There’s a scene at the start of The Vow, HBO’s documentary series on Nxivm, where an impatient recruit meets the group’s mysterious leader for the first time. After being described in almost divine terms by his Albany sidekicks rhapsodizing his supposed world record IQ, mastery of judo and concert piano skills, Keith Raniere finally emerges in an intimate gathering. He turns out to be a stocky man with a disgusting presentation. In a home video, he naively walks the room, flipping his feathered and parted hair in the center and pecking everyone on the lips. There was a part of me that was like, This is the guy? said the rookie, a filmmaker named Mark Vicente, after leaving the organization. But you never know where the wisdom comes from. You know?
What did so many people see in Keith Raniere, the founder of a professional development and women’s empowerment organization that served as the front for a pyramid scheme and sex cult of the skin brand? Ranieres’ crimes have been widely documented in newspaper exhibits, real crimes podcasts and federal indictments. (In June, he was convicted of sex trafficking, forced labor, and possession of child pornography, among other crimes.) But the appeal of The Vow, led by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, lies in the way he finally reveals the leader of Nxivms as an embodied figure worthy of the Internet age with a curious void of magnetism, which produces only his own fascination.
Raniere, like many cult leaders before him, Has been described also charismatic, but his screen presence is surprisingly slim. He sounds like the most boring guy in your freshman philosophy class. Images of him practicing judo and playing the piano reveal a college mastery. In scenes from Raniere on the volleyball court, the wacky epicenter of Nxivm’s social activity, he leaps into a mouse ponytail, thick knee pads, and an exercise headband while followers like the Smallville actress Allison Mack catches her attention from the sidelines. This is a guy who created his cult title, Vanguard, from an arcade game.
Former members of Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um) seem bewildered by how they fell under her spell and how some women fell so hard that they began to identify themselves as slaves of Nxivm, adopted starvation diets, submitted to Raniere sexually and branded his initials on their pelvis. And yet, in The Vow, he is oddly observable, as a recurring Saturday Night Live character unleashed in upstate New York.
The charismatic cult leader is both a sociological phenomenon and a pop culture archetype, and much of his mystique for the astonishing stranger comes from how he manages to rack up power despite his obvious absurdity. . In Going Clear, Lawrence Wright describes L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, as comically self-important, a parody of himself. As he worked a crowd, his eyes rolled, his body language was inappropriate and bizarre, and his hand flew meaninglessly in strange directions. The skeptical public treats the cult leader like a clown.
Ranieres sincerely followed was not great, but since he was exposed he has been inflated into an impending pop figure, in part because of the ease with which he conforms to this comedic role. Rain was a bit like Ghislaine Maxwell, another weirdly enigmatic figure accused of sex trafficking has the sublime appeal of an internet meme, which is how it was cast since The Vow premiered last month. The rift between Ranières’ serious crimes and his ridiculous persona easily translates into the ambivalent Internet culture, where ridicule generates its own form of influence and even the most vile ideas circulate under the disarming guise of ironic jokes.
Word charisma originated as a purely religious idea, referring to the divine powers attributed to mortal beings. In the 1920s, Max Weber redefined the term to describe leaders considered to possess exceptional, even superhuman powers, which do not come from God but from human social dynamics. Although charisma later came to mean pure personal charm as well, in the context of charismatic worship it often comes across as antisocial, narcissistic, and sociopathic. Much of the cult leader’s job is to hide from public view, outsourcing his charisma to his followers. Recent cultural portrayals of Charles Manson, including Quentin Tarantinos Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Emma Clines’ fictional novel The Girls, sideline the leader himself, instead drawing the lure of nimble young women who have him. turned around him.
Ranieres’ supporters included TV stars like Mack, believers with deep pockets like Seagram heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman, and affable, normal guys like Mark Vicente. Many of the women who joined Nxivms’ most alarming circle, the fake female empowerment group DOS, didn’t even know that Raniere was the leader behind her network of obedient slaves. They had no idea that DOS stood for dominant over submissive or that the initials KR were hidden in the obscure symbol they imprinted on their skin. They thought the group was built by and for women.
Ranières’ coercive activities were hidden in the passions of his time. If the Manson family of the 1960s took the form of a drug-addicted hippie commune, and the Davidians branch of the 1990s represented a new religious sect with a libertarian appeal, Nxivm was a professional development company fused with the pitfalls of technology. . Ranieres’ lectures had the energy of a TED Talk, her women’s groups embraced the bland feminist glow of Lean In and its application of extreme diets. echoes Silicon Valley obsession with biohacking.
The cult had echoes of Scientologys’ pseudoscientific fixations, but razed all intergalactic religious affairs. It’s a data-driven cult. Raniere claimed to have developed new mathematics and called his manipulation techniques technology. His network of slaves was hidden beneath what he presented as a highly rational and emotionally mature practice of polyamory. When Vicente finally confronted Raniere, telling him disturbing anecdotes about Nxivms’ treatment of women, Raniere replied that he couldn’t work on the testimony; he needed hard data, he says. When Vicentes’ own wife, another ex-Nxivm member, Bonnie Piesse, first sounded the alarm, Vicente pardoned Raniere – answering him: You have bad data here, he said. Ranieres flat affect only improved his worldview, elevating his pseudo-scientific and deceptively rational ideas above the feelings, experiences and needs of his followers.
Nxivm was a cult in the age of corporate internet, mass surveillance, and the nerd kings who rule everything. Members appear to have consistently videotaped their activities and recorded their conversations. Ranieres’ command over his subjects was applied via a smartphone, with the slaves being forced to respond to text messages from their masters within seconds in order to prove their unwavering attention. Nxivm has spawned a network of internet companies, including The Knife, a website ostensibly dedicated to evaluating news reporting for objectivity. And since the cult exploded, it has been treated through the prism of internet culture. The Manson Family was built on top of the old Hollywood lore of Spahn Ranch (where many westerns were filmed), and Scientology is cast with the explosive blockbuster drama, with followers like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. But Nxivm represents the cult as an Internet spectacle.
Despite the gravity of his crimes, Raniere was stunned on the internet, his character dealing with absurd humor. Sunday releases of new episodes of The Vow inspire new jokes on Nxivms a cappella group, his banal Albany frame and (especially) his brutally uncool volleyball practice. Like the writer Kaitlin Reilly Put the: Imagine seeing Keith Ranieres’ volleyball outfit and still being like the smartest man in the world
Ranieres’ exhibition in The Vow follows the memory of Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein’s friend who is locked in the same Brooklyn prison like Raniere. Both conform to the appetites of online conspiracy theory so much that they feel like paranoid message board inventions; they seem somewhat unreal. In an era when the most successful cult leader of the moment only exists as an online mirage Q, the dark piper behind QAnon, is a series of anonymous premonitions posted on message boards, real charismatic leaders take the form of online products. the Instagram Account @celebswithghislaine, who posted pictures of Maxwell during a costume party with Harvey Weinstein and stealthily from the benches at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, it is understood that Maxwell is such a slippery networker that his image appears as strange as Photoshop itself.
And Raniere? Every once in a while, Twitter will be spontaneously requisitioned by a random self-appointed expert who orders everyone to shut down because its time for a game theory. These people promise to lead their followers to a bombshell of revealing truth, but dozens of tweets later have produced nothing but a haze of conventional wisdom, conspiracy theory, and self-aggrandizing personal branding. These people get attention not because they are supernaturally attractive gurus, but because they figured out how to hack the attention economy and are coward enough to exploit people who feel lost. Raniere is the all-caps Twitter thread that comes to life: absurd, manipulative, totally hypnotizing.
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