This column first appeared in Malta Today
I have been following these week’s events while also watching a documentary called The Vow, which traces the origins of a self-development programme in the US that eventually turned into a cult.
On the surface, the ESP (Executive Services Programme) seemed to be a positive thing, full of snappy buzzwords to help people grow, develop and succeed to become “the best version of themselves” as the trendy catchphrase has it. When one peeled away the layers, however, it revealed a whole web of manipulation and brainwashing which stripped away people’s barriers and broke down their self-esteem (even as it perversely purported to build up their self-esteem). The brainchild behind it all was Keith Raniere, who founded the company NXIVM which organised the seminars. He is described throughout the documentary as a magnetically charismatic man, especially to the young, insecure women, including actresses, who were drawn to the programme because they seemed to be looking for answers.
Other companies sprouted from NXIVM, ostensibly to empower women, including a secret society known as DOS (Dominus Obsequious Sororium, a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions.”). This is where it all took a sinister turn, because the women belonging to DOS were eventually groomed to have sex with Raniere, and were even bizarrely branded with his initials.
As described in an expose’ which appeared in The New York Times, “Recruits were told that D.O.S. was formed to empower women and that as a condition of joining they were required to provide “collateral” — embarrassing and incriminating information, including nude pictures and false confessions of being a prostitute.” They called Keith Raniere ‘Vanguard’ and Master; he called them his slaves.
Does all this sound too far-fetched to be true; or something which must have happened a long time ago? Well, believe it or not, all this was only brought to light a few years ago in 2017. The revelations gained even more attention after the #metoo movement emboldened some of the women who had left the organisation to go public and on the record, after (belatedly) realising that what they had been through was not consensual at all, but sheer abuse.
Raniere is currently facing charges of sex trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy and is due to be sentenced in a few days, on 27th October.
I have referred to this documentary at length because I could not help but draw parallels between this organisation, which on the surface seemed straightforward enough (after all, there’s nothing wrong with trying to improve one’s self), and the way politics is often practiced in Malta (except for the sex slaves part, or so one hopes).
Like NXIVM’s self-development seminars, the ideals and high-sounding values of any political party, complete with slogans and catchy phrases are pounded into our heads on a daily basis. Like Raniere, the leader of the party is extolled and considered to be untouchable, above reproach, often bolstered beyond his actual abilities, by those who are yearning for something and someone to desperately believe in. Watching the documentary I really tried to see what the women saw in this rather short, stocky man, but apart from his penetrating eyes and long locks of brunette hair, he seemed quite ordinary. There is extensive footage of him speaking to groups of both men and women, as they gazed at him spellbound, but even after finishing the 9-part documentary, I still could not understand what mesmerised them so much, and how Raniere managed to dupe so many otherwise intelligent people.
However, as the seasoned New York Times journalist who broke the story points out in the documentary, what this story has taught him is that, “there are a lot of vulnerable people out there who can be easily exploited”. In the case of those who were not openly vulnerable, Raniere had a way of breaking them down, finding their weaknesses until he exposed their vulnerable side, making it easier for him to mould them.
If we transpose this to local partisan politics, especially when it comes to the unquestioning adulation of any leader, the similarities are glaring. It is the only way to explain why you have those who still defend a PM who brazenly refuses to wear a mask while addressing journalists in close proximity in the street, on the very same day that the Supt of Public Health informs us that there should be no excuses, we all have to follow the rules and everyone is obliged to wear a mask in public. I really doubt whether any enforcement officer is going to slap Robert Abela with a €100 fine for flouting the rules however.
The inability of many voters to set aside their deep-held beliefs and emotions when it comes to their party and criticise it objectively when it screws up, is why so many politicians continue to get away with trampling over the country, both metaphorically and literally. How else can we comprehend why the Infrastructure Minister, Ian “I hate trees” Borg, can post a photo of glistening, black tarmac laid through a country road with the caption “how beautiful” (xi ġmiel) only for people to fall all over themselves to gush and thank him? And if we needed any more apt symbolism of where his priorities lie, Borg chose the night the Budget speech was being read to have mature trees cut down for his precious Central Link project. Grazzi Ministru, prosit Ministru, shall we lie down on Mdina road as you crush over us with a bulldozer Ministru?
But back to the documentary. “You’re enrolling people into a concept and asking them to have blind faith in it” says one of the former followers who left the NXIVM organisation when he and his wife finally realised that they had unwittingly become part of a cult. It takes them, and the others, quite a while to reconcile their guilt for the part they played in enabling Raniere to do what he did, and there is a lot of soul-searching which goes on, as they grapple with their conscience. Again the parallels with the cult-like way political parties brainwash the public for their cause cannot be escaped.
As long as we treat politics like a cult we will not get really true leadership: it is why we had the dichotomy of Adrian Delia being slammed for not paying his taxes, and yet when the new leader Bernard Grech was found to have done the same thing, some of the same people downplayed it, “oh so what, haven’t we all been late with paying our tax and VAT?”. It is why you have those who will adamantly insist that one side is beyond reproach while the other is evil incarnated (take your pick as to which is which), when the reality is that both Labour and PN have plenty of skeletons in their closet, for those who know where to look.
As long as we treat politics like a cult, special interest lobby groups who strong arm political parties with their threat not to vote, will always get their way, while the rest of us, who are not organised into a cohesive lobby will be forced to suck it up and take it. For surely, if we had to set aside our partisan interests and collectively fight for our environment whether we are red or blue, we should be louder and more numerous than the hunters who were handed public land at Mizieb and L-Aħrax? Surely the real possibility of thousands of lost votes from OUR end would make politicians sit up and take notice?
Would it not be in all our best interests to demand that any new construction be stopped and for the industry to turn to renovating vacant, derelict buildings instead? Shouldn’t we all be demanding for the Government to step in to buy scheduled, historical buildings to restore them to their former glory, protecting and preserving them for future generations rather than face the real possibility of them being demolished? But unfortunately, for too many people the allegiance to Labour or the PN comes first, and Malta is an abysmal second.
In the documentary The Vow, the title refers to the promise which the women are forced to make to Keith Raniere to never reveal anything about the organisation. Those employees who attempted to sue him for the money he owed them after they left soon understood the extent of his power, as his lawyers flooded them with years of counter lawsuits, forcing them into bankruptcy. However, it was only when they sought each other and joined forces, when they stopped being afraid to speak, and got the media on their side in order to expose the truth, that the man who had stolen years of their lives was finally brought to justice. There’s a lesson to be learnt, if there ever was one.