They are anonymous. They are legion. And they are either an elaborate, viral Internet prank played by bored adolescents on a painfully easy target — the much-maligned, star-studded Church of Scientology — or the amalgamation of a vast network of resourceful cyber-activists intent on wobbling the organization permanently.
Either way, about 150 of them are expected to turn up on Yonge St. today — most of them masked, in the interest of remaining, well, anonymous — to hand out flyers and generally make life uncomfortable at the church’s Toronto property (in their online forums at enturbulation.org, Anons urge one another to practise polite protestation. As one poster put it, “Bring your warm clothes, your signs, your fliers (sic), your food and water. Do not bring your weapons, your inappropriate language, your bad temper or your stupid rowdy troublemaking ass.”)
This being the Internet, the protest — or raid, as they prefer to call it — is just one of a vast mobilization effort of Anons. A network of peaceful demonstrations against the church has been planned in 14 countries and dozens of churches.
The religious group countered in a statement late yesterday that “‘Anonymous’ is perpetrating religious hate crimes against Churches of Scientology and individual Scientologists for no reason other than religious bigotry.” It added: “‘Anonymous’ claims of altruistic purposes are no different than those heard from any terrorist or hate group.”
Organized online and completely nonhierarchical, the amalgamation of Anonymous is the direct result of a very public gaffe by the very private organization. Last month, an internal promotional video was leaked to the Internet. In it, a wild-eyed Tom Cruise — the organization’s marquee adherent among Hollywood brethren like John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson — lionized the church as the saviour of a society.
It appeared on several news sitesand YouTube, but its widespread distribution was brief. The organization’s lawyers threatened legal action based on copyright violation.
But one site, Gawker.com, the satirical entertainment industry blog run by Nick Denton, refused, claiming it was newsworthy. The video can still be seen there and has been millions of times: nearly 2.8 million as of yesterday, a new record for the site.
The video, in which Cruise, rhapsodic about Scientology’s potential to heal the world — “We are the authorities on getting people off drugs, we are the authorities on the mind, we can rehabilitate criminals,” he says in the video; “We can bring peace and unite cultures” — has spurred renewed interest in the organization, which has been described by its critics as an oppressive cult.
The most visible product of Cruise’s suddenly public proclamations, though, appears to be a backlash against an intensely secretive organization that has been accused of harassment of its critics and members who choose to leave it. And the most tangible manifestation of that backlash is Anonymous.
“It basically came down to a tipping point,” said one of the organizers of today’s Toronto protest. “There was a random suggestion after the video came out — `We should do something about this.’ And it snowballed into this international effort.”
Mark Bunker, an Emmy-winning television journalist in Los Angeles who has been critical of the church’s affairs for almost 10 years, sees the Anonymous effort as a natural culmination. “It’s been building for 15 years,” said Bunker, who runs a personal Scientology watchdog site, Xenutv.com. “Now, we have an army of people.”
Bunker’s words are harsh, but he’s experienced retribution first hand. Shortly after he began covering the organization, a pair of Scientologists showed up to picket his house with signs: “Beware: Your neighbour Mark Bunker is not all the he seems,” they read. “Your neighbour Mark Bunker is a religious bigot.”
Bunker became a paternal figure for the legions of Anons when, on seeing their first video on YouTube, promising mayhem, he posted a video response, counselling them to remain civil. The exhortation was taken to heart — “Do not bring … your stupid, rowdy, troublemaking ass” — and Bunker is now hailed by the Anons as “Wise Beard Man.”
Though it elicits a chuckle from Bunker, among others, there is little to laugh at regarding episodes in the church’s near 60-year history. Scientology is based on Dianetics, a self-help book written in 1950 by the science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, the church’s founder.
In the 1970s, the organization went to extremes, infiltrating government offices in Canada, the United States and Britain. They called the effort “Operation Snow White.” In 1977, the FBI raided church offices and found evidence enough to convict nine members of conspiracy to steal government documents, notably from the Internal Revenue Service, and obstruction of justice. Among the conspirators charged in 1979 was Hubbard’s wife, Mary Sue.
In the years that followed, the organization would eventually gain non-profit status in the United States in 1993 but it would also surrender some of its closest secrets — namely, the disclosure of its vast asset base, which, according to the IRS, totalled $400 million in 1993.
It would also see its central religious myth made common knowledge: Hubbard conceived the notion that an evil alien ruler named Xenu murdered millions of beings from various planets on Earth 75 million years ago. Their souls, or “body thetans,” as Hubbard called them, attach themselves to humans, weighing their spirit down. Scientology purports to help people get “clear” of both the ancient alien spirits that weigh them down, and those who oppose the practice of erasing negative episodes and experiences, gauged by an instrument they call an “e-meter.”
The disclosure did little to dispel the notion that the church was little more than what its critics had called it: a cult.
Nonetheless, it was able to maintain and expand its legion of celebrity adherents — Hubbard identified the significance of celebrity sheen early on, calling them in an internal memo in the 1950s as “quarry” and “game” — and with an estimated annual revenue stream of $300 million, largely from membership, counselling fees and the sales of Hubbard’s books and videos, the church is a financial force. It is a large property owner in Canada and the U.S., most notably acquiring and restoring historic buildings on Hollywood Boulevard.
But with the Cruise video still circulating and the Anonymous movement galvanizing anti-church sentiment, the organization finds itself cast in the uncomfortable position of public scrutiny as new interest opens old wounds and suspicions as to its mission.
And the previously air-tight organization continues to leak. In an internal church video also available at Gawker, David Miscavige, a high-ranking church executive, refers to the organization’s “campaign to break the dark spell cast across Earth by psychiatry,” one of Scientology’s principal missions.
As a slick computer animation plays on a large screen behind him — government buildings penetrated by eruptions of flame — he boasts that the church’s efforts to “obliterate” the practice has “booby-trapped the whole psychiatric ecosystem.” As he says this, the audience erupts in cheers.
Some Anons have admitted that the appeal of the effort is partially shock humour. “But a fair number of people are taking it seriously,” says the Toronto Anon.
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