On November 15th an article appeared in the Guardian: You'll never see me again. An 18 year old has drastically broken with his parents and the parents blame this on an internet cult, that is an on-line community. The leader of the so-called cult is to have encouraged the boy to break up as he propagates an idea that personal development is hampered by involuntary relations and one should engage just in voluntary relations.
BBC radio gave the leader of the community, Stefan Molyneux from Canada, the chance to react in a telephone interview that lasted some 9 minutes. Molyneux's defense was he was merely running a philosophy show (this is the podcast Freedomain Radio , feed ) and in his conversation with the runaway boy had merely pointed out that maintaining a relationship with your family should be a decision. On a more offensive note he continues to throw doubt on the harmonious picture painted of the broken family. How can this family be so close and harmonious is contact with a philosopher all the way in Canada could have such a devastating effect? More likely it is that more has been going on and there could even be good reason for the boy to run off.
This is not something I had seen before. I had sort of gotten used to podcasts being a rather niche phenomenon and not capable of stirring headlines, let alone controversy. However, as Cameron Reilly (of The Podcast Network) pointed out, podcasting is about creating community. Molyneux's Freedomain Radio is the most prolific podcast I have ever seen, in under three years he has produced over 1200 episodes and indeed has managed to build an on-line community. And as communities go, they are bound to be controversial to at least some outsiders.
Molyneux's podcasts, website, community and books are the means by which he spreads his philosophy which I think can be easily (if crudely) summarized as an ideology of anarchism. His idea of freedom and personal development is colliding with authority, especially institutionalized authority. In Molyneux's view the state and the church and their emissaries are suspect. In his view, state and church are effectively teaching their flock to be obedient, not to ideals, but to officials such as state functionaries and priests. The role of the family in the whole of these ideas comes out much more hybrid. He doesn't believe parents are suspect the way for example priests are, but surely the reflex of obedience is taught in the family. It is in family that the frustration of personality is internalized and the greatest harm is done.
One of the most interesting and - frankly - admirable issues of the podcast, is the episode (#1221 ) in which Stefan expresses his own personal involvement in the family issue. He goes beyond the philosophical construction and relates his own history of struggle with a dysfunctional family and the misery he had to grow up in. For this reason he declares not to want to sit back and let situations of individuals suffering from their families slide.
I am tempted to ascribe the success Molyneux had by building a community to this personal dedication. Other than that, I assume that the radicalism of the ideas also play a part. Anybody drawn to ideas that are rather far away from main stream will find himself in solitude and here internet communities can become much more important than otherwise. The article in the Guardian can be read such that Molyneux is taking advantage of his vulnerable following. Any off the beaten track movement has been accused of such. It certainly doesn't seem that way in the case of Freedomain Radio. It is a voice speaking to his own community. It is just not a regular preacher with a parish.
I have sympathy for the ideas and for the stamina, but there is also a point where I found it hard to make a connection with the podcast. Molyneux speaks for and to his community. He refers to 'the movement' and its ideas as a given. You have to be part of the deal to fully comprehend. As an outsider I felt a bit shut out. It takes a full immersion to fully appreciate and this means that you need to subscribe to the majority of the ideas and be inspired by them in order to connect. Otherwise it is a curiosity at best.