Scientologists trap us in the closet

12 January 2013

Whenever I give lectures on my book on censorship – Whaddya mean you haven’t read it? Buy it here at a recession-beating price – I discuss the great issues of the wealthy to silence critics, the conflict between religion and freedom of thought and the determination of dictators to persecute dissenters. These themes have animated great philosophers. None more so, I continue, than Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, who managed to get them all into one cartoon.

In a 2005, they broadcast an episode entitled Trapped in the Closet. The little boy Stan goes to one of the Scientologists’ personality testing centres. His “Thetan” levels are so high the Scientologists decide he must be the reincarnation of L Ron Hubbard, that herder of credulous souls who founded the sci-fi cult in the 1950s.

South Park’s writers have a lot of fun leaking the religion’s secrets. They explain that long, long ago, the evil alien emperor Xenu fills DC10s with people who were excess to his glactic empire’s requirements – quite how he got DC10s is not explained. He crashes them into the earth’s volcanoes. Once they were safely deposited in Vesuvius, Mount Etna and suchlike, Xenu nukes them. The souls of the unquiet dead now inhabit all of us. If you are fool enough to fall in with Scientologists, you will pay thousands of pounds to learn about the dastardly Xenu, then thousands more to “clear” the ill effects of being hit by an H-bomb.

Anyway, celebrity Scientologists John Travolta and Tom Cruise join the crowd on Stan’s lawn in South Park that has gathered to worship the messiah. When Stan tells Cruise he does not think he’s as good an actor as Leonardo DiCaprio or the guy who played Napoleon Dynamite but is “OK, I guess”, the despairing Cruise buries his face in his hands. “I’m nothing,” he says. “I’m a failure in the eyes of the Prophet!”

Cruise runs into Stan’s wardrobe and locks himself in, allowing assorted characters to shout “Tom Cruise come out of the closet!” for the rest of the show.

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In the final scene, Stan refuses to become the Scientologists’ new guru because he wants no part of a “big fat global scam”. Outraged Scientologists bellow that they will sue him. Cruise comes out of the closet and ups the ante. In an in-joke I doubt not one American viewer in 10,000 got, Cruise cries.

So you’re NOT the prophet huh?! You made me look stupid! I’m gonna sue you too!”
Stan Well fine! Go ahead and sue me!
Crusie I will! I’ll sue you in England!

The joke, as many publishers have learned to their cost, was that anyone could be sued in England, even if they published or broadcast mainly in America. Once here they would find that the law was biased against the defendant, and the costs were fantastically high.

As it turned out, the joke was on us. When a British satellite television channel ran the series, it showed every episode of South Park apart from Trapped in the Closet in case Cruise did sue in England. (I suppose I must add, what with England being the way it is, that when I repeat the line “Tom Cruise come out of the closet” I do not intend to suggest that he is now or ever has been gay. I am just quoting a gag.)

Then again, the Scientologists could have sued. Like all fanatical religions, they want to stop criticism that might wake the faithful from their trances. The English law is happy to oblige them. Transworld was going to publish Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by, Lawrence Wright, a serious and respected author, who is on the staff of the New Yorker, and has a cupboard full of awards. He has investigated Scientology for years. As you can see from this New Yorker essay on the disillusionment of the Hollywood screenwriter Paul Haggis felt at the end of his time with the cult, Wright conducts meticulous research and explains his findings clearly.

When timid liberals tell me we should treat religion with politeness and “respect,” I reply that, although there is much to be said for politeness and we all tell white lies, religion is too important to handle with kid gloves. Religious and political ideologies demand the widest powers over the citizen. They must expect robust criticism.

In other words, and to put it rather pompously, there was a public interest in publishing Going Clear; and good grounds for getting in out of the closet. The threat of a libel action was too much for the publishers to bear, however. No one can predict in advance how much a book will make. But I guess that Transworld would have been more than happy if they had collected £30,000 from a serious piece of contemporary non-fiction. A libel case at the High Court would risk £200,000, £300,000 maybe a £1,000,000. Like so many others, Transworld could not afford to defend the truth of what it wrote. The “lawfare” of the Scientologists had closed debate. You can find Trapped in the Closet on the Web. You will be able to order Going Clear via Amazon in America. But as I argue in You Can’t Read This Book, the fact that prohibited material is available somewhere is not really the point. The knowledge that a special interest can punish it in your country enhances its power and stops local campaigners in their tracks.

I do not wish to appear grudging. Politicians from all parties have agreed to reform the skewed libel law, and they deserve credit for that. But they have come up with a sorry measure. There is no proper public interest defence. Corporations can still sue, even though corporations are not people. Contrary to the best principles of the Common Law, the burden of proof will remain on the defendant. Worst of all, Parliament is not tackling the fantastic costs of libel, which make it a rich man’s law.

So here we are ladies and gentleman, at the start of the 21st century, in the middle of what optimists believe is an unprecedented age of freedom, and English publishers still cannot publish books publishers all over the world can sell, and cultists and plutorcrats can still use our courts to impose controls on the essential arguments of a free society.

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Show comments
  • rtj1211

    Scientology is a brainwashing money making operation.

    Basically they say: ‘we’ll save you if you buy a book from us’.

    Then the book tells you that you need to buy another book etc etc.

    It’s all complete cult-based bollocks.

  • Parasum

    “…cultists and plutocrats can still use our courts to impose controls on the essential arguments of a free society.”

    ## A certain esteemed organ (shurely shome mishtake ?) has been saying that for a long time – see Eyes, passim.

  • Simon Morgan

    Xenu has a nerve dumping his exess on us like that. But the happy thing
    is we have a lot of mothballed DC10s available to ship them all back with.
    And why stop with the Scientologists? Muslims, Christians, Hindus – they’re certainly excess to our requirements.

  • A J Brenchley

    Hi Nick. Great article. A rather large number of typos seem to have got away…. I sympathize, but perhaps the article would read better if you reeled them in.

  • jameshogg

    I would beware of the long arm of oppression. If people end up being unable to silence you using Libel laws or something similar, they might just be able to with Copyright laws since you have just forwarded a link to a most-likely non-authorised copy of the South Park episode.

    I doubt the actual writers, you know, the people who actually carried out the creativity, will chase you up for it since you are forwarding an important message. The big multiple-monopoly-leeching publishers who had no part in the creative process on the other hand…

  • David Lindsay

    If the current judicially imposed arrangement on privacy were enacted into the statute law, but with the burden of proof in libel actions placed on the plaintiff, then who could object to that? And why?

    Making the privacy law statutory as the price of reversing the burden of proof in libel actions. That would be the deal. The corporate media cannot expect their own way all the time. Least of all these days.

    As for freedom of information, repeal the Official Secrets Acts. Just do it.

    But I have no idea why anyone is much concerned about Leveson, which merely extends to Britain the Irish regime to which the newspapers in question are already subject, since they are all published in the Irish Republic as things stand.

  • FrenchNewsonlin

    And to add more misery to the freedom of expression curbs you so properly highlight Leveson has been heaped on the pile.

  • Whyshouldihavetoregister

    Corporations are people in law, and a good thing too; it means they can be sued. From this, it follows that what’s sauce for the goose is a cliché you can complete in your own time.

  • Ron Todd

    Scientology might be the only religion, the very first one excepted, that was totally original.

  • Nkaplan

    I agree with most of what you say, and think that something does need to be done to rebalance our libel laws (although God alone knows what that something is).

    However it is just not true to say that ‘contrary to the best principles of Common Law, the burden of proof will remain on the Defendant.’ There are 2 senses in which this is false:

    (i) In civil matters at common law the burden of proof is with whoever asserts something, it is not with the Defendant or the Claimant per se at all. I think your statement has confused the criminal law and civil law.

    (ii) Relatedly the Defendant does not bear the initial burden of proof, but only does so when they raise a defence.

    WIth regard to (ii), the claimant must first prove that a statement was made and published, that that statement was about the claimant and that it was defamatory (i.e. capable of lowering the claimant in the estimation of reasonable people). Only then does the Defendant need to raise a defence, there are a broad range of these available, one of which is that the publication was generally true. The truth of the publication need only be proved on the balance of probabilities, i.e. more reasonable than not that it was true.

    It seems to me that before publishing an allegation against someone it may be wise to have some good reason to believe it is true and so this does not seem like an overly undue burden. Although there are certainly difficulties with this situation I hope it is apparent from the above that these difficulties are far from simple to resolve.

  • Daniel Maris

    I have a soft spot for the Scientologists, not that I’d personally go near them with a barge pole. But they do provide useful work for the mentally unbalanced and get them off dangerous anti-psychotic drugs with very harmful side effects. I’ve heard of quite a few Christian and Muslim nutcases who have murdered people but never of a Scientologist despite the fact that their sales pitch must meant to some extent they are over-represented in the movement. It seems to me that people otherwise rejected by society are given a really in-depth opportunity to talk through their problems in an orderly goal-orientated manner.

    As for the “Thetan theology” is it intrinsically any more absurd than the idea there is a literal Hades or Heaven. Or that Jesus will return out of the sky to judge everyone. Certainly no more absurd than Jihadi martyrs being rewarded with 72 virgins whose virginity will constantly be refreshed. Or that a chicken’s head will bring you good fortune when worn as an amulet. Is its founder more disreputable than another founder of a religion – one accepted as a world religion – who tortured people, executed prisoners of war, looted, raped and all the rest.

    As Jesus said, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” And whilst Scientology may have some rank produce, it does also deliver some very good results with the tormented and unbalanced.

    • Curnonsky

      Scientology is distinguished by the fact that its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, devised it explicitly as a scheme to make money. Which it continues to be. In fact it is only in order to obtain tax-exempt status that they even self-identify as a religion.

      • Daniel Maris

        That makes it relatively harmless compared with “cleansing the world of polytheists”, the explicit aim of another founder. Which would you rather?

    • Christian

      We’ve seen Britain under Christianity, for the past fifty years we’ve seen it with less and less of it. How’s it working out?

      • Daniel Maris

        Well why not take 1100 AD as our benchmark when people REALLY believed it all. Were things better then?

        • A J Brenchley

          Christianity liberalized is the key. That had to happen circa The [British] Enlightenment. And it did.

        • Christian

          Better in what sense? Unless you’re making the common error of associating progress in science and technology with the dilution of religion.

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