anti-mankind.
I did not get this “mankind” thing. One of the original LYM members named Bo explained that science, economics, politics, culture, and music are all measurable by a “mankind” yardstick. Pro-mankind: Plato, LaRouche, and Bach. Anti-mankind: Aristotle, Cheney, and Rachmaninoff. “But how can I listen to a piece of music and be able to tell if it’s pro-mankind or not?” I asked naively. Bo, who is more comfortable in belief than in argument, slowly replied: “It just comes with the knowledge. Once you understand the politics and the economics and stuff, it’ll all fall into place.”
Sensing my curiosity, Bo invited me to a LYM cadre school the following weekend. That’s where C.J. had been converted. That’s where I would learn why.
If I return a robot, I told a close friend, you have the right to have me committed. With that, I set off with my SUV to the outskirts of mountainous Santa Barbara, California. Off the central roadway, one mile past Paradise Road, and another mile off-road forging rivers and zigzagging through the woods-the Oregon Trail experience-I realized that there might not be a chance to turn back.
My grisly imagination having refined horrific anecdotes of brainwashing and murder into half-expectations, I pulled into the campground and moved my bags to the guys’ cabin. C.J. showed me to the main cabin, where nearly fifty young recruiters (like C.J.) and new recruits (ostensibly like me) had already assembled.
Already in the opening address, the world conspiracy blueprints of Lyndon LaRouche were unveiled. “The Family, or The Foundation, is an organization of politicos that pick world statesmen,” said a pretty woman in her early 20s. “It is a real organization that is really involved in US policy-making.” This is pure LaRouche-talk. The urgency of LYM’s mission is justified by these underground, hereditary, secret-hand-shake societies that debase what LaRouche terms very loosely “the American System.” It’s a web of evil people, most prominently George Schultz, who “single-handedly chose Bush as president, Arnold as governor, and Condi Rice as protégé.” A later speaker would declare that the Tavistock Institute, a British psychotherapy clinic, “controls and manipulates major media through brainwashing. This isn’t even debatable. It’s been proven.” These are the puppeteers of the modern world.
But forget the world for now, because the establishments have schemed for decades to destroy LaRouche himself, having found their one-and-only formidable opponent. In the eyes of his followers, Lyn is an international superstar-the orthodoxy’s most vivid nightmare and the truth’s final promise of fruition. Indeed, the LaRouche history, as any of his followers will proudly tell you, is replete with CIA-brainwashed assassins, KGB snipers, and world bank hit squads all targeting their leader.
At night, I jumped among the “social groups,” hunting desperately for (I frustrate my ego in saying) a casual conversation. But among the several dozen followers, none exists. They never see movies. Beyond a narrow slice of classical music, they don’t listen. They don’t tell jokes and they are irritated when they hear one. They don’t have hobbies. C.J. told me not to bother scavenging for sex. Every pursuit, aspiration, passion, emotion, thought, longing, and joy revolves necessarily around the central personality, “the founder,” “the genius among geniuses,” the “leading prophetic figure of modern history”-Lyn. This is not some sort of poetic exaggeration. It’s their way of life. You eavesdrop on a conversation between any of these people at any time of day, and it’s always about the same stuff: constructive geometry, socialistic economic policy, inherently good classical music, Plato, Kepler, Gauss, LaRouche, LaRouche, LaRouche!
They seem to be normal teenagers and they span the racial, sexual, socioeconomic spectra. But they connect in a common anticipation of historic catastrophe and they survive on the lone faith of the corrective and redemptive genius of their movement. And that’s the cult, if you’ve been searching for it and if you want to call it that. There’s no Kool-Aid, no weird alphabet, no cryptic Bible Code. It’s a cult, literally, of personality: the intellectual, world-changing genius.
Yet despite suspicions to the contrary, no believer is as confident in his own genius (which is, at best, a potentiality) as he is in the collective genius of his movement. Behind C.J.’s rugged certainties rests a spirit that is crippled and an ego that requires constant attention-not because it feels it deserves it, but because it cannot survive without it. Indeed, C.J.’s family background, which is stained by psychological and ultimately physical abandonment, not only discourages self-esteem, but really forbids it. It is peculiar, then, that it was precisely at the pinnacle of C.J.’s family crisis and disillusionment-in the dark age of his self-esteem-that he joined a movement that called him a genius.
To modern researchers of self-esteem and mass movements, however, the fact is not peculiar at all. Eric Hoffer has written, “The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.” In the holiness of his cause, C.J. is more sure-and this, again, I write with no poetics-than he is in his own goodness. His confidence in his own genius (and, hence, the desertion of the fear that he is not) depends, first and only, on the acceptance of the movement.
Hence, no movies, jokes, creative talent, personality-the true believers have no character whatsoever. It is impossible, save upon their mastery of the clichés of the cause, to differentiate them. There is no identity or knowledge, in any real sense, detached from the group. The concepts of “knowaspheres” and “musical dissonance” that supposedly divide good music from bad are totally lost on C.J.. But not for a moment does he doubt their reality. He will blame his own intellectual immaturity every time, even if it conflicts with the reality he sees.
One is all. And, of course, all is one in Lyndon LaRouche, polymath extraordinaire.
LaRouche, who calls himself “the leading economist of [the 20th] century,” proposes an accentuated statism, and it’s accepted as high novelty. The prophet in the wilderness yells apocalypse, and his followers panic. The detective in Lyn finds networks of secrecy, and C.J. is on a personal mission to sabotage them. The genius mathematician rejects Newton’s calculus and his students immediately discard modern math. The music theorist writes, “The Beatles had no genuine musical talent, but were a product shaped according to British Psychological Warfare Division (Tavistock) specifications, and promoted in Britain by agencies which are controlled by British intelligence,” and the movement learns to recite it.
By the cadre school’s second day, nauseous from the adoration (which at least matches the average church-goer’s piety), drained of will power, and dreadfully tired, I stood on the brink of insanity. Echoes of the same themes and people bounced in my brain. Knowasphere. Leibniz. Plato. Beethoven. Constructive geometry. Schumann. Gauss. Lyn. LaRouche. Lyn. I guess this was that moment in which so many had beheld their epiphany. This was when, tired but finally enlightened, I was supposed to fall on my knees and dedicate my life to the whims and wishes of a man. But for me, it was more torture than epiphany. I simply could not survive through the weekend. I said goodbye to C.J., gathered my bags, and got into the car. A mile through thick forests, several miles past Paradise Road, and now far, far away from this fantastic place of ideas and heroes and dreams, brewing in a cabin by a stream. It was as if it was all fiction. I was absolutely in a daze. And not for a couple of weeks did I actually escape the awful aftershocks, the lingering hangover of the LaRouche Youth Movement.
I experienced its heart totality in the last LYM meeting I ever attended, a few months after the cadre school. I sneaked into the conference room in Eagle Rock, and LaRouche was on the projection screen. The background was black. The voice was monotone. And for more than an hour, LaRouche was talking about hedge funds and mergers-and the really boring, economic lessons we might squeeze from the “General Motors debacle.” And here were twenty young people sitting in a small room listening with special attention, scribbling in their notepads, and nodding their heads again and again at the every thought, the every word, the every counterfeit insight of their leader-Lyndon LaRouche.
Since then, a mutual friend of C.J. and mine has asked C.J. if he would ever consider leaving the group for a few hours to have lunch with us. He has never been able to say yes. He’s too deep in his new reality. He is there with Lincoln, Plato, Jean d’Arc, LaRouche-the handful of genius individuals who have changed the world. He is there with three hundred young intellectuals who, if we are to believe them, will stage the decisive revolution of our millennium.
The movement is easy to satirize, discredit, and render insane. But the quiet existentialist in all of us finds herself faintly envious. For in all their delusions, LaRouche’s followers have on earth a cosmic certainty and security that we might only wish to achieve in paradise. It is a paradise, alas, that almost inevitably crashes. When it does for C.J., one psychological breakdown after another, he might be a free man again-but never, I fear, the endearing oddball of our youths.