It all started with Yahoo Parenting. A reporter came out with a photographer and talked with a handful of Twin Oaks parents.
Then ABC Nightline called up and asked if they could come and film. ABC and Yahoo News have a partnership agreement. Perhaps we should have said “no.”
There were a number of problems with the final ABC piece, including mistakes which started from the second word of the article. “Inside Off-the-Grid Virginia Commune Where Everything From Housing to Child Care Is Shared.” In fact, we are not off the grid. We have some solar panels, and we are getting some more, but we have a long way to go before we are off the grid.
The video which I reported on earlier depicted us as negligent for letting kids wander around the property unescorted and not doing background checks on members offering child care. There are lots of reasonable things to criticize the communes about, but there are not on the list. Background checks don’t actually catch much AND we live with these people for three weeks and interview them for hours. Much more rigorous than anyone hiring a babysitter from Craigslist. They bungled the description of our complex pension system (saying adults over 50 drop to a single hour of work per year.)
A number of members were angry at me for not restricting the motion of the press more and not being more sensitive to people the media should stay away from.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to internet. Lots of other media entities mimicked the story in some ways. Specifically:
- CNN did photo montage of Aaron Cohen’s pictures on Aug 17
- The UK Daily Mail blew up over the permission to have a baby on Aug 22
- The Inquisitor rebrands us as ‘Commune In Virginia Blends Off Grid Harmony And Business Savvy’ on Aug 21st
- Right wing blog NewsBusters slammed Nightline’s coverage and the socialist commune while offering a full transcript of the broadcast.
So what we see is news driven by trends. If a topic appears to be trending, one cheap way your news entity can get a piece of the action is by finding a hot story, searching the internet for other free content on the topic, piece them together with a thin narrative and bang! you have intern-generated popular “news” stories.
Now we have had a handful of additional offers from news entities who want to come film. For a while, i think we will say no.
For more insightful and important analysis of the community, please read:
- How Sustainable is Twin Oaks
- I live on a peculiar Island (academic review)
- The Most Controversial Approval: Pregnancy
[Proofread by Gryphon]
In 2004, Twin Oaks was briefly harassed by an unmarked black helicopter.
A much nimbler Coyote rushed to his room to get a camera. Remembering that without photographic proof there would be no story or media coverage of this event. His picture is above.
One of Charlottesvilles local free newspapers at the time (the Hook) picked up the story and ran with it, ultimately discovering who was in the unmarked chopper.
Over the course of finding the culprit, the author of the article talked with lots of different military and law enforcement personal. They asked them all about Twin Oaks and if they had any trouble with us.
From the article:
So are Twin Oakers big troublemakers? “I haven’t had any trouble with them,” says [Louisa County Sheriff] Fortune. “We wouldn’t need any law enforcement if everybody lived like they do at Twin Oaks.”
Just about the best advertising a community could ask for.
As i was going through the endless array of stupid comments in the recent Yahoo Parenting article on Twin Oaks, i found myself wanting a good summary of why Twin Oaks (and other secular and especially egalitarian communities) are not cults. Fortunately, these communities have designed themselves to make this easy.
Let’s hop in our time machine for a moment. It is 1967 and the original 8 founders of Twin Oaks are looking at the principals and cultural norms around which they will form the community where they want to live. Reverend Moon had just visited the US and set up holy grounds in the 48 contiguous states. The FDA had just raided Scientology offices and seized illegal medical equipment, and the religion was being banned in Australia and other places. And the Church of Satan was performing it’s first recorded baptism.
The intentional communities movement wanted to distance itself from these kinds of organizations, so it looked at the behaviors which typified cults and set out to make themselves different in as many ways as possible. The 4 things which typify a cult are:
- It has a living charismatic leader
- You give them all your money
- You are kept away from your old friends and family
- You can’t leave when you might like
Cults are also exclusive, often highly secret and universally authoritarian. Let’s take a quick look at these components.
Living Charismatic Leader: Twin Oaks has a complex internal decision making system. Specifically, we have 3 or more planners who serve 18 month terms but can not serve consecutive terms. Over the last 18 years i have been at Twin Oaks, the problem is not having people want to do consecutive plannerships, the problem is getting people to complete their terms – recently several planners have quit this generally thankless job. Holding onto leaders in an egalitarian community is hard, because they get extra headaches without the extra perks. Plus at Twin Oaks we have a distrust of people in leadership roles and they often get extra flack for this reason. We would appear to fail the charismatic leader cult test.
Give up your assets: This one is understandably complex, because the difference between income sharing and asset sharing is often confused. When you join Twin Oaks, we ask you not to touch your pre-existing assets, if you have any, for the duration of your membership. This does not mean we ask you to give them to the community. If you want you can lend them to the community, and when you leave you get them back. Without interest. The interest is income. Because the community pays for everything when you live there, food, clothing, medical, housing, entertainment, taxes, dentist, etc we ask that any income your assets earn (including Social Security and pension income – excluding 401K interest, which you can’t get at) be given to the community. This feels fair to us. We also don’t take your debts if you arrive with debts. Most cults require you give everything over. Some (like Scientology – which fails the living leader test) require you to pay for expensive classes and encourages significant donations to the community. Members are not encouraged to make donations to Twin Oaks of pre-existing assets nor do we charge our members for anything.
Isolation: Bring your friends and family to the commune, by all means. They can stay for free and the host determines what work, if any, is appropriate for them to do (if you are going to stay for a while we would like you to work quota). It is true there are people who live at Twin Oaks who rarely leave the farm. But we design our selection process so that it pushes you back into the arms of those who care about you, before you come to join. At the end of your visitor period at both Twin Oaks and Acorn you must leave, even if everyone thinks you are great and you should stay forever. After you have been home for 10 days you find out if we have accepted you and then (at TO at least) you have to wait another 3 weeks before you can come. My joke is if your friends and family can’t convince you not to join this hippie commune in 3 weeks, then you are free to come.
No Exit: I dislike grumpy communards. I really dislike communards who are grumpy about the community that they are living in. I want these people (after making a good faith effort to fix their situation) to leave. Every one of them represents a misallocated space, because there is someone on the waiting list who wants to take that person’s place and really wants to live with us. Again we have had waiting list for years.
Exclusive: One of Twin Oaks and Acorns missions is to be a model. To be a model you have to be open to outside guests – friends, media, academics, curious travelers and more. Cults won’t let you inside, and while it is wrong to say our doors are always open to anyone, if you ask in advance and come to any of the Saturday Tours or 3 Week visitor periods you can see pretty clearly what we look like.
Secretive: Similarly, models can’t be secrets.
Authoritarian: This seemed to be where many readers of the Yahoo article got hung up. The assumption seemed to be that, if there were a self selecting group which was not following the roles of the mainstream, then there had to be an authoritarian oppressive structure.
Look, these communities are filled with anarchists. We are not going to work if the structure is authoritarian. We want to do better than majority voting. All the egalitarian communities require democratic decision making systems, at least voting, ideally consensus. This does not absolutely insure authoritarian structures will not emerge, but consensus is one of the best ways to maximize the power individuals have over oppression by a group.
Thus by any of the standard criteria for determine cult status, we fail. But you dont need to believe me, come visit and see for yourself. Call 540-894-5126 and arrange a Saturday tour.
It was a great meeting. Port was facilitating, and he was afraid of the meta-discussion on the topic of what Acorn thinks its labor is about/for. He had been afraid that this digression would lead us to a world of complaining and depressed talk. But it is hard to restrain the hippies, especially when it comes to meta-discussions.
And a funny thing happened on the way to reviewing our labor situation. People did not think huge changes were needed and many of the suggestions (like doing our clearnesses on time and using existing structures to solve problems) felt genuinely helpful. The group identified the individuals who felt overworked and overwhelmed. [This did not include Ira and me, who only know how to function if we are overworked – by things we are excited about doing.]
Then Jayne spoke:
I agree that the measure of the labor system should be how happy are we? It sounds like people feel they live interesting, enriching, and productive lives. Going around, I do catch a common frustration that it is too difficult to pass on a job you’d like to be done with. I think about this thing Nightshade said three months into my membership: “If you want to get involved in a labor area at Acorn, just sleep with the person who’s already doing it.” It’s sort of horrifying how often this is kind of true. Aside from sleeping with them, how can you learn to pass responsibility to new people?
This brought on a whole raft of jokes about Sexually Transmitted Responsibility and it quickly became clear that Jayne was right. All manner of lovers had dragged their partners into work areas which needed help. Many intimates had decided one of the better ways to spend time together was to share the tasks that the community needs to function.
Acorn functions as an Adhocracy (a flexible, adaptable and informal form of organization that is defined by a lack of formal structure. It operates in an opposite fashion to a bureaucracy). When we need something done, we form a group of volunteers to do it and give them significant power at least of analysis and often of decision making and purse strings. When your intimate joins one of these temporary groups, you are often enticed to be part as well.
I wrote yesterday about the recent Yahoo Parenting article about the community. Turns out this piece had over 3 million hits in the first 24 hours. This generated so much traffic to the Twinoaks.org website that our web host server crashed. Even my blog, which is not mentioned in the article at all, got over 1000 hits in two days.
And the media contacted us also. We got three requests from conventional news sources (including my first ever request for an exclusive) and two excited reality show producers. We have considered working with Reality TV as an income engine for new community start ups and i floated it by the Point A DC folks, who rejected it overwhelmingly. This did not stop there being animated discussion about the possibility at Acorn last night at dinner. The chances we will be able to work with reality TV are vanishingly small.
There were over 500 comments to the Yahoo article. There were quite a few positive ones, some from people who had lived in community which worked for them or they appreciated, some from folks who had visited us at some point and felt the need to dispel the false statements which were being made. But perhaps half the comments on this Yahoo article were negative or critical. They came in a few flavors:
Communism is Bad: My favorite of this ilk was “Why hasn’t someone called the National Guard to rid us of these communists?” Unlike past articles i have read, there were not any direct “Go back to Russia!” suggestions. Many came from Libertarians who feel a need to attack anything which does not look like their version of free market capitalism. There was our personal chapter of the endless Tea Party debates in which all ills are blamed on Obama and each of the two main political parties are attacked for the Democrats being Communists and the Republicans (in the long run) being anarchists. News flash folks, there are two pro-business parties in the US. Look at who funds their campaigns. There are also a whole slew of comments contenting that we 1) Don’t pay taxes. In fact we are the second largest tax payer in the county. 2) Are on Food Stamps and Welfare. In fact none of the membership uses these government assistance programs.
Polyamory is wrong: There was the expected amount of slut shaming and name calling. I should not have been surprised at the frequently expressed concern that pedophiles would have easy access to our kids, when in fact the opposite is the case. There were a refreshing number of people who felt like this was an acceptable choice, only not right for them personally. For many critics this simply feed their notion of moral decay on the commune. There was a prevalent opinion that this reflected an easy way to have lots of sex partners, when actually the form of polyamory most often practiced in the communities requires lots of discussion, negotiations and process.
This can never work: Despite the article mentioning that we had been around for nearly 50 years, there were a surprising number of comments predicting our imminent demise or our failure in the long term. I chalk this up to people not wanting the story to be true, so they lash out against it in ways that don’t make much sense. Because the article was focused on parenting and not pension, there were many comments about what happens when people reach retirement age. In fact our pension program is far more robust than the default one in the mainstream.
Applying for Pregnancy !?!?! It is true this is very odd and i totally get why this flips people out. And when you read why we do it, it will make a whole lot more sense to you. This linked article also has the bonus section that it includes the only (to my knowledge) exhaustive list of Twin Oaks prohibitions.
Eeww you have Lice!: Apparently, only the community suffers from lice. Every couple of years we have a lice outbreak. We fight some, internally, about the use of chemicals to push it back. We clean a ton of laundry, some people dramatically shave their heads to avoid having to treat or retreat. Frankly, they are more psychologically problematic than actually physically problematic, but try telling that to someone who is freaking out.
While i had a good time going thru the comments and correcting people misconceptions and laughing about the haters, i counseled everyone who was actually in the article not to read the comments. They don’t yet show the thoughtful dialog we would hope to find on the digital pages of the internet.
What the article did not mention is that:
1) Twin Oaks has had a waiting list for more than 7 years now. So if you are in a rush to find a new place, we are a poor choice.
2) It is far harder for families to become members than individuals. In the last 10 years there has only been three families accepted (and perhaps a dozen who have tried to come). The visitor period is longer, the waiting list is tougher and every member of the family must be accepted or none of them can come.
Fortunately for our insurance rates, a disproportionate number of adult communards choose not to drive. This does put pressure on those of us who do drive, to ferry our comrades around. My dual member status allows me access to both the Acorn and Twin Oaks vehicle fleets, so i am often asked to drive, and i am generally happy to to oblige.
Sporadically, Twin Oaks throws a “No Party, Just Dance” event. Typically what this means is that the organizers don’t want to have to prepare treats or decorate the space and instead want to focus on just having a DJ who provides music and people can rock out. The other slightly curious aspect of these events is that they have very minimal internal promotion. Usually this is limited to a single card posted at the main dining hall. But this micro-promotion does not prevent these events from being well attended.
Last night i drove the shuttle for one these events. Half a dozen Acorners and LEFers (plus one dog) hopped into the minivan and we arrived moments before the party was really hoping. A couple of hours into this event i decided it was time to ask the going home question:
If there were a shuttle in 20 minute and another in an hour and 20 minutes, which one would you likely be on?
I went around to the folks who i had brought and asked them all this question. After two hours of rigorous dancing, they were all ready to go home in the early shuttle. This is exactly what the shuttle driver wants to hear. Assuming you can’t get the last shuttle cancelled, because everyone wants to stay all night, the second best way to cancel the last shuttle is to get everyone to come home on the second to last shuttle.