Sunday, January 06, 2013

The Trouble with Witty Flights: Unfair Game

BBC journalist John Sweeney filmed two segments on Scientology for the news magazine Panorama.  The first, titled “Scientology and Me,” chronicled his journeys to Clearwater, FL, Los Angeles and elsewhere to investigate claims that the church engaged in cult-like behavior.  During this outing, Sweeney found that the church had placed him under surveillance, and he was able to document this by filming members following him.  The Church of Scientology denied that they had spied on him.

In his second Panorama special, “The Secrets of Scientology” (see previous post), Sweeney found further evidence that the church had in fact not only spied on him, but had also harassed him in order to discredit him.  The most important evidence came from the church’s former official spokesperson, Mike Rinder.  One of a growing number of ex-members who still believe in the tenets of Scientology but nevertheless parted ways with the church because of what they characterize as an increasingly aggressive “authoritarian” posture under the leadership of David Miscavige, Rinder admitted that he had not only ordered the surveillance on Sweeney, but actively participated in it.  Rinder also showed Sweeney memoranda chronicling the church's campaign to discredit him by emotionally stoking him to the point where he lost his cool, and by filming a counter-documentary, with clips of him taken out of context, to show him as unstable, or bigoted against Scientology. 

Yet, the church still denied that it had coerced or spied on Sweeney. 

Sweeney made clear in both Panorama segments that when you look into the church, the church looks back at you.  In the church’s words, his investigation into Scientology made him “fair game.”  The church has a history of vigorously opposing criticism and protecting its image.  With vast media resources at its disposal, a fair amount of coin and a very visible set of celebrity adherents, Scientology has shown a fair degree of public relations savvy. 

Sweeney’s experience was in some respects similar to that of the old Cult Awareness Network (CAN, or Old CAN).* As you can see from the 60 Minutes segment embedded into the previous post, church leaders insisted that they had long abandoned the practice of attacking critics.  But former member Stacy Young explained to CBS reporter Leslie Stahl that the church not only continued the practice, but had made it a policy in its Fair Game Law, which stated that anyone who says something negative about the church “can be destroyed”–whatever that might mean.  Young stated that the church’s campaign against Old CAN began in the 1980s, that she personally participated in the efforts, and that the church specifically allotted resources to destroy CAN’s reputation.  They even went so far as to hire private investigators to “dig up dirt” on the organization.  When they couldn’t find it, they made stuff up, including an accusation that CAN founder Cynthia Kisser worked as a stripper.  Despite the fact that Kenneth Moxon, the church’s attorney, admitted that particular charge was bogus, he nevertheless tried to reassert the claim, a tactic that took Stahl by surprise. 

The church also made a slew of allegations against Old CAN that involved charges of kidnapping (putative deprogrammings), violence and threats, all of which they reported to police.  Problem was, the private investigator whom they cited as the source of the information told 60 Minutes that their interpretation of his report was “embellished,” and basically untrue. The church also filed a number of lawsuits that required expenditures for legal representation.  When an Old CAN volunteer referred the parents of eighteen-year old Jason Scott to Rick Ross for deprogramming, only then were they liable for a conspiracy tort that resulted in a judgement of approximately one million dollars against them.  The judgment forced Old CAN into bankruptcy, whereupon Scientologist Steven Hayes purchased its assets in 1996.  As a result, New CAN was predominantly staffed with, and run by members of the church.

While Kisser admitted to referring callers to legal deprogrammers (i.e., those recovering minors from coercive cults), she claimed that it was not Old CAN’s policy to kidnap or inflict violence on anyone, or to assist in the deprogramming of adults.  If true, that would make the Jason Scott case an anomaly, a mistake for which they paid dearly. Worse, the attacks on Kisser and Old CAN continued long after the organization’s demise, and into the present day.  Moxon assisted activist Susan Darnell and sociologist Dr. Anson Shupe (Indiana University) in research conducted on Old CAN’s paperwork, which Kisser had donated to a university library.  In a 2004 book titled New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America, they characterized Old Can as “a criminal organization.”  Subsequently, there are many places on the web where you can find Old CAN described as such.**

There’s a certain irony here in that the Church of Scientology has itself faced numerous allegations of kidnapping, forced imprisonment, and violence.  The list of these accusations are so numerous and redundant, it would be impossible to cite in any appreciable depth here.  Yet, we can begin by looking at the experience of Jenna Miscavige and Astra Woodcraft, both of whom were separated from their parents as minors, forcibly restrained, and accused of lying and worse once they left the organization.  A number of ex-members report being abducted against their will and shuffled off to “labor camps,” where security officers forced them to work long hours, with little rest, on myriad chores, many of them menial, demeaning and punitive (e.g., cleaning out a dumpster with a toothbrush).  Others have complained of being imprisoned on the Freewinds, a ship owned by the church.  Jeff Hawkins, an ex-member who once supervised their PR efforts, told journalists that the church routinely inflicted violence to keep its flock in line and to subdue critics.  Marty Rathbun, Scientology’s former Inspector General, admitted to Anderson Cooper that he not only beat other members on the orders of leader David Miscavige, but that he witnessed a number of physical attacks administered by Miscavige himself, most notably the vicious beating of Mike Rinder in 2000.*** 

Note that Sweeney filmed his first special on Scientology in 2007, seven years after Miscavige’s alleged pummeling of Rinder, an incident that Rinder corroborates.  Yet, Rinder demonstrated loyalty seven years later when participating in the attack against BBC reporter John Sweeney. As he explained to Panorama, Rinder had pressures not only to remain in the church, but to enforce the Fair Game Law on people who, like Sweeney, investigated it. As ex-members said in the second Panorama episode on Scientology, many current adherents have similar pressures to remain in the church, project a positive image about Scientology, and enthusiastically join in on its attacks against critics–all this despite suffering physical and emotional abuse. 

Rinder’s high position apparently did not shelter him from abuse.  Jenna Miscavige complained that not even her blood kinship to leader David Miscavige shielded her from abuse.  This leaves one with the distinct impression that the church, at least under David Miscavige’s direction, had little compunction about turning against, and speaking ill, of people who once did its bidding, no matter how high up or prominent within the organization. 

One might subsequently wonder if that abuse extended to its celebrity adherents.  Sweeney interviewed a number of church glitterati, among them actresses Kirstie Alley, Julliette Lewis and Anne Archer.  He said that all three told him they wanted out of the cult.  Unfortunately for him, the church found a way to keep Sweeney from showing these interviews on the BBC.  However, the church edited and used clips of this footage in the counter-documentary about Sweeney’s investigation.

It’s within this context that Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan made their initially private, then later public accusations against Scientology.  While some sources generally regarded these claims as paranoia, or as excuses the couple used to rationalize their failures, we would still have to concede that what Blake and Duncan said about the church was hardly extraordinary given what others have said about it--most notably former members and high-ranking church officials. 

Sweeney documented the church’s policy of conducting surveillance against and harassing people they considered “fair game.”  He confirmed this with Rinder, who orchestrated such campaigns, while Young, Rathbun and others corroborated these allegations in interviews done by other journalists. 

More important, the church’s policy, as outlined by Rinder, to psychologically harass perceived enemies, and to push their emotional buttons so that they appear unstable to the general public, has to be considered when evaluating Blake and Duncan’s claims.  Granted, Theresa and Jeremy were sophisticated about a great number of things.  But if the church in fact targeted them--a notion most of us, who have never faced such a situation, would find rather odd, unrealistic, or perhaps even psychotic--they really wouldn’t understand immediately what they were going through, and could possibly lack a ready response on how to handle cars making slow drive-bys of their Venice Beach digs.

Worse, they had related to others that their friend, Beck Hansen, was in fact a Scientologist literally years before the rock star publicly announced his membership.  According to the Vanity Fair quote attributed to him by Nancy Jo Sales, he never mentioned his religion to them.  Yet, Blake and Duncan knew.  The most plausible explanation for their knowledge is that the statement is inaccurate, and Beck nevertheless told them.  Theresa and Jeremy would have therefore realized that not every Scientologist wears his allegiance to the church on his sleeve.  Thus, they found themselves in the position of not knowing for sure whether new people in their lives belonged to Scientology or not. One might understand, in that light, why they might have been cautious about embarking on new friendships, or why they might have come to re-evaluate those they already had.****

As to what Blake and Duncan regarded as the initial factor of their harassment by the Church of Scientology, the optioning of the latter’s screenplay, Alice Underground, by Fox Searchlight, one has to ask if this would have given the church sufficient cause to declare them “fair game.”  On the one hand, Blake and Duncan might have had a small degree of prominence in the worlds of art and video games, but they weren’t really media fixtures or Hollywood players.  Nor were they anti-cultists on the order of Old CAN. 

On the other hand, the Church of Scientology has carefully crafted its public image, micro-managed it, and  spent considerable resources defending it.  Furthermore, the church’s influence in Hollywood is fairly obvious, not only in terms of its celebrity clients, but also in the number of adherents who make their living behind the camera.  While five years turnaround hell isn’t unheard of in Tinseltown, one could really see the problems inherent in making an openly anti-Scientology film in Hollywood.  It wouldn’t be simply a matter of Tom Cruise or someone of that ilk using his clout to forbid production, but of the company realizing the consequences of production in terms of labor relations and creative contributions.*****  If the script languished, Blake and Duncan might understandably wonder if Scientology had a hand in suppressing it.

It wouldn’t really matter if the church actively campaigned against Alice Underground or not behind closed corporate doors.  The fact remains that the church had a history of silencing communications it perceived as a threat.  The mere consideration of this possibility seems reasonable in this light, especially when the co-President of a major studio (Alli Shearmur of Paramount) was such an ardent supporter of the project.  One would figure that if the co-President of a major studio can’t greenlight a project she truly believes in, then hardly anyone can.

Among Duncan’s effects was a twenty-seven page document, in which she and Blake outlined what they considered evidence of harassment by the Church of Scientology.  According to many sources, they planned to file a lawsuit against the Church.  But they both died before they could do that.

That Duncan and Blake considered butting heads against the Church of Scientology’s fabled legal team is interesting in and of itself.  You’d hardly think that they stood a chance, whether their allegations were true or baseless. But maybe they counted on finding help from another impressive legal team, to which Blake had access.  Jeremy’s stepfather, Arthur Delibert, happens to be a partner at K&L Gates, a large, reputable law firm with offices in cities across the US and Australia.  Among other things, Delibert’s company provided pro bono legal support to Old CAN in its struggles against the Church of Scientology.******

I can’t find any indication that Delibert participated in the CAN case.  And given his specialty in investment management law, it’s unlikely that he did.  Still, it’s possible that, as a partner, he heard something about it, and might have said something about it in casual conversation with Blake. And Blake might have gotten the idea of suing Scientology because of family connections that might help.  Whether or not that’s true, a firm of that size and prestige might offer a plaintiff the best possible shot of winning against Scientology’s legendary attorneys. 

As CBS reporter Leslie Stahl made note of in her interview with Scientology attorney Kenneth Moxon, the church engaged in character assassination.  With respect to Blake and Duncan, the church denied even knowing of the couple’s existence until after their passing, and thus couldn’t possibly have defamed them.  Yet, given the church’s denials of activities that were later verified by ex-members who participated in them, we really cannot have complete confidence in that declaration. 

Moreover, we have reason to suspect that the church actually embarked upon a smear campaign against Blake and Duncan after they passed away.

*Some refer to the present incarnation of the Cult Awareness Network, run by Scientology members, as the New CAN.  In order to be clear, I’ve made a distinction between Old CAN and New CAN.

**One has to realize that as part of their public relations strategies, more influential cults, including Scientology, have utilized the services of scholars to legitimate their existence and tactics.  As mentioned earlier, in the series on the Children of God, another sociologist studying new religious movements, Dr. Stephen Kent (University of Alberta, Edmonton), noted a number of scholars who dismissed methodological rigor and acted quite nakedly as cult apologists, among them Rev. Dr, J. Gordon Melton (University of California, Irvine) and Dr. James R. Lewis.  In this case, Dr. Shupe had written very sharp criticism of anti-cult organizations such as Old CAN.  Moreover, he testified as an expert witness against Old CAN in the Scott case.  This gives the distinct impression that Dr. Shupe had as much a bias against Old CAN as Moxon.  Furthermore, some have called into question both his and Darnell’s research methodology.

***Specifically, Rinder constantly risked losing contact with his wife and children.  Indeed, his family remained in the church after his defection.  As a result, his wife divorced him.  Moreover, he had no contact with his children as of this special's 2011 air date.

****One could note that if the church really wanted to harass them, they could have taken a play out of COINTELPRO’s book and utilized snitch-jackets, or in other words given Blake and Duncan false indications that innocent friends were either members, or conspiring against them in other ways.

*****The Law & Order episode titled “Bogeyman,” a fictionalized account of Blake and Duncan, featured a scene in which a prosecutor questions several jurors about their ability to remain impartial.  One juror said she had misgivings about making any ruling that would adversely affect the Scientology-like cult (called Systemotics in this episode), because she made her livelihood in the theatre, and thus had to interact and rely on a number of colleagues who belonged to the cult.  One notes that the episode itself seems to bend over backward to portray Systemotics as both blameless and misunderstood, Undoubtedly, one could fathom that the show’s producers shared the concerns of this fictional juror.

******At the time, the firm was known as Preston Gates & Ellis.  In 2007, they merged with another law firm, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham, to form K&L Gates.

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  • At 11:06 AM, Blogger Charles Gramlich said…

    The cultishness really begins to show through. Crazy weird.

  • At 5:51 PM, Anonymous Birdmadgirl said…

    Oscar-nominated director Paul Thomas Anderson, for whom Jeremy Blake had created interstitial art for the movie Punch Drunk Love, had considerable trouble getting his Scientology-themed movie The Master made. In particular, Universal balked at the $35 million price tag (although they had no trouble red-lighting a $50 million Zac Efron movie), in spite of having marquee names Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Renner and Reese Witherspoon attached. Both Renner and Witherspoon left the project under what might be considered suspicious circumstances (Renner, in fact, went on to co-star in the latest Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movie, and Witherspoon signed a production deal with a Will Smith-connected production company. Draw your own conclusions.)

    Rumor has it that the original script of The Master was much more overtly critical of the Church of Scientology; however, by the time the movie came to be made and promoted, the resemblances to CoS were more subtle and PTA himself downplayed any real link (for example, he emphasized that while he was quite interested in the early beginnings of the CoS, "I really don't know a whole hell of a lot about Scientology, particularly now.")

    There has been a lot of online speculation that PTA might have been inspired by Theresa and Jeremy's deaths to write the screenplay.

    In 2008, PTA co-wrote and directed a "top secret" play at Los Angeles' Largo Theater that included a vignette of a couple "getting to know each other over a complicated personality test". The questions of that test were taken verbatim from the CoS' Oxford Capacity Analyis, a free personality test offered by the CoS for recruitment purposes.

    Interestingly, it is reported that PTA--along with Tom Cruise and Beck--is mentioned in that 27-page document created by Blake and Duncan. Having not seen the document, I can't say in what capacity he appears there. The LA Times article only lists him as "a player in the dispute."

  • At 10:48 PM, Blogger Ray Palm (Ray X) said…

    I still here, following this series in the background. I just printed out this latest post and will read it and comment later. 2013 has gotten off to a rocky start so my online activity has been very limited.

    I see that you have CAPTCHA verification on. Did you add it back or did Blogger do that?

  • At 11:31 AM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Charles, one of the reasons why I included the clips below is that it's difficult to appreciate the kind of stress, weirdness, and "cultishness" reported by ex-members until you see them expressing themselves in their own words.

    Birdmadgirl, The Master is indeed an excellent example of how difficult it is to make a Hollywood movie that merely probes some of the issues surrounding Scientology. The fact that Anderson has downplayed connections to the content of the movie and the actual church is rather chilling, given the circumstances.

    Back when The Master was in production, our friend Ray (see above comment) brought the project to my attention when he commented on an earlier post about its production. His observations dealt with the ramifications of certain stars appearing in it. What you've written about Hoffman and Witherspoon seems to bear out the notion that those making it had to be conscious of possible consequences. I'm not sure about the connection specifically to Blake, although I know it's not just been rumored on the Internet but in other media. But my first guess would be that anyone who has seriously worked in Hollywood has developed a sense of Scientology and Scientologists, and many, perhaps, would want to make a film about it, even though they never would.

    The "top secret play" (?) sounds interesting. I'm going to look into that later. As to what all is included in that 27-page document, like Duncan's "suicide note" I don't really know what all it contains, or the context of its contents. If Anderson were mentioned, perhaps it could just as well could be in the role of a fellow victim as suspected closeted member.

    Ray, I turned on the WV because the spam was getting to be way too much. Blogger's spam filter wasn't keeping it all out, and it was so massive that it still took more time to delete it than I cared to spend on it. Then too, this version is a bit more readable and less frustrating than the version I took off. I looked into other WV apps available for blogs, but they were all for Typepad, Wordpress, etc. There were none that worked for Blogger.

    I'm hoping that 2013 will improve for you shortly. If not, you'll have a lot of it to get through.

  • At 4:50 PM, Anonymous Birdmadgirl said…

    Here are the links to that "top secret" PTA play.

    Mentioned here (7th paragraph):

    2008 notice on the same blog:

  • At 10:53 PM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Thanx, Birdmadgirl. Sounds like an interesting project. And Anderson's focus on Scientology is undeniable here. No wonder why he kept it secret.

  • At 1:00 AM, Blogger Ray Palm (Ray X) said…

    With all the bad press and talk about Scientology it's hard to pick out one example to illustrate how some of its members have viciously targeted certain critics. If I had to pick one , Operation Freakout, shows how the church went after one journalist, Paulette Cooper, using all sorts of dirty tricks.

    I've always wondered if there was some sort of connection between the church's covert operations against the IRS (Operation Snow White) and how it won back its tax exempt status. Any organization that can take on the IRS and win is one that has some clout behind it. That's why I wasn't so surprised by the backpedaling regarding the movie, "The Master," about its source of inspiration.

    I had seen the 60 Minutes video about CAN in your previous post years ago and I watched it again to refresh myself on the details. What's interesting about the videos is how some critics of the church still believe in Scientology and only have a problem with its present leadership. I wonder if we'll see a Reformed Church of Scientology and other groups splitting off similar to what happened with the Christian Church. Then again, L. Ron Hubbard was no fan of "squirrels."

  • At 1:12 AM, Blogger Ray Palm (Ray X) said…

    A key quote from the Village Voice Paulette Cooper article (I linked to it in my previous comment):

    One of the hardest things she went through, she says today, was just getting people to believe that all of the harassment was going on. "If you tell people you're being followed, they think you're paranoid," she says. The experience left her angry and depressed. "I was really very, very bitter.

  • At 4:18 PM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Ray, one of the things about the article that got my attention was another passage stating that the church is fundamentally the same as when Cooper began her investigation. Thus, when she tells VV that "the experience left her angry and depressed" I think has much bearing on the subject matter of Duncan and Blake. It goes without saying that the rest of that quote is directly applicable to Blake and Duncan and really have to be taken into account when evaluating their state of mind.

  • At 7:51 PM, Blogger Susan said…

    Okay, I'm out of my depth here in terms of the intricacies of Scientology's all consuming baseness in their determination to rule the world. I was glad to see that Birdmagirl mentioned The Master as there seems to be an almost audible sigh of relief from many good journalists who are glad to see that the film got made and was done so well with remarkable performances. I also expect it will be ignored by the mass media corporate owned awards. If Duncan and Black had something on the nasty fake church, then much of the unpleasantries surrounding their memories make more sense than my previous idea that many other bloggers were jealous and spiteful. They may have been under orders to create a spin with bountiful financial rewards.

    Good to read as always, X. Going on my second round with word V--Mostsba11

  • At 4:29 PM, Blogger ELFIS said…

    Hiya Bird Mag Girl!

    - SMiles

  • At 8:39 PM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Hey, SMiles, don't I get a shout out too? It's my site, for cryin' out loud.

  • At 7:42 AM, Anonymous Birdmadgirl said…

    Hi yourself, Elfis! Nice to see you.

  • At 3:38 PM, Blogger ELFIS said…

    Yes, Xdell ... HOWDY! Keep up the good work.

    I only Xcluded you as I've "spoken" to you more recently than I have BMG.

    - SMiles


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