New Clear Vision

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Cultura or Cult?

August 26, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Culture, Devon G. Pena, Politics

Note to School Board President: Get Educated, Please

by Devon G. Peña

Joseph Campbell has long been one of my favorite scholars in the field of comparative religion and the study of mythology. I first encountered Campbell’s magnificent work as an undergraduate in, of all places, a Chicano Studies course on poetry taught by Alurista at the University of Texas in 1974. The work I personally encountered during that class was The Hero’s Journey, a book first published in 1954.

I discussed The Hero’s Journey with Alurista since I was already reading it. It is a book about myth but it is also about the human quality of resilience through the experience of discovery and loss, of how one adapts and grows from our journeys into the unknown, which begins with the crossing of thresholds or boundaries that mark the separation of the familiar from the unfamiliar. Alurista thought this could be used as an analog for understanding the role of Chicana/o poetry, that is, as an exploration across boundaries. Alurista thought that borders that are meant to separate may in the end dissipate before the power of the transition to a full humanity realized only through the acceptance of the “Other.” Poetry is the language we use to realize this more just and peaceful moral order.

Lately, I have been thinking about this lesson, which I learned in one of my first Chicana/o Studies classes. I am intrigued by this idea of crossing thresholds and believe this has implications for what is happening in Arizona today. The basic insight is simply about creativity springing from the act of crossing thresholds. What does this mean, in light of the recent attacks on the unjustly besieged Mexican American Studies (MAS) Program of the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) by School Board President Mark Stegeman?

The most recent phase of this attack occurred this past Friday (August 19) during Stegeman’s testimony at a court hearing related to litigation over the constitutionality of HB2281. [This is Arizona’s thought control statute that seeks to dismantle Chicana/o Studies across the state’s public schools, alleging that such classes preach the overthrow of the U.S. government, are designed for students of a specific ethnic group, teach ethnic solidarity instead of focusing on the individual, and promote racial resentment]. The latest attack on the integrity of the MAS Program was waged by Board President Stegeman, whose testimony characterized the program as “a cult.”

This claim was based on Stegeman’s apparent misreading of the “solidarity clap” — a widely used motivational practice rooted in social movements that is simply meant to drum-up enthusiasm for the task at hand. The instructor in a MAS Program class that Mr. Stegeman visited earlier this year had started the session with this solidarity clap as a prelude to consideration of the texts at hand. This is the basis for Stegeman’s absurd and inaccurate claim that Chicana/o Studies is a “cult.”

A point of fact: Public school and college teachers use a variety of motivational tools at the start of classes and the “solidarity clap” is one example I have witnessed in dozens of classes, seminars, and conferences. I’ve recently seen the solidarity clap at meetings of the American Studies Association (ASA) and a recent workshop on environmental justice at The White House. If we follow Stegeman’s logic, then all these white professors at the ASA meetings and WH staffers and Cabinet members are also cult followers.

But the solidarity or unity clap, dating back to the days of Cesar Chavez and the farm worker struggle, is not some secret ritual practiced by violent political cult members seeking to re-conquer the “Lost Land” of Aztlán. Stegeman is projecting his unfounded fears; searching for a point of entry to an unfair and baseless critique of a highly successful academic program.

The real issue here is not the existence of cults and cult-like behavior in our public schools. The real issue is the fabrication of slanderous myths by those who oppose intellectual freedom and free speech and thought in our educational institutions. Mr. Stegeman has violated the public’s trust and should resign from the TUSD Board.

According to my colleague, Rudolfo Acuña, the report about the ‘cult’ statement came from a Ms. Hunnicutt:

I have read an unofficial synthesis of the hearings and in no place was it ‘revealed’ that the Mexican American Studies program is a cult. This represents shoddy reporting at best. Stegeman, a failed economist, deduced this from the farm worker hand clap and he then makes a leap of logic tying it to Eric Hoffer’s right wing book which was used in the same fashion to malign Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement during the 60s. [Hoffer’s book] was the bible of the John Birch Society until the analysis was pointed the other way. Hoffer was second only to Ayn Rand in the pantheon of right wing kooks…. The Tea Party and the Arizona Republican Party would be more appropriate subjects to apply Hoffer’s theoretical model. Evidently neither Hunnicutt nor Stegeman … know the difference between opinion and fact.

Professor Acuña is correct: This demonizing style of paranoid politics is something we have witnessed before. That an elected official would rely on Hoffer’s discredited ‘Bircher Bible’ is unconscionable and a true violation of the public trust; it is unbecoming of a leader of public school education in Arizona. There is another insight from Campbell’s work that seems especially poignant and appropriate given this attack on Chicana/o Studies as a “cult.” Before proceeding, I  should note that the late Professor Campbell, alongside Mircea Eliade, is probably the most important and influential student of comparative religions and myth in the history of this field of scholarly research.

In 1972, the prolific Campbell published another important and widely acclaimed book, The Rise of Modern Mythology, 1680-1860 (1972, reprinted 1975). This is a very innovative and persuasive study on the historical relation between cult and drama. In the book, Campbell describes the modern idea of the cult as a “Cinderella concept” and then makes this insightful observation — that leads to a clearer understanding of who decides what gets classified as “cult”:

From 1700 to 1750 — using these dates only as a convenient but imprecise set of brackets for what might otherwise be called the Enlightenment — most thinking about myth may be described as subscribing to the orthodox Christian view of myth, the deist view of myth, or the rationalist view of myth. The Christians … drove home the notion that myth mean pagan fables and pagan religion and was therefore, as a word, exactly equal to false, while gospel, meaning Christian religious stories, was exactly equal to truth. To Christian thinkers in the eighteenth century … Greek or Roman or Egyptian myth meant only a collection of false gods and grotesque tales that needed to be explained away or reconciled with Scripture. Pagan myth could be interpreted as an invention of the devil, or the gods could be identified as fallen angels, but the usual interpretation was to consider pagan fable a degenerate version of biblical truth….

This excerpt clarifies what I believe is happening in Arizona, except the problem is not that Chicana/o Studies is a cult; the problem is that Mark Stegeman, and other opponents of the MAS Program, have bought into the discourse games of a white Christian mythology: Chicana/o poetry may as well be the language of the devil, judging from Stegeman’s purposeful mis-characterizing of a respected and effective field of academic study.

The Three Sonorans made a valid point the other day in their Friday blog: The Unity clap is cult, but pledging allegiance to a flag made of cloth in unison is “normal.” Actually, yes: The “Pledge of Allegiance” before the “Stars and Stripes” is constructed as normal while the unity or solidarity clap is not and that is the point of Campbell’s observation regarding the power of myths and cults.

Those who are part of the dominant culture and political order get to define and impose what is considered “normal” and what is rejected as “cult”-like. As Campbell demonstrates, this has been going on since the rise of Christianity and colonialism (they go together) brought hunger, disease, war, ethnocide, and destruction to indigenous peoples around the planet.

It is not fair; it is untruthful and inflammatory; but what do you expect of a partisan mindset that uses the state of exception to forestall the looming demographic and socio-cultural transition that is the American Experiment? But, alas, that is the chosen political and ideological project of those who continue to abuse the power/knowledge dialectic. And this can, has been, and will once again be challenged. We must oppose this racist construct not by defending ourselves from the ridiculous charge of being a cult – the claim is as absurd as “birther” beliefs about President Obama not being a U.S.-born citizen.

Instead, we can begin by demonstrating that Mr. Stegeman is merely re-playing the old Enlightenment trick of demonizing the Other, simply because he does not understand that cultura is not the same as culto; he does not appreciate what natural and social scientists around the world have understood for decades: Diversity is the key to resilience and this applies as much to micro-organisms as to entire societies. This pathological style of discourse will, I predict, not fare well as part of the State of Arizona’s legal arguments in defense of HB2281.

The social scientific study of cults demonstrates that cults are authoritarian, exploitative, and use mind and thought control through ritualistic practices. In profound contrast, Chicana/o Studies is anti-authoritarian; collaborative and participatory; and embodies the critical spirit – rejecting the idea that any one group or person has a privileged and eternal hold on truth claims. This typically includes the instructor of Chicana/o Studies who abides by the bedrock principle of remaining open to the truth claims of others. This is not what cult leaders do. So, by this definition, Chicana/o Studies is the anti-thesis of a cult.

If anything fits this definition it is not the Chicana/o Studies class starting a session  with the unity clap but rather the Pledge of Allegiance that indoctrinates students to accept “patriotic” obedience to the state and whatever it seeks to accomplish — war, conquest, regulation of bodies and minds, etc.

If anything bears a resemblance to a cult it is the type of schoolroom imagined by the reactionary and anti-democratic legislators who drafted HB2281, including Senator Russell Pearce, an associate and sympathizer of extremist cult-like neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups. It is these elected officials who propose to transform our public schools into indoctrination camps by converting our free and open society campuses into institutions modeled on the concentration or prison camp – in which public schools are a deadly minefield of unprotected speech ready to obliterate free and critical inquiry.

Sociologists and psychologists who study organized cults and cult behavior have developed a variety of intervention techniques meant to “liberate” cult followers from bondage to authoritarian and exploitative Masters: The methods are invariably described as “de-programming” and “re-education.”  I am only half joking, but judging from his testimony, it seems Board President Stegeman would benefit from a few weeks at a “re-education camp” to learn the difference between free critical inquiry and the mind-numbing homogeneity he would seek to impose on students in the TUSD.

Here I am hoping that Stegeman goes back to school to learn about the leading edge of social science and humanities scholarship before he feels compelled to lead a beseiged school district and its board of directors who are charged with navigating the treacherous political waters of the state of exception in Arizona’s public schools. May the TUSD Board take the hero’s journey, and make their way back from across the threshold to the embracing of a new America, one that remains fearless and resolute before the wondrous diversity of human souls and minds that have a thirst and hunger for truth, freedom, and the many roads that lead one and all to realize the full range of human knowledge that makes our world a more just possibility as a work-in-progress.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His influential books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (University of Arizona Press, 2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (University of Arizona Press, 1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

0 Comments to “Cultura or Cult?”

  1. Elias Serna says:

    Excellent points, Dr. Pena!! It’s great to see Chicano/American Studies profes use their insights and positions to chime in! Abbie Morales of the 3 Sonorans also mentions that the MAS struggle, along with SB 1070 and all the anti-Mexican legislation, is not unlike a centuries-long struggle over that geography, a war between Anglo capital and “progress” and indigenous populations migrating and settling along the militarized border (ie. the Narcos as modern day Apache raiders, or something like that). Dr. Mary Pat Brady says something similar.
    Another struggle is over Chicano History, the critical revision initiated by Chicano Studies, and the Republican right (reich)’s attempt to dismantle it in Arizona. This conflict can also bring about attention to the Chicano STudies discipline, its epistemological practices, and a SERIOUS expansion (via NACCS policy) towards K-12.


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