Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Cowboys and sanyasis

Wild Wild Country - TV Series
Chapman Way, MacClain Way

Reviewed by Jason Overdorf
India Today (March 29, 2018)

In the early 1980s, the era of gurus and seekers was finished in America. The Christian right had seemingly put the last nail in the coffin of the counterculture. Ronald Reagan was president. The Official Preppy Handbook was hot. And greed was good.

But in one rural corner of Oregon, where a handful of ranchers and retirees had hunkered down and waited out the radical '60s and psychedelic '70s, a new revolution was brewing, filmmaker brothers Maclean and Chapman Way suggest at the outset of Wild Wild Country, a remarkable documentary series about America's encounter with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho.

What's stunning about the six-part Netflix series is its subtlety. There's something archetypal about the story: Like Socrates, Osho is mainly a cipher, his wisdom sketched out by the memories of his disciples. Like Jesus, he comes to destroy the conventional order of things and is eventually betrayed. Or like Mao Zedong, he cleverly shifts the blame for his excesses onto his personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela - a sort of Jiang Qing figure who presided over her own version of the Gang of Four.

But the Way brothers aim to do more than investigate the Rajneeshis' alleged crimes - which included what prosecutors dubbed the largest immigration fraud in American history and the largest mass poisoning. The series is pitched to a contemporary American audience, and it's therefore designed to shake the conventional notions of today's liberals and conservatives in a way that Osho - an admirer of the 19th Century Greek-Armenian philosopher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff - would no doubt find pleasing. (Gurdjieff thought most people live in an oblivious somnolent state and used unconventional mind traps to awaken his disciples).

This clever use of context invites the liberal American viewers who surely comprise the series' intended audience to identify with the Rajneeshis and to see the townspeople in the same light as more recent rural holdouts against the march of the New York-California brand of modernity - such as Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters, who in 2014 took up rifles, shotguns and sidearms to resist the American government's attempt to make the cowboy pay $1 million in fees for grazing his stock on public land. If the Constitution and the majority rule, the isolated rural holdout must be a nut or an idiot. But as the series unfolds and more and more details emerge about what was really going on in Rajneeshpuram - which was supposed to be a boundary-busting community dedicated to creativity and individualism, not just uninhibited sex - the Gurdjieffian trap springs shut.
In the contemporary interview footage, the supposedly ordinary citizens of Antelope, Oregon, present as exotic, while the one-time Rajneeshis feel familiar. Dressed archaically in farmers' overalls and unfashionable glasses and carping about "evil", the townspeople look and sound like the white nationalist supporters of Donald Trump. In contrast, Rajneeshis like former Los Angeles lawyer Swami Prem Niren (a.k.a. Philip Toelkes) look and sound like the coastal liberals who are now culturally dominant, quoting the Constitution and condemning "ignorance" and "bigots".

Spoiler alert: Stop reading and start watching if you want to be surprised by what unfolds.

The first inkling that something is amiss comes midway through the series, when the Rajneeshis begin collecting homeless people from cities all around the United States and bringing them to Rajneeshpuram to live. It's a brilliant maneuver. After purchasing a defunct desert ranch that's larger than the island of Manhattan, Osho's followers, now demonized as a cult, have seen their dream of creating a utopian city of some 10,000 disciples frustrated by a bureaucratic interpretation of land-use laws. But because they outnumber the 40 townspeople (the number itself is exotic!) many times over, they've taken over Antelope by democratic means. With the addition of the thousands of homeless people, they aim to take over all of Wasco County. As one of the townspeople puts it, they offered food, shelter, health care, even a ration of two beers a day, and "all you had to do was vote." But when one of the homeless men runs amok - many of the men were homeless because they suffered from serious psychological disorders - a syringe full of Haldol comes to the rescue, and the staunch individualists come to a frightening decision. They decided the best way to control the street people would be to tranquilize them all, without their knowledge or consent, explains Ma Shanti B. (a.k.a. Jane Stork).

From there, it is a short road to stockpiling guns and organizing a militia - an unmistakable maroon flag for the contemporary liberals now squared off against the National Rifle Association and rural "gun nuts." And if you're doling out tranqs to keep your own voters in line, why not cultivate an arsenal of salmonella bacteria to dust on the local salad bars a few days before the election? Then again, the only way to stop the insidious plots against the guru might be to assassinate the US attorney general.

What once seemed reasonable is revealed as insane. But because it appeared rational initially, its destruction is destabilizing rather than comforting - the exact opposite of the solving of a crime at the end of a detective novel. You cannot return to your comfortable opinions about the contemporary analogues for the townspeople and the Rajneeshis -- refugees and undocumented immigrants and redneck white nationalists and gun nuts and crusading liberals. Or, perhaps, in India, to "bigoted" Hindu nationalists and "pseudo" secularists.