Former Gawker writer Adrian Chen has a long and contentious history with the hacktivist collective known as Anonymous. We’re not really very interested in that backstory (though a recent article shows that it’s pretty juicy). And we’re also not all that interested in the drubbing that Chen gave last week to McGill University professor Gabriella Coleman’s new book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous.
We found Coleman’s book to be pretty useful and fascinating, but Chen accused her of being too embedded with Anonymous so that she tended to overlook some of its faults. For an interesting counterpoint to Chen’s piece in the Nation, we recommend David Auerbach’s response in Slate.
Anyway, what did interest us, and what we feel qualified to comment on, was Chen’s contention that one of the things Coleman overstates is the effect Anonymous had on Scientology. In fact, Chen seems to think that “Project Chanology,” the specific effort by Anonymous to agitate against the church, had little to no effect at all.
He makes his case with two pieces of evidence.
First, he says that “Operation Slickpubes,” the 2009 New York City incident that featured a member of Anonymous running into the Scientology “org” on 46th street mostly naked and covered in vaseline and pubic hair, gave Scientology the ability to portray itself as a victim.
And second, Chen says that Lawrence Wright barely mentions Anonymous in his “definitive history” of Scientology, Going Clear. Therefore, Anonymous must not have been a big deal at all.
We’ll take the second point first. As great a job as Larry Wright did in Going Clear, it’s a little misleading to say that anything he left out must not be very important in Scientology’s history. Wright had a particular narrative to tell, and he did a masterful job doing it. But as lengthy as Wright’s book was, it had a particular focus — on the experience of director Paul Haggis, for example — and left out plenty of Scientology material that wasn’t important to that story. Larry wrote a great history, not an encyclopedia, and nearly all of the action he described occurred before 2008, when Anonymous appeared on the scene. He told us as much in an email this week…
“Tony, my book was about the church and its beliefs and adherents, so the Anonymous protests did not play a significant part in my narrative – except for Paul Haggis and his campaign to get the church to withdraw its support of Proposition 8,” he says.
As one of many people who wrote about Scientology before and after Anonymous showed up at the beginning of 2008, we can say that it had a huge effect on the church. Particularly in the way the protests by Anonymous motivated many people to come forward who had remained silent before. Suddenly, Scientology had its hands too full to go after critics and journalists the way it had for decades.
Take Marc Headley, for example. He and his wife Claire took serious risks to escape from Scientology’s secretive International Base east of Los Angeles in 2005. Over the next few years, Marc wanted to talk publicly about what he knew of the church’s inner workings, but he was well aware of Scientology’s reputation for retaliation. So he developed an anonymous online presence — “Blownforgood” — and bedeviled the church with leaks of information. Scientology expended enormous resources to figure out who blownforgood was. And after it did, it brought down the full retaliation apparatus on Marc and Claire. Until, that is, the Anonymous protests started up.
“I had a whole squad of private investigators dedicated to me and my family. But when Anonymous came along, those guys thinned out fast,” Headley tells us. “Anonymous made a huge difference. And one of the biggest things was that they stirred it up every month. It was always in the news, the IRL (in real life) protests. That took a lot of the heat off of us, and put it on Anonymous.”
And Anonymous wasn’t just protesting outside of Scientology’s orgs. It was also bringing a focus on intense research of Scientology at enterbulation.org and then WhyWeProtest.net. “Anonymous brought an insane amount of resources,” Headley says “Suddenly, if I needed to find out where my [still in the Sea Org] sister was in Canada, I could find out in hours, not months.”
Headley also says that there’s no doubt that Anonymous protests led directly to people leaving the church.
“I’ve talked to many people who left Scientology who said they saw the signs at the protests and started asking questions. I think the Anonymous protests led to a ton of people leaving,” he says. “A Scientologist would never Google ‘Scientology.’ They know it’s forbidden. But they might see a sign at an Anonymous protest that says ‘Xenu is my homeboy.’ And they would wonder, what the hell is Xenu? And they’d search on it and it would blow their mind.”
Headley says another sign of how much of an effect Anonymous had was just how worried Scientology appeared to be, at least in the way the church acted during the lawsuit that he and his wife brought. “I think we spent a day just answering questions about Anonymous in deposition in 2009,” he says. (That suit was ultimately unsuccessful.)
“I guarantee you that Scientology would say that Anonymous was a big deal. I mean, they made a video to try and frame Anonymous,” Headley says.
And here’s what the website Ex-Scientology Kids said at the time, a website that was started by Jenna Miscavige Hill and two other young women who had escaped the church: “Anonymous’ actions have also been instrumental in assisting those who have never spoken out feel that they may now do so without fear of reprisal.”
Old time critics, who fought fierce battles in the mid-1990s over what they could say about Scientology on the young Internet, often tell us they are amazed by what gets posted today, and with no reaction from the church. Anonymous was an online tsunami that permanently changed the way Scientology approached the Internet.
As for Chen’s point about “Operation Slickpubes,” it was a stupid prank, and we said so at the time. (The young man who went into the org covered with vaseline and rubbed himself on Scientology books and furniture was convicted of a hate crime.) But as Coleman explains in her book, the stunt was not just aimed at Scientology but at Anonymous itself. Some members who were more interested in trolling than protest were unhappy with the earnest attempts by some to combat what they perceived as a destructive group.
“The aim of this over-the-top endeavor was not simply to antagonize and anger Church members through an act of defilement (though this was no doubt part of it), but also to revitalize what some participants saw as the flagging spirit of the lulz,” Coleman writes.
That prank happened in January 2009, nearly a year after the Anonymous protests had started around the world. And by then, much of the damage to Scientology’s formerly formidable smear machine had been done.
For more proof of how much has changed, watch John Sweeney’s BBC special from 2007, “Scientology and Me,” which shows how Sweeney was tailed and pressured by the church’s then-spokesman Tommy Davis. Today, Scientology has no one it can put before TV cameras. It continues to harass and surveil people, but it can’t really do anything about the huge amount of material that has exposed it on the ‘net and in the press. It’s also lost membership, and finds itself the subject of much more litigation.
Scientology is a shambles. And at least some of the credit has to go to Anonymous for making it so much easier for people to come forward and give information without fearing reprisals. And you don’t have to have been embedded with them to understand that.
Mimi Faust tells a story that’s very familiar
Two years ago, we interviewed VH1 reality TV star Mimi Faust about her remarkable childhood in Scientology. Mimi became well known as a cast member of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, and we were really intrigued when she used the show to explain that her mother had abandoned her for Scientology, and at 13 she’d had to live on her own.
We tracked down information about Mimi’s mother, who turned out to have been a member of Scientology’s internal secret police. Mimi told us quite a tale about surviving Scientology as a child.
Now, two years later, she told much of the same story to Egypt Sherrod on a new feature, “Moment of Truth” at the Madame Noire website. Starting at about 2:40 in, Mimi begins to tell her tale…
We get the feeling Sherrod might have read our story to prepare, but we wish she’d given us a call. She really missed the opportunity to discuss what the Sea Org is, and what it is about Scientology that would motivate a parent to abandon a child. We can only hope those items come up in part two.
Jaden and Willow go exterior
There was a lot of fun talk last night in our comments section about the bizarre new interview of Time Lords and Prana energy fans Jaden and Willow Smith in the New York Times fashion magazine, T.
Scientology isn’t mentioned, but we just wanted to point out that for some insight into why these two young thetans are so screwed up, we still have the only interview with their elementary school principal, Jacqueline Olivier, who was hired by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith to educate their kids in the mysteries of L. Ron Hubbard.
Posted by Tony Ortega on November 18, 2014 at 07:00
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