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Wild Wild County: Religion, Government, and Authoritarianism

My wife and I recently made our way through a six-part documentary miniseries called "Wild Wild Country," which chronicles the rise and fall of the religious city of Rajneeshpuram in rural central Oregon in the 1980s, and (perhaps less importantly) the rise and fall of the people who built the remarkable place from scratch. The city was built by and for the followers of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose religious teachings were apparently compelling enough to convince thousands of people from all over the world to abandon their former lives and move to the high desert of Oregon to build A-frame houses, dig plumbing trenches, construct dams, and eventually participate in paramilitary-style combat training and bioterrorism attacks - all while wearing some very interesting red denim jean/vest combos.

Brief independent research reveals Rajneesh's paper teachings to be a relatively innocuous New Age smorgasbord, centered around presence, mindfulness, meditation, and non-deism, with a healthy dose of Joel Osteen-style pro-materialist prosperity gospel thrown in to counteract the age-old misconception that spending your followers' money on a fleet of Rolls-Royces and a million-dollar diamond Rolex undermines your credibility as a humanist or a seeker of enlightenment. The creators of the series do not spend much time delving into Rajneesh's religious teachings, and rightfully so: it is immediately apparent to the viewer that the man's actual religious teachings were of fairly negligible import to the God-fearing fundamentalist Christian people of central Oregon who came to hate him. Ultimately, this is a series about a conflict, not a religion, and the conflict that unfolds proves sufficiently enlightening in its own regard.

The conflict at the heart of the series begins simmering soon after Rajneesh and his Sannyasin followers begin to construct their city in the desert, nineteen miles from the tiny town of Antelope. It is sparked by assorted failures of neighborliness: the residents of Antelope find the Sannyasins guilty of the mortal sins of being weird and arrogant, while the Sannyasins find the residents of Antelope to be bigoted, and vulnerable to oppression by virtue of their poverty. There is little daylight between the two groups, at the end of the day, and neither side does much credit to its faith. The Sannyasins - who take their day-to-day marching orders from Rajneesh's secretary and svengali, Ma Anand Sheela, rather than Rajneesh himself - share the tendency of their Antelope neighbors to drape their bigotries in the flag. 

One is left to wonder what interesting and productive conversations these two groups might have had in some alternate universe. Clearly, each found a great deal to like about the isolated high deserts of Wasco County, and one suspects that a discourse sown in that common ground might have yielded a great harvest. Distrust of secular government and distaste for the rat race may have revealed themselves to have a surprisingly broad appeal. As usual, basic human shortcomings crowd out higher human potential.

The geographic relativity of religious minority status plays out in interesting ways throughout the series. The Sannyasins arrive in Wasco County as the nominal outsiders, but so outnumber the residents of Antelope as to render any notion of their "minority" farcical - rooted solely (albeit deeply) in the nativist notion that certain groups are the "majority" as a matter of metaphysical predetermination, regardless of their actual numbers. The Sannyasins are not so transcendent as to fail to realize that actual numbers remain important to determining actual majorities, nor so enlightened as to fail to utilize their numerical advantage for oppressive purposes - while it persists. It does not persist for long, of course, and the numerical balance begins to see-saw back and forth as more and more white Christian Americans find themselves disturbed and politically activated at the thought that some other group might move to pull the levers of "their" government. The Sannyasins recruit homeless people from across the country to join the cause, and bus them to Rajneeshpuram to get their voting numbers up. The white Christian Americans, true to form, find this bussing undesirable (despite the fact that it breaks no law), and essentially suspend all new voter registrations in Wasco County to counteract it. The Sannyasins, finding their newly imported homeless brothers and sisters to have outlived their usefulness, unceremoniously reverse course and kick them out of Rajneeshpuram. 

The entire battle is transparently vindictive. These people simply do not like each other, and all principles fall to the wayside in the pursuit of that dislike. "Constitutionality" and "the Rule of Law" are constantly and forcefully invoked by each side, but the vast majority of these invocations fall flat. This was never a conflict with any regard for constitutionality or the rule of law, insofar as those terms hold any meaning beyond the good will of their supposed adherents.

Bouncing around the periphery of the narrative, while desperately seeking its center stage, is a particularly noxious former Assistant U.S. Attorney, who oozes more self-righteousness and zealous worship for the awesomeness of the U.S. Department of Justice (and his own awesomeness, by extension) than all the zealous worship of the Sannyasins and white Christian Oregonians for their respective Masters and Gods combined. Maybe he was more introspective off camera. 

For the most part, though, the characters who narrate the conflict and drive the story forward are articulate and compelling. There are a lot of true believers on display, but there is also a lot of critical self-examination going on - from former Sannyasins, anyway. The passage of time has left them less blinkered by their zeal for their guru, but more forcefully critical of the hypocrisies of the U.S. federal government and the America that stokes its fires. The lingering impression, as the final credits roll, is that those who made the effort, who questioned themselves deeply as their worlds unraveled, learned the only lessons that were really on offer in the first place.



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