Here we are again, wondering where to draw the line between fans and fanatics, admirers and cultists, loyalty and blind obedience to the great leader. The issue came up after hundreds of students rioted to protest the firing of long-time Penn State football Joe Paterno in connection with the arrest of alleged pederast Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s former assistant coach. A sports fan reacted with a piece in Salon, from which this is taken:
A friend of mine once explained to me that [cult leaders] rely on people who are broken, in some way, for their support. That seems true, as [Charlie] Manson was surrounded by drifters seeking refuge from their lives and a place where they were accepted and loved. The same is true for cult leaders like [Jim] Jones, [David] Koresh, or Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite, who also famously led a group to mass suicide while waiting for the arrival of the Hall-Bopp [sic] comet. While “broken” may be too strong a word, perhaps the words “impressionable” or “lost” are better. And students, especially impressionable teenagers away from home for the first time, can easily get drawn into a frenzy, protesting for a cause that they neither understand or have even tried to fully digest.
The writer wasn’t arguing that Joe Paterno was a cult leader, only that some people, especially young people, tend to react in a recklessly indignant way when people they look up to get in trouble.
In fact, Paterno was a cult leader, and much more. He lorded it over the young and old. Most of his followers weren’t broken, and not even impressionable, not in the way the writer meant the word. They were the sort of people who think of themselves as wholesome, God-fearing and freedom-loving. They filled a stadium that holds 100,000 on game days, wore and waved the blue-and-white, and came to believe the team, the town, and the emperor of Happy Valley were one and the same.
They are good people, most of them, for sure. They are also a horde of potential Nazis.