The Zaitz Alert

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Part 1 of Max Brecher: A radically new look at Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and a controversial American commune.

Rajneeeshpuram sign

Max Brecher is the author of ‘A Passage to America’. Written in 1989 and eventually published in February 1993, it has been well (if not widely) received and even touted as factual, comprehensive and convincing. But Oregonians, even the educated classes and those claiming to be experts on the subject, seem not to have noticed.

He believes it’s time for the thinking elements to take a closer look at their state’s dismally lopsided, self congratulatory and brainwashing reporting record on the subject and at least consider the book’s subtitle and major theme: A Radically New Look at Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and a Controversial American Commune.

On Friday, February 18, 2011, Austrian sannyasin Ma Anand Bhagawati got an email from Les Zaitz, “senior investigative reporter” of The Oregonian. He had been soliciting postage stamp sized stories from “former sannyasins” for an alleged 25 year retrospective about Rajneeshpuram, and she had alerted her international network of friends and acquaintances about him.

In essence, she warned, he had repeatedly demonstrated his true colors in his scurrilous stake out journalistic attacks against them, their home, and, more importantly, the life and work of their beloved master. And unless he owned up to and apologized for all that he wasn’t to be trusted now.

The Oregonian reporter got wind of her “Zaitz alert” and was mightily injured and offended. “I received a copy of your message distributing my request for memories from former sannyasins”, he began. “Former sannyasins”? As if Bhagawati and her rich collection of friends had inadvertently slipped into the past tense.

Most, if not all of them, are still sannyasins ‑ some for 30 years or more ‑ and have an abiding sense of love, gratitude and responsibility toward the buddham, sangam and dhammam. That is, Rajneesh, his commune (not necessarily something physical and limited in space and time), and the eternal law (“tao” in Chinese, “logos” or “nomos” in ancient Greek, the “beyond” or “source” in seat of the pants modern English). They have subtle, je ne sais quoi qualities to share and stories to tell that are radically different from the short sighted and lopsided slander Zaitz has been hell bent on pushing as gospel.

Zaitz then went into a lot of self serving arm waving about having done his utmost in real time to get the story straight, but had been thwarted by sannyasins at every well intentioned step. In short, he was, then and now, only interested in getting at the truth. After all, that’s what reporting ‑ especially the hard hitting investigative kind ‑ is about. Right?

In principle and our most cherished romantic dreams reporting is a noble search for what used to be known as ‘objective truth’. And sometimes it actually comes close to living up to those sky high standards. But not always. As has been more than amply demonstrated in the not always admirable annals of the very mixed bag of whatever has appeared in newspapers, magazines and pamphlets and subsequently been deemed “journalism”. For example:

Anti-Irish Catholic tirades regularly appeared in a variety of forums: newspapers in cities such as New York (Daily News, Horace Greeley’s Tribune, the Evening Express, and the Herald), in speeches by those like popular orator Edmond A. Freeman (who once claimed that the best remedy for whatever is amiss in America would be if every Irishman should kill a negro and be hanged for it …), and in pamphlets and publications by authors such as the telegraph’s inventor, Samuel F. B. Morse. In an essay printed in 1835, Morse concluded that Catholicism was a foreign conspiracy by the Vatican to take over the Republic, and he advocated forcible relocation of Catholics to restricted areas on the frontier. [1]

In more recent times some may recall Janet Cooke of The Washington Post, Stephen Glass of The New Republic and other bright young thugs who were making it up as they went along. Sucking it out of their thumbs, as the Dutch say so picturesquely. Others swallow ‑ or at least print ‑ without checking, cross-checking and -referencing and analyzing in terms of probability and provability the fibs, rumors, insinuations and outright lies gift wrapped and spoon fed to them by unreliable and anything but disinterested sources.

Indeed, they seek out and build up exclusive, me first relationships with exactly those kinds of sources. Like Pulitzer Prize winning Judith “WMD” Miller, formerly of The New York Times, and so many other less than meticulous and scrupulous practitioners of the craft. [2]

Working Hypothesis

Before anyone can approach the truth about anything ‑ let alone “the full truth” ‑ they must first wade through minefields of thorny questions surrounding the seemingly simple subject of truth itself. Such as what’s included and what’s left out, and who decides what it does and doesn’t contain? Edward Herman, a media analyst and professor of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, provides a succinct introduction to some of the issues.

What type of diversity in news and news interpretation is “meaningful”? The tenets of democratic theory suggest that it has to do with definitions of “truth'” and the range of information and news necessary for an informed citizenry. First the issues selected for attention by the news media should encompass all issues that are of substantial interest to the population at large. Second, when there is a range of plausible facts and frameworks of interpretation that bear on an issue, all of these facts and frameworks should be available for public inspection. In other words, the “whole truth” is a corollary to “nothing but the truth.” So if only a subset of issues or facts is made available to the general population, diversity is not fulfilled. Or, if issues, facts, and views that deviate from an established view are confined to the fringes of the media and do not reach the bulk of the population, the result is what might be called meaningless or “marginalized” diversity. [3]

In this context, Les Zaitz’s interchange with Ma Anand Bhagawati could ‑ and should ‑ have been included in his Rajneeshpuram Retrospective to show that a sizable number of people who were witnesses to the events he was so relentlessly passing judgment on had a radically different take on what had ‑ and hadn’t ‑ happened. And they were explicitly challenging his previous reporting on the subject and willingness and ability to ever get it right. But there wasn’t a peep about it in what finally appeared in print. And for his readers it was more than pushed toward the margins. It was as if it had never happened.

Other explosions waiting to happen on the often long, obscure and untraveled dirt tracks leading to truth are what’s admissible and inadmissible evidence and where’s the border between the two? When weighing up complicated and often contradictory evidence and coming to conclusions how much emphasis is to be placed on this as opposed to that? What grounds are used to make those sorts of decisions and for what reasons? In other words, what underlying philosophical, intellectual, financial, social, psychological and political assumptions, theories and agendas are being supported and reinforced? What’s being shut up and out?

When I began my investigations about Rajneeshpuram in 1988 I had a few working hypotheses. In my opinion, all focused research ‑ especially on controversial topics like this ‑ have to start with something similar. Otherwise, the field’s too wide and researchers will quickly get mucked and mired in the storms of facts and opinions ‑ their own and everyone else’s ‑ they’re bound to bang into along the way. Anyone who has done this sort of work will immediately know what I’m talking about. If you spend much time trying to connect the dots, you’re in grave danger of going dotty

One of my hypotheses was pretty standard and off the shelf. A social experiment and spiritual movement gone astray. Why spiritual? Because Rajneesh was first and foremost a spiritual leader. A fact that is easily lost sight of in the work of The Oregonian in general and senior investigative reporter Les Zaitz in particular. But “lost sight of” is something of a misnomer, because it implies that they and he had it in their sights to begin with.

The proof of Rajneesh being a spiritual leader is in his hundreds of books explicating and commenting on other spiritual leaders, such as Buddha, Sufi mystics, Zen masters and Lao Tzu. Books, which when spread out on dedicated tables in book stores and lined up on their shelves have made many an aspiring writer ‑ myself included ‑ livid with envy. How had he managed to write so many? But when they get over their initial aversion, sometimes verging on burning hatred, and start reading what’s under the covers many find them to be impressive, refreshing, amusing and, well, enlightening.

There’s an aphorism currently making the rounds on the Internet. “The truth will set you free. But first it’s going to piss you off.” [4]

In my opinion ‑ and it’s not necessarily the opinion of all good and rational sentient beings, or “the truth” ‑ Rajneesh had managed to crack the code. That is, translate the often weird and maddening metaphors, symbols and paradoxes of the ancient esoteric literature I had long struggled with into terms that modern skeptics like me could relate to and just begin to fathom. He had something original and powerful to say on well recognized spiritual subjects. Love, life, meditation, death, and the quest for something beyond the merely mortal.

And I wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines. Spiritual because people came to him from the four corners of the earth ‑ and are still coming more than 20 years after his death ‑ not only because of what he had to say on matters closest to their hearts, but how he said it. Who he was, what he embodied (not represented) and how he glowed for them in a world that was all too often dark and without hope.

A second working hypothesis was, and is, that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. And that includes CEO’s, presidents, and whole groups, institutions and organizations. Call me a cock-eyed optimist or plain fuddy duddy old fashioned, but it’s still one of the basic tenets most post-Enlightenment moderns pay lip service to. [5]

Starting from those premises, my work was to be a basically historical-factual-journalistic investigation ‑ with generous helpings of what some call “religion” and others “spirituality” ‑ into how it all went south. My basic questions were: What had happened, when and why? Who, if any, specifiable people were responsible and even legally culpable? And no one was to be left out of the equations and given a free ride.

But at the same time I wasn’t going to be attack dog aggressive and intrusive. Not hide under the beds, sniff the spreadsheets, comb through the trash, and rely on the testimony of ex’s with axes to grind and dubious and even criminal activities to defend and legitimate. Because people are human beings ‑ a value loaded hypothesis often lost sight of in contemporary public life ‑ and are not only entitled to be considered innocent until proven guilty, but also have the right to have secrets and remain silent.

Read the whole series: A Radically New Look at Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and a Controversial American Commune

[1] Anson Shupe, “Vicissitudes of Public Legitimacy for Religious Groups: A Comparison of the Unification and Roman Catholic Churches”, Review of Religious Research, December 1997, p. 178

[2] Judith Miller’s reputation was tarnished and eventually ruined by much of her reporting in and around the 2003 Iraq War, both before and after the shock and awe invasion. Most notably, her dubious reporting about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and her involvement in the outing of Valerie Plame, a former CIA agent and wife of defiant US Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

[3] Edward Herman, “Diversity of News: ‘Marginalizing’ the Opposition”, Journal of

Communication, Summer 1985, p. 135.

[4] Attributed to Gloria Steinem. But you never know.

[5] That notion runs counter to a much older and possibly still more emotionally loaded and intellectually deep rooted belief that all humans are basically flawed and can only achieve the not too terrible (redemption) through their own relentless repentance and true contrition and the intervention (grace) of God and his only begotten son, Jesus Christ. For more on original sin, see Chapter 3.

MaxMax Brecher is a communications specialist living in Amsterdam. Besides A Passage to America, he is the author of 9 more books.

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