The (Unknown) People vs. Scientology

March 1st, 2008

Dissenters fight the pseudo-religion with anonymity

By Cassandra Leveille

Scientology has a tenuous history of trying to be accepted as a legitimate religion. Although it’s officially considered one in the United States, this status is dubious in other countries. In December 2007, Germany even made moves to ban Scientology entirely. The country based this decision on what is perceived as numerous human rights violations against its own members—instances that were reported by former Scientologists. They also insist that the Church presents a threat to democracy in Germany.
Scientology has also captivated the public—from John Travolta to Kirstie Alley, it seems to be the hip new trend that all of Hollywood’s elite have subscribed to for the time being. However, the fanaticism of religious adherents like Tom Cruise—both in isolating his wife, Katie Holmes as well as the infamous “couch” incident on Oprah—have caused many to look askance at Scientology. Similarly, Cruise’s fanatical criticisms of Brooke Shields’ use of medication to deal with post-partum depression have sparked heated debate.

Much speculation exists as to what Scientology is really about. In a way, as Scientology becomes more publicly associated with celebrities it is increasingly regarded by some as a cultish moneymaking venture, as opposed to a religion.

Attacks on the legitimacy of Scientology are hardly new. The pre-Internet era saw Paulette Cooper, who published a scathing expose, The Scandal of Scientology in 1976, through the now-defunct Tower Publications. In response to this book, Scientology launched what later became known as Operation Freakout, which was an effort to defame Cooper’s reputation through forged bomb threats against the Church. While ultimately unsuccessful, Operation Freakout introduced many to Scientology’s principle of “Fair Game,” which allows the Church to take any and all actions necessary to eliminate suppressive persons (or SP’s). Such people “may be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed,” according to the Fair Game policy as quoted in a Hubbard Communications Office Policy Letter.

More recently, one of the first anti-Scientology Web sites, xenu.net, sprang up in 1996, and is still active to this day, as well as many other sites of its kind. Started by Andreas Heldal-Lund, the objective of this project still stands—to compile detrimental information on Scientology, in lieu of the shutdowns of many similar Web sites. These efforts have had little effect on the religion. But rough times may be ahead for the religion, especially in light of recent online events.

On January 16, 2008, the video known ubiquitously across the Internet as the “Tom Cruise Scientology video” was posted on YouTube, and later, Gawker.com, a widely read Manhattan media gossip site. In the video, a crazed-looking Cruise babbles on incoherently in excess of nine minutes on how Scientology can help people while the Mission Impossible theme bass line loops menacingly in the background. While Cruise insists that Scientologists are “the authorities on the mind,” the lack of specificity in his ravings does little to help his case. The video is peppered with nonsensical statements, such as, “Being a Scientologist, when you drive past an accident, it’s not like anyone else… you know you’re the only one that can really help.”

The clips, separated by amateur-sounding camera clicks, are arranged in a manner that does not lend itself to a clear narrative. There’s also a chilling quality to the video, as Cruise laughs maniacally at points, suggesting that SP’s will eventually be something “they’ll just read about in the history books.” Again, the scene presents a frightening image that seems to be at the heart of Scientology—an impeccable drive to eradicate any dissenting forces, no matter what the cost.

Since the video’s original upload to YouTube, it has been viewed over two million times.
Scientology lawyers have made fervent attempts to remove the Tom Cruise video through copyright law. However, the Internet is truly breaking new ground. While YouTube, which no doubt faces several copyright claims daily, was initially expedient in taking down the video in question, Gawker Media’s refusal to do so—stating that hosting the video is a public service—is a step in a new direction for Internet copyright law. As of this printing, alternate copies of the Tom Cruise video continue to pop up on YouTube, joined with several parodies.

The video and, in particular, the Church of Scientology’s efforts to remove it from the Web, have now stirred feelings of outrage in many. In an open video letter, originally released on YouTube on January 21, 2008, a group simply referred to as “Anonymous” stated that they had been observing the habits of Scientology and had decided—based on a history that entails litigation and various suppressive techniques that have endangered countless lives—to expose Scientology and its “malign influence over those that trust” the religion.

But who is Anonymous, exactly? They’ve been frequently described as “hackers” by the media, but this term only serves to describe a small portion of the breadth of activities that Anonymous is involved in. Although it cannot be pinpointed exactly who they are, it is known that they have affiliations with 4chan, a popular imageboard where many Internet memes originate.

The emergence of Anonymous onto the frontier against Scientology is therefore striking, if for no other reason than their enormity and sole purpose to dismantle the Church in its current form. The war, officially known as Project Chanology, is an effort to squelch Scientology’s influence over its followers, which they claim are trapped in a system that ultimately drains them of their assets and sanity. Since the official declaration, their attacks have included a DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack on the Scientology Web site. As a result, the Web site was offline for several days, and the Church of Scientology was eventually forced to move their Web site to another domain. Other attacks included a Google bomb which redirected the search term “dangerous cult” to the official Scientology Web site, and a leak of the Scientology manuals.

This war is also unique in that action has also materialized in the offline realm—on February 10, peaceful protests against Scientology were organized by Anonymous in numerous locations worldwide, including Australia, England, France, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and United States.

Anonymous released a video prior to this event, directing a code of conduct for these events. Although this directive had seemingly innocuous and almost silly instructions to prospective protestors (“to ensure epic win and no loss of hit points on your part”), the disparity between the serious context of an actual protest and the relaxed internet-based slang create an almost humorous effect. Participants in these marches wore bandanas, sunglasses, and masks (particularly of Guy Fawkes) so as to protect their anonymity. The protests saw modest showings, with the London protests being the best attended.

Anonymous plans to hold more protests in the future, with their next protest scheduled for March 15, 2008.

It is simply extraordinary that Anonymous is able not only to stir people towards action online, but that this protest has been able to transcend the boundaries of the Internet as well. While it remains to be seen what the ultimate result of the Scientology-Anonymous feud will be, it will be fascinating to observe in the coming months how it turns out, both online and off.

At about noon on February 16, Shawn Lonsdale, a filmmaker and key contributor to the BBC Panorama documentary, Scientology and Me, was found dead in his apartment. The apparent cause of death was suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, as a garden hose was found running from his car to his house. A suicide note was also found, the contents of which are not yet disclosed to the public.

Lonsdale, who had no personal ties to Scientology, became an avid protestor against the religion only recently. Although there seems to be no solid evidence of foul play, there is also no motive for this suicide. In light of recent protests, as well as probes by Scientologists into Lonsdale’s personal history, the suspicious timing of this suicide stands as a chilling omen into the true nature of Scientology.

If Anonymous is to prevail in this feud, it seems they have got one thing crucial down—the advantage of being unknown, safe from harassment from the Church.

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Cassandra Leveille is a freshman writing major. Email her at cleveil1[at]ithaca.edu.

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Front cover and back cover of print edition by Jake I. Forney.
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