J. R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius
by Alvin G. Burstein
This film will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is not a drama or biopic. It is part documentary and part essay, posing a problem and raising troubling questions. It is an indie film funded by a Kickstarter campaign, rough around the edges, available on
Amazon. It describes an elaborate spoof, the founding of a hoax church inveighing at the bonds our mercantile society imposes on us. It begins with the acerbic advice from L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Dianetics and Scientology, “You don’t get rich writing
science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” It closes with scenes of Trump rallies and antifa/neo-fascist riots.
The film documents the activities of two Texas youngsters, self-described nerdy outsiders, Douglas Smith and Steve Wilcox, who began to amuse themselves by circulating bogus rumors on CB radio. Adopting the pseudonyms Ivan Stang and Philo
Drummond, they moved on to distribute their church’s founding document, SubGenius Pamphlet #1, composed of clip art and text taken from promotional self-help literature the two had been collecting. Sent to a horde of publishers, it was picked up by
Simon and Schuster—arguably a bona fide miracle—generating income and new followers, who themselves adopted noms de guerre.
In choppy episodes we meet and hear from core members of their pseudo cult and learn of the impact and discomforts of increasing notoriety. We hear, too, about the church’s slow decline and eventual migration into the internet. The movie ends with a kind of coda, the founders’ reflections on the question of whether there are limits to what can be joked about. Can one poke fun at the Holocaust, at Columbine? They leave
unaddressed the issue of whether there is an edge of anger or intolerance in the Subgenius mantra “F—k ‘em if they can’t take a joke”?
In a Texas Monthly interview with Smith and his wife, Sandy Boone, who directed the film, the couple acknowledge that their resolve to make the film was sparked by Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency, and their wish to harpoon the candidate’s style of replacing truth with hyperbole, misrepresentation and denial. Thus they anticipated a critique by President Obama in a recent BBC interview positing that Trumpism’s most serious threat to our society was its encouragement of “truth decay,” a phenomenon described by Kavanaugh and Rich in their 2018 book by that title, in which the difference between truth and falsehood disappears.
However, the problem goes beyond truth decay and is one that did not originate with Trump. What is involved is a mushrooming of distrust of authority and the proliferation of conspiracy theories about perceived grievances. This dyad is rooted in the accelerating collapse of a euro-centric male caste system. The collapse is experienced, not as a sharing of privilege, but as a painful loss, a deprivation of worth generated by looking down on others. In self psychology terms, the loss can be assuaged by deeming it illegitimate, the result of a scheme or a plot, and by identifying with an all-powerful charismatic leader, who promises to make the imagined malefactors pay.
A central concept in SubGenius church is “slack.” Slack is not explicitly defined, but it is highly valued. It seems to mean something like doing your own thing, something like freedom from convention and conformity—a kind of personal liberty. SubGenius is at its heart, then, anti-authoritarian on two levels based on authority’s dual meaning. One meaning has to do with credibility, a basis for belief or trust, the second has to do with the ability to compel compliance. Like any hoax this pseudo-church is contra-factual, a pretense that privileges fakery. And its pursuit of slack argues against compulsion.
This movie is intended to invoke humor as a weapon against Trumpism’s substitution of charisma and pretense for credibility based on reality testing and science—what Freud would call secondary process. Hoaxy humor may not be the most effective weapon in that contest.