01/28/2008 09:44 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Maoists Are Like Scientologists

It's been a crazy couple of weeks. First the Scientologists, then the Maoists. You should see my e-mail inbox.

After the video of Tom Cruise offering inspirational advice to Scientologists was leaked on the interweb -- and God bless Gawker for being unafraid to keep the link live -- I got calls from three network TV shows asking me to comment. I don't have much experience on TV, but I had written several articles about Scientology, and as the rare writer who takes Scientology seriously as a religion, rather than dismissing it as a cult, I was all of a sudden in demand.

So I went on CBS's The EarlyShow, where I tried to explain some of the terms that Tom Cruise uses in the video ("org," "PTS"). I also tried to explain that Scientology may seem bizarre, but in my experience of knowing Scientologists and interviewing them (though not being one myself), it doesn't seem like a "cult." It doesn't try to separate people from their families, for example.

And so the e-mails started coming, from Scientologists and, more aggressively, from anti-Scientologists accusing me of being soft. (When it gets to be too much, I just have a nice glass of wine.)

Then, yesterday, my article about Bob Avakian appeared in the Boston Globe. Avakian is a fairly trivial character, the chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, an old Maoist organization that probably has a few hundred members in the country but acts as if it's the vanguard of the next revolution. (They also have a soft spot for Stalin, for what it's worth.) The occasion for my article was the appearance in The New York Review of Books of an ad signed by many famous scholars, artists, and activists -- Cornel West, the singer Rickie Lee Jones, Chuck D., cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal -- calling on people to "engage with" the thought of Bob Avakian and defending his right to free speech. This all gets pretty bizarre, since no one is attacking Avakian's right to free speech, but he is nonetheless underground and on the lam, perhaps in Paris, perhaps somewhere else, because the Party fears for his safety. (Read the article if you care to have this all explained.)

And it occurred to me in the writing of the Avakian piece that followers of Avakian aren't so different from followers of L. Ron Hubbard. Both groups, for one, believe that their sacred leaders hold the key to the best possible future: if only people would get on board, become Scientologists or Maoists, the new, brighter future would arrive. But, more important, both are terrific latter-day examples of cults of personality. Scientologists will tell you they don't worship L. Ron Hubbard, but they talk about him as if he's the smartest, bravest man who ever lived. They have pictures of him everywhere. They even think his novels are good. And Avakian's supporters have been increasingly frank that they actually want a cult of personality around Bob Avakian (although they call it a "cult of appreciation").

Should this bother us? No, we need not fear Bob Avakian or L. Ron Hubbard. I find their followers entertaining, and occasionally insightful (most people have some good points to make some of the time). It's groups like these that keep America interesting. The biggest mistake that people make when dealing with fringe organizations is to forget that one of the glories of our country is that such groups are allowed to exist. Germany tries to suppress Scientology -- we allow them their buildings in Hollywood and Times Square.