Merchants of Chaos

"If people realised they were joining a belief system involving billion-year-old space aliens they would never sign up." Scientology bans its followers from reading critics' views. Wendy M Grossman discusses Scientology's relationship with the internet.

leaves disorted in light

Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Flickr: Trevor Haldenby

Somehow, I managed to miss the exploding tomato.

I think I understand it, though: there is a state of mind you get into when you have been battered relentlessly with unerring but false logic: if this, then this, then this other thing, then the next thing, and you see…you must admit this, and that means you were wrong all along. The floor slides away from you the way it does in the description Mrs Morton gave Berton Roueche of her bouts of labyrinthitis, a disease of the inner ear, and if you are not left alone the only way you can reassert the world as you know it is to bellow out the facts as you know them.

When you read the BBC Panorama journalist John Sweeney's new book about his time investigating Scientology for two Panorama episodes, one in 2007 and the other in 2010, The Church of Fear, you get the sense that this was his state of mind when he turned into - his term - the exploding tomato. This becomes clearer when you're shown the steps that led him there. Sweeney has apologised for his loss of control many times. Last night, speaking in East Grinstead, the town where Scientology has its UK headquarters, he gave us a small re-enactment. Up close, that was LOUD.

In an interview yesterday with The Register, Sweeney references a line I had forgotten, said to me in 1994 by former Scientologist Robert Vaughan Young to explain why he was glad he did not have to face the internet during his time as a national spokesman for the Church of Scientology: "It's going to be to Scientology what Vietnam was to the US."

Eighteen years later, it seems clear he was right.

On Sweeney's 2010 Panorama, The Secrets of Scientology, the actor Larry Anderson, explains that his 33 years in Scientology began to end when he decided to break with Church of Scientology (CoS) policy to go online and see what critics said about it. What he found was the secret documents at the heart of the conflict described in my 1995 Wired piece, whose reverberations set the framework for the copyright-related notice and takedown rules still in effect today. These "OT III" materials outline the beliefs you only learn hundreds of thousands of dollars into the practice of Scientology: the story of Xenu.

The OT III - for Operating Thetan, level III - documents escaped total Scientology control when they became an exhibit in Lawrence Wollersheim's 1980 suit against the CoS for damages after leaving the organisation. Then came the internet, which for the first time allowed former and disaffected Scientologists to find each other and share their stories. In 1994, the "Operating Thetan" documents made their appearance on the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology. When their publication brought legal and law enforcement attacks, copies spread more and more widely. The CoS was about as successful in keeping them offline as the RIAA and MPAA: today, they're not only on Usenet and the web but readily accessible on your favourite torrent site, and there are summaries on Wikipedia, About.com, and, well, everywhere.

In 1994, a former Scientologist called the CoS "bait and switch", arguing that if people realised they were joining a belief system involving billion-year-old space aliens they would never sign up. This was why the alt.religion.scientology dissidents were so intent on getting the "secret scriptures" out in public: break the CoS's rigid control over that information and you break an important element of the recruiting mechanism. In the 1970s, a campus recruiter could invite students to an introductory meeting confident that they would know very little about the organisation. Today's students have found Scientology's history, controversies, and belief system on their phones before he's finished his opening sentence. If China can't entirely insulate its population from the internet, what chance does Scientology have?

They can still try, and some will let them. In the video clip linked above, Sweeney says the CoS told him it discourages members from accessing outside media because they are "merchants of chaos". In his book, he quotes from celebrity interviews given him for his 2007 Panorama, Scientology and Me that he was not allowed to broadcast. (Later, the CoS included excerpts from those same interviews in its crossfire documentary, Panorama Exposed, enabling the BBC to use those bits in 2010.) In Sweeney's account of these interviews, Kirstie Alley describes herself as "a little bit stupid on the internet" and says she doesn't use it; Leah Remini says, "I don't go on the internet".

By this time, Scientology's innermost beliefs are probably better understood and better known by those outside the group than those inside it. Because: until you have reached (at considerable expense) the OT III stage of studying Scientology, the core of Scientology beliefs is not disclosed to you. The reason, Hubbard wrote in 1967, is that exposure to these powerful secrets without proper preparation will send you insane, then kill you. The blank stares of Scientologists you ask about Xenu may simply mean they really don't know yet.

"We'll just run the SPs [Suppressive Persons] right off the system. It will be quite simple," Elaine Siegel, then a member of the Office of Special Affairs International, wrote to Scientologists online in 1994. Famous last words.

Wendy M. Grossman’s web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series

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By Wendy M Grossman on Feb 25, 2013

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