Mar 23, 2015

Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief

You want sinister, hair-raising horror? This documentary on the criminal cult known as the Church of Scientology will give you plenty to outrage you and creep you out. Alex Gibney's film is an effective summary of the excellent, impeccably researched book by Lawrence Wright, but I strongly recommend the book for a more detailed chronicle about the origins and evolution of this sinister cult. It is an amazing read.
One thing is certain: the book may be superior to the movie, but the movie may be what finally brings this scam down. Images are powerful. Gibney got access to videos featuring Hubbard's increasingly deranged personality, and the creepy mass rallies organized by the current leader and creepmaster extraordinaire David Miscavige, productions overblown with game show tackiness and a not a small frisson of totalitarianism. Think Leni Riefenstahl in the Valley.
Currently out in theaters in limited release and on HBO on March 29, the documentary will gain far more exposure than the book and hopefully inflict more damage. It may encourage more disenchanted Scientologists to come forward and "go clear" on the abusive nature of the church. Perhaps the public outcry will finally force the government to remove this cult's tax-exempt religious designation. It's about time. In the meantime, the church is busy discrediting the disgruntled former members that appear in the film and pestering film critics to include their point of view in their reviews! This, if nothing else, shows how delusional they are.
I think the only smart thing L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, ever said was that "if you want to get rich, you start a religion". His church, which is nothing but a spiritual Ponzi scheme, is there to prove it.  His bizarre faith, a mix of pulpy science fiction and psychoanalysis 101, is delivered in a process similar to an addictive internet game, a sort of Candy Crush Saga of the soul. People shell out money to acquire higher spiritual levels. By the time they get to know the crackpot tenets of their "religion", they are out of thousands of dollars and have spent years exposing their every secret in therapeutic sessions called audits. When they finally hear the cockamamie dogmas about Xenu and Thetans they may be in too deep, too ashamed of having been duped, to leave. It is a brilliant mind control scheme disguised as a spiritual path to make you a better person and the world a better place. The question that Wright says he wanted to answer remains elusive: what makes otherwise rational and intelligent people fall for such a scheme? In this case, it's beyond personal torment or an obsession with self-improvement. Scientology's ascending system of belief is designed to hook you, brainwash you, and relieve you of your money.
Another question that the documentary tries to answer, not very satisfactorily, is how do the former leaders of the church, once enforcers, now whistleblowers, feel about their own actions? Yes, they are brave to come out (considering the harassment coming at them from the church), but where is their sense of responsibility for the damage and pain they inflicted on others?  Gibney should have been harsher with these people. He lets them off easy.
As Gibney piles on outrageous examples of the church's abuses one wonders, how is this legal? The answer is simple: the U.S. government is afraid of Scientology. Last time it tried to collect the billion dollars the church owed in unpaid taxes, the I.R.S. received 2400 lawsuits, and it was infiltrated and harassed in what Wright calls the biggest spying operation ever perpetrated against the U.S. government (not even Russia or China come close). Since the church is so wealthy it can afford to litigate until the end of time, the IRS granted tax-exempt religious status to the church to get the lawsuits and harassment off its back. Meanwhile, the church has enriched itself enormously by the fees and contributions of its members, by its huge real estate holdings, and without paying a cent in taxes or a cent in labor.
If the cult has always been loony -- and one look at Hubbard should be enough to discourage anyone from believing anything coming out of his mouth -- after Hubbard's death, David Miscavige, an even more sinister man who was born into the faith, made his way to the top and has presided over the church in an increasingly paranoid and abusive fashion.
As for its two most famous acolytes, the documentary posits the theory that the reason John Travolta and Tom Cruise have not left or confronted its abuses, is because they are afraid of what the church could disclose against them as retaliation, since every audit consists of detailed notes on the members' most private issues. You do the math.
Although many people claim that Scientology has helped them, the church has been known to try to destroy the lives of anyone that dares oppose or criticize it. It has destroyed families, ruined, humiliated and intimidated former members. If their tactics were performed by anything not called a religion they would qualify as crimes. But the church shelters itself under the protection of the first amendment, and its tax-exempt status. The most outrageous fact that emerges from this interesting film is why this criminal cult, accused of human trafficking, abductions, physical abuse, among other things, is still legal in the US.
A great companion piece to this movie is P.T. Anderson's The Master. If you haven't seen it, see the documentary first. It sheds light on how much Anderson based his thinly fictionalized movie about the charismatic leader of a cult on Scientology. You will see that Philip Seymour Hoffman's incredible performance hews close to some aspects of Hubbard, although he comes across as much classier, charismatic and authoritative than that pudgy man.

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