Saturday, March 20, 2010

Yes, Virginia, there is actually spam worse than the emails written in all caps and address you as "precious one"

What a story. Only, I think, on the Internet could it have happened in this particular way. In January food activist Raj Pa appeared on the Colbert Report to promote his book on the financial crisis. A few days later his email inbox began to fill with cryptic emails asking him if he's a teacher. And before he knew what was up, members of a cult, awaiting the arrival of "the Space Brothers"-- "beings from Venus"-- began declaring him a messiah, destined, they apparently believe, to create total harmony in the world.

His friends and family apparently think it's a good joke, but it doesn't sound as though he's laughing himself. An article in Entertainment Weekly reported last week that Patel refused the Colbert Report's request that he pretend he's the real messiah. But then he sounds like a serious, decent guy. Here's more from the Guardian's piece, oh his attempts to quash the cult's ideas about him:
Instead of settling the issue, however, his denial merely fanned the flames for some believers. In a twist ripped straight from the script of the comedy classic, they said that this disavowal, too, had been prophesied. It seemed like there was nothing to convince them.

"It's the kind of paradox that's inescapable," he said, with a grim humour. "There's very little chance or point trying to dig out of it."

There are many elements of his life that tick the prophetic checklist of his worshippers: a flight from India to the UK as a child, growing up in London, a slight stutter, and appearances on TV. But it is his work that puts him most directly in the frame and causes him the most anguish - the very things the followers of Share believe will indicate that their new messiah has arrived.

Patel's career - spent at Oxford, LSE, the World Bank and with thinktank Food First - has been spent trying to understand the inequalities and problems caused by free market economics, particularly as it relates to the developing world.

His first book, Stuffed and Starved, rips through the problems in global food production and examines how the free market has worked to keep millions hungry (Naomi Klein called it dazzling, while the Guardian's Felicity Lawrence said it was "an impassioned call to action"). The Value of Nothing, meanwhile, draws on the economic collapse to look at how we might fix the system and improve life for billions of people around the globe.

While his goal appears to match Share's vision of worldwide harmony, he says the underlying assumptions it makes are wrong - and possibly even dangerous.

"What I'm arguing in the book is precisely the opposite of the Maitreya: what we need is various kinds of rebellion and transformations about how private property works," he said.

"I don't think a messiah figure is going to be a terribly good launching point for the kinds of politics I'm talking about - for someone who has very strong anarchist sympathies, this has some fairly deep contradictions in it."

To say Patel - with his academic air, stammer and grey-flecked hair - is a reluctant saviour is an understatement. In fact, he rejects the entire notion of saviours. If there is one thing he has learned from his work as an activist in countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa, it is that there are no easy answers.

"People are very ready to abdicate responsibility and have it shovelled on to someone else's shoulders," he said. "You saw that with Obama most spectacularly, but whenever there's going to be someone who's just going to fix it for you, it's a very attractive story. It's in every mythological structure."

The only person who's apparently not talking is the cult's enigmatic leader, who is so far keeping his own counsel on the matter.

1 comment:

Josh said...

"My parents came to visit recently, and they brought clothes that said 'he's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy'." I like this guy and his family.