Churchy La Fame

March 29, 2013

clearOn the heels of Janet Reitman’s splendid 2011 book INSIDE SCIENTOLOGY comes another superbly reported work on the world’s newest religion, GOING CLEAR by Lawrence Wright. This is the man who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning THE LOOMING TOWER, the single best source for anyone who wants to understand why 9/11 happened.

A staff writer for The New Yorker, Mr. Wright published “The Apostate,” a major piece in the magazine’s February 14, 2011 issue, on the Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis, who left Scientology after 34 years of membership. The magazine is highly regarded for its meticulous fact-checking procedures, and the church is infamous for its extreme litigiousness. Thus, in September 2010, two Scientologists and their four attorneys met with a New Yorker team and brought with them “forty-eight three-ring binders of supporting material, stretching nearly seven linear feet, to respond to the 971 questions the checkers had posed.” Mr. Wright looked at this material and realized he had just been handed the equivalent of years’ worth of research, albeit from the church’s point of view.

GOING CLEAR presents a different perspective than Ms. Reitman’s book, also the expansion of a magazine piece (hers in Rolling Stone), which benefited from impressive access inside the organization. Mr. Wright has three stories to tell: the history of Scientology, its attachment to Hollywood, and what he calls “the prison of belief,” which Paul Haggis finally escaped after spending more than half his life there. Like THE LOOMING TOWER, it attempts to answer very basic questions. How did this come to be? How can otherwise rational people believe in something so zealously? What is the attraction, and how is it preserved and nurtured?

The Commodore.

The Commodore.

Scientology is of course the creation of pulp-magazine author L. Ron Hubbard. It evolved from “Dianetics,” “the modern science of mental health” whose auto-psychoanalytic properties intrigued people like legendary science fiction editor John W. Campbell (who, to be clear, also believed in mental telepathy and other psionic powers). A resulting work, DIANETICS, which Scientologists call “Book One,” was published in 1950 and became a mammoth bestselling sensation, enriching Hubbard beyond compare. But the scientific community was aghast, often vocally, which fanned in Hubbard a resentment of traditional psychiatry, quickly rising to hatred, an aspect still evident among the faithful that you can observe when, say, Tom Cruise confronts Matt Lauer on the TODAY show.

Out of curiosity, I’ve tried to read DIANETICS more than once. I can’t get past thirty pages or so, because I always see before me a bit of verbal jujitsu that makes me recoil. As it begins, we are advised to have a reference book nearby, because we should never read past an unfamiliar word without immediately coming to understand it. That’s very good advice. Helpfully, DIANETICS provides footnoted definitions for potentially difficult words. But soon the footnotes become self-serving: for instance, we get only one particular connotation. And before long, Hubbard starts making up words. Now our trusty reference book is useless. All that’s left is DIANETICS.

An almost ridiculously prolific author with a galloping imagination, Hubbard sold fiction by the pound in the heyday of pulp magazines. He uses the same method for the official recounting of his own life, which is replete with verifiable falsehoods. So most non-Scientologists assume that the bizarre intergalactic cosmology which Hubbard concocted (it makes Philip K. Dick look like a Mennonite) was the cynical output of a space-opera aficionado. Certainly when Dianetics morphed into Scientology, and this “scientific approach to spiritual enlightenment” took on the trappings of a religion, great riches appeared which needed to be sheltered from taxation. Attaining higher and higher “OT” levels (Operating Thetan; don’t ask) costs hundreds of thousands of dollars: the next rung on the spiritual ladder is always just out of reach. Yet if “Commodore” Hubbard retreated to a sea-spanning yacht to avoid landlubbing lawmen, he still spent thousands of hours refining Scientological techniques, and Mr. Wright suggests this was unnecessary labor if the Founder only wanted to sit back and count the dough. It’s quite possible that Hubbard believed that with “auditing” and the “E-meter,” he was really onto something.

David Miscavige.

David Miscavige.

When Hubbard “dropped the body” on January 24, 1986, Scientology was at a crossroads. There were several senior members capable of moving the church ahead, but the most ambitious of all was David Miscavige, who used strategy, cunning and betrayal to seize power. As with Hubbard’s life and military record, nearly every unflattering assertion Mr. Wright makes about Miscavige is denied by the church in a flurry of footnotes, which are so numerous that it’s obvious lawyers placed them there: of course the church denies everything.

Miscavige is content to let others be the “face” of Scientology, perhaps still smarting from a disastrous 1992 appearance on ABC’s NIGHTLINE that won host Ted Koppel an Emmy, and that Mr. Wright describes in excruciating detail. (Miscavige has never gone on “secular” television since that public humiliation.) But, even more lavish and imperious than the Commodore, he has been instrumental in making real the Hubbard dictum that celebrity endorsements were the key to legitimizing Scientology. And the best place to find tender, self-doubting egos, hungry for any possible perceived advantage? Hollywood.

Miscavige and his colleagues cobbled together an A-list so broad that one aspect of their pitch actually became, look at the network you can tap! Though they’re not immune from financial solicitation, celebrities are treated quite differently from the rank and file, especially the pitiful souls working for subsistence in the central “Sea Org” under billion-year-contracts. The Scientology experience of such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta – and, once he made it in the movies, Paul Haggis – takes place in posh Celebrity Centres around the world. Most mundane members are cut off from outside friends and family, and if they “blow,” not only do they face huge unpaid bills for “auditing,” they’re also cut away from any family that remains within the church, inside the “prison of belief.”

Hubbard’s spacefaring story of the Galactic Confederation sounds like gibberish, and it may well be. But as Mr. Wright suggests, it takes a leap of, yes, faith to believe the underlying origin tales of any religion, from Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni to the Judeo-Christian oceangoing vessel that supposedly held two members of every single species on earth. Regarding the top of a faith-based hierarchy living in splendor and opulence, as did Hubbard and now Miscavige, look no further than the Catholic Church. As Mr. Wright notes, it doesn’t matter whether you think Scientology is a religion. The IRS does, and thus endeth the issue.

The LA headquarters on Sunset Strip.

The LA headquarters on Sunset Strip.

Paul Haggis says he’s amazed that he bought in for so long. But nearly every Scientologist has had a very human reason to join the church, like most spiritual seekers in other faiths. (One common cause, as with other religions, is being born into it.) Most of Mr. Wright’s on-record sources are former members who “blew,” therefore they must be apostates and liars; this never-changing knee-jerk reaction by the church is what makes Scientology seem like the insular cult many believe it to be. But unlike most other faiths, the truth here is slippery, even on something as mundane as membership. Mr. Wright reports that the church claims 8 million members worldwide. They’d better be worldwide, because the Statistical Abstract of the United States estimates there are only 25,000 Americans who call themselves Scientologists, and as our very brave author wryly notes, “that’s less than half the number identifying themselves as Rastafarians.”


Koox ‘n’ Flix

September 15, 2012

The fact that a poorly-made and hateful video can foment rioting halfway around the world is the dark side of instant communication. The same technology which helped create the Arab Spring can be used to upend it.

You can form your own opinion about what the varying statements by Mitt Romney have to say about his candidacy for President. I’ve certainly formed mine. But that’s not what I want to talk about. Unlike Governor Romney, I can speak with authority on this creative matter because I’ve actually seen the 14-minute “trailer” for a “film” called THE INNOCENCE OF MUSLIMS – from all we can tell, it’s the only part that actually exists. If you’re also curious, find it for yourself: it’s easy, but I’m not going to help you by linking to it.

The backstory is as shady as it can be: the video was made by pseudonymous people who have lied about everything, including their “$5 million budget.” (“Sam Bacile,” the “director,” falsely told everyone he was an Israeli Jew, just to stir the pot a little bit more.) They even duped their actors, who answered an ad in Backstage like most other struggling thespians and dutifully reported for work. The marketing department seems to consist of Terry Jones, the off-world theocrat who infamously threatened to burn the Koran a few years back and has been missing those ENG crews ever since. (Monty Python’s namesake member must cringe every time he hears about this blasphemous fool.)

OK, so let’s go to the video tape. It’s disjointed, impossible to follow in any traditional story sense, and it jumps around like a newborn wallaby. Thus, I’d imagine, its titular depiction as a “trailer”: we’re only giving you the best stuff out of context, just like the big guys do. But listen: most of the lighting is just what you’d expect from a competent film-school production. Most everything’s in perfect focus. You can even tell that some of the actors are obviously pros. “Tech creds,” as Variety might put it, are not dissimilar to those in a no-budget indie. It can absolutely masquerade as a real production to deep unsophisticates.

But any five-year-old can suss out the incompetent desperation. It’s clear that the actors on set were not required to speak the name of Islam’s prophet; it’s clumsily looped in (that is, re-recorded after the fact), like all those risible attempts to cleanse R-rated dialogue for network tv. I’m just spitballing here, but if the Backstage casting call actually asked for Muslim actors, then they would have been horrified to take part in a physical depiction of the prophet – a canonical no-no. Even the “innocence” title may have been invented to lure them in. I have no proof; I’m just speculating. (We later learned that at least some of the actors were told they were working on a film called DESERT WARRIORS.) One actress has come forward to say she had performed under false pretenses, and deeply regrets doing so. Other whole scenes are clearly looped, no doubt to conceal their real purpose on set; sometimes it’s like watching a Sergio Leone movie, with actors of multiple nationalities.

The CG work is hilarious. In “outside” scenes, the actors appear to be walking on air above the desert sands, like an 80s-era Chyron effect achieved by a high-school member of the AV Club. All that’s missing are the shimmer lines. As far as the red meat is concerned, we revert to elementary school. The prophet is accused of everything shivering haters can possibly think of, including being gay – and they use that precise word, “gay,” even though the “story” is “set” 1500 years ago. Man, I can distinctly remember using that word innocently in my own lifetime, wholly apart from its current context, and I’m not even 1000! He hacks through men, women and beasts. He molests children. His henchmen snicker like Snidely Whiplash as they fake drawing and quartering a senior citizen.

OK, you may be sneering right now, and this bilious piece of flyblown crap thoroughly earns your scorn. But here’s the thing. In the Arab world, some people just may not understand that any American has the right to assert that their duly elected President is a secret Muslim socialist. The “universal right of free speech,” which was affirmed in that original Cairo embassy statement, is a foreign concept to many radical people on our planet. To them, if this “film” exists, it’s because the U. S. ruler wants it to exist – otherwise, Obama could just snuff it out, like their leaders do in their own lands!

I haven’t seen all that much coverage of the many Muslim citizens who have condemned the murderous acts of their fanatic cousins, the Terry Joneses of the Islamic world. But they’re out there. They are just as ashamed of Osama bin Laden as we are of Fred Phelps, the nauseating GOD HATES FAGS guy. But, as we’ve been constantly instructed these past few years, whenever we oppose freedom in any sense, the terrorists win. That freedom is why this heinous video exists, and why its makers have blood on their hands, maybe even proudly. No, they probably didn’t kill Ambassador Chris Stevens; that may have been a back-burner plan which only used the video-induced riots as cover, just as we used 9/11 as cover to “do” Iraq. But by paying to translate their venom into Arabic, these zealots used their money, and the relatively new ability to communicate to the world, to forge a digital sword that quickly slew. It can no longer be sheathed. Shame on them for defaming a great, proud religion: Christianity.


Tom Kippur

September 17, 2010
A yummy Break Fast that you can prep ahead of time for Yom Kippur. From Bon Appetit.

A yummy Break Fast that you can prep ahead of time for Yom Kippur. From Bon Appetit.

Jews observe their Day of Atonement on Yom Kippur. But when I arrived in New York in late summer 1988, it was just another day to me. (Of course there are Jews in Mississippi, where I grew up, but Judaic culture isn’t as prominent down in the Bible Belt.) I’d only been at my job a month or so, and I was happily typing away when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a couple of people in the hallway, dressed to head out into the unseasonably cool weather. Type, type. Then more of them. My boss even. Type, type… Wow. I’d only just arrived at Warner Books; maybe I literally hadn’t gotten the memo. I shut down, put on my coat, and headed out into the hall, just in time to bump into Larry Kirshbaum, our publisher. “Where are you going, Tom?” Slightly flustered, I said, “I’m going with you!” Whereupon Larry proceeded to laugh, hard, pounding the wall with his fist, much as I did years later when I first saw DUMB AND DUMBER.

Once Larry caught his breath, he explained that Jews must already be wherever they’re going when Yom Kippur begins at sundown. I’ve noticed over the years that not only do “religious” Jews observe this holiest of days, but many “secular” Jews do too (the Christian equivalent is probably Easter Sunday, only no atonement necessary because we’ve never done anything wrong), hence the populous flurry of activity in the hallway. But hey: I’m from the country — that naivete was what Larry enjoyed so much. I was by leaps and bounds the least deserving potential Yom Kippur schlepper in the whole building. Catholics thought it was funny.

Now, whenever anyone asks how a Southerner assimilates in New York City, I mention this incident. Sometimes when I do, it makes me start pounding the wall myself, in laughter and maybe atonement. Naah, just laughter.

Each year, it doesn’t feel right to say “Happy Yom Kippur” to my many Jewish pals. So I go instead with the common greeting that actually means something: have an easy fast, friends.


The Mosque Of The Red, White & Blue Death

August 17, 2010

At last, news reports about the “Ground Zero mosque” are starting to get a few things right. First, the proposed site isn’t at Ground Zero at all, but two blocks north, from which the World Trade Center site cannot be seen and vice versa. The planned community center (that is what many genuine mosques are to Muslim-Americans, but this project’s different) will include meeting rooms, a 500-seat auditorium, a pool, and yes, a prayer space. The avowed model is the uptown 92nd Street Y, which has the same relationship to a synagogue as the current wing-nut pinata does to a real mosque. As New Yorkers who have partaken of its rich store of (mostly secular) lectures, interviews and performances can tell you, that Jewish cultural center has never shoved religion in our faces, and it’s a vital asset to the community. Back downtown, two other actual mosques, dating from 1970 and 1985, have long existed near the proposed center; they’re overcrowded. In one of the three adjacent buildings which would comprise the center – they’ll have to be razed first – worship services are already taking place. Among its tasteful and reverent Ground Zero neighbors are an off-track betting parlor and a strip joint.

I’m amazed, and a little ashamed, at the outpouring of fervor against this construction, and the myths being used to stoke it:

Ground Zero is hallowed ground, so Muslims should have the good sense to worship elsewhere. Hallowed ground? Sarah Palin doesn’t even recognize my city as part of “real America.” Nobody should lose sight of the continuing grief of those who lost loved ones in that barbaric attack. But some of them were Muslim. Let’s try it for the millionth time: we were not attacked by Islam. We were attacked by Al-Qaeda, a ragtag gang of right-wing extremists so nutty that they think they can restore a worldwide caliphate. They’re the Muslim equivalent of the shameful “God Hates Fags” protesters. And by the way, if this ground’s so hallowed, where’d the GOP go when the program to monitor and treat Ground Zero emergency workers died an ignoble “procedural” death in Congress? These selfless, now-abandoned heroes were at Ground Zero, not near it.

Ground Zero is unique, like Pearl Harbor; normal rules don’t apply. That would be easier to swallow if it weren’t for similar protests in other spots like Wisconsin (in hallowed Wilson, patriots threw chunks of asphalt through a newly converted mosque’s windows; “Islamic terrorism begins in the mosque,” said some bird named Rev. Wayne Devrou, without a smidgen of irony), Tennessee (in hallowed Murfreesboro, goons spray-painted “NOT WELCOME” over the “future site of” sign; “They’re not a religion. They’re a political, militaristic group,” said one 76-year-old vet) and California (in hallowed Temecula, the Tea-Party-affiliated protest organizers even encouraged people to bring their dogs, as a deliberate insult to Muslims). By the way, uniformed soldiers of the Japanese nation did attack us at Pearl Harbor, and the Nazis did murder millions of Jews. But, phew, let’s go again: we weren’t attacked by Islam. This isn’t about mourning the victims of Ground Zero; it’s about religious intolerance, pure and simple, and to my shock and sorrow, it seems to be nationwide. I thought we had codified a solution to that problem more than 220 years ago. Which brings me to…

This is a Christian nation. Muslims should just shut up and blend in. While it’s true that most of the founders had nominal religious affiliation (even George Washington, who didn’t take communion or kneel when he prayed; Thomas Jefferson, who did not believe in Jesus’s divinity or resurrection; and Benjamin Franklin, who rarely attended Presbyterian services because he found them dull), and nearly all felt that religion was a healthy influence on the republic, many were “deists” rather than the type of “Christian” represented by today’s evangelicals. They believed in what they called a “prime mover,” or “divine Providence.” That’s one reason you can’t find the words “God,” “Creator,” “Jesus” or “Lord” in the Constitution or any amendment, with one exception, in the Signatory section: “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” This method of assigning dates, of course, is also used by atheists; it has nothing to do with religious affirmation. The framers were not dismissing spirituality, far from it. But, mindful of the misuse of faith in centuries past (“I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross,” wrote John Adams. “Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”), they firmly stipulated that it was no business of the government’s. To make this crystal clear, on June 7, 1797, the Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Tripoli with the Barbary pirates of North Africa, which declared that we had no quarrel with the faith of any “Mehomitan” (Muslim) nation, and that “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” Many American pioneers came to the New World to escape religious intolerance, not to extend it.

It’s no surprise to hear blowhards like Palin, Newt Gingrich (who, unlike Palin, ought to know better), and the full throats of Fox News braying about this “issue”: they’re not running for anything, so there are no consequences to what they say. (But rest assured, Newt: Jon Stewart’s staff is watching all this.) It’s sad when Harry Reid or the Anti-Defamation League – or even the President himself — feel they have to distinguish between the right of Muslims to build a mosque and the propriety of doing so. The NY Post reported that a four-hour hearing, after which Community Board 1 voted 29-1 to approve the mosque project, “got so heated that one young girl, whose father is Muslim and mother is Jewish and who went to testify in favor, decided instead to sit silently.” Could freedom of speech be the next Constitutional right to be literally shouted down? Fortunately, our governing document comes up for a popular vote in only one scenario: a proposed amendment. It’s not meant to bend and sway with public opinion polls. Let’s try one final time: Islam, the faith of 1.57 billion people, 23% of the world’s population (Christianity, counting Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, is around 33%, the world’s largest, but that sure doesn’t make Earth a Christian planet), is not our enemy. Radical kooks are: for example, the “Christian” who walked into a church foyer to murder a physician. If anything can help build bridges of understanding between widely-held faiths, it’s the one-on-one contacts that can be made through cultural centers. Why are we even talking about this?

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) says, “Ultimately I suspect that once this simmers down in a few weeks, people will realize that everybody’s liberty is at stake here.” Congressman, the precise number of weeks is about eleven: that’s how long until the midterms, and you can bet the right will be stirring the pot at least until then. I’ve never been prouder of Mayor Michael Bloomberg than the day he said, “It’s fair to say if somebody was going to try, on that piece of property, to build a church or a synagogue, nobody would be yelling and screaming. The ability to practice your religion was one of the real reasons America was founded. And for us to just say no is just, I think, ‘not appropriate’ is a nice way to phrase it. If you are religious, you do not want the government picking religions, because what do you do the day they don’t pick yours?” If opponents of the mosque get their way, said the mayor, it will be “a sad day for America.” Until recent weeks, I would have expected the vast majority of Americans to agree with him. You live and learn.


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