Just as Alex Gibney’s documentary “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” helped to put a famous musician into perspective following the mannered and incoherent biopic “Get on Up”, he has come to the rescue once again with “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, another documentary this time about the infamous cult that bears little resemblance to that depicted in Paul Anderson’s equally mannered and incoherent “The Master”. Perhaps one can excuse Anderson for making a film that was purportedly not about Scientology if at least it was a good film. Not knowing that much about the cult nor much of a fan of Anderson’s self-indulgences, the film amounted to a sheer waste of time for me. In contrast, Gibney’s documentary that is currently running on HBO was totally riveting especially for someone like me who belonged to a political rather than a religious cult. When former members of Scientology discussed being “Disconnected”, a term for ostracizing those who give hostile interviews to the press or run blogs that expose the cult, I could identify completely.
“Going Clear” is a reference to the process in Scientology that is roughly equivalent to being “cured” through psychoanalysis. People who join the group are convinced that like the Oedipal Complex in Freudian theory, there is psychological baggage that we have carried around since early childhood that prevents us from a full flowering as a human being. What makes Scientology quasi-religious is the notion that the baggage actually predates our birth and is connected to cosmological battles that took place eons ago on planet Earth when our earliest spiritual ancestors (thetans) were seduced by the material world. As someone who spent a summer in a psychotherapy camp run by an orthodox Freudian in 1958 and a couple of years at Bard College studying Gnosticism, all this rang a bell.
Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard started off as a science-fiction writer so his business about thetans was probably no more nonsensical than much of the “Sky” based religions, especially Christianity that like Gnosticism absorbed much of the Neo-Platonism that was in fashion in Jesus’s day. When you combine a redemptive theology with pop psychology in a period of American history that was rotten ripe for the acceptance of that sort of thing, it is no surprise that the cult grew like wildfire.
Gibney’s film is two hours long with the first half devoted to L. Ron Hubbard’s career and the second to the rise of David Miscavige, the current leader of Scientology who has the pretty face and chintzy charisma of someone like Joel Osteen. Like Osteen, Scientology is a religion of “success”. If Osteen’s sermons are mostly about living a “successful” life by following Christ, Miscavige’s approach is also geared to “making it”. That is why it became so important for him to groom Tom Cruise as a figurehead. With his successful career and devoted fan base, what better advertising could there be for the cult?
This ties in to what appears to be Scientology’s orientation to people in the film industry, a sector whose personnel is obviously subject to feelings of inadequacy. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the actors I have known in my life only feel whole when they are imitating someone else. Except for the rare individual like Marlon Brando who saw through the film industry’s bullshit, most are like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Priscilla Presley et al: plastic people that except for the ability to memorize lines and become someone else on stage would languish in obscurity. It would seem that most of these show business professionals got into the cult relatively early in their careers when a security blanket was necessary to get them through the lonely and difficult journey of becoming a star.
What is a bit more difficult to understand is why director Paul Haggis became a member since he was capable of making films as thoughtful as anything that Gibney ever produced such as “In the Valley of Elah”, one of the few Hollywood films about the war in Iraq that departed from the flag-waving norm. Interviewed throughout the film, Haggis comes across as a thoughtful soul who should have known better. His decision to break with Scientology was prompted by their opposition to gay marriage, a stance in line with their belief that homosexuality was a sign of not being “Clear”.
In a fascinating section of the film that focused on John Travolta’s membership, it was pointed out that he is submissive to the leadership because they have damaging information on his gay identity that could destroy his career. That is the stick. The carrot is the powerful legal and PR machinery they wield that can be deployed against tabloids that go too far in going after Travolta.
As a high-profile critic of the SWP cult, I felt a strong affinity with a group of men and women who have taken their case against Miscavige et al publicly. Chief among them is Mark “Marty” Rathbun who operates a blog called Moving on Up a Little Higher. Rathbun was once the inspector General of the group, a job that monitored the membership for deviations from the Truth. Under Miscavige’s rule, Rathbun’s staff became much more repressive and began to function like the Soviet secret police administering “reeducation” camps that featured intense brainwashing exercises and corporal punishment. He is now considered Scientology’s Public Enemy Number One.
As I sat watching the film, I could not help but wonder what the big difference was between Scientology and the “legitimate” religions. Is there anything that controversial about the IRS’s decision to grant Scientology a tax-exempt status? Gibney’s documentary points out that this has enabled it to build a real-estate empire but is there anything really new about that? Queen Elizabeth is number one in the 15 largest real estate landowners in the world with 6.6 billion acres but Pope Benedict is no slouch at number 3 with 177 million acres under his control.
In terms of dealing with dissidents, as bad as Scientology is, I doubt that we ever have to worry about them killing ex-members as is common in the world of Christian sects. Some historians argue that the Fourth Crusade that pitted the Vatican-backed army against the Byzantine Church’s garrisons in Constantinople was as ruthless as any directed against Muslims.
During his long and controversial but illustrious career, Alexander Cockburn was labeled a Scientology apologist. As a reality check, I tracked down one of his articles on the cult and found it rather convincing. Besides sharing their antipathy toward Prozac (I found the drug most beneficial so on this I am at odds with the late great Master just as I was on global warming), most of his energy seems devoted to defending their rights to exist like other religions. Written in 1997, his LA Times piece titled “Scientologists Take Offensive in Reich Land” makes some excellent points:
Never get on the wrong side of the Scientologists, as I often say to Heber Jentzsch, with whom I have spent many interesting hours discussing the evils of the CIA, brainwashers, shrinks, the pharmaceutical companies, Time and other pet peeves we share. Jentzsch is president of the Church of Scientology International and is now much preoccupied with their great battle against German politicians.
To people who remonstrate with me for having truck with Scientologists, I always say that folks who hate the organizations listed above can’t be all bad, and that there’s probably more psychic oppression in every 10 seconds of the life of the Roman Catholic Church (or–let’s be ecumenical–the Mormons, Lutherans, Baptists and Methodists) than in the career of the Scientologists since L. Ron Hubbard got them launched. Last time I heard, the Vatican (which has to OK every deal) was settling sex abuse cases against priests in the U.S. at about $1 million per.
Anyway, the provincial German government got up Jentzsch’s nose by being beastly to German Scientologists. They wouldn’t even let jazz player and Scientologist Chick Corea perform inside the country. In some German provinces, they won’t let the children of Scientologists into kindergartens. This is because Germans are constantly worried that unless vigilance is exercised, covert groups will take over the state, suck out their brains and turn them into zombies.
Jentzsch and his fellows have been fighting back, with considerable success. They ran big newspaper ads saying that the Third Reich is being revived. (The Nazis started persecuting Seventh-day Adventists before pressing on to the big task of killing all the Jews, gypsies and Communists.) There have been letters from Scientology supporters and adepts in Hollywood. There have been condemnations of Germany by members of Congress and finally some stern words about German abuses of Scientologists’ human rights from the State Department.
As I watched “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, I not only made comparisons with other religions but with the Socialist Workers Party that I belonged to from 1967 to 1978. Unlike Scientology, it was not a cult at the outset but only became one around the time I was ready to leave. I was uncomfortable with the new “turn to the working class” but just as much if not even more so by the willingness of the membership to vote for the turn without hesitation.
So fervent was the campaign and so deep the pressure to toe the line that I got up at a meeting of several hundred members in NYC and announced that I was “excited” to go to Kansas City and get a factory job even though I was crushed by the choice I had made. Unlike other members, however, I had inner doubts that would make it impossible for me to spend more than a few months giving the “turn” a try. Others found it so much to their liking that a life of poverty and political work that consisted of selling the Militant to indifferent workers was sufficient to keep them going for decades. I could barely stand six months of it.
The other thing that made me resistant to cult membership was my identification with the beat generation that remained with me even after joining the SWP. Although I joined out of political convictions that made me susceptible to the Messianic fervor endemic to the Trotskyist (and Maoist) movement, I always felt detached from the gravitational pull that lured many people my age to go on full-time and/or to live in semi-communal housing in which your social, political and love lives became entangled with each other.
In a way, I understand why people would join the Scientology Church or the SWP, leaving aside the radical differences between their beliefs. As has been the case since the days of the Gnostic religion, there has always been a tendency for people—especially those with the psychological weakness to feel estranged by the dominant institutions of class society—to look for moral support from others so disposed. Ironically, this is what made Bard College so appealing in 1961. It was a place where other pimply seventeen-year-old kids who loved “On the Road” and “Howl” could finally feel at home.
The one thing I got from my education there, however, was the lesson that you had t stick to your own principles and not bow down to authority, a point that was made repeatedly by Heinrich Blucher when he spoke about Socrates. It is the ultimate contradiction of revolutionary politics is that you have to continue to think for yourself while acting in concert with others. Once we assemble the forces that are capable of changing the world from top to bottom, we will finally be able to be “clear” for the first time in human history.