Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

The Family

A while ago I was watching a clip from The Rachel Maddow Show and saw Jeff Sharlet talk about a mysterious underground group named the Family. I was, like many people, pretty surprised to hear about a secret Christian organization that has connections all over the world who only recently became exposed after a number of its Republican members have been in trouble in the news and were found to all have been going to this organization for “help”. So naturally after seeing Jeff Sharlet go back on this show numerous times and eventually make his way onto the Daily Show, I decided I had to go pick up his book, aptly named The Family, and see what all the fuss was about. And rest assured, it is a shocker.

Coincidentally, I also saw the movie Inglourious Basterds last night, and I feel that the two, are oddly enough, very similar (at a very high level of course). Both of these feature trailers (in the case of the book, the trailer is him on Rachel Maddow and the Daily Show) that describe a very action-packed ride, but instead deliver an excellent story with a comparably minimal amount of action sprinkled throughout. In the case of The Family, I had the impression that the book would entail his entire account of Jeff Sharlet’s time in the ranks of the Family and the juicy tidbits he has found. And while this certainly is present, it really only takes up the first chapters of the book and a little bit of the end.

The book is really the history of American fundamentalism, that is, the unique mix of American and Christian cultures that has already taken a firm hold in this country. It details the religious figures that laid the groundwork (Jonathan Edwards, amongst others) as well as the history of the Family itself. It details how the Family, itself a relatively small organization (~350 “core members”) is able to exert an incredible amount of influence over global politics by making sure at least one member is in the right spot at the right time. It is shown how the Family vastly grew in connections and influence as a response to the Cold War: it simply became the stronghold for everything anti-Communist and anti-atheist.

Although there are many opposite positions to Communism, this anti-Communist, anti-atheist stance resulted in an organization who possessed totalitarian, Christian-like views forming. Jeff Sharlet makes this abundantly clear throughout the book by telling us repeatedly that in the Family, all that matters is to obey the leadership, who got those positions by being closest to God. He repeatedly tells us the same material we see in the Maddow / Daily Show clips about how these leaders want to base their power structure on a small core of men (<12 men) just as how Hitler, Lenin, Mao, and many totalitarian leaders did. I also say “Christian-like” for the same reason Sharlet does in the book: the group makes it very clear that all they follow is Jesus and although the Bible is important, it’s much more important to feel Jesus than to know Jesus via the Bible.

But a lot of this information you already know if you saw the clips from the top, so the book doesn’t really add a whole lot to it. For some reason I just couldn’t get into the history of it all either. Each chapter adds a new person’s life story and how they end up in the Family or closely related to it, but because these people only meet up at the very end of the story and interact very rarely, the stories don’t end up very interesting to me. This is in great contrast to the first chapter, which details Sharlet’s time in the family. This was actually much more interesting, but in a lot of ways the book ends up being a lot like Nudge: it makes its point early on and beats it to death, way beyond the point where we care for more evidence about it. This is also in contrast to Godel, Escher, Bach, which also makes its point early on but takes enough interesting angles at it that you don’t get too bored by it.

This book also solves another question we had lingering around from a previous discussion. Back a while ago I read The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder and while it did an amazing job of showing that such a case could be won (and how to do so), it failed at convincing me of the question of “why would George Bush do it then”. The answer from that book was basically that George W. Bush is an asshole who hates America, and it just didn’t fit for me (and I actually preferred that he would have not answered it at all since that’s not the point of that book). This book shows the Family’s influences on the Bush family and while it doesn’t explicitly give its opinion about the topic, here’s what I’ve pieced together.

The Family follows a very Mao-like rule of being a “great person”: essentially if you’re in the Family, you have been chosen by God to follow his law, so “Earth laws” don’t apply to you. Do whatever you like on Earth because you’re following God’s laws, which by the way are the only laws that really matter. You still should try to follow government laws since doing so will keep you out of jail, but really God’s laws come first. It’s essentially the Dungeons and Dragons approach of being chaotic good (slightly modified as necessary for this discussion):

A Chaotic Good character favors change for a greater good, disdains bureaucratic organizations that get in the way of social improvement, and places a high value on personal freedom, not only for oneself, but for others as well. They always intend to do the right thing, but their methods are generally disorganised and often out of alignment with the rest of society. They have no use for those who would try to push them around and tell them what to do. While they do not have evil intentions, they often do bad things (even if they do not necessarily enjoy doing these things) to people who are, in their opinion, bad people if it benefits their goal of achieving a greater good.

If you’ve watched the TV series Heroes at all, you’ll recall the endless number of characters who parrot this pretty much straight on (and end up being complete dickheads in the process who betray everyone they ever claim to care for). So in that vain, the more believable motivation for George W. Bush to take us into war in Iraq is ultimately twofold: (1) oil, as resource acquisition is always a top priority (more on that heresince this point isn’t the focus of this explanation), and (2) spreading Christianity into a region he sincerely believed needed it the most. From reading the Family it seems obvious that the prime concern is doing things that feel good, even if there is potential evidence that doing this thing will not have a positive end result.

But this isn’t a new idea. Stephen Colbert popularized the joke of this idea four years ago, back in the first episode of The Colbert Report, with the now-a-real-word truthiness:

truth that comes from the gut, not books

And as he knew, this perfectly symbolized the Bush attitude (and the attitude behind the Family itself).

Yet it just didn’t click for me until I read this book. I already could kind-of-see it (and nothing I’m saying here is really that new to any of us I think), but the book just really hammers it in that YES, this is actually how these people feel about it. It’s pretty strange, and yet, from their point of view, we’re the strange ones.