We only saw two Fringe shows our last two days in Edinburgh. Tuesday we went to “Are We All in a Cult?” by an obscure comedian whose stage name is Mowten and about whom I can find precious little information on the internet. And Wednesday we went to Dana Alexander’s “Don’t Start Me on White Jesus.” The rest of the time we either did straight on tourist things–visiting the Edinburgh Castle and watching the firing of the one o’clock gun–or shared a meal with friends or ran errands at Cadenhead’s (the best scotch shop around).
Are We All in a Cult?
Part of the Free Fringe, this was a charming stand-up bit that was theoretically focused on the question in the show’s title. Mowten is a lanky White man, of Jewish descent, with long wiry beard and a friendly demeanor. When we entered the venue he was seated on a stool. He greeted the various members of the audience, I’d guess that there were about 20 of us, and asked us small questions designed to build an emotional connection.
The show largely focused on his own quest for meaning. He had been raised by atheist Jews who gave him a taste of Jewish culture but no education in Judaism. He didn’t step into a synagogue until he was 15 and by that point he knew little, if anything, about Jewish practice.
In his teenage years he tried to find meaning and a connection to something larger than himself through drugs. I think that’s something that happens a bit less now than it used to but it was certainly a path to wisdom–largely imagined–that was still popular when I was a teenager in the 1990s. He drove himself mad through psychedelics. I knew a few people in my late teens and early twenties who did the same.
Eventually, after a suicide attempt and a stay in a mental hospital, he gave up drugs for membership in some variety of fundamentalist Christian sect. He remained a part of it for about fifteen years before finally leaving.
He likened the sect to a pyramid scheme with a rigid hierarchy, quotas for individuals, a code of absolute obedience, and an inflexible ideology. In his experience, those at the top of the pyramid did very well. Life for those at the bottom, however, was not so great.
The last portion of the show focused on the rhetorical question that made up its title. Mowten seemed to be quite convinced that we’re all in a cult and that cults are inevitable. While this statement makes for good standup I don’t find it analytically useful. For one thing, it doesn’t begin with a clear definition of a cult. For another, what we do we get analytically if we say we’re all in a cult? Generally, the cure that is put forth for cults is leaving them. But… if we’re all in a cult how can we leave it?
Additionally, what do I, or anyone for that matter, get from the statement “We’re all in a cult” that I don’t get from the statement, “Reality is socially constructed”? The first statement seems to leave me with little agency. I can’t leave the cult if we’re all part of it. The second offers some possibility for action. If reality is a social construct then we can engage in different forms of social practice to construct a different reality. Indeed, I would argue that this is the only that has ever happened.
David Graeber and David Wengrow argue in The Dawn of Everything that there are three fundamental freedoms. The first of these is the freedom to disobey. The second of these is to the freedom to leave. And the third of these is the freedom to make new combinations.
A definition of a cult that I might find useful would be: a cult is any form of social organization that imposes one of more of three kinds of unfreedom upon its members. The first of these unfreedoms would be the obligation to obey. The second would the inability to leave. And the third would be a prohibition on new forms of social arrangements.
As my reflections might suggest, Mowten’s routine was very provocative. If you can figure out where he’s going to perform or track done some YouTube clips of him online you definitely should. An hour with him is well worth it.
Don’t Start Me on White Jesus
The final Fringe show that we saw was Dana Alexander’s “Don’t Start Me on White Jesus.” Alexander is Black Canadian comic, of Jamaican descent, who now lives in England (I think in London). She’s a minor TV personality and, despite her Left-liberal politics, has been on one of the British clones of Fox News (GB News)–where she’s defended transgender rights, particularly gender neutral bathrooms, and made the case for reparations.
She was by turns funny and astute. She had interesting anecdotes about British politics and shared her experiences about being Black in Britain. I would say that it was one of the better standup shows that we went to but, with the exception of Mr. Chonkers, they were all good. Nonetheless, I would recommend her show to anyone and hope to see her again at some point.