Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Extreme Book Reviews: Inside Out by Alexandra Stein

OK you internet fiends, time to unglue your eyes from your monitor and read an actual print book. Alexandra Stein’s Inside Out: A Memoir of Entering and Breaking Out of a Minneapolis Political Cult is recommended for anyone who has a serious interest in political extremism or cults in general. Stein is a red diaper baby, raised by Communist activists. She drifted into the San Francisco leftist scene in the 1970’s, integrating herself into what was left of the radical underground there. Eventually, she came into contact with a mysterious group called simply the O. The O promised a strict system of internal discipline designed to turn its members into committed Maoist revolutionaries. Impressed with the group’s seemingly high levels of organization and purpose, Stein moved to Minneapolis to immerse herself completely in the O’s teachings. Separated from her family and friends, she soon came to depend on the group for her social as well as political needs. The rest of the book describes Stein’s journey from loyal member to questioning apostate, and her eventual separation from the group. The O was unusual in that it was a cult based on political rather than religious principals, and its leader was not particularly charismatic. (In fact, Stein did not so much as know the identity of the group’s leader until she was already in the process of leaving. Stein suggests that this leader, Theo Smith, may have been able to exert such control over his followers in part due to the fact that they were all white persons while he was an African-American man. The O may have been, to some extent, an extreme example of the power of white guilt.) The book does not only describe the inner workings of the cult, but also delves into Stein’s personal experience, allowing the reader to understand how an intelligent and perceptive young woman could come to surrender herself to a political organization so completely. These personal observations are what make the book such a pleasure to read, and what gives it such value to those studying the psychology of political extremism.

6 Comments:

Blogger mikesa said...

theo smith is still "going strong". he has filed a case in the minnesota district court claiming that the government of Ghana owes him 54 million dollars.
stein may claim to be "political" but i do not think smith can be called that. "politics" or "revolution" are just colors he uses to paint his odd projects, who knows what color he will choose next?

2:11 AM  
Blogger Henry Garfield said...

In her book Stein makes it clear that she thinks Smith is in fact a con artist, with few if any true political values, which pretty much matches up with your observations.

2:03 PM  
Blogger mikesa said...

hello henry
stein's book is more than a commentary on theo. it is an act of autobiographical reinvention. in a sense it is fiction. she claims to have an inerest in economics and then sites that she "taught" labor value theory. the labor value theory is not endorsed by economists and has been replaced by marginal utility and subjective value. when i hear that someone teaches labor value it usually means that they have a shallow idea of Marxism, yet she seems to think that her minimal grasp on value theory is a sign of her intelligence and critical thinking. during the co-op wars several leftists immediately saw the o circulars as a convoluted hodgepodge of marx and mao. still this clap trap convinced stein and others. bob malles, one of stein's friends and a former o member has called the o "an experiment that blew up in the lab". i find his interpretation a bit desperate. It seems to try to claim that something was actually there. I have a feeling that stein (and Malles) is inventing a youth different from the one she actually lived.
Of course in the end she calls theo a conman, it is a way to close that book. But what of Kyle Ray and his family? Stein holds on to the items stolen from ray's apartment and in a moment of absurd profundity she reads from them. What of kyle ray’s family? Are they just fodder for stein’s ruminations? Are they just another variation on an ill conceived idea like stein’s “knowledge” of labor value?
Henry, I am afraid you are missing some of the true message of stein’s book, but so does stein.

5:15 PM  
Blogger Joy said...

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4:11 PM  
Blogger Joy said...

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