Some public figures become so durable a part of the political and cultural landscape that you barely notice they are still around. That’s the case (for me at least) with Sun Myung Moon, the bizarre but influential Korean cult leader who built a religious, political and business empire that will presumably survive his death yesterday at the age of 92.
There’s a long obituary on Moon up at the WaPo site, chronicling his controversial background in Korea itself, the invasion of America by his Unification Church in the early 1970s (I can remember “Moonies” appearing on my own college campus in sound trucks deploying the most obnoxious missionaries imaginable), his intermittently successful efforts to become a respectable force in right-wing U.S. politics, and his many grandiose self-deifying statements and stunts. Those who viewed him as the classic “cult leader,” whose dubious recruitment and “training” methods virtually created the cult deprogramming industry, may have missed the fact that his business investments were often amazingly successful:
In addition to South Korean businesses that ran the gamut from ginseng tea to machine guns, his sprawling empire included an automobile plant and hotel in North Korea and banks and vast tracts of real estate in South America. In Japan, an army of salespeople sold ornamental pagodas and other religious trinkets.
In the Washington area, the church and its affiliates owned more than $300 million in commercial, political and cultural enterprises, including the Kirov Academy of Ballet in the District, an Alexandria video production firm called Atlantic Video and the mall jewelry store chain Christian Bernard.
Mr. Moon’s groups owned a university in Bridgeport, Conn., a recording studio and travel agency in Manhattan, a horse farm in Texas and a golf course in California.
The preacher also built a vast seafood enterprise that includes fishing boats, processors and distributors from Alaska to Gloucester, Mass. According to a 2006 Chicago Tribune investigation, Mr. Moon’s True World Foods provided most of the raw fish consumed at sushi restaurants in the United States.
Glad I have the classic southern attitude towards sushi as “bait!”
Moon did a stint in the federal hoosegow for tax evasion in the early 1980s, and failed to achieve acceptance for his church as a legitimate Christian entity. His best-known political initiative, the foundation of the Washington Times (which blandly referred to Moon as a the leader of a “religious movement to help promote world peace” in its own obit today) as a conservative rival to the Post, did help promote the kind of radical right-wing media presence that is so ubiquitous today. But with the possible exception of its sports section, the Times never did particularly well in circulation or in influence.
In an era in which religious personages–real, bogus, and semi-bogus–became familiar presences in U.S. conservative politics, Moon served as a useful outlier, the scary person that other scary people could point to in order to look less scary. It’s odd that a man whose entire “movement” depended a great deal on deception and false flags would eventually become a pariah known for publicly outrageous behavior and statements. It will be interesting to see how many respectable figures in the conservative firmament find nice things to say about him now that he’s gone–and how many emulate his mendacity by denying they ever had a thing to do with him or his minions.