Final part (four of four) of Max Brecher’s in-depth analysis: ‘A Radically New Look at Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and a Controversial American Commune’.

 

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In his February 18, 2011 email to Ma Anand Bhagawati Les Zaitz wrote, “I’d also note that Sheela & Co. tagged me for assassination, her elite squad tried to burgalize [sic] my office and destroy my work station, and my private conversations at the ranch were illegally recorded. I guess that was all in good fun, and nothing negative about it. Tell that to my then-wife and our two young boys who were terrorized by the prospect of assassination.”

That phrase, “Sheela & Co.”, is one I have used throughout my book, and it shows that in some of his goal oriented private correspondence at least Zaitz is well aware that a very limited group of people were responsible for a lot of mayhem and thinking about murder, and there were major differences and firewalls of distinction between them and just about everyone else. But in his printed work there’s not much of that spot on, nothing to complain about exactness.

For there he never tires of the stigmatizing tactic of “Rajneeshee crimes” this and “Rajneeshee plots” that. Which is equivalent to branding something a “Catholic stickup” just because that cheeky bugger with a pistol in your pus happens to believe in the Eucharist. That tarring everyone with the same brush bad habit runs like a torrent of purple prose through Zaitz’s most recent attempts.

For example: “Along the way, they made plenty of enemies, often deliberately. Rajneeshee leaders were less than gracious in demanding government and community favors. Usually tolerant Oregonians pushed back, sometimes in threatening ways.” [1]

Here it is, folks. The Rajneeshee “they” were and remain the perfect counterpoint to the categorical Oregonian “we”. As in the previously cited, “it’s clear things were far worse than we realized” (emphasis mine). Those Rajneeshee varmints stormed in with both guns blazing and tried to take over the place. And we the good and easy going people of this great state put up with their offensive and often infantile shenanigans for as long as was humanly possible. But at a certain point enough was enough.”

Neil Goldschmidt, Dave Frohnmayer, Sen. Bob Packwood, Les Zaitz

Neil Goldschmidt, Dave Frohnmayer, Bob Packwood, Les Zaitz

This is another key element ‑ and possibly the heart of the matter ‑ in the ongoing saga of Rajneeshpuram as seen through the cracked lenses of The Oregonian and most Oregonians. And what’s to be gained by residents and resident journalists by doubting, let alone rigorously questioning and even challenging that holy writ? Which reminds me of a bumper sticker that was popular nearly 20 years ago. “If it matters to Oregonians, it’s in The Washington Post“. [2]

The reference for that dig was what some still consider the “lowest point in the paper’s [The Oregonian] modern history”. [3] Namely, its failure to go after and investigate repeated rumors about the sexually harassing habits of US Senator Robert Packwood. That story was eventually broken by Florence Graves, an out of state journalist, and published in The Washington Post on November 22, 1992.

After a dispute with Vanity Fair over her contract, Graves spent the summer researching the story independently. She says she was somewhat surprised the Oregonian didn’t beat her to it. “Something seems amiss when a person living in Needham, Massachusetts, working on her own, financing it herself, could develop a story to the point where she had identified enough women to make it credible. I considered at one point contacting the Oregonian, but several sources said, “If you take it there, they will figure out a way not to publish it.” There was a serious lack of trust that the paper will take on the state’s power brokers. [4]

The major thrust about The Oregonian‘s failure to pursue Packwood ‑ and, 12 years later, former Portland Mayor and Governor Neil Goldschmidt for his ongoing liaison with a 14 year old girl ‑ seemed to be about sex. But for our current purposes two other issues are much more important. One, the newspaper’s cavalier attitude towards what is and isn’t news. [5] Two, an out of state journalist with a severely restricted cash flow managing to scoop the biggest boys and girls on the block.

Opining on one, there is Richard Aguirre, state editor of Salem’s Statesman Journal. “Sometimes I think of the Oregonian as a big lumbering beast. Their position is: [‘]It’s news when we report it[‘].” [6] On the second, Mark Zusman, editor of one of the newspaper’s competitors, the Willamette Week. “In terms of challenging the power structure in a fearless and independent way, I can’t say the Oregonian acquits itself well.” [7]

In The Oregonian‘s defense, Sandra “Sandy” Rowe, the newspaper’s editor in chief at the time, shot back, “We’re the big institution in town, the largest daily in the Northwest ‑ it’s natural others are going to take shots at us. [But] Just because people are criticizing doesn’t make it factual.” [8] I couldn’t agree more. Just because people are criticizing, accusing and attacking doesn’t make it true. And that goes for The Oregonian and all the people and organizations it and other journalists report on.

What’s more, we have already seen at least one occasion in which The Oregonian reared up and spoke truth to power. Specifically in October and November 1983, when State Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer filed his church-state opinion against Rajneeshpuram, and then acted like it was a knockout punch, a fait accompli. The paper severely criticized him and went to bat in no uncertain terms for fair play and compromise. [9]

But what’s true of the organization ‑ at least in that instance ‑ is definitely not true of Zaitz & Co. At least not in connection with Rajneesh and Rajneeshpuram. For there it’s an all out example of what I call “gee whizz journalism”. That is, a whole range of Tom, Dick and Harry “government officials” and “authorities” saying this and that, and them deferentially jotting down the answers without once questioning, let alone challenging, the necessity and legality of their actions and validity of their accusations.

In other words, Zaitz & Co. constantly gave the establishment and ordinary Oregonians a ticket to ride and hide. With them the status quo was in safe hands.

Conspiracy? What Conspiracy?

My approach was more even and consistent. Less passive on the one hand and aggressive on the other. It was an examination of the whole story ‑ or at least as close to that elusive ideal as I was capable of ‑ and “no one was to be left out of the equations and given a glance over.” That “no one” included not only Rajneesh, but also government officials and “ordinary Oregonians” ‑ whatever, whoever and wherever they might be.

And since I was asking different questions with a different attitude about the answers, I came up with a completely different story. A book that is practically a line by line, step by step, blow by blow account and analysis of the pushing and shoving happening in Oregon and farther afield in the 1980’s. [10] It demonstrates, and in my opinion no way out proves, that there were numerous governmental conspiracies against the Rajneeshees ‑ federal, state and local ‑ running simultaneously and often at cross purposes.

In other words, the Rajneeshees were not operating in a vacuum or a dualistic universe where the borders between the forces of darkness and light, evil and good are constant and clear. Part of the pushing from the federal government’s side was the baseless refusal of the INS to recognize Rajneesh as a religious leader and grant foreign sannyasins religious worker status as a matter of course and right.

That was the source of many of the sham marriages. Individual sannyasins, acting for the most part on their own, basically figured, “If you won’t let us through the front door slammed shut in our faces, we’ll come through the back”. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

Another was the bogus argument of Rajneeshpuram and the whole commune experiment violating state land use laws. According to some, creating an oasis in the pristine desert was bad for the environment. While Zaitz & Co. didn’t find anything particularly absurd about that I discovered that conflicts over that issue with allegedly apolitical and impartial environmental groups and their leaders led pretty much one-two-three to the “takeover” of Antelope. Which in turn led to lots of bad blood between the Rajneeshees and their neighbors and all the bad press money could buy.

If you ask Les Zaitz and The Oregonian, the Rajneeshees alone were to blame. If you ask me and any independent observer of the facts and sequences, there was enough responsibility to go around. But conflicts are part and parcel of everyday life, in individuals, families and society at large. And quite often compromises are made, and those conflicts are either successfully resolved or back burnered, and life goes on. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

But in Oregon there was less and less will to compromise. Lines were drawn and the stakes raised. Existing laws were reinterpreted and new special anti-Rajneeshee legislation passed. And meanwhile, back at the ranch, a bunker mentality developed among the top management.

For they weren’t just imagining enemies all around. There were very real enemies and clear and impinging threats. And they weren’t going to let up until their objectives had been achieved. That is, ridding the state of Rajneesh and Rajneeshees. That was the source of the often harebrained [11] and totally off the wall plots ‑ the crimes committed and schemed by Sheela & Co.

At one time during the fall of 1985 Bob Hamilton, the attorney general in charge of the organized crime section of the department, counted 17 state and federal agencies coordinating their efforts against Rajneesh and his people. I cautiously introduced the last question of our taped interview, all too aware that I was now coming dangerously close to stepping on his toes.

Brecher: I’m going to ask you one more loaded question, and then I’m going to give you something for your records. This is a knuckleball. And I can understand if you don’t want to answer it. What’s the difference between 17 agencies coordinating against the Bhagwan and his people and a conspiracy against the Bhagwan and his people? What’s the difference?

Hamilton‘s voice suddenly became cold and angry. “Well, I don’t …. I don’t accept either one of those [alternatives]. There was no conspiracy.”

Brecher: I’m asking you. What’s the difference?

Hamilton: Well, I’m not going to answer that then. What I’m gonna answer is …

Brecher: … If you want, I’ll turn off the tape.

Hamilton: No, I don’t care. I’ve got nothing [to hide] …. What I’m saying is, there was no law enforcement conspiracy that I participated in against Rajneesh or his people.

Despite Hamilton’s protests to the contrary, there were conspiracies galore against the Rajneeshees. And they eventually led to the destruction of the city-commune and the ongoing blackwashing of Rajneesh’s name, work and legacy in the state. However, and for what it’s worth, I don’t think Hamilton himself was on the inside track of those conspiracies. He was just a tool in the hands of those running the shows and ultimately responsible.

The mildly curious reader might now well ask why attack dog journalist Les Zaitz, who had accumulated more than 40,000 pages of documents and dossiers on thousands of people, hasn’t stumbled across a single one of those conspiracies. The less charitable might say he was too myopic, even cyclopic. Couldn’t see the forest through all those trees, leaves and seeds of might have beens dumped along his money trails. That he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the class.

But I have three better hypotheses. One, he wasn’t looking for those conspiracies. Or he knew of them, but called them something else. Namely, “getting the job done” and “achieving our objectives”. Two, even if someone had shoved the conspiracies up both his nostrils ‑ as I have done in my book ‑ he didn’t want to know.

In his latest series my painstakingly researched work, done on a shoestring budget and paid for out of my own not very deep pockets, was listed as a distant also ran (under “A selection of other books”) with the faintly dismissive description, “Often cited by Rajneeshees as an authoritative book proving the American government conspired against the guru.” But he hasn’t shown the least interest in actually reading it and contacting the author to discuss and debate the contents. [12]

As far as I know, he also hasn’t approached the next author in his can’t be bothered bibliography, Washington State Professor Lewis Carter, or paused to take on board his sage advice on the subject of researching New Religious Movements (NRM’s) ‑ not “cults” or “sects”. “What observers learn will depend on their own background and orientation as well as how they are viewed by the group to be studied.” [13]

As a sociologist, Carter was naturally more interested in Rajneeshpuram for the social experimental aspects than the spiritual. And that included how its residents got on with the neighbors and they with them. His depictions of those “Usually tolerant Oregonians” couldn’t be made to squeeze into Zaitz’s carefully crafted slots. In fact, if taken seriously, they would completely obliterate them.

For while he didn’t talk of conspiracies, he did highlight the fierce, concerted and organized local you ain’t welcome committees. “I acquired first-hand knowledge of the opposition who pressured the Rajneesh to the point where they would display their intemperance and trigger legal reactions.” [14] In other words, according to Carter’s reading of the historical sequence, Oregonians were throwing the first punches, not the other way around.

“Opponents included ranchers, loggers, lawyers, public officials, professionals, liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists, aquarians, cowboys, academics, ministers. Like the Rajneesh, the prior residents of Eastern Oregon employed several organizational structures and identities. The 1000 Friends of Oregon, Concerned Oregonians. It was at first puzzling that these many groups [,] consisting of Oregonians who usually war (or at least contend) with each other (e.g.[,] environmentalists and ranchers) [,] could develop coalitions of such strength and focus. ” [15]

And Zaitz also hasn’t dipped into the longer than your arm work of James Richardson, professor of sociology and judicial studies at the University of Nevada, J. Gordon Melton, professor of New Age Religions at the University of California (Santa Barbara), and a whole host of other academics who have written extensively about an intense and nearly universal hostility of the media and general public toward NRM’s. [16]

Thus at a certain point any reader willing and able to confront ‑ and correct ‑ his own prejudices and those of others is forced to challenge Zaitz’s qualifications for a task he has so enthusiastically embraced. Ask themselves and him whether he was in over both his head and heart, and the only chance of catching up and pretending condescending superiority ‑ getting ahead of the curve ‑ was by reducing every-one and -thing to way below the level of his very poor powers to add and subtract.

If you can’t expand and adjust to fit the story, make the story fit you. The best defense is a good offense.

The third reason Zaitz didn’t spot the clear as day conspiracies all around was because he was a full fledged, card carrying member of them. Still is. Although he would definitely describe his efforts more positively ‑ something like “crusading journalism”. I wanted to talk to him about that and many other details too numerous and micro-micro specific to rehash and go into here.

That was in March 1989. He had left The Oregonian ‑ I don’t know why ‑ and was running his own newspaper in Keizer. But he was one of the few top players in the state who refused my requests for an interview. Another refusenik was Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer.

Apparently, Les Zaitz would rather ask questions than answer them. That might merely be an expression of his Constitutional ‑ indeed, God given ‑ right to have secrets and remain silent. And I have no problems with respecting and endorsing that. For an open environment is one thing, but a staked out, wire tapped and strip searched society is not something most are prepared to confront and endure.

Because coming too close to others and ourselves in our what you see is what you are nakedness could prove fatal to everything we’ve always thought, felt, believed and known. And there’s no telling where, or even if, that might end.

But I think the smart money should be on a much simpler solution for why Zaitz wants to remain mum. Namely, that in his case he’s got a lot to hide, and in his own words, “being honest is not a good idea”.

In Conclusion

Summing up, there’s nothing essentially new in the hepped- and heaped-up main body of Zaitz’ Rajneesh Retrospective. In the words of Bob Oliver, former chief legal aide for Governor Vic Atiyeh, he “didn’t really say anything that wasn’t pretty well known by well informed people anyway”. It recaps and reinforces all his and those of his target audience’s chiseled in marble angles, assumptions and foregone conclusions, with a bit of Christian charity chipped in to show that he really is interested in the whole truth and isn’t such a mean minded and bigoted son of a bitch after all.

Ma Prem Sambodhi, who lived in Portland, Oregon until her death in June 2011, said this about him in a February 24, 2011 email to Ma Anand Bhagawati.

He [Zaitz] is so patronizing and has been for so long that I don’t believe he even realizes he’s doing it…. He twists things to his own purpose. In the back and forth messages you forwarded to me, I noticed that he misspelled your name. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but there’s no excuse (in my mind) for that kind of negligence, especially from someone who is supposedly a writer. To me it reflects a lack of respect for the other person, and an ego so big that he believes he can say and do anything with complete confidence he is right. He has no ability to see another person as a person unless that person agrees with him.

I recently spoke with my friend … who now lives on the Oregon coast. She decided not to send him any pictures or memories even though they would have presented a positive image of the ranch. Even if they’re positive, it’s him giving us a chance (a patronizing gesture) to show a side of the ranch that he didn’t see…. Now he wants to provide us with an opportunity to present another perspective to his own (which will be negative, I’m sure), and show himself to be a good guy, fair and unbiased. Yuk! [17]

A spot on analysis and prediction, except for one important omission. By cooperating with Zaitz, the sannyasins would appear to be agreeing with his overall storyline, Saying in effect, “Yes, but ….”.


[1] Les Zaitz, “25 years after Rajneeshee commune collapsed, truth spills out”, Part 1, April 14, 2011

[2] The phrase is attributed to Rick Seifert, a Portland Community College journalism professor (Jill Rosen, “The Story Behind the Story”, American Journalism Review (AJR), August/September 2004).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cheryl Reid, “A Newspaper Confesses: We Missed the Story”, American Journalism Review, January/February 1993

[5] See Edward Herman’s remarks above.

[6] Rosen, op. cit.

[7] Mark Lisheron, “Riding High”, American Journalism Review, March 2000

[8] Rosen, op. cit.

[9] See Chapter 5.

[10] For a short attention span generation, my book is a combination of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Even those who know how to read in the classical sense of the word might find it too long and detailed. But when you’re going up against and trying to break through a wall of received wisdom, you have to be unusually thorough. And even then ‑ as subsequent history up to now has proved ‑ those who don’t know don’t want to.

[11] In the testimony of Ma Dhyan Yogini (Alma Peralta) at “the Turner Conspiracy Trial” (see below), we hear: “What happened was that Samadhi had volunteered to shoot Mr. Charles Turner. Samadhi had gone to Sheela and asked it that was possible. And then when Ava picked me up at the airport, Ava was very disturbed. She said to me, ‘Yogini, that is not going to be possible [,] because Samadhi can only see out of one eye. She has to wear a contact lens. The other eye is practically useless. She cannot drive and she can’t shoot guns. She was never a part of learning to shoot guns.'” (Yogini/Peralta testimony, p. 1651) This story is also included in Ava Avalos’ testimony (p. 724f).

[12] In her February 22, 2011 response to Zaitz Ma Anand Bhagawati wrote, “If you are really looking for the truth you could start by exposing the whole strategy of the Reagan Administration against Osho and the sannyasins but that would be politically a too touchy subject for The Oregonian.” In his reply a few hours later he wrote, “If you have direct knowledge or evidence of the Reagan plot, please send it along. I’d be happy to look it over.”

[13] Lewis Carter, “The ‘New Renunciates’ of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh: Observations and Identification of Problems on Interpreting New Religious Movements”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1987, p. 150

[14] Ibid., p. 169

[15] Ibid., p. 169

[16] “A great deal of effort has been expended within the social-scientific tradition to unravel the complexities of marginal religious organizations. Unfortunately [,] it seems that the message is somehow totally lost to the majority of those employed by the print media.” (Barend van Driel and James Richardson, “Categorization of New Religious Movements in American Print Media”, Sociological Analysis, Spring 1988, p. 182)

[17] “Arrogant” is the top of the pops word in comments about Zaitz. Including from former colleagues at The Oregonian who wish to remain anonymous. One who never trusted him wrote that he’s “still paranoid, still arrogant”.

 

Max22Max 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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