A reader speculates that Obama might have undergone some form of "est" training, or at least was an interested observer of it. That might explain some of the success of the Obama Campaign in 2008 in mobilizing the kind of people who fall for est and its various re-incarnations.
I don't see any evidence for this, but it's not impossible or even all that implausible. These "encounter" sessions, whether run under the original est banner by Werner Erhard or by its offshoots such as The Forum (run by Erhard's brother's Landmark company), were all the rage when Obama was a yuppie in Chicago in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Living in Chicago during roughly the same years as Obama, I had numerous encounters with est's tentacles. My cousin got roped in by a friend into attending an est sales pitch, so he wisely dragged me along to keep him from signing up for a four day session. My girlfriend's roommate was heavy into into it, so the cult leaders used her as their free office temp. The top management of the marketing research firm where I worked in The Loop got briefly infatuated with encounter sessions with each other that seemed clearly modeled on the est methodology. (Werner Erhard got tainted in some scandals in the mid-1980s, but his associates soldiered on.) My bosses all went to marathon soul-baring sessions for a few weeks and came back raving about their "breakthroughs." Me and the other junior executives were supposed to go next, but then all of sudden, they came to their senses and and the feeling around the Top Floor was: We Shall Never Speak of This Again.
If you don't know how est works, here is Tom Wolfe's all-time great 1970s article "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening." To Wolfe, est was just the commercial version of Yale's Skull & Bones sessions where every flaw in a new member's personality was publicly picked apart in front of the crowd:
But out of the fire and the heap of ashes would come a better man, a brother, of good blood and good bone, for the American race guerrière. And what was more . . . they loved it. No matter how dreary the soap opera, the star was Me.
This kind of thing can actually toughen people up (or screw them up royally). A fraternity works by picking on new pledges' weaknesses until they start insulting their brothers' back, and then everybody ends up laughting. (Obama might not been quite the head case he depicts in Dreams from My Father if he'd had the good sense to join a fraternity in college.)
The differences between Skull & Bones (of which five of the ten Presidential nominees from 1988-2004 were members) and est is that the former is self-governing and selective (each member only recruits one other member, on average). Skull & Bones has its pros and cons, but but it's essentially a mutual benefit society, while est tends to be exploitative of its members. Est is a pyramid, with a few rich people at the top putting endless pressure on the lower down folks to go round up more dupes.
Obama is self-absorbed and self-pitying enough to have been interested in Let's Talk About Me (after all, he published 150,000 words about himself when he was 33), but also cynical and analytical enough to have figured out how est works on other people.A brief Google glance doesn't show any evidence of documented Obama connections to est, but we do know he underwent and even led Alinskyite-training sessions. I don't know much about what's involved in them. It would be interesting for anybody with any inside knowledge to describe the similarities and differences between Erhard's and Alinsky's cults. Alinsky was more outward-directed and rational, which may be why Obama became disenchanted with the effectiveness of Alinsky's Rules for Radicals recipe for radical community organizing. Alinsky's system was designed for outside agitators working among proles living Back of the Yards. It was all too Depression-era depressing for Baby Boomers like Obama and Hillary Clinton, who turned down Alinsky's job offer. Alinsky just didn't provide the ineffable self-actualization that the affluent Baby Boomer generation craved.
In my experience, est wasn't exceptionally sinister. It provided a service -- Let's talk about Me! -- that a lot of people were willing to pay for, and it held out the hope of change (hmmhmm, where have I heard those words before?). est was just the usual pyramid scheme where each initiate had to recruit more marks to be milked. After awhile, there's nobody left who hasn't paid yet and the bubble collapses until it can be re-inflated under a different name.
The wildly successful volunteer aspects of the Obama campaign bear a lot of similarities to est.
If the Obama volunteers movement is modeled on est, then Obama has switched the ostensible locus of transformation from self to world ("this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal"). And he has flipped the focus from individual to communal ("We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek"). But it's still a cult with him at the top rather than, say, Werner Erhard.
(Perhaps, most successful mass movements organized around one man are going to look like a multi-level marketing scam, so maybe est didn't have to be directly involved in Obama's education in marketing himself as an Erhard-like Messiah, but it would be interesting to know more about it.)
"And Barack Obama will require you to work.
He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism, that you put down your division, that you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones, that you push yourselves to be better, and that you engage.
Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual - uninvolved, uninformed..."