This week a member of the AS community sent me an article they had seen a pastor in the US post on social media from the right-wing source the Daily Wire. They asked for an analysis. This Daily Wire post (which I won’t link to here but you are welcome to Google) was about a supposed “new development” in the case which has already led to many convictions in the case of Keith Raniere’s multi-level marketing scheme meets sex cult/sex trafficking ring, NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um). Once I delved into the rhetoric and context of this right-wing news article, I knew it was this week’s blog post.
That’s specifically because it bears all the hallmarks of the ways bad actors are trying to use right-wing media to poison the well against the legal system in an era where the Jan 6 hearings and other related legal systems are moving toward increasing convictions on bad behavior by recent right-wing politicians and others.
Because of all of that, it helps me build on what I was writing about here a couple of weeks ago.
In this blog post, I hope to sketch the outlines of my findings, and make the case for why it’s so important to continue to do what we can to speak up against the toxic crap so we can make space for healthier systems. And that includes understanding and responding to the ongoing threat a healthier system this Daily Wire piece represents, whether or not we know anyone directly that believes and spreads this kind of disinformation.
Where I’m Coming From Here
As always, I’m looking at this case from my standpoint as a pastor’s kid who grew up to get a PhD in Communication.
As such, I was particularly appalled to hear that this propagandistic news piece was shared by a pastor. This kind of thing gets to the heart of why I started this project.
Looking at the Church Abuse Scandal Context
See, even at the face of it and BEFORE ANALYSIS even, it is flat out weird to see pastors sharing pieces that are defending conmen that have been convicted of sex trafficking in court.
In the midst of all the proven news about church sex abuse scandals, from the Catholic church to the Southern Baptist Convention, even on the face of it, that a pastor would share a news piece that claims that a sex offender might have been wrongfully convicted is a HUGE red flag.
But once you look into it a little further it makes sense in a disturbing sort of way. Give me a few minutes and I’ll explain the linkages. And, I promise, I’ll circle back around to this part of the puzzle.
Starting with Google
But first, let’s start with the rhetoric and context for the Daily Wire piece’s rhetoric.
First, the person who sent it to me had done a Google search and noticed that very little to no new news was showing up about the NXIVM sex trafficking case among the kind of news outlets that fact check their pieces.
I did a Google search for the same. Looking at some of the news pieces from legitimate outlets that came up relating to the older parts of the case gave me a lot of helpful context on the background of NXIVM and its founder, Keith Raniere.
A Classic Case of Unhealthy Exploitive Cultishness
I don’t have time to get into it all here, but yeahhhh all the evidence shows that this case seems really strongly to be a classic case of a conman who had started an MLM that had evolved into a sex cult and sex trafficking ring.
This reminded me of the book I had been meaning to post a review of here, Cultish, which is, by the way, well worth the read. I would argue that the author of that book, whose father had grown up in a well-known cult, was making some powerful points about how we tend to demonize cults and debunking the idea of brainwashing in interesting and often really helpful ways.
A Quick Overview of Cultish Rhetoric
To sum up, the Cultish author argues that our society’s fear of cults and cultish groups is both on the mark and sometimes overblown.
She points out that a closer analysis shows that people in cults aren’t really brainwashed at all—that the rhetorical techniques hardcore cults use are persuasive devices used healthily in other situations.
And that the reason some cult members find it hard to walk away are the same reasons people find it hard to walk away from other manipulative unhealthy situations in life.
What Cultish Had to Say about Keith Raniere and NXIVM
Because Cultish was strong on my mind, I wanted to check on it and see what it said about NXIVM. Sure enough, there were 14 references to this particular group, which during the writing of the book had been in the news and documentary circuit a lot, as a prime example of the kind of cultish rhetoric she was describing.
Which actually helps describe why she spent a couple of chapters on cultish MLMs like Amway and, though she glances at it a bit, NXIVM.
At any rate, going back to that book was a helpful refresher on the history of that group and its unhealthy dynamics.
Back to the Daily Wire Article, Starting at the Very Beginning (A Very Good Place to Start!)
But back to the Daily Wire article.
The title alone should be enough to raise a whole host of red flags. “DOJ Manipulated Evidence In Keith Raniere Case, Claim Ex-FBI Experts, Alan Dershowitz.”
So yeah, if you look at the Google list of articles about the Raniere legal case, the last big convictions on the case came through more than a year ago.
Let’s Talk about the Timing, Shall We?
Anyone looking at the political context and the focus on the DOJ messing up ought to have their spidey senses on high alert seeing that ONLY right-wing periodicals are talking about this seeming “development” in the case, especially since it’s happening NOW.
See, this Daily Wire piece was published in October 7, 2022. One month from the midterms. In the midst of an awful lot of legal proceedings from the DOJ around right-wing figures and things like their incitement of Jan. 6.
Hmmmm….These Are Hardly Unbiased Actors Mentioned in the Piece
Digging into the names mentioned in the title and first couple of paragraphs of the article, even through a basic Google search, raises further red flags.
See, Alan Dershowitz, though a Democrat, is a defense attorney known for taking on high profile clients from the right wing. He’s the prime defense attorney for the Keith Raniere case, which means he’s far from unbiased as he makes these claims—he’s specifically fighting for his client.
He also defended notorious people like Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, and while he has criticized the 45th president, he also has mentioned willingness to be on his defense team at some point.
In Fact, Direct Ties to Key Issues in the Conspiracies Related to Jan 6….Ohhhhhhhh
Together with the fact that the other guy mentioned in the first paragraph making these allegations, “former U.S. Attorney” Bud Cummins, has had a prominent role in the 2019 Trump-Ukraine scandal, well…this is also hardly an unbiased party when it comes to the DOJ’s current actions.
Because Facts Matter, Let’s Talk about the NUMBER of Former FBI Experts Involved
Looking further at the article’s rhetoric, it claims that “six former FBI forensic experts” are saying that the government framed him have uncovered evidence that Keith Raniere has framed him. I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole of discussing whether this is an accurate allegation, but this piece here’s an overview of the allegation reported in the Daily Wire piece from a somewhat more neutral source.
I will say that I’m not connected to the legal system at all, so I can’t judge the legal merits of this argument. But I have studied enough of the rhetoric of conspiracy, which I’ve unwrapped previously several places on this blog, to tell you that my spidey senses are going up when I read the article from the Daily Wire next to the one I just linked above.
See, the Daily Wire claims, again, that 6 former FBI forensic experts were the ones that held a press conference and filed the claims. According to this more neutral source, though, the 6 individuals holding the press conference included only 2 former FBI consultants. A screen grab provided by the Law & Crime blog shows that Dershowitz and Cummins, neither of which are former FBI, are two of the 6 people on Zoom for the news conference.
Basically a Press Release for the Defense??? Hardly “Fair and Balanced” Reporting Here…
It also highlights specifically that all of the people in the news conference are either specifically on the side of the defense in the NXIVM case.
This disinformation—the inflation of the number of former FBI experts—may seem a small thing. But again, as someone who has studied rhetoric of conspiracy tropes, the fact that what is being alleged here is DOJ misconduct, and that the Daily Wire piece seems to be inflating the number of insider “experts” is really key.
Tying This Inaccuracy Back to Unhealthy Conspiracy Tropes
See, the trope of former insiders in the government exposing “Deep State corruption” runs extremely deep in unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric.
And in light of the extremely strong evidence just presented at the Jan. 6 hearings that an actual conspiracy to undermine democracy in the US has been underfoot for quite some time, and that several of the actual same people involved in this press conference specifically have stakes in the DOJ being smeared, I am seeing a whole red flag parade here.
Connecting It Back to Poisoning the Well
And, in fact, what I believe is happening both with this press conference and with its inclusion in the Daily Wire is a form, once again, of an attempt at DARVO and poisoning the well.
If you haven’t been following along, I talked about right-leaning attempts to poison the well against abuse survivors recently here. This Daily Wire rhetoric seems to fit squarely into that category as well, but with an even stronger tie to right-wing attempts to poison the well against the Jan 6 legal proceedings.
Yup, Definitely DARVO
Seeing how the group giving this press conference includes at least one person who actively has activities related to the Jan 6 legal proceedings, as noted above, it also seems to be a strong enactment of DARVO, which as I described many times is a term from studies of domestic violence that stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender.
Considering the source and the context here, it seems to be an extremely bald attempt for people who evidence increasingly shows are on the side of people that have tried to and are still trying to enact a slow-moving coup of the US to try to pin the blame for government corruption on those who are working to hold them accountable.
Again, Basically a Disinformational Press Release (i.e., Propaganda)
Soooooo yeahhhhh, considering the source and context here is extremely important in understanding why this Daily Wire piece isn’t exactly neutral trustworthy hard-hitting news.
Even if none of that were true (and there’s plenty of evidence that right-wing media HAS overtly been spreading disinformation in recent years toward helping to spread the Big (fascistic disinformation) Lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent), the truth is that this “journalistic piece” is extremely biased.
So here’s my expert analysis from the vantage point of my expertise (but I don’t think it takes nearly that much to get there!). This is not hard hitting journalism. It’s basically an (inaccurate) press release for the defense team for a convicted conman who has been shown in court to have engaged in extremely unhealthy behaviors related to sex trafficking and other crimes.
But Let’s Circle Back Around to that Pastor Thing
Now, I don’t want to leave this analysis before circling back to why a pastor might be sharing this on his page.
See, that too raised my spidey senses.
After all, in recent months the Southern Baptist Convention’s sex abuse scandal has been in the national news in the US. And it didn’t hit me until I was puzzling about this that I had recently heard that that case too was being investigated by…wait for it…you guessed it…the DOJ.
Here’s an article from NPR about that fact, but there are plenty of other legitimate reports on the topic that come up in a Google search.
Some Red Flag Parades Ought Not Be Dismissed
One of the things I really appreciate about the book Cultish is the nuance in it—the desire not to lump all cults and cultish things into one lump. I think that’s really important work to do.
And it’s true. I know this perfectly well from my upbringing in circles that have been split by the recent religio-political apocalypse. There are all sorts of people with all sorts of motives for getting pulled into supporting the 45th President and those defending Jan 6, either overtly or quietly.
But also, let’s be clear—sometimes it is really really important to follow the red flags and not talk ourselves out of them.
Yeahhhh There Was a Reason Jesus Called Out Unhealthy Patterns of Spiritual Abuse
Pulling ourselves back up to the surface level of this analysis then, let’s be clear: I would highly caution against trusting the moral judgment of someone who was spreading this kind of blatant disinformation.
Especially if they were claiming to be in a position of spiritual authority in any way.
I mean, there’s a ton of weird unhealthy behavior described in the Bible—I wrote previously about how my upbringing thoroughly educated me on that weird crap.
But I know this much is true: when Jesus stood up for people, it wasn’t the sex traffickers of the world. He stood up against the exploiters and on the side of the exploited.
Jesus and other prophets in the Bible spent their time calling abusers and exploiters to repent and really change their ways. He didn’t wander around defending them.
So yeah, I know in my bones and expertise that this garbage is the direct opposite of what Jesus would support.
Okay Fine, So How Should We Already Agreeing With That Do with This Analysis?
Here’s the thing: If you’re in my reading audience, you probably know that already though. The reason I’m trying to unwrap this for you is to help you understand the mechanics of how these red flags come together.
Because I believe this case illustrates so perfectly exactly why it’s so important to keep an eye on right-wing rhetoric and what those who spread it are doing.
It would be great if we could just dismiss this as extreme rhetoric that will automatically be taken down. And I hope and trust that the legal system will do its bit with whatever happens in the Raniere appeal.
Understanding Why Our Voices and Actions Continue to Matter
But the effect of this Daily Wire piece is crucial to understanding why our voices continue to matter. Because while it’s not (most of) our specific jobs to do anything about the Raniere case or the other legal efforts related to the January 6 legal investigations, it IS our job to do what we can to keep motivating ourselves and others to keep combating this kind of unhealthy rhetoric in whatever way we can.
Maybe your circles keep you fairly separate from right-wing rhetoric—and that’s okay. We don’t have to directly speak up to it in order to combat the unhealthy effects.
Do What We Can Where We Are with Whatever We’ve Got
All we have to do is do what we can, to use our spheres of influence to continue to resist the rhetoric and policies of these unhealthy folks.
That involves grassroots efforts, getting out the votes of reasonable people, helping each other process any discouragement and burnout, etc. etc. etc.
I know this much is true: the threat is real. AND good things are happening in the legal system. But this kind of disinformation, and others, are continuing to threaten the future of healthy religio-political systems. And if we don’t do what we can all do individually to collectively stand up against these unhealthy efforts, there’s a chance they could prevail.
What we do matters, friends. There are vulnerable parties at risk. If you’re tired, rest, but don’t quit. Make sure to keep doing whatever small things you can do. We need you.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to work against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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