David S. Touretzky discusses Scientology, Anonymous and Tom Cruise

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

David S. Touretzky, prominent free speech activist and critic of Scientology, discussed his opinions on the recent Internet backlash against the Church of Scientology in an interview with former Scientologist and Wikinews reporter Nicholas Turnbull. The recent conflict on the Internet between critics of Scientology and the Church has been spurred on in declarations by a nebulous Internet entity using the name Anonymous that the Church of Scientology "will be destroyed". Anonymous has directed recent protests at Scientology centres across the world, which have attracted significant numbers of individuals supporting the cause. In recent e-mail correspondence with Wikinews, a representative of the Church of Scientology declared that the Church considers the activities of Anonymous to be illegal, and that Anonymous "will be handled and stopped".

Touretzky, a research professor in artificial intelligence and computational neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University, has been a prominent critic of the Church of Scientology since mid-1995, and has been protesting against Scientology vociferously since then; he has also run websites that publish material that Scientology wishes to keep suppressed from the public eye, such as extracts from Scientology's formerly-confidential Operating Thetan (OT) materials. Touretzky views the actions of the Church of Scientology as being "a threat to free speech", and has endured harassment by the Church of Scientology for his activities.

The Church of Scientology continues to suffer damage to its public reputation through increased exposure on the Internet and vocal protests by Scientology critics such as Prof. Touretzky. A recent event that focused intense attention on Scientology's totalitarian attitude was the leak of an internal Church of Scientology propaganda video to the Internet video sharing site YouTube, in which celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise spoke heavily in Scientology's jargon and stated that that "we [Scientology] are the authorities" on resolving the difficulties of humanity. The declaration of war by Anonymous followed shortly after this leak, in the form of a video posted to the Internet.

The ongoing dispute, cast by some as Scientology versus the Internet, brought Scientology terms such as "SP" (Suppressive Person, an enemy of Scientology) and "KSW" (Keeping Scientology Working) into general usage by non-Scientologists from the late 1990s onwards; increased attention has been drawn to Scientology by the release of the Cruise video in addition to media coverage. This focus has caused an even greater propagation of these terms across the outside world, as Touretzky comments in the interview.

Wikinews asked Prof. Touretzky about the impact that the activities of Anonymous will have on Scientology, the public relations effect of the Tom Cruise video, the recent departure of individuals from the Church of Scientology's executive management, the strategies that Anonymous will employ and Touretzky's experiences of picketing the Church.

The interview

This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.

((Wikinews (Nicholas Turnbull))) : How deep do you think the impact of the Anonymous protests and Internet action will be on Scientology’s cashflow?

Prof. David S. Touretzky: Anonymous will not have any effect on Scientology gross income. Their stats [statistics] are already in the basement. The only folks left are hardcore true believers who think the Intertubes are full of criminals. What Anonymous might do is increase the pressure on Hollywood celebs to distance themselves from the cult. There was a really good article yesterday about how Anonymous is morphing… changing from hackers or pranksters to a legitimate social protest movement.

((WN)) : Yes, indeed... the movement seems to be taking a different sort of shape from just a load of pranksters to a proper, organised protest. So your basic opinion regarding the impact on Scientology's stats is that they are already too low, and failing, for the damage to be significant?

DT: That's my view, yes. But that's only one kind of damage. There are several other kinds of damage that may be significant. One is to warn off Hollywood celebs from cozying up to the cult, like Kimora Lee Simmons was just caught doing. And Will Smith too. A second kind of damage has to do with Scientology's attempts to make inroads into civilized society, specifically government programs and local schools.

((WN)) : Presumably this would be, in part, because the celebs wouldn't want to sully their own PR [public relations] image.

DT: Yes, the celebs have agents and PR people who will tell them in no uncertain terms to stay away from those crazy Scientologists or risk alienating their fan base. It must be difficult to be a Tom Cruise fan right now. What can you say when your idol publicly steps in dog poo and insists it's spun gold?

((WN)) : Quite... the leaked video was quite possibly worse than the Oprah fiasco for his reputation, I think.

DT: "Tom Cruise is batshit crazy" has entered the national lexicon, along with "SP", "KSW", and "We are the authorities". Yeah, that line ["We are the authorities"] is priceless.

((WN)) : Yes, indeed; it has now become part of popular culture and the “blogosphere” has gone crazy over it.

DT: There's one more thing I hope Anonymous can accomplish, and that is to shift the focus from Xenu and BTs [“body thetans”, souls said to be attached to a person in Scientology’s secret “OT III” teachings] to disconnection, fair game, fraud, and barratry. Did you know that DM's [David Miscavige, the current leader of Scientology’s] niece is appearing on Inside Edition tonight?

((WN)) : I didn't know that she was appearing on Inside Edition, actually. I must catch that.

DT: She has nothing to do with Chanology [the recent anti-Scientology movement that has gathered on Internet message boards], but what we're seeing here is a "perfect storm" of entheta [material considered negative by Scientology]. It's all coming together in a chain reaction: The Tom Cruise video, Andrew Morton's bio, Kirstie Alley's craziness, Kimora Lee Simmons, Jenna Miscavige, and there's more to come!

((WN)) : I believe the things like disconnection, fair game, the RPF [Rehabilitation Project Force, a Scientology penal system within the paramilitary Sea Org] etc. are all more captivating to the hearts and minds of the general public than Xenu... so do you think that the Church of Scientology will ever be able to recover from this blow to their reputation? In other words, will this be the "beginning of the end" of the Church seriously being able to promote themselves to the general public?

DT: I've learned it's impossible to predict what will happen next with CoS [the Church of Scientology]. We try, but we always get it wrong. They have capabilities for self-destructive behavior that far exceed those of normal individuals. Now that Mike Rinder has blown, anything is possible. And he's not the only exec out there who has a gripe with DM.

((WN)) : Indeed. There have been many high-profile blows [departures] from upper exec [executive] strata and I wonder how many more the CoS can cope with.

DT: Yes, these folks are starting to go public. John Peeler has already done so. And who could have predicted Jenna Miscavige would turn SP? Amazing!

((WN)) : A further question, if I may, regarding the impact on Scientology: do you think that the recent activities of Anonymous will have a profound effect on the Sea Org hierarchy and possibly make it harder for the Church of Scientology to continue maintaining their PR image to their own staff members? Could this trigger a massive series of "blows" from the Sea Org?

DT: You're probably in a better position [as a former member] to assess the affect on Sea Org members, but my guess is that they won't even be aware of Anonymous actions, or will write them off as crazy Internet hatemongers. I think a bigger impact will come from Jenna Miscavige [leader David Miscavige's niece].

((WN)) : What exactly is Anonymous going to do on the 10th? Are their intentions peaceful?

DT: Oh yeah, they appear to be *very* concerned about avoiding any kind of violence or unlawful behavior. From what I can see, they understand that any kind of violence or criminality would play into CoS' hands. It would allow CoS to portray themselves as victims and score a PR win. One anonymous person suggested that the policy towards all participants should be: "If you do anything illegal, WE will call the cops on you ourselves."

((WN)) : What is your opinion on the reverse: do you think the CoS will be peaceful and legal in its handling of "Anonymous"? In a recent e-mail exchange with Wikinews, a Scientology staff member said that Anonymous would be "handled and stopped" and that the actions "have been reported". Will Scientology carry out its usual harassment, or do you think that it has learned its lesson that such abusive tactics cause more of a backlash?

DT: My best guess is that the Scientologists will employ their famous "hiding tech". Doors locked, lights off, and PIs [private investigators] discreetly filming from a distance.

((WN)) : I imagine the CoS will attempt their usual approach of trying to turn it into a pro-Scientology rally, as they have done at many smaller pickets, although I feel that it would fail miserably.

DT: I was at the pickets in 1997 (twice) and 1999. They tried counter-picketing. They tried harassing us and getting in our faces. Even physically harassed a woman with a seeing eye dog. But eventually they switched to hiding tech. I also did a solo picket on L. Ron Hubbard Way, and they kept trying different ways to "handle" me. I was only planning on spending an hour there, but I was having so much fun I didn't quit ‘till it got too dark to see. I thought about running out to buy a flashlight, but decided to call it a day. My feet were sore!

((WN)) : [laughs] So it sounds like you had quite a day of it, Dave.

DT: Yes, I have fond memories of that day. For me, it was like going to Disneyland and seeing Mickey Mouse.

((WN)) : What have been your most effective tactics against the CoS, then, Dave, in terms of impact and education of others?

DT: The web sites are probably the most effective, but doing radio and TV appearances has also been pretty helpful. I've done over 20 radio interviews and three national TV appearances, two of which were on Keith Olbermann's show. I was gonna say: there's a reason Scientology felt it necessary to counterpicket us in Clearwater.

((WN)) : Presumably because of the public exposure?

DT: [It] has nothing to do with the public. It's because they don't want to appear powerless in front of their members. It was a face-saving gesture. But it didn't work out the way they'd hope. The public will drive by a picket, honk their horn, and forget about it by time they turn the corner. But the members see their cult being publicly mocked by a bunch of SPs, that makes a deep impression. Especially when there are signs about Lisa McPherson's death, or t-shirts containing the text of OT III.

((WN)) : Indeed, as their PTS/SP [Potential Trouble Source/Suppressive Person] handling tech [technology] needs to be seen to be "working" at least to Scientologists.

DT: So they sent out their members to counter-picket us as a way to make them feel better, but it didn't work. The members behaved badly, and at some level they must have known they were being jerks. So forget about confronting suppression. The new tech is "lock doors, douse lights, and whine as loudly as you can!" My suggested picket sign for large Orgs: "Mike Rinder Blew. You Can Too!". Rinder appeared in a tuxedo at past IAS [International Association of Scientologists] events. They know who he is.

((WN)) : I would have thought that [Scientologists hiding from critics’ protests] to be "non-confront" [refusing to face up to something] in the Scientologists' own doctrine; although they would see it, I suppose, as "cutting entheta comm" [refusing to engage in negative communication].

DT: Yeah, I don't know how they explained the strategy switch to their members, but your suggestion sounds right to me.

((WN)) : In your experience in pickets, has the "Why are you here? Ok, right. So why are you really here? Hehehe, no... why are you *really* here?" bullbaiting [of protesters] been killed off?

DT: My last picket was in 1999. I imagine, with so many sites being picketed this time, we'll see a variety of strategies. But bullbaiting picketers was never very successful. For the 1998 solo picket my sign had two sides. One side said "Doubt is not a crime. Freedom is not a stat." The other side said "RTC: who crashed gross income?" That one drove them ape. I didn't fully appreciate why that sign would upset them so much, until some ex-member explained it to me: it was a call for a witch-hunt.

((WN)) : I think that kind of stratagem is probably going to be the most effective, because the Scientologists themselves can identify with such things; perhaps it may well be that it touches enough of a raw nerve in their own world, as it were, to give them pause for thinking. Is Scientology losing it grip on maintaining its "Wizard of Oz" world whereby its staff consider the tech to be infallible and the orgs to be clearing the planet?

DT: Yes, the members must be having huge doubts by now. But there remains a hardcore of followers who will not look at critical materials. I'd put them in two categories. First are the old timers who never got the whole Intertubes thing [the Internet]. The second class is younger folk who are just losers. Not bright or intellectually curious. Maybe ex-addicts who ended up joining staff. They're not going to go surfing the web for entheta, any more than Tom Cruise would.

((WN)) : Quite... there were very few "Founding Scientologists" in my day, largely because the purge in the 1980s had cleared most of the remaining ones out, and the remainder had left in disgust following "hard ethics" [severe disciplinary procedures].

DT: Yeah, and DM has done his best to alienate whoever was left. […] DM has been a disaster for Scientology.

((WN)) : Well, Dave, thank you so much for answering my questions, you've given an interesting perspective on all this.

DT: My pleasure, Nicholas.

((WN)) : In closing: how long do you think Scientology has got?

DT: I think they're looking at a major contraction in the next two years. But they may linger on, a mere shadow of their former ominous selves, for decades.

((WN)) : Thank you so much, again. You've been wonderful, and it has been a pleasure talking with you.


Wikipedia Learn more about Scientology and the Internet and Project Chanology on Wikipedia.