I stopped getting into scraps after a fourth-grade tussle regarding Potawatomi Indians. So it was surprising when I found myself getting heated recently on the
Yet there I was, raging about the use of the word “cult.” “Why can’t we use it?” my interlocutor gently (genteel, after all) pressed. “I mean: they are cults.” He deployed the usage card, pointing to excellent ongoing application by observers intent upon venerated saints and ancient Gnostics. Moreover (he pressed) some things just are clandestine and weird, like Shakers and Henry Jaglom films. My resistance to the word “cult” is, under such a preponderance of cheery evidence, a well-intentioned but patronizing cling to political correctness, parallel to my relinquishing of “retarded” and “gay guy.” C’mon, already, (my discussant cajoled) the word is useful.
There are days when the words are on your side, and there are days when you sound like Porky Pig. This day, this important day of argument and defense, was a Porky day. I couldn’t lasso together what I wanted, which was, of course, a rehearsal of the history of this category, the way academicians eschewed its deployment because they realized, simultaneously, that it (a) wasn’t generative to classification, (b) relies on an antagonistic relationship between a (presumed to be) minority faction against a (presumed to be) dominant mainstream, (c) expects an exclusive spiritual adherence amidst sociological reality of the buffet believers and (d) was being enjoyed as an epithet—to truly destructive ends—by way too many people. (Note: For a recent rehearsal of this history and the nouveau resuscitation of “cult”, see the 2006 JSSR review essay by Marion Goldman, "Cults, New Religions, and the Spiritual Landscape.")
But my words weren’t with me, so I came off tinny and small (a perpetual condition for liberals and word whiners). If only I’d had patience. If only I’d merely say, “hey friend, let’s save the argument. Bide our time. And wait for the release of Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography.”
Then, I would have experienced the pleasure of non-argument exhibition. Anyone who thinks we can reclaim “cult” (like those who thought, hipster-like in the mid-nineties, that “Negro” would be fun to revive), do take a break and check out the responses to Morton’s religious history of Cruise, as well as the frightening replies to Cruise’s commitment video spinning throughout the web.
Don’t get me wrong: the video is something to see. (And something to use: religionists never had it so good). The man knows his way around onomatopoeias and crazed laughter. But, after all the chuckles at his gauntlet glee (“You’re either in, or you’re out.”) and the frets about Ms. Holmes’ captivity narrative, one does just have to say: “He believes.” Or, as the wise observers at Slate have it, this is only “moderately strange.” We’ve seen this all before. Impassioned faith should hardly be new to anyone awake on this here planet Earth yet off the bloggers soar, screaming and laughing and shaking with pleasure that this obviously “gay guy” is such a total “cult freak.” So now I, post-Pork, have my words to face my cultic foe: “we are the authorities,” and we say "no" to cults. Save that sort of devotion for (the oh-so-deserving) Dr. Frank-N-Furter.