The cult leader and his wee magazine.
It started as a wee liberal magazine, an undersize 7-by-10-inch book by the name of the Washington Monthly. That first issue, in February 1969, boasted articles by conventional-wisdom liberals Murray Kempton, David S. Broder, Calvin Trillin, and Russell Baker, plus an interview with liberal scold Bill Moyers by establishment toady Hugh Sidey. But in a matter of just a few years, the magazine's founder, Charles Peters, a burned-out Peace Corps bureaucrat who had tapped the largesse of Jay Rockefeller, a department-store heir, and a toy heir to launch the publication, had transformed the Monthly from a reformist political magazine into a mind-control operation rivaling that of L. Ron Hubbard, Jim Jones, and the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Peters' cultistic success can't be measured in material riches: The magazine lives hand to mouth. Nor have any of Peters' followers guzzled hemlock Kool-Aid in the name of neoliberalism--Uncle Charlie's peculiar melange of liberal pieties, conservative common sense, and Boy Scout vows to public service and self-sacrifice. But the manner in which Peters has applied the vise grips of his political agenda to the minds of his young, bright, and naive followers resembles nothing more than the insidious techniques of convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church.
That the Monthly has produced memorable journalism is no more a tribute to Peters' guiding genius than the accomplishments of Jesuits are to the wisdom of the Holy Trinity. Why, even the publications of Sun Myung Moon (Washington Times), fellow convicted felon Lyndon LaRouche (Executive Intelligence Review), and populist crackpot Willis Carto (Spotlight) have produced good work.
Neoliberal in Chief Peters may not require his devotees--call them Monthlies--to sell subscriptions on street corners, and he hasn't proclaimed himself the Lord of the Second Advent, as has this column's other favorite whipping boy. But if you compare Moon's and Peters' tactics, the parallels are ominous. Consider:
* Peters, 66, runs a marginal Washington propaganda mill disguised as a legitimate publication whose circulation is stalled at 35,000. Moon, 71, runs a marginal Washington propaganda mill disguised as a legitimate publication whose circulation is stalled at 95,000.
* Peters preaches a narrow, self-referential political philosophy called neoliberalism that the world wisely ignores. Its cardinal documents are two books by Peters, How Washington Really Works and his self-hagiography, Tilting at Windmills. (Talk about self-referential: Rather than filling a new book with his wisdom, Peters is currently revising How Washington Really Works.) Moon preaches a narrow, self-referential religious philosophy that the world wisely ignores. His essential teachings are contained in batshit-crazy volumes like Master Speaks.
* Peters grossly underpays his devotees. Interns, the larval form of Monthlies, work for no pay. Editors and other essential staffers are paid $10,000 a year, but are expected to work overtime and weekends without added compensation. Moon grossly underpays followers who work for him in his fishing fleet and restaurants, demanding much of their salaries back in the form of tithes.
* Unless Monthly editors enjoy checks from a trust fund (which many do), economic necessity requires that they live in the slums while Peters dwells in Ward 3 comfort. Moon calls several mansions his home while his followers often live in dormitories or other cheap housing.
* As part of the neoliberal indoctrination process, Peters browbeats, berates, and bawls out any Monthlie who disagrees with him, changing the terms of the argument and denying that he said what he said until the Monthlie cracks. Peters wins these mindfucks--called a "rain dance" by his devotees--because his employees are undernourished and sleep-starved and he is plump with food, drink, and relaxation. (The rain dance is dramatized in Empire Blues, Monthly alumnus Taylor Branch's Washington roman a clef.) As part of the Unification Church indoctrination process, church leaders isolate new recruits and "love bomb" them with Moon's teachings, depriving them of sleep and an outside perspective.
* Monthlies get that faraway look in their eye when they talk about their guru. (In an April 1992 New Republic column, devotee Michael Kinsley actually called Peters "my guru.") Ditto for the Moon people.
* Peters calls his devotees, alumni, and supporters "family" (so did that other Charles who also started a splinter movement in the '60s--Manson). Moon calls himself the "True Parent" of his followers.
Cult-building techniques are not as mysterious as you might think. In the "How to Become a Cult Leader" chapter of Age of Propaganda, authors Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson describe in rollicking detail how anyone can start a successful cult if only he lacks the scruples. The authors counsel aspiring cult leaders to:
Create Their Own Social Reality If you can, isolate your cult in Guyana or on a farm in Oregon. But, they write, "it is much more practical to teach members self-censorship by labeling everything that is not "of the cult' as "of the devil.' " Then use this picture of the world to "interpret all events and happenings."
Peters projects such an intense social reality that he often bamboozles himself into thinking that everybody is a Monthlie. When devotee James Fallows hired on as a Jimmy Carter presidential speechwriter and noticed that the prez had clipped and filed a few Monthly articles, Fallows ran to Peters with the news. The self-deluding Peters extrapolated from this that Carter was a Monthlie!
"I tried to summon an air of calm statesmanship as I awaited what I confidently assumed would be a long series of meetings with Carter and his aides, during which they would earnestly seek my counsel," Peters writes in Tilting at Windmills. "As things turned out, all my statesman's mantle did was gather dust in the closet." Rejecting Peters proved to be Carter's greatest mistake--according to Peters.
Moon spins a dandy social reality of his own, preaching that he and his followers were responsible for the collapse of communism in the late '80s.
Create Commitment Through Dissonance Reduction By slowly escalating the demands on a follower, a cult leader can create a psychology of obedience. Peters demands that his editors sign up for two years at $10,000 a year, which seems like a minor commitment seeing that a swell job awaits most of them at the end of their hitches: Former Monthly editors now work at the New Republic, the Atlantic, Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and the Wall Street Journal. (Don't be too impressed: Reporters from Moon's Washington Times have gone on to careers at the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the White House.)
Once the editors enlist in his cult, Peters ups the demands on their time, their pride, and finally their psyches. Tears often follow a Peters escalation, but there are few dropouts. As Pratkanis and Aronson put it, "A feeling of stupidity for giving all to the cult can be overcome by rationalizing it as devotion to a noble cause."
Create a Grandfalloon Cult leaders like Peters teach followers to scorn outsiders for not possessing the true faith. In doing so, they create what Kurt Vonnegut Jr. called a "grandfalloon," a proud and meaningless association of human beings that separates the world into two distinct camps: us and them, Unification Church members and nonbelievers, or neoliberals and not-neoliberals. Grandfalloons increase a cult's "group-think" quotient, making disagreement more emotionally wrenching for members and efficiently deterring defections from the faith.
Establish the Leaders' Credibility and Attractiveness Moon claims that Jesus appeared to him at the age of 16 with the message that the young Korean would complete man's salvation. Peters alleges to have touched the hem of John F. Kennedy's garment, and can't stop writing about how he, as a founding administrator, made the idealistic Peace Corps (another cult, but that's another column) work efficiently or about how he developed some of the best journalists of the last two generations (Taylor Branch, James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, Nicholas Lemann, Mickey Kaus, Gregg Easterbrook, Jonathan Alter, Timothy Noah, Jason DeParle, Katherine Boo, et al.).
"What is the purpose of such myths?" ask Pratkanis and Aronson. "It is hard to disobey a person believed to be "the son of God' or, at least, blessed by a divine purpose. Anybody in their right mind should seek to identify and be like a holy person."
Send Members Out to Proselytize the Unredeemed After a Washington Monthly editor completes his two years at Charlie's seminary, Peters sends him on his worldly mission, usually in the form of a great job that Peters helps obtain for him. Ensconced at journalism's premier magazines and newspapers, these Manchurian Candidates quietly contaminate their publications with the guru's teachings.
The goal of Peters' neoliberal conspiracy is no different from that of Moon or LaRouche: to influence government. Their cult publications hammer on impressionable minds in government, and often create candidacies of their own. Moon's political front, the American Freedom Council, backs candidates; LaRouche runs for president every four years; and Monthlie Phil Keisling won a seat in the Oregon legislature and then moved on to become that state's attorney general. Watch Keisling closely: He is a Neoliberal Candidate ready for his handler's final instructions.
"Witnessing to the unconverted has the obvious advantage of bringing in new members," Pratkanis and Aronson write. "Perhaps just as important, proselytizing can ensure that members are constantly engaged in self-sell, or self-generated persuasion." By learning to counter the arguments of their critics, cult members help maintain the beliefs of the cult.
It's no accident that Peters unabashedly calls his philosophy "the gospel."
Distract Members From Thinking "Undesirable" Thoughts "Once a recruit has accepted the cult, the task becomes one of preventing further close scrutiny and thought about the merits of membership." The average Unification Church member, note Pratkanis and Aronson, works 67 hours a week. When you work the 16-hour days that Peters forces upon his editors, it's hard to generate any thoughts of your own.
Of course, producing the Washington Monthly shouldn't require such heroic efforts from the two (sometimes three) editors working under Peters. For one thing, the Monthly really isn't a monthly. It only comes out 10 times a year, and each edition contains five or seven short feature stories and three or four book reviews, plus Peters' "Tilting at Windmills" catechism. Factor out the book excerpts and the alumni-written stories that lard up the book, and the editing load is manageable--about 1 1/3 features a calendar-month per editor.
So what accounts for the beastly hours Monthly editors put in? Peters loads them with busywork so they won't have the energy to contradict him. He'll issue rewrite instructions for a feature, which means an editor has to pull an all-nighter, then change his mind and issue a contradictory set of rewrite instructions necessitating another all-nighter.
Fixate Members' Vision on a Phantom "The successful cult leader is always dangling a notion of the promised land and a vision of a better world before the faithful." For 24 years, Peters has flogged his neoliberal utopia vision in which good people like him take over the government, citizens voluntarily pay more taxes, the government assumes control of health care, cigarette advertising is banned, and America's sons and daughters submit to compulsory national service. The Nazis called this particular neoliberal scheme "work camps."
The single most repugnant thing about Peters' political philosophy is that he would make compulsory the things he has found personally rewarding. He experienced an uplifting love for humanity when he served in the Army, so everyone should serve as a temporary slave of the state. (What is an editorship at the Monthly but a two-year stint in boot camp?) He admires the "cheap chic" lifestyle, so everyone should surrender his BMW. (But if you're buying him lunch, you needn't cancel those reservations at Vincenzo's, his favorite restaurant.) He went to public schools, so your kids should go to public schools. Should it matter that he pulled his kid out?
Neither Peters nor Moon will live to see his dream come true, but as a betting man I'll lay odds that Moon will fulfill Christ's mission long before Peters ushers in the neoliberal millennium. But as long as bright and impressionable young journalists are willing to put up with his dribs of approval and drabs of terror, the cult watch of Charlie Peters must continue.
(Reprinted from Washington City Paper with permission.)