What to Get L. Ron Hubbard for his Birthday

How “Anonymous” has changed the game of exposing Ron’s ruthless global scam


Back in 1999 I was working for a newspaper in Los Angeles that no longer exists. Scientology was a wonderful subject for an eager reporter: It was nefarious as hell, operating more like the mafia than a religion, and at the same time breathtakingly stupid: Besides its core beliefs about a galactic overlord and disembodied aliens inhabiting the human body, adherents are convinced that Ron’s talking cure will lead them to become clairvoyants able to leave their bodies at will, which, as Cruise pointed out, makes them excellent first responders to auto accidents. And believe me, there’s far weirder stuff that was committed to paper by a burnt-out, pill-popping pulp fiction writer with a messiah complex named Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, who had demanded that his followers sign billion-year contracts so that they’d continue to serve him lifetime after lifetime (Hubbard’s own lifetime ended in 1986).

Wading into this stuff was too much fun. And at that time, my New Times Los Angeles colleague Ron Russell and I had little competition. Scientology was centered in Los Angeles (its other headquarters is in Florida), but after the Los Angeles Times had done a major, multi-part exposé in 1989, the paper had given up covering the cult almost completely. Other publications were aware that after Time magazine took its own shot in 1990, calling Scientology a “ruthless global scam,” the church had filed a libel lawsuit asking for hundreds of millions of dollars, and nine years later the case was still unresolved (it was ultimately dismissed). With the Time suit still pending, most publications were wary of Scientology’s litigious reputation. Other than Richard Leiby, a Washington Post reporter who was doing excellent work, Russell and I practically had the Scientology investigative field to ourselves for a few years.

Russell, for example, wrote a mind-blowing piece about how Scientology officials took advantage of a brain-damaged man, convincing the poor sucker to invest the millions he’d received for his injury in a non-existent ostrich-egg business. (I shit you not.)

My favorite experience was writing about a woman named Tory Christman (Tory Bezazian then), a 30-year Scientologist who had rather spectacularly defected from the church in the middle of a Usenet slugfest after secretly reaching out to one of the cult’s biggest detractors, the operator of Xenu.net. That story, “Sympathy for the Devil,” lives on in cyberspace, even though the newspaper I wrote it for no longer does.

In another story, we put the lie to the church’s claim that it no longer practices “fair game"—L. Ron’s famous edict that his troops should engage in dirty tricks to bury its perceived enemies. In “Double Crossed,” we detailed one of the most hellacious cases of fair game in recent years, the smearing of attorney Graham Berry with the use of a coerced, false affidavit claiming that Berry was a pederast who went after boys as young as 12. When the man who made that false affidavit, Robert Cipriano, was sued by Berry in a defamation suit, the church, in order to keep him from recanting his false claims, offered to represent him in the lawsuit for free, donated thousands to Cipriano’s nonprofit projects, and even got him a house, a car, and a job at Earthlink (which had been founded by Scientologists). You can see the story here.

Berry’s experience, as well as that of others (Google “Keith Henson,” kids), made it plain that if you opposed Scientology, you had to be very careful not to give the church a way to claim victim status.

Which is exactly what Anonymous didn’t do.

After the Cruise video, meant only for other delusional Scientologists and not the rest of the world, showed up in January on the Internet, the church went into attack mode, trying to shut down every copy. (Gawker’s Nick Denton has done the world a service by keeping the video up and flipping Scientology the bird. See it here.

That in turn inspired Anonymous, which has a thing about Internet censorship. But the nameless group of geeks initially took a hacker’s approach, shutting down Scientology sites with firebombing tactics. For longtime critics like Mark Bunker, it was a nightmare. So he took to YouTube with a video of himself, explaining in a sort of open letter that Anonymous was ruining the work that he and others have been doing for decades. By pranking and vandalizing Scientology sites, Anonymous was only giving the church the ability to claim that it was being victimized. The moral high ground, in other words, had been lost.

Bunker’s simple video—a bearded older guy sitting in front of his computer and talking into a web cam—seemed to have a major effect, resulting in the peaceful protests of February 10.

Will the Anonymous phenomenon continue to grow? And how, given its past, will Anonymous be able to police its own, so that some of its “members” don’t revert to reckless antics? Scientology, no doubt, will continue to claim that it’s a victim of religious bigots. It always has.

But at the least, it’s good to see so many people a little more aware of what Hubbardism is all about, even if it means I’ll have to come up with something else as cocktail party patter. Hell, everyone seems to know about Xenu by now.

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