The critic Harold Bloom once argued that the characteristic American religion is a species of gnosticism, and I have good reason to believe it to be true, having spent some years—from 1976 to 1986—in a gnostic cult under the leadership of a man named Lyndon LaRouche.But are the many who are afraid to be Americans much different?
We were all about thirty, and most of us were Jewish. The question, of course, is what were a group of young Jews doing in the company of a cult leader with a paranoid view of the world and a thinly disguised anti-Semitic streak.
Here is one answer: We were all long-in-the-tooth student radicals. LaRouche’s organization was the flotsam washed up by the wave of the collective madness that had swept through the youth of the world in 1968 and left many of its participants maladapted to ordinary life for years afterward.
During the 1960s, LaRouche was a one-man Trotskyite splinter group, teaching free-lance courses on Marxist economics at whatever venue would have him. He culled student radicals with an intellectual bent who were repelled by the mindlessness endemic on the left in the late 1960s. LaRouche’s pitch was insidious: How can you justify yourself morally unless you know that what you are doing is right? There existed a science of mind, LaRouche claimed, that would enable the adept to reach the right conclusion.
His intellectual method resembled the old tale about stone soup: Having announced that he had the inside track on the hidden knowledge that underlay Western civilization (one of his essay was titled “The Secrets Known Only to the Inner Elites”), he attracted a small parade of intellectual orphans, whom he then put to elaborating the details. By the late 1970s he had collected some highly credentialed acolytes, including a group of physicists and mathematicians at his front organization, the Fusion Energy Foundation.
LaRouche claimed to trace a tradition of secret knowledge across the ages, from Plato and Plotinus, through the Renaissance, and down to the German scientists and philosophers of the nineteenth century. Of course, that raises a question: If there exists this kind of knowledge, then why isn’t it universally shared? The reverse side of the gnostic page is paranoia: There must be a cabal of evil people who prevent the dissemination of the truth.
The Venetian Inquisition, the British Empire, the Hapsburg family, the Rockefellers, and the Trilateral Commission all figured variously in this grand conspiracy against LaRouche’s supposed intellectual antecedents. Jewish banking families kept popping up in LaRouche’s accounts of the evil forces.
You might think—you should think—that this would have sent us running for the exits. But, Godless and faithless, we were all possessed by a fear of being Jewish, and LaRouche offered us a rock to hide under. LaRouche feigned a sort of philo-Semitism, praising marginal figures who could be fit into his mold: the Platonist Philo of Alexandria, for example, and the German rationalist Moses Mendelssohn—Jews, that is, who sounded more like Greek philosophers than like Jews. He also portrayed himself as the opponent of Nazi tendencies that lurked everywhere. In a caricature of the reductio ad Hitlerum, everything he didn’t like pointed to the Nazis. The economist Milton Friedman, whose students had advised the Pinochet regime in Chile, must be a fascist because LaRouche didn’t like his economics, and I coauthored a book with LaRouche in 1978 with that silly allegation.
In 1978, I did a study for LaRouche of the economics of the narcotics traffic. The numbers I crunched showed that narcotics was a hundred-billion-dollar-a-year business—not a controversial conclusion today, but at the time it seemed startling. LaRouche took my quantitative study and combined it with the paranoid musings of other researchers into a book, Dope, Inc., that had unmistakable anti-Semitic overtones. I knew about this, too, and again I looked the other way.
When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, LaRouche was doing well, with a pocket publishing empire, a more-or-less accepted scientific front in the Fusion Energy Foundation, and a remarkable capacity to raise money (a good deal of which, it later turned out, was obtained by fraud). Nonetheless, within a few years nearly all his key people had quit. Once they began to engage the real world at a serious level, they broke free of LaRouche’s spell.
Like so many leftist Jews, I came to believe that only a universal solution to humanity’s problems would solve the problems of the Jews, and the more universal the solution, the less Jewish. In plain English I was afraid to be Jewish: The less Jewish I was, and the more universal, the less likely I would be to be killed for being Jewish.
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