by Miguel Martinez
The Paris suit had an unexpected follow-up.
In March 1998 I found a document on Internet which not only called me an
"apostate", but also made the following statements:
"Apostates had a key role in branding New Acropolis as a 'fascist' group. Prominent among them has been Miguel Martinez, a former leader of New Acropolis in Italy. On July 2, 1997 Martinez and the French TV network Canal Plus, lost a civil case for defamation before the Paris Court for having claimed - according to the court, with no evidence - that New Acropolis supports both nazism and the French pro-nazi-Vichy regime."
My preceding comments on the sentence clearly show that the Paris Court said no such thing.
The problem with this document is that it was not a polemical reply by NA. These statements appear in what presents itself as a "scientific study".
The document was a report by an Italian lawyer, Massimo Introvigne, founder and director of CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions), submitted to the Yearly meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco on November 23, 1997.
Poor scholarship or bad faith?
Bibliographies are usually to be found at the end of a study; but Introvigne apparently decided to give his text a scholarly flavour by listing dozens of books at the very beginning (not that any of these books have anything whatsoever to do with the subject matter of the study, New Acropolis).
The document considers three categories of people who leave a sect: defectors, ordinary leavetakers and apostates. These terms are explained in highly judgmental terms: according to Introvigne, a "defector" is simply not able to live up to the supposedly high standards of the group he belongs to, whereas the apostate is a "professional enemy" [sic] "who claims to have "escaped", and must therefore depict the group as if it were a gaol.
At this point, Introvigne presents the
"post-theosophical" group New Acropolis.
Although this is not by any means a document about NA, a few comments are in order to understand Introvigne's methods (for a complete confutation of Introvigne's study, and a general presentation of New Acropolis, see here).
First of all, Introvigne does not specify which writings are controversial. This fact will certainly escape any reader who is not aware of the background: he avoids being specific because New Acropolis avoids being specific. Every time that New Acropolis has been confronted with quotations in the press and in books, the organization has always answered very vaguely.
The most controversial document - the Leader's Manual, is not part of a "number of early writings"; it is more or less the constitution of the organization. Speaking before a commission of the Belgian parliament, the director of NA in Belgium, Fernando Fígares, answered questions about this text, saying "it does not belong to NA, although it was stolen from our archives", already a rather bizarre explanation; seconds later, he says that "one can agree with the statement made by our founder, the supposed author, who said they were notes taken by a student in Uruguay in 1969." Shortly after, Fígares makes another acrobatic leap, claiming that the document was "stolen from our archives" where "we of course keep documents drawn up by people who have criticized or attacked us" (Fernando Fígares, December 12, 1996, audition before the Belgian Commission of Inquiry on Cults). In a press conference in Lyons, France, on the other hand, NA founder Livraga had said that the words were indeed his, but had been "deformed" during translation (this version was quoted in the joint work by Introvigne and Antoine Faivre, Pour en finir avec les 'sectes'). As Introvigne says, "considerable controversy" does surround these texts: even the New Acropolis leadership seems unable to make up its mind whether the text was dictated by the leader of the organization, was a forgery drawn up "anti-cult movements" and kept in NA's files (where it had to be stolen, since apparently the forgers had lost their own copy), or a mistranslation (as if Livraga's very clear and simple Spanish would lose that much being translated into French…).
Another "controversial"document, the Political
Ideal, was actually written in the very last year of the Sixties, but
it was submitted for legal registration in Belgium in 1983; the important
NA leader, Javier Escribano, wrote that reading it was the key to becoming
a "true Acropolitan". Writing in the Swiss magazine Gauche Hebdo
(n. 30/31, July 25, 1996), cult-critic Claude Cantini says:
Without mentioning the Political Ideal, the Swiss branch of NA in 1997 made a "resolution" saying that "the text called Leader's Manual […] is not an official document of the International Organization New Acropolis" (in Bilan 1997: Association Nouvelle Acropole Suisse, p. 10). Not false, just "not official".
As far as Introvigne's mention of "Greek philosophy" is concerned, the Political Ideal does make a few superficial references to Plato's Myth of the Cave; however there are virtually no references to Greek philosophy in the Leader's Manual.
In any case, neither of these documents has any philosophical pretence: they are both guides for practical political action.
If Introvigne ignores these facts, he should have kept silent on the matter.
It should also be noticed how Introvigne compares "certain" documents (he never specifies which), surrounded by "considerable controversy", to the obvious public platitudes about democracy made by NA, which of course have never been questioned by NA itself. It is hard to escape the feeling that Introvigne is deliberately downplaying the impact of the material he is discussing.
The solution to the embarassing problem of these two texts has always been to avoid the issue, as we can see. This is quite understandable in the case of an organization which has to save its own reputation while not rejecting the basic teachings of its own founder.
A scholar could try to explore the social dynamics behind such a contradiction; he could analyse the texts. Introvigne on the other hand merely rubber-stamps the quite ridiculous official version given by the organization. We hope the reason is only laziness.
Even more surprising, Introvigne later
seems to say that the Paris court sentence actually proves that certain
supposed NA documents were counterfeit: he evidently did not read the sentence.
This is the only court decision Introvigne mentions in his text, and the
only accusation against NA refers to the "controversial" documents of the
group, so it is hard to put any other interpretation on Introvigne's statement
that "In fact, as mentioned earlier, court decisions have established that
some of these accusations are not true."
Introvigne builds this sentence carefully - he knows I never made any such claim (nor even thought so), but the reader is led to believe that I did. Also, the only comment I ever made associating the Vichy regime with NA was a passing reference to a physical resemblance between symbols used by both.
In 1997, New Acropolis France - in a unique gesture of trust - handed its membership lists over to CESNUR, in order to allow the organization to perform a study on people who had left NA.
This study, on which no independent documentation exists, was supposed to have been made by mail (by the way, the survey at least disproves NA's claim to have 10,000 members in France: the ten years of files supposedly studied by CESNUR include only 530 individuals).
The study does not go into the crucial element of a hierarchical organization, with its "onion-peel" structure of secret levels: most people who come into and then leave such a structure obviously have a pleasant and superficial notion of it. These people do not have any clear picture of the ultimate goals of the organization, or even of its internal practices.
The questionnaire only touches the impressions of ex-members, not controversial facts about the organizationJust because NA has a 'fascist' reputation, accusations have generally been political and ideological, not - as with other cults - based on how individual members are treated. Whereas with Scientology, key questions may revolve around the degree of pressure exerted on members, in the case of NA the key questions are: It is true that the organization is entirely hierarchical? Does it use uniforms similar to those used by the Nazis? Does it use the "controversial" texts mentioned above? Does it have an internal organization called the "Security Corps" which wears black shirts during its ceremonies? Unlike questions about many cults, these are quite simple yes-or-no questions, and are the only ones which interest the general public. Introvigne's survey asks none of these questions.
As a former member of New Acropolis, I find it perfectly obvious that most "leavetakers" would have a positive impression of the organization. After all, our job was to seduce people and make them feel happy. Advertising is hardly supposed to give people a bad impression.
Anybody who goes to a car dealer, looks at the advertising, meets the dealer personally, will probably have an excellent impression of his visit. It is a rather different matter when one actually buys a car and has to use it every day.
The questions are misleading. Introvigne lists certain answers as typical of what he calls "apostates". He also calls me an "apostate" (in fact I am the only "apostate" he mentions by name). However, for various reasons which I shall not go into here, I would have answered his questions in an entirely different manner from those he calls "apostates".
He notices that the most negative answers are those given by people who have been in touch with what he calls "anti-cult movements", and it is these people he qualifies as apostates. Introvigne claims these people were "influenced" or "persuaded to think critically" about New Acropolis.
This is a reversal of the actual process. I know of no former 'Acropolitan' who was approached by an "anti-cult movement". Actually, a person who has first come to hold a critical opinion on his or her own will quite naturally approach a cult awareness organization later on. A more interesting fact that emerges from Introvigne's survey is that the 'hostile' group mainly consists of married people, the 'satisfied' group of unmarried people: proximity to a trusted person (who may also be a friend or other loved one) not belonging to the organization definitely plays an important role in breaking down the isolation of a cult member and allowing him or her to mirror his/her experience. However Introvigne avoids commenting on this.
Curiously, Introvigne lists as a sign of 'hostility' the idea that New Acropolis is a "religious movement". Actually, NA claims not to be such; however Introvigne is a staunch supporter of the religious nature of any organization which does claim to be a religion, whereas cult critics say that the whole issue is irrelevant: destructive cults may be political, therapeutical or commercial as well as religious.
'Religion' is a matter for which no objective definition exists or can exist: one can expand or contract definitions to include or exclude whatever groups one prefers. In fact, in his essay in Libertà religiosa, 'sette' e 'diritto di persecuzione" (Cristianità, Piacenza, Italy, 1996), Introvigne accuses the French parliament of "claiming to solve a problem which has involved sociologists and historians of religion for at least a hundred years, by defining the very notion of 'religion" (p. 99). The only objective reality involved is that recognition as a religion implies certain legal and social consequences.
If we take the Catholic Church to be an undisputed 'religion', NA and Scientology both stand at about the same distance from it - both imply 'world views' (NA actually does have more 'theology' and less 'business' than Scientology). However, NA was established in Latin America, where neither Catholics nor anti-clericals like 'new religions'; Scientology was born in the USA, where belonging to any 'religion' confers social acceptability.
Introvigne then generalizes the results of this particular survey. This is quite unjustified: NA is a medium-sized group, so it cannot easily be compared either with tiny groups or with cult transnationals. Above all, it does not come from or through the USA, so it has never seriously developed a "Hard Sell" approach. Its largely political features also introduce unique elements.
The conclusions of Introvigne's mail survey
are easy to imagine: they can be found in every work by Introvigne written
before this survey was undertaken, and refer to a multitude of organizations.
Apostates, he claims, have been "socialized" into the "Anti-cult
substructure", so their "narratives" are unreliable (unlike the press releases
of cults, which apparently are reliable). This claim involves a curious
paradox: socialization into anti-cult structures involves occasional exchanges
of letters and phone calls between individuals who see each other as equals.
If such socialization is able to re-construct the recollections of former
cult members, how powerful must conditioning inside a cult be, where
members are daily "socialized" inside a structure based on an authority