Netflix smear follows playbook of anti-cult movement to make all new religious movements look bad
In one of the episodes of How to Become a Cult Leader on Netflix, the Unification Church is featured.
And Netflix and Los Angeles-based production company Citizen Jones should be thanked for stating what millions around the world already know – that Father Moon is “a legendary spiritual leader whose global appeal and staying power set a standard few have been able to match.”
In one of the opening scenes of this Netflix smear, sociologist David Taylor says, “Of all the new religions that emerged in the 70s, you’d have to consider the Unification Church as being the most successful. They’ve proven they can sustain themselves.”
And actor Peter Dinklage, hired as executive producer and narrator, admits, “You can even say he [Father Moon] went mainstream.”
But shockingly, the rest of the content – 99 % – is sheer propaganda for the anti-cult movement, to such an extent that the whole product may easily be seen as a piece of pure advocacy journalism, known to intentionally adopt a non-objective viewpoint – that of the anti-cult movement.
To endorse such advocacy journalism or campaigning journalism, Citizen Jones, the producers of the Netflix smear, certainly appear to possess very little insight into what Father and Mother Moon’s movement is all about. It seems that Citizen Jones may well have been served the bulk of the content by the anti-cult movement. All the so-called “experts” interviewed are part of it or associated with it in some way, and their statements are not questioned critically at all. This is not objective journalism. It is amazing that Netflix, the world’s leading streaming entertainment service, have sunk to such depths as to present hostile anti-religious propaganda as a “documentary”.
Just look at the experts quoted extensively in the program.
Diane Benscoter (67) was a member of the Unification Church for five years, before she got kidnapped and was held in forced confinement by professional deprogrammers. Then she herself joined the criminal activities of the deprogrammers and got involved in kidnapping adherents of new religious movements. She was arrested for kidnapping, and was so shocked that she gave up her anti-cult activism for close to 20 years.
78 years old Janja Lalich used to be a far-left extremist and was for about ten years a member of a radical paramilitary Marxist-Leninist group, the Democratic Workers Party in California. She became a high-ranking lieutenant, and only later it dawned on her that the party was run as a personality cult under the charismatic leadership of Marlene Dixon, a professor of sociology suffering from alcoholism. Dixon was an admirer of controversial Robert Jay Lifton (1926-), American psychiatrist and author, known for his theory of thought reform or brainwashing.
Rachel Bernstein describes herself as a “cult intervention specialist”, another expression for a deprogrammer or activist within the anti-cult movement. On her website there is a link to ICSA, a controversial anti-cult organization that used to be associated with Cult Awareness Network, an organization founded by Ted Patrick, the “father” of deprogramming, who was sentenced to many years in prison for kidnapping and forcible detention of followers of new religious movements.
Lisa Kohn was never a member of the Unification Church. Still she calls herself a “cult survivor”. She was introduced to the church as a ten-year old by her mother and attended some camps for kids. Her mother married again, and Lisa lived with her father. She describes life there, “I lived with my dad a life of sex, drugs, and squalor. […] I did do a hell of a lot of cocaine, including with my dad and the judge who had a lot of amazing cocaine, got into abusive relationships.”
It seems like she is not a “cult survivor”, but a “drugs and abuse survivor”.
Kimiaki Nishida is a social psychologist at Rissho University in Tokyo and chair-person of a Japanese anti-cult movement.
Lola Blanc, whose real name is Kandice Melonakos, was through her mother as a child connected to a Mormon splinter group.
David Taylor, a sociology professor, is known for his research into a UFO sect in the 1970s.
Teddy Hose is an anti-cult activist. He was for some years as a child associated with the Unification Church through his parents, who were members in the 1970s/1980s.
The basic message this appalling Netflix smear conveys, is spelt out in one of the last sentences the narrator reads, “Just remember, in this world you’re either the predator or the prey.”
Such a cynical point of view is of course exactly what the anti-cult movement has preached for decades when trying to scare relatives of members of new religious movements to pay tens of thousands of dollars to have those members be indoctrinated by the anti-cultists to abandon their faith. The Chinese Communist Party has learnt the techniques and arguments of the anti-cult movement, and applies them on a large scale to the current indoctrination of millions of Uyghurs in so-called re-education camps.
Throughout the Netflix smear produced by Citizen Jones, the derogatory terms “cult” and “Moonies” are used.
The narrator admits, “the Unification Church‘s status as a cult is in dispute.”
In key jurisdictions (e.g. the USA, the UK, Spain, as well as Austria, Norway, etc.) and in major court cases the Unification Church / now called the Family Federation has been found to be a bona fide religion.
Italian sociologist of religion Massimo Introvigne, head of CESNUR, Center for Studies on New Religions, and by many considered the world’s foremost expert on new religious movements, explains,
“‘Cult’ is just a label used to discriminate against groups that powerful lobbies, for whatever reasons, do not like.” (Quoted from the article The Abe Assassination. The Word ‘Cult’ Is A Tool for Discrimination, published by Bitter Winter, a magazine on religious liberty and human rights, 2nd Sept. 2022.)
Another derogatory word used in the Netflix smear is “Moonies”. It is deliberately utilized by leftwing and anti-religious activists to make fun of and belittle the Unification Church, now called the Family Federation, and its members.
The Oxford English Dictionary designates “Moonie” as a pejorative term, and major US media such as the New York Times and Chicago Tribune have foresworn use of the term for the same reason.
The large international news agency Reuters produced a handbook for its journalists, where it says: “‘Moonie’ is a pejorative term for members of the Unification Church. We should not use it in copy and avoid it when possible in direct quotations.”
The mud-slinging doesn’t stop there. The Netflix smear lumps the Unification Church together with groups that it is totally unrelated to. The wrongdoings of some extreme groups – all called “cults” – are used indiscriminately to create stereotypes and paint a black picture of all new religious movements. This is a standard strategy and part of the playbook of the anti-cult movement.
It is extreme to lump the Unification Church together with groups like the one led by Lyndon LaRouche (1922-2019), a Marxist theoretician and member of the Socialist Labor Party, who tried to become American president, but remained a fringe political figure spreading conspiracies.
It is likewise unreasonable to compare the Unification Church to the drug rehabilitation program that became a religious movement led by Charles Dederich (1913-1997), a reformed alcoholic.
The extreme anti-cult message that “you’re either the predator or the prey”, colours the whole Netflix smear. The mass weddings that the Family Federation is so famous for, are in the eyes of Netflix reduced to “a demonstration of his [Father Moon’s] influence and his [Father Moon’s] power.” Above-mentioned anti-cult activist Teddy Hose claims, “It’s all performance, mass weddings, show of strength. It’s all PR.”
That is a ridiculous claim when you consider that getting God’s blessing on your marriage is most holy and precious for members of the Family Federation. It’s the most important sacrament in the movement founded by Father and Mother Moon, just like marriage is an important sacrament for many Christians.
One of the extreme assertions that the Netflix smear endorses, is, in the words of “cult intervention specialist” Rachel Bernstein, “One of the distinguishing markers of a cult is rampant deception from start to finish.” Lola Blanc puts it like this, “If these groups were advertising what they’re really about, what the ideology really is, nobody would join.”
Those are perfect claims to keep the anti-cultists in business. They assert to be the ones who can tell you – at a steep price – what the Family Federation is all about. And the more religious movements you can include under the “cult” umbrella, the more business.
The most extreme example of this line of reasoning may well be self-proclaimed “cult expert” Steven Hassan, who in his book “The Cult of Trump” advocates that those who voted for Trump – the former US president’s cult of followers – ought to be deprogrammed. Of course by “experts” of the same ilk that Hassan, who are all part of the anti-cult movement. That would allow such an extreme movement to set the agenda, like it does in communist China and its war on religion. One easily gets the feeling that Hassan regards himself as a savior or Messiah, come to save people who cannot think for themselves.
And he and the anti-cult movement hold on to outdated notions like “mind control” and “brainwashing”. Most scholars of religion reject such concepts as pseudoscience. Dr. Massimo Introvigne, mentioned above, says,
“The Abe assassination is now used for reviving the dead horse of brainwashing and of theories claiming that bad ‘cults’, unlike good ‘religions’, recruit members and donors through mental manipulation. Just as it happened during the European witch hunts and the Japanese persecution of Christians for which Abe apologized, accusations of black magic – of which brainwashing is only the secularized version – and of operating an ‘evil cult’ lead to dehumanize, discriminate and persecute those so accused.
Today, they come for the Unification Church. Tomorrow, they may come for any religion that has among its enemies, lobbies powerful enough to persuade the media it is a ‘cult’.” (Quoted from The Abe Assassination. The Word ‘Cult’ Is A Tool for Discrimination, an article by Dr. Massimo Introvigne, published by Bitter Winter, a magazine on religious liberty and human rights, 2nd Sept. 2022.)
And Netflix / Citizen Jones would no doubt avoid making appalling productions like this by simply noting that anti-cult activists such as Hassan have been shown to be false witnesses that could not be relied upon by the courts.
It is disappointing that a person like Peter Dinklage, regarded as a role model for people with dwarfism, is executive producer and lends his voice to such a vicious attack on a religious minority.
The production is described by the producers as a “darkly satirical crime docuseries”.
Imagine Muslims or Jews being depicted as sinister and criminal. Anyone doing that, would be called islamophobic or antisemittic. There would be an uproar.
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) says in its Code of Ethics,
“The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”
Clearly, the source of much of the content in the Netflix smear is the anti-cult movement, without that being made clear to the viewer.
“Appalling Netflix Smear” – text: Knut Holdhus.
Text updated 10th and 13th August 2023.