Village Voice, March 11, 2008
What to get L. Ron Hubbard for his birthday
How "Anonymous" has changed the game of exposing Scientology's ruthless global scam
L. Ron Hubbard, the pulp fiction writer who gave the world Battlefield Earth, as well as a nuisance known as Scientology, would have turned 97 years old this Thursday, March 13.
Ron's been worm food for more than a score of years now, so it probably won't matter to him that the best birthday party being held in his name will take place a couple of days late. On Saturday, March 15, the surprisingly upstart, leaderless movement known as "Anonymous" will be holding its second worldwide anti-Scientology protests at Hubbard sites in more than a dozen countries.
The grassroots, Internet-based group seemed to materialize out of thin air just a few weeks ago, and it's difficult to tell whether the surprising success of its February 10 rallies—which were held from Oslo to Sydney—will spark even more rallies beyond this weekend. The February protests featured a lot of twentysomethings, for the most part, carrying anti-Scientology signs, and wearing masks to protect their anonymity (Guy Fawkes masks were popular) in places like New York, Boston, London, and Toronto. This time, they say, they're bringing cake and candles.
Anonymous has actually been around for a while, wreaking havoc like a bunch of drunken teenagers on numerous Internet locations since 2006. And at first, it approached Scientology the same way, like reckless hackers and pinheads. But thanks in part to the calm words of someone I used to write about when I covered Scientology in Los Angeles, Mark Bunker (now known as 'Wise Beard Man' to the protesters), Anonymous quickly grew up and started taking a more Gandhi-inspired approach to opposing Hubbard's weird cult.
This recent targeting of Scientology sprung up after several years of the worst press Hubbard's followers had ever endured. From the time Tom Cruise appeared to lose his mind leaping all over Oprah Winfrey's couch in 2005, to his knockout nine-minute video not meant for public consumption that appeared in January, Cruise and Scientology have been reeling from one PR disaster to the next.
And now it seems as if everybody and his brother is writing about Scientology, ridiculing Hubbard, making fun of "Xenu" and "e-meters" and "going clear," and laughing at John Travolta and Kirstie Alley and Leah Rimini and Cruise.
A decade ago, I hardly would have believed it. Not that I'm complaining. I much prefer it this way. Back then, I was one of a small number of journalists who tried to communicate to the larger public what was alarming and nonsensical and simply inane about Scientology and its status as a "church." Other, braver, journalists had been doing the same for decades. There was Paulette Cooper, for example, who occasionally sent me encouraging e-mails when my stories came out, and who had suffered like no other (you can look it up). I'm not claiming that my colleagues and I did the kind of pioneering research that Paulette and others did in the 1970s and 1980s. But still, just ten years ago, it was a very different environment.
Even then, you didn't look into the secrets of the church without having at least some second thoughts about what it might mean to take on Hubbard's dim minions. But it felt worthwhile. When you got past the typical American reluctance to criticize or even discuss the particulars of another's religion, listeners at cocktail parties would be mesmerized to hear that only 10 percent of Scientology's adherents, for example, have been let in on the church's origin story. As I put it in a story back in the day: Imagine the Roman Catholic church withholding the contents of the Book of Genesis from 90 percent of its 900 million worldwide adherents. That's 810 million Catholics kept in the dark about "Let there be light," Adam and Eve, and the rest of the Christian origin saga. And imagine that the Catholic church called Genesis a "trade secret" that could only be revealed to Catholics who had spent years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, obtaining the correct level of experience to be allowed to read their own religion's version of how the universe started and where people came from.
That's what, for me, separated Scientology from the rest, what put the lie to claims (sometimes from mushy-headed religion professors) that Hubbard's was a legitimate "church." What other "religion" wanted $100,000 and several years of dedication before a member learned its most basic beliefs? And Scientology can't afford to be more forthcoming: Who would join if they knew they were going to spend that kind of money (and shun other family members and completely build their lives around Scientology) in order to rid their bodies of invisible space-alien parasites? No wonder such details aren't mentioned during the most basic Scientology come-on, the free "personality test" you get in the subway.
So yes, I'm looking forward to this Saturday's shindig for the commodore. Hubbard was an attention whore, so he might not really disapprove. And while I'm counting heads at the local rally, I'll probably feel some nostalgia for an earlier time, when there were much fewer of us trying to get at the truth.
Back in 1999 I was working for a newspaper in Los Angeles that no longer exists. Scientology was a wonderful subject for an eager reporter: It was nefarious as hell, operating more like the mafia than a religion, and at the same time breathtakingly stupid: Besides its core beliefs about a galactic overlord and disembodied aliens inhabiting the human body, adherents are convinced that Ron's talking cure will lead them to become clairvoyants able to leave their bodies at will, which, as Cruise pointed out, makes them excellent first responders to auto accidents. And believe me, there's far weirder stuff that was committed to paper by a burnt-out, pill-popping pulp fiction writer with a messiah complex named Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, who had demanded that his followers sign billion-year contracts so that they'd continue to serve him lifetime after lifetime (Hubbard's own lifetime ended in 1986).
Wading into this stuff was too much fun. And at that time, my New Times Los Angeles colleague Ron Russell and I had little competition. Scientology was centered in Los Angeles (its other headquarters is in Florida), but after the Los Angeles Times had done a major, multi-part exposé in 1989, the paper had given up covering the cult almost completely. Other publications were aware that after Time magazine took its own shot in 1990, calling Scientology a "ruthless global scam," the church had filed a libel lawsuit asking for hundreds of millions of dollars, and nine years later the case was still unresolved (it was ultimately dismissed). With the Time suit still pending, most publications were wary of Scientology's litigious reputation. Other than Richard Leiby, a Washington Post reporter who was doing excellent work, Russell and I practically had the Scientology investigative field to ourselves for a few years.
Russell, for example, wrote a mind-blowing piece about how Scientology officials took advantage of a brain-damaged man, convincing the poor sucker to invest some of the millions he'd received for his injury in a non-existent ostrich-egg business. (I shit you not.) My favorite experience was writing about a woman named Tory Christman (Tory Bezazian then), a 30-year Scientologist who had rather spectacularly defected from the church in the middle of a Usenet slugfest after secretly reaching out to one of the cult's biggest detractors, the operator of Xenu.net. That story, "Sympathy for the Devil," lives on in cyberspace, even though the newspaper I wrote it for no longer does. In another story, we put the lie to the church's claim that it no longer practices "fair game"—L. Ron's famous edict that his troops should engage in dirty tricks to bury its perceived enemies. In "Double Crossed," we detailed one of the most hellacious cases of fair game in recent years, the smearing of attorney Graham Berry with the use of a coerced, false affidavit claiming that Berry was a pederast who went after boys as young as 12. When the man who made that false affidavit, Robert Cipriano, was sued by Berry in a defamation suit, the church, in order to keep him from recanting his false claims, offered to represent him in the lawsuit for free, donated thousands to Cipriano's nonprofit projects, and even got him a house, a car, and a job at Earthlink (which had been founded by Scientologists). You can see the story here.
Berry's experience, as well as that of others (Google "Keith Henson," kids), made it plain that if you opposed Scientology, you had to be very careful not to give the church a way to claim victim status.
Which is exactly what Anonymous didn't do. After the Cruise video, meant only for other delusional Scientologists and not the rest of the world, showed up in January on the Internet, the church went into attack mode, trying to shut down every copy. (Gawker's Nick Denton has done the world a service by keeping the video up and flipping Scientology the bird. See it here.)
That in turn inspired Anonymous, which has a thing about Internet censorship. But the nameless group of geeks initially took a hacker's approach, hitting Scientology sites with various tactics to shut them down. For longtime critics like Mark Bunker, it was a nightmare. So he took to YouTube with a video of himself, explaining in a sort of open letter that Anonymous was ruining the work that he and others have been doing for decades. By pranking and vandalizing Scientology sites, Anonymous was only giving the church the ability to claim that it was being victimized. The moral high ground, in other words, had been lost.
Bunker's simple video—a bearded older guy sitting in front of his computer and talking into a web cam—seemed to have a major effect, resulting in the peaceful protests of February 10.
Will the Anonymous phenomenon continue to grow? And how, given its past, will Anonymous be able to police its own, so that some of its "members" don't revert to reckless antics? Scientology, no doubt, will continue to claim that it's a victim of religious bigots. It always has.
But at the least, it's good to see so many people a little more aware of what Hubbardism is all about, even if it means I'll have to come up with something else as cocktail party patter. Hell, everyone seems to know about Xenu by now.