Are We a Cult Now?
An Interview with Filmmaker Jen Senko
~ March 24, 2017
n making her terrific documentary, The Brainwashing of My Dad, (read our review) Jen Senko wrecked her health. That’s the first thing you should know about her—she’s a deeply committed documentarian who throws herself, body and soul, into a project. This film is a labor of love. Her father was lost to her when he got immersed in Right-wing propaganda. The goofy, fun dad she grew up with vanished, replaced by a narrow-minded, bitter man. In trying to understand what had happened, Senko talked to many people, from Noam Chomsky to neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor, and she put many of these folks in the documentary. The film deals with big-picture stuff, like the Roger Ailes memo on taking over TV for the Right, and the seminal 1971 Lewis Powell memo to the US Chamber of Commerce. It also gets personal—the impact of huge scale manipulation on Jen’s family and many other families is explored.
We caught up with the busy Jen Senko recently:
LWC: In Brainwashing, you pinpoint listener/viewer isolation as a major part of getting folks hooked on far-Right radio and TV. Why is that important?
"A ‘dumbed downed’ electorate is one that is easy to manipulate, especially an electorate that is not taught how to think critically and to question."
JS: I think it’s important to understand that with isolation comes a sort of vulnerability. Many retired and older people are alone. Because of that they are especially vulnerable. Knowing this will perhaps help us get them out of the house more - help them to socialize more. It’s always helpful to understand human nature for ourselves as well.
LWC: We seem to be going backwards as a country, mentally. Acceptance of Enlightenment thinking, once considered obvious, is now being questioned. The basketball player Shaquille O’Neil has just come out in favor the flat-earth “theory” (read the article). Outlets like Fox News oppose belief in climate change. What’s going on?
JS: There has been a concerted effort to “dumb down” Americans. A “dumbed downed” electorate is one that is easy to manipulate, especially an electorate that is not taught how to think critically and to question. We are also not taught media literacy. We are not taught marketing or how we are ‘marketed to’. In other words, we are not taught how to recognize bullshit. You can go back to the Lewis Powell Memo: “Attack on American Free Enterprise System”. How to influence schools and universities is laid out quite explicitly. It was part of their “plan” which I believe is why they also want to privatize/corporatize schools. They don’t have to adhere to national standards and they can teach them (or not teach them) what they want, and what will most benefit an oligarchy.
In the case of Shaq he may be a bit of a prankster, I’m told. I don’t really follow basketball players so I don’t have a clue as to why a few might be saying that, except that maybe they are just questioning everything they have ever been taught since truth seems so illusive now.
"...I would liken it to an epidemic. I even think of it as a sort of mass brainwashing on an enormous scale."
As for Faux News opposing belief in climate change, that is just a fake view put out by them to create doubt. Everyone knows that’s what the oil and gas companies want people to believe. So since Faux News is for big business and pushing free market ideology and everything that goes with it, they try to pretend global warming is not a fact supported by 99% of scientists.
LWC: What happened with your father has happened to many families, and you put quite a few of these people in your movie. What did you learn from them?
JS: I learned a couple things. I learned that this is a very common phenomenon and a painful one for many families. To go further, I would liken it to an epidemic. I even think of it as a sort of mass brainwashing on an enormous scale. I learned, too, that people are very easily manipulated when it involves their emotions. Right-wing media plays on emotions. It has proven to be very destructive. Right-wing media has divided our country and divided families throughout our nation.
LWC: With the wide dissemination of news on the Internet, you would expect that it would be harder to brainwash or program people, but in fact this is not the case. How would you explain this?
"...I care passionately about our country. I wanted to help before it was too late. I felt like I saw the writing on the wall and felt obliged to ring the alarm, so to speak."
JS: People gravitate toward what they already believe or what seems most believable to them. Their friends usually believe similarly and may send them emails, which in turn lead them to sites that support this same thinking. It’s an insular bubble. People experience discomfort if they read or watch stuff outside their believe zones. This is called cognitive dissonance. Ultimately, they read or watch what they already believe.
LWC: This guy named Steve appeared in your doc—I was really impressed that this guy disentangled himself from the Right-wing spell. Other people need some help. Can you talk about this?
JS: Steve was a critical thinker and open minded enough to allow himself to listen to radio programs outside his beliefs. This speaks to him. I was impressed with him and that’s why he’s in the movie. He also provides hope. But for difficult cases, there is a group called HearYourselfThink.org, which helps people deal with their loved ones who seem to be unreachable and too angry to deal with. Their method involves deactivating the amygdala first – not to directly challenge their belief first thing because that puts them on the defensive and almost strengthens their belief. They say to get on some neutral common ground and then question them about their beliefs to get them to think for themselves. Your readers can get more info by going on their site or contacting them. Also, the author Steve Hassan has written a book called “Combatting Cult Mind Control” about dealing with loved ones being lost to cults. Being brainwashed by right-wing media is in fact very similar to being in a cult and I’ve found this book to be very insightful.
LWC: You did a ton of work on this movie. Why did you bother? What’s in it for you?
JS: Thank you for asking that question. I did it because I care passionately about our country. I wanted to help before it was too late. I felt like I saw the writing on the wall and felt obliged to ring the alarm, so to speak. I also love my dad and felt so helpless when this was happening to him. It helped me to express it and find others who had the same experience.
LWC: What’s new with you? Any new projects?
JS: Yes, I have another documentary that I started about lawns but my first feeling of obligation is to make sure “The Brainwashing of My Dad” documentary is seen by as many people as possible. I believe by understanding that this right-wing media machine was part of an intentional plan to push the country to the Right, we can begin to address changes that are needed. Bob McChesney said: “Whatever your first issue of concern, media had better be your second, because progress in your primary area is far less likely.”