This year a man who has carried on multiple affairs, divorced two wives, and requested one open marriage was endorsed to run for president by a southern state where all the “family values” stuff, the so-called “socialconservatism,” was still supposed to matter. What is less socially conservative than sowing your oats left and right and treating spouses like spare parts? Some things, maybe. But still! I thought the dalliances and the surreptitious dicking was supposed to be our bit: we, the godless northern liberals with our promiscuity and our pro-choice, our Planned Parenthood and poor church attendance. That was the idea. And then South Carolina voted for the crown prince of matrimonial malfeasance, and gave us an opportunity to shake our heads and wonder: So what was the deal with that? A move as mind-boggling as, I don’t know, poor voters lining up for a party run by pinstriped tycoons who badmouth the social safety net? Which, of course, also happens, and is also a head-shaker, and fuels all the hours of talk radio and inchesof exasperated opinion copy about a part of the electorate that routinely “votes against its own interest”—something that is, when you come down to it, not logical.
Now enter Dan Howell and his ideas about cults. Here we find another pool of people who routinely act in ways that appear unsettlingly counterproductive, turning their money and their lives over to groups that have been known to advocate the subordination of women and the suppression of knowledge, as well as, historically, a host of even less savory items like sexual assault and violence. But Dan does not look to condemn: what he wants to do is disrupt the complacent presumption of continuity between our epistemic and logical matrix and theirs. The notion is that cults are not a-logical, but alter-logical, and that the conceptual vocabulary and moral metrics that underpin the world outside the cult are ill-suited for describing, measuring, assessing adequately the world inside it. What looks hypocritical, illogical from one side of the divide, and is thus hastilydiscounted, would not be so if the tools to access the reference frame of the other could be mustered. Of course, the problem is that the tools are not close at hand: the whole point is that the thoughts characteristic of one side’s system may not even be thinkable inside that of the other.
So Dan’s task is a difficult one: how to bridge the gap, to fashion a conduit between incommensurables? The route, when he is able to glimpse it, is illuminated by an emotional (thus sub- or super-logical) condition: alone in his apartment, faceless in the midst of a city of segregated individuals, he can feel, fleetingly, the appeal of the other side. Nonsense is resolved into sense, if only for a moment and imperfectly (still firmly in the extra-cultic world he is “almost scared to admit” his insight: mutual bondage might not really be “so crazy”).
And what about us? Can we, too, become aware of the alter-logic in the apparent illogic? One of the great things about Dan’s piece is that the niche issue of cult mentalities seguesinto issues of more generalized concern. Indeed he allows that our nation’s present “political polarization” may represent a “value conflict” analagous to that between the cult-devotee and the common man. And if, politically, we must ask the other side to try to assimilate our alter-logic on issues like queer identity, no doubt we must work to assimilate theirs as well. A starting point, which we have seen very little of in this election season so far, would be a new political journalism. I’m talking about writing stories with depth: not the manufactured depth of the New York Times milking Mitt Romney’s sons for bad one-liners, but something different altogether. I am talking about writing with the capacity to feel and to make us feel, to drive us into the sub- or super-logical realm where, for a moment, the decisions of a bunch of South Carolinians in January 2012 vis a vis a man with a large head and a horrible way with wives might not (I’m almost scared to admit it) look so crazy any longer.