Lawrence Wright

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Former Governor Rick Perry may be the most perfect living embodiment of the dumb-as-dirt side of Texas, the kind of supremely confident stumblefuck you could imagine firing a corn dog and sucking on a pistol. Inexplicably appointed Secretary of Energy by an even more inexplicable President, the king of brain cramps made this bold statement at a West Virginia coal plant yesterday: “Here’s a little economics lesson: supply and demand. You put the supply out there and the demand will follow.”

That is definitely not how that thing works.

Perry is, of course, far from the looniest Longhorn to hold office–Robert Morrow makes him seem the wise elder–and it would all be fantastically colorful to outsiders were it not for the outsize influence the state’s ballooning population has on everything from textbooks to temperatures. 

In a 2013 Time cover story “Why Texas is Our Future,” economist Tyler Cowen wondered if what he viewed as the Libertarian impulse of the state would spread throughout the country. I argued that California (or perhaps Massachusetts) might be a more likely template, that Texas may not even be the future of Texas given its brisk population growth and changing demographics, though we won’t know for sure for awhile.

In making his argument, the economist hadn’t addressed numerous potential threats to his theory:

• Growing Mexican-American voting power goes unmentioned. It likely won’t help Republicans in that state or nationally in the near future.

• The politicians who favor the type of policies Cowen thinks are the future (little or no social safety net) are usually rejected at the ballot box. Trump won be running against his true intentions.

• You can’t assume that the influx of new citizens from disparate places to Texas won’t alter its political landscape. New arrivals may initially be attracted by no state income taxes, but they may grow weary of some of its less-appealing side effects.

• It’s hard to see how Texas’ seemingly endless cheap land could apply to most smaller American states. The supply just isn’t there. Zoning-law changes can help somewhat, but you can do just so much with so little.

• Vast stretches of Texas may be uninhabitable or, at the very least, far less inviting in a few decades, those oil wells doing their damage despite what the state’s elected climate-change deniers believe.

• It’s certainly not Cowen’s responsibility in predicting the future to skew his opinions to the more humanistic path, but I think he’s way too fatalistic about Americans accepting greater and greater income inequality. His view of the future is pretty chilling and only some of it has to be true. Sure, automation will become more prominent, but we do not have to politically allow our country to become an even more extreme version of haves and have-nots, adopting the policies of the state with the nation’s highest uninsured rate and an appalling poverty rate for women and girls. I don’t think people will forever be satisfied by bread and Kardashians.

Even beyond these obvious reasons that Texas today will likely not be America tomorrow is the simple fact that the state has been wildly gerrymandered by Republicans to distort the reality of its actual character, a process that has been duplicated across the country. Texas is purpler than it used to be though still red, but much of its population runs up against its more backwards Jesus-rode-dinosaurs daffiness. Redistricting is a trick both parties have historically employed, and one that needs to end. The U.S. not truly and accurately represented is a Republic headed for disaster.

In his New Yorker piece “America’s Future Is Texas,” Lawrence Wright, whose spent most of his life living in the state and wrote for Texas Monthly, considers, as Cowen did, that the state may be a bellwether nationally–but does so from a very different perspective. The journalist’s headline implies Texas’ volatile, fractious politics, an “irrepressible conflict” writ even larger than what we now know, may await us all.

While covering this year’s 140-day state-legislative session that played out like a dynamite factory visited by a wildfire, Wright provides an excellent tour through many of the historical and contemporary characters, policies and processes that make up the extreme politics of a state where it’s legal to shoot wild pigs from helicopters with machine guns. It’s more or less wartime reportage.

The combustible session often saw average conservatives trying to restrain the fringe-right ones, a group of white men aiming to build a wall around the future, which seems successful in the state at the moment, though it may actually be a death rattle from a population that’s been eclipsed. 

An excerpt:

In session after session, the Texas legislature has sought to impose strict rules on voter identification, with the putative goal of preventing election fraud. A 2011 law required voters to present a U.S. passport, a military identification card, a state driver’s license, a concealed-weapon permit, or a Texas election identification certificate. The same law excluded federal and state government I.D.s, as well as student I.D.s, from being used at polling stations. In 2014, a federal judge, Nelva Gonzales Ramos, in the Southern District of Texas, struck down the law, calling it “an unconstitutional poll tax.” Texas appealed, but the appeal was rejected, in part because there was no actual evidence of voter fraud. (The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.) The appeals court sent the case back to Judge Ramos, asking her to determine if the law was intentionally discriminatory. If Ramos said yes, it could trigger federal monitoring of the state’s election laws under the Voting Rights Act.

The question of voter fraud became a national issue after the 2016 Presidential election. Gregg Phillips, a former official of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, gave Trump the false idea that he would have won the popular vote if illegal votes were discounted. Phillips, the founder of a group called VoteStand, tweeted that three million unqualified voters had cast ballots in the election. He refused to provide proof, though he told CNN that he had developed “algorithms” that could determine citizenship status. Trump soon demanded a widespread investigation into voter fraud.

In February, 2017, while Judge Ramos was still considering the Texas voter-I.D. law, a resident of a Fort Worth suburb was found to have voted illegally: Rosa Maria Ortega, a thirty-seven-year-old mother of four with a seventh-grade education. She had lived in the U.S. since she was an infant, and was a legal resident, entitled to serve in the military and required to pay taxes. She assumed that she could also vote, and had done so previously, in 2012 and 2014. The local prosecutor decided to make an example of her, and she was sentenced to eight years in prison. When she gets out, she may be deported to Mexico. I suppose it’s an irony that she is a Republican, and voted for Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, who has made voter fraud a signature issue.

In April, Judge Ramos issued her opinion: the Texas voter-I.D. law was intentionally designed to discriminate against minorities. Almost simultaneously, a panel of federal judges in San Antonio ruled that three of the state’s thirty-six U.S. congressional districts were illegally drawn in order to disempower minorities.

Evan Smith, of the Texas Tribune, has closely followed thirteen legislative sessions. He noted that, even as Dan Patrick and his Republican allies slashed government services, they allocated eight hundred million dollars for border security. “White people are scared of change, believing that what they have is being taken away from them by people they consider unworthy,” he told me. “But all they’re doing is poking a bear with a stick. In 2004, the Anglo population in Texas became a minority. The last majority-Anglo high-school class in Texas graduated in 2014. There will never be another. The reality is, it’s all over for the Anglos.”

Texas leads the nation in Latino population growth. Latinos account for more than half the 2.7 million new Texans since 2010. Every Democrat in Texas believes that, if Latinos voted at the same rate in Texas as they do in California, the state would already be blue. “The difference between Texas and California is the labor movement,” Garnet Coleman, a Houston member of the Texas House, told me. In the nineteen-sixties, Cesar Chavez began organizing the California farmworkers into a union; that kind of movement didn’t happen in Texas, a right-to-work state. “Labor unions create a culture of voting and political participation,” Coleman observed. In Texas politics, he says, “everything is about race—it’s veiled as public policy, but it encourages people to believe that their tax dollars are going to support lazy black and brown people.” Political views have become more entrenched because of redistricting, and yet the demographic majority in Texas is far more progressive than its representatives. Coleman predicts a showdown: “This is a battle about the future of the country, based on a new majority, and we have to have this out.”•

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In 1989, six years before her murder, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the Carrie Nation of holy water, was profiled by Lawrence Wright, then of Texas Monthly. The outrageously quotable, oft-jailed atheist activist was no doubt a welcome assignment for a budding journalistic talent like Wright, who visited her Austin offices a quarter century after her strident efforts had removed compulsory prayer from American public schools.

In the twilight of the Reagan years, O’Hair thought the country was headed toward a Neo-fascism enabled by a confluence of plutocracy, technology and religion. In retrospect, not a bad prediction.

An excerpt from the Texas Monthly piece is followed by some other articles and videos about her.


From Wright:

As with most Americans my age, my life already had been given a good shaking by Madalyn Murray O’Hair. For the first ten years of my schooling, I listened to prayers and Scripture every morning following the announcements on the P.A. system. I don’t recall ever questioning the propriety of such action or wondering what my Jewish classmates, for instance, might think about hearing Christian prayers in public school. But in the fateful fall of 1963 we began classes amid the enormous hubbub that followed the Supreme Court decision. The absence of morning prayers was widely seen as a prelude to the fall of the West. And the woman who had toppled civilization as we knew it was some loudmouthed Baltimore housewife—that was my impression—who then proceeded to wage another legal campaign to tax church property. She was the first person I had ever heard called a heretic. She jumped out of the front pages with one outrageous statement after another; indeed, the era of dissent in the sixties really began with Madalyn Murray, who styled herself as the “most hated woman in America.”

Certainly she was the most provocative. Soon after the school-prayer decision, Mrs. Murray, as she called herself then, was charged with assaulting 10 Baltimore policemen (she has inflated the number of policemen to 14, then 22, and then 26). She fled first to Hawaii, where she took refuge in a Unitarian church. Then she went to Mexico, which summarily deported her to Texas in 1965. Her odyssey ended in Austin, where she successfully fought extradition to Maryland, married an ex-FBI informer named Richard O’Hair, and remained long after the Maryland charges were dropped.

Over the years I followed Madalyn O’Hair in the way one keeps tabs on celebrities, as she bantered with Johnny Carson, sued the pope, or burst into a church and turned over bingo tables. When I was in college, she came to speak. By then she had achieved a kind of sainthood status with the undergraduate intelligentsia. True to her billing, she raked over capitalism and Christianity and especially Catholicism, unsettling if not actually insulting every person in the auditorium. Afterward she repaired to the student center and held forth in the lobby, giving an explicit and highly titillating seminar on the variations of sexual intercourse. I had never seen anyone with such a breathtaking willingness to endure public hatred. “I love a good fight,” she boasted to the press. “I guess fighting God and God’s spokesmen is sort of the ultimate, isn’t it?”

Neutrality is never present around Madalyn O’Hair; she polarizes everyone. …

“I do think we’re in a steady retreat. There’s an absolute steady retreat into what I call a neofascism—but it’s really old-time fascism—into a robber-baron society and a religiously dominated society, and that’s not cyclical, because they have new weapons at hand now, mainly communications technology with which they can rapidly disperse ideas…”•


The atheist crusader was right that children should not be forced to pray in public school, but that doesn’t mean she was an ideal parent. O’Hair had dissent in her family that she would not brook: Her eldest son, William, became a religious and social conservative in 1980. His mother, showing characteristic outrage, labeled him a “postnatal abortion” and cut off all communication. From a 1980 People article about the familial rift:

He traces her atheism to that self-absorption and hubris and to an aggressive antiestablishment streak that led her (with her two sons) into a variety of left-wing causes—even, he claims, to the Soviet embassy in Paris in search of exile. Rejected by Moscow, she retreated angrily back home to Baltimore where, as he puts it, “The rebel found a cause in prayer at school.”

As the pawn of her crusade, Bill was excoriated by fellow students, given extra homework by his teachers and baited into schoolyard fights; once, he remembers, some classmates tried to push him in front of a bus. “While Madalyn was busy with her rhetoric, newsletters, fund raising and publicity,” he says, “I was fighting for my life.” At 17, Murray ran afoul of the law. He eloped with a girl despite an injunction won by her parents that prohibited him from seeing her. Police intervened, and both Bill and his mother were charged with assaulting them. (The young woman left Bill and their infant daughter two years later.) 

Throughout Bill’s life his mother’s reputation has been a millstone. Drafted a year after his marriage broke up, he was subjected to grueling Army interrogation about Madalyn’s activist causes—and asked to sign a statement repudiating her left-wing politics (he did). After discharge he took a series of jobs in airline management and remembers living in fear that his employers would find out who his mother was and fire him. He complains she even threatened to expose him herself when he balked at giving her discounted airplane tickets that were due him as an employee. 

In 1969 he asked Madalyn for his daughter, whom she had kept while he was in the Army. She refused, they fought a custody suit and Madalyn won. Still, in 1974, when her second husband was ailing and the AAC foundering, Bill agreed to come to Austin and help out. He did so with great success—and increasing doubts. He multiplied the AAC’s annual income, which underwrote a flurry of new lawsuits—over church tax exemptions, the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ on coins. But Bill says he began to wonder: “Why couldn’t we buy a new X-ray machine for a hospital? Why did we have to buy a new Cadillac and mobile home for Madalyn, or sue somebody to prevent prayer in outer space? I started to think it was because my mother was basically negative and destructive.’ He began to drink too much—”diving into the bottle to forget,” as he describes it. Six months after he came to Austin, Madalyn turned her animus on him once too often. “I told her to get f——-,” he recalls, ‘and got the hell out.”

By that time Bill was an alcoholic. He had a new marriage and a new job as an airline management consultant, but felt his life was falling apart.”•


From the 1965 Playboy interview with the “most hated woman in America”:

Playboy:

What led you to become an atheist?

Madalyn Murray O’Hair:

Well, it started when I was very young. People attain the age of intellectual discretion at different times in their lives — sometimes a little early and sometimes a little late. I was about 12 or 13 years old when I reached this period. It was then that I was introduced to the Bible. We were living in Akron and I wasn’t able to get to the library, so I had two things to read at home: a dictionary and a Bible. Well, I picked up the Bible and read it from cover to cover one weekend — just as if it were a novel — very rapidly, and I’ve never gotten over the shock of it. The miracles, the inconsistencies, the improbabilities, the impossibilities, the wretched history, the sordid sex, the sadism in it — the whole thing shocked me profoundly. I remember l looked in the kitchen at my mother and father and I thought: Can they really believe in all that? Of course, this was a superficial survey by a very young girl, but it left a traumatic impression. Later, when I started going to church, my first memories are of the minister getting up and accusing us of being full of sin, though he didn’t say why; then they would pass the collection plate, and I got it in my mind that this had to do with purification of the soul, that we were being invited to buy expiation from our sins. So I gave it all up. It was too nonsensical.•


A 30-minute documentary about O’Hair, and a 1970 Donahue episode in which she debated Rev. Bob Harrington (voice and picture not properly synced.)

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In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, Alex Gibney details the backlash he, Lawrence Wright and others have faced from the Church of Scientology over the book and film versions of Going Clear and questions the organization’s tax-exempt status. An excerpt:

The church maintains that its activities are protected by the 1st Amendment as religious practices. Partially on that basis, the church convinced the Internal Revenue Service in 1993 that Scientology should be tax-exempt and that all donations to the church should be tax-deductible. (The film shows that the church’s method of “convincing” the IRS featured lawsuits and vilification of its agents.)

In the past, critics of the church have called for its tax exemption to be revoked because it is not a “real religion.” I agree that tax-exemption isn’t merited, but not for that reason. The Church of Scientology has a distinct belief system which, despite its somewhat strange cosmology — mocked by the TV show “South Park” and many others — is not essentially more strange than, say, the idea of a virgin birth. Scientologists are entitled to believe what they want to believe. And the IRS website makes it clear that anyone is entitled to start a religion at any time without seeking IRS permission. To maintain the right to be tax-exempt, however, religions must fulfill certain requirements for charitable organizations. For example, they may not “serve the private interests of any individual” and/or “the organization’s purposes and activities may not be illegal or violate fundamental public policy.”

On these points alone, it is hard to see why Americans should subsidize Scientology through its tax-exemption.•

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Scientology is really no goofier in its belief system than are any of the world’s major religions, with their virgin births and reincarnations and, yes, talking donkeys, but it seems predatory toward its adherents in a way scary cults are. Will it ever grow past that? As Alex Gibney’s broadside on the church of Hubbard and Travolta and Cruise prepares to air on HBO, the great Tom Carson writes of the anti-auditing doc at Grantland. An excerpt:

The church’s own claims of around million members aren’t what you’d call reliable, and that’s still a drop in the bucket to Vatican City and Mecca. But ex-insiders estimate the actual figure is a paltry 30,000 adherents worldwide. If so, Scientology’s prominence as an alternative faith and/or perceived public menace is some kind of tribute to Hubbard’s Warhol-anticipating perception that celebrity is currency; according to the same sources, one out of six of those 30,000 live in Los Angeles.

Another measure is staying power, which in this case is still TBD. It’s been only 60 years since founder L. Ron Hubbard ginned up a mental-health program into a mighty — let’s be polite — idiosyncratic theology. Remember, though, that a new creed’s apparent preposterousness is no guarantee of failure. In the first century A.D., Christianity’s tenets probably sounded fairly goofy up against the more plausible stuff about Jupiter, Minerva, & Co. that the civilized world swore by. At least in theory, it’s totally possible that sociable chat about thetans and Suppressive Persons — the jargon Hubbard bequeathed us — won’t be any more outlandish a few hundred years from now than being down with transubstantiation or the virgin birth.

Porky Pig turning drone may seem more likely, but whatever you think of the prospect, the day is brought no closer — and that’s putting it kindly — by Gibney’s harsh and sometimes blatantly alarmist doc. Its full title is Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Gibney’s take derives considerable authority from being based on prizewinning New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright’s scrupulously reported book of approximately the same name. (Wright’s subtitle had “Hollywood” in there, too, and it would be interesting to know what prompted the elision: The doc certainly features enough of John Travolta and Tom Cruise.) But so long as we’re talking the difference between religions and cults, try to imagine HBO running a comparable documentary about, say, Mormonism — in more ways than one, as Wright’s book details, Scientology’s 19th-century equivalent, at least in the popular suspicions (and derision) it aroused when it was founded.•

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Speaking about Going Clear, Andrew O’Hehir a new Salon Q&A with Lawrence Wright. Many religions begin as bizarre cults and only survive if they can (mostly) shed the weirdness and stabilize, the sideshow far from the middle ring. Wright believes that could happen with Scientology. An excerpt:

Andrew O’Hehir:

You just said that you think this film could provoke a crisis that might help Scientology. I think it’s useful to point out, as you have done many times, that you did not actually set out to do a gotcha or an exposé.

Lawrence Wright:

Why bother? It’s the most stigmatized religion in America. An exposé, so what? But it is really interesting to understand why people are drawn in to the church. What do they get out of it and why do they stay? If you can understand that, in reference to a belief system that most people regard as very bizarre and has a reputation for being incredibly vindictive and litigious, then you might understand other social and religious and political movements that arise and take very good, kind, idealistic, intelligent, skeptical people and turn them into people they wouldn’t otherwise recognize.

Andrew O’Hehir:

The larger question here that you’re beginning to hint at is what makes a religion a religion? What does that word mean? The IRS has its own ideas, but …

Lawrence Wright:

Let’s start with the IRS because they’re the only agency empowered to make this distinction. It’s not exactly stocked full of theologians either. The way they determined that Scientology was a religion was to make a deal, because they were under legal siege of 2,400 lawsuits. Essentially, Scientology bludgeoned them into this tax exemption, which now denominates them as a religion. Previously, they were seen as a business enterprise and that’s the way they are seen in some European countries. Also, they are seen as a cult or a sect in Europe. But we call them a religion and I’m willing to accept that. It stretches the boundaries, clearly, but if you think of a religion having a set of scriptures – well L. Ron Hubbard still holds the Guinness record for the number of titles by a single author, as far as I know, more than 1,000. It’s a record that’s very hard to eclipse. Everything he wrote is considered a scripture by Scientology, even his novels.

Andrew O’Hehir:

Really? Battlefield Earth is a work of scripture?

Lawrence Wright:

Yes, it’s all scripture. It’s tax-exempt. There’s a huge body of work, not all of it fiction, having to do with ethics and psychology and so on that the church considers its literature. It functions as a community. Really, a religion is only separated from the rest of society by a circle of beliefs. So in that sense, sometimes the stranger the beliefs and the more exotic, the more bound together the community inside that circle is, and I think that’s true of Scientology. There is an origin story that may be a little bit bizarre, but bizarre beliefs are common in religion because religion is a belief in irrational things.•

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A couple of weeks before Alex Gibney’s documentary adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear debuts on HBO, here’s a repost of five earlier entries about the religion pulp-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard wrought.

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“A Year Ago, L. Ron Hubbard Was An Obscure Writer Of Pseudoscientific Pulp Fiction”

The opening of Albert Q. Maisel’s highly skeptical 1950 Look magazine article about a new pseudoscience, something called “Dianetics,” conceived by pulp writer L. Ron Hubbard:

A year ago, L. Ron Hubbard was an obscure writer of pseudoscientific pulp fiction. Today he has:

.. Half a million devout followers.

.. A foundation with a chain of bustling branches stretching from Elizabeth, N.J. to far-off Honolulu.

.. The best-selling nonfiction book since Dale Carnegie discovered the secret of success.

.. A swarm of pop-eyed students, who stand in line for the privilege of plunking down 500 bucks for a one-month course which converts them into “professional auditors,” complete with a couch and capable of outpsyching any ordinary psychiatrist.

.. Even larger and faster-growing tribes who pay $200 each for the 15-lecture short course – or $25 an hour to have their ‘cases opened’ by $500 professional auditors.

.. And a small army of associate members, at a mere 15 smackers each, who gratefully keep up with the whirlwind developments of Hubbard’s new ‘science’ of dianetics through the Dianetics Auditors Bulletin.

Dianetics and the Discovery of Fire

Hubbard, you may gather from the foregoing, has discovered the key to success and demonstrated once again that Barnum underestimated the sucker birth rate.

But that, by Hubbard’s own admission, is probably the least of his discoveries.

Unencumbered by the modesty that hog-ties ordinary mortals, Hubbard starts his book – THE BOOK, his followers call it – with the calm assertion that ‘the creation of dianetics is a milestone for Man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his invention of the wheel and the arch.’

A few lines beyond, one learns that, with dianetics, ‘the intelligent layman can successfully and invariably treat all psychosomatic ills and inorganic aberrations.’

Farther on, one discovers that these psychosomatic ills, ‘uniformly cured by dianetic therapy.’ include such varied maladies as eye trouble, bursitis, ulcers, some heart difficulties, migraine headaches and the common cold.

But you ain’t heard nothing yet.•

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“They Become Fanatics On The Subject, Impervious To Argument, Quick To Cut Themselves Off From Doubters”

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The opening ofA Growing Cult Reaches Dangerously Into The Mind,” Alan Levy’s November 15. 1968 Life investigation into Scientology:

The lights in the hall go dim, leaving the bronzed bust of the Founder spotlighted at center stage. From the loudspeakers comes L Ron Hubbard’s voice, deep and professional. It is a tape called ‘Some Aspects of Help, Part 1,’ a basic lecture’ in Scientology that Hubbard recorded nearly 10 years ago.

No one in the intensely respectable Los Angeles audience of 500 — some of whom paid as much as $16 to get in — thought it odd to be sitting there listening to a disembodied voice. Among believers, Scientology and its founder are beyond frivolous question. Scientology is the Truth, it is the path to ‘a civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war . . .’ and ‘for the first time in all ages there is something that ….delivers the answers to the eternal questions and delivers immortality as well.’

So much of a credo might be regarded as harmless — practically indistinguishable from any number of minor schemes for the improvement of Man. But Scientology is scary — because of its size and growth, and because of the potentially disastrous techniques it so casually makes use of. To attain the Truth, a Scientologist surrenders himself to “auditing,” a crude form of psychoanalysis. In the best medical circumstances this is a delicate procedure, but in Scientology it is undertaken by an ‘auditor’ who is simply another Scientologist in training, who uses an ‘E-meter,’ which resembles a lie detector. A government report, made to the parliament of the State of Victoria in Australia three years ago, called Scientology ‘the worlds largest organization of unqualified persons engaged in the practice of dangerous techniques which masquerade as mental therapy.’ As author Alan Levy found out by personal experience ‘pages 100B – 114′, the auditing experience can be shattering.

How many souls have become hooked on Scientology is impossible to say precisely. Worldwide membership — England, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the U.S. — is probably between two and three million. In the U.S. offices in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and seven other cities, the figure may now be more than several hundred thousand. What is astonishing — and frightening — is the rate of growth in the U.S.: membership has probably tripled or quadrupled in the past three years.

Recruits to Scientology are most often young, intelligent and idealistic. They become fanatics on the subject, impervious to argument, quick to cut themselves off from doubters. Many young people have been instructed by their Scientology organizations ‘orgs,’ they are called to ‘disconnect’ from their families. ‘Disconnect’ means exactly that: sever all relations. Such estrangements can be deep and lasting, leaving heartsick parents no longer able to speak rationally with their children.

Scientology is expensive.”•

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“They Take The Best And Brightest People And Destroy Them”

With the 1991 Time article,The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power,” investigative reporter Richard Behar brought concerns about Scientology to the mainstream. The hard-hitting article’s opening:

“By all appearances, Noah Lottick of Kingston, Pa., had been a normal, happy 24-year-old who was looking for his place in the world. On the day last June when his parents drove to New York City to claim his body, they were nearly catatonic with grief. The young Russian-studies scholar had jumped from a 10th-floor window of the Milford Plaza Hotel and bounced off the hood of a stretch limousine. When the police arrived, his fingers were still clutching $171 in cash, virtually the only money he hadn’t yet turned over to the Church of Scientology, the self-help ‘philosophy’ group he had discovered just seven months earlier.

His death inspired his father Edward, a physician, to start his own investigation of the church. ‘We thought Scientology was something like Dale Carnegie,’ Lottick says. ‘I now believe it’s a school for psychopaths. Their so-called therapies are manipulations. They take the best and brightest people and destroy them.’ The Lotticks want to sue the church for contributing to their son’s death, but the prospect has them frightened. For nearly 40 years, the big business of Scientology has shielded itself exquisitely behind the First Amendment as well as a battery of high-priced criminal lawyers and shady private detectives.

The Church of Scientology, started by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard to ‘clear’ people of unhappiness, portrays itself as a religion. In reality the church is a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.”•

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“He Sought Out Many ‘Cures’ For His Problems”

William S. Burroughs was more deeply involved in Scientology than we know according to a new book by David S. Wills. The writer just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit on the topic. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

What initially brought Burroughs to the Scientologists?

David S. Wills:

Well that’s the first half of the book right there… In a nutshell, he was a deeply disturbed man. He was abused as a child, troubled by his homosexuality, accidentally killed his wife, and was hooked on drugs for decades. He sought out many “cures” for his problems and despite being obviously intelligent in many ways, was incredibly gullible. Ultimately, he came to Scientology for a magic fix, and for a while, he actually believed he was getting it. In fact, as late as 1994 (3 yrs prior to his death) he was convinced of some of its merits.

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Question:

I heard many rumors that scientology cures you of being gay that many high profile celebrities join to get cured of gay. Any truth to that?

David S. Wills:

Long ago, L. Ron Hubbard listed homosexuals as among the lowest forms of human beings (this has subsequently been changed in his books). I have no idea about the rumors of other celebrities… but it is highly likely that Burroughs sought a “cure” for his homosexuality in Scientology. He went through periods of feeling it was a handicap and remarked on a number of occasions that Scientology (temporarily) cured him of various “handicaps.”

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Question:

What is a misconceptions that you had about Scientology that later changed?

David S. Wills:

I thought that the whole Xenu/space opera thing was of more importance. The tabloids and South Park really play it up, but it didn’t get incorporated until later, and even then it was for the high-level members. Really, for the average Scientologist, that wasn’t even a part of it.

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Question:

Did they try to convert you?

David S. Wills:

No. Most Scientologists and ex-Scientologists I talked to were pretty open but not pushy. They were willing to explain concepts but not force them upon me. Interestingly, I did speak to someone who had letters from a Scientologist who’d used Burroughs to convert young people in the 60s.•

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“Their Allegiance And Devotion To The Mysterious Man Is Total”

L. Ron Hubbard interviewed in 1968 about his embattled tax shelter, during the period when he spent much of his time at sea.

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There’s always this odd little question mark attached to Michael Kinsley’s distinguished journalism career because of the cloudy circumstances of how he came to miss out on the New Yorker editor slot that subsequently went to David Remnick, but I always stop and read anything attached to his byline. You’ve probably already read his New York Times Book Review piece about Lawrence Wright’s just-released Scientology exposé, Going Clear, but in case you missed it here’s a segment that takes aim at the long-delayed apostasy of filmmaker Paul Haggis, whom Kinsley doesn’t completely absolve:

“The fish that got away, Scientologists believed, was Steven Spielberg. He told Haggis that Scientologists ‘seem like the nicest people,’ and Haggis responded that ‘we keep all the evil ones in the closet,’ which was close enough to being true that Haggis was in hot water with the Scientology powers-that-be. But he didn’t quit.

Haggis joined Scientology in 1975, when he was 21. Wright assures us that Haggis ‘never lost his skepticism,’ but he must have misplaced it for a few decades. He remained a member and rose to be a top thetan among Scientologists through the death of L. Ron Hubbard and the rise of his successor, David Miscavige, who has often been described as sadistic. Then he read on the Internet about children ’10, 12 years old, signing billion-year contracts, . . . and they work morning, noon and night. . . . Scrubbing pots, manual labor — that so deeply touched me. My God, it horrified me.’ Still, he didn’t quit. Once again like American Communists on the eve of World War II, a few ‘useful idiots’ like Haggis held on through every moment of doubt and twist in the story. What finally pushed him over the edge, away from Scientology and out into the real world, was the church’s refusal to endorse gay marriage. Now, I’m for gay marriage. And Haggis has two gay daughters, so it’s understandable that he should feel particularly strongly about this issue. But some perspective, please: it’s like hanging on through the Moscow trials and then quitting the Communist Party because it won’t endorse . . . oh, I dunno — well, gay marriage.”

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The opening of “Lithium Dreams,” Lawrence Wright’s excellent 2010 New Yorker article about Bolivia’s chance for economic renaissance during the age of lightweight batteries:

“In southern Bolivia, there is a mountain called Cerro Rico—’the hill of wealth.’ It is a pale, bald rock, crisscrossed with dirt roads that climb the slope like shoelaces. More than four thousand mining tunnels have so thoroughly riddled its interior that the mountain is in danger of collapse. Its base is ringed with slums that spill into the old city of Potosí, a World Heritage site. Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, recently told me that he and his countrymen see Potosí as ‘a symbol of plunder, of exploitation, of humiliation.’ The city represents a might-have-been Bolivia: a country that had capitalized on its astounding mineral wealth to become a major industrial power. Such a Bolivia could easily have been imagined in 1611, when Potosí was one of the biggest cities in the world, with a hundred and eighty thousand inhabitants—roughly the size of London at the time. Although Potosí began as a mining town, with the saloons and gaming houses that accompany men on the frontier, it soon had magnificent churches and theatres, and more than a dozen dance academies. From the middle of the sixteenth century until the middle of the seventeenth, half the silver produced in the New World came from Cerro Rico. Carlos Mesa, a historian who served as Bolivia’s President from 2003 to 2005, told me, ‘It was said throughout the Spanish empire, ‘This is worth a Potosí,’ when speaking of luck or riches.’ Potosí is now one of the poorest places in what has long been one of the poorest countries in South America.

Across the divide of the industrial revolution, there is another city whose promise of greatness now lies in ruins: Detroit. Even before the Curved Dash Oldsmobile rolled off the assembly line, in 1901, becoming the first mass-produced American car, Detroit was a showplace of labor, its huge factories producing iron, copper, freight cars, ships, pharmaceuticals, and beer. Following Oldsmobile’s lead, carmakers such as Ford, Packard, and Cadillac transformed the American economy. But Detroit’s triumph was remarkably short-lived. The city is half the size it was fifty years ago. Two of the Big Three carmakers, General Motors and Chrysler, went bankrupt in 2009, and all of them have cut their workforces drastically. Unemployment in Detroit is at fifteen per cent; the murder rate is the fourth highest in the country; and about a third of its citizens live in poverty. An estimated seventy thousand structures—houses, churches, factories, even skyscrapers—stand empty, many of them vandalized or burned. Parts of town are being farmed. Like Bolivia, Detroit is hoping for a second chance. And both of them are looking to a treasure that could revive their fortunes, and, incidentally, lead the world to a cleaner environment. That treasure is lithium.” (Thanks TETW.)

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Bolivian President Evo Morales on the Daily Show in 2007:

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From Lawrence Wright’s 1985 Rolling Stone article about the death of writer Richard Brautigan:

“The old Beats looked at Richard with envy and surprise. The Beats were out of fashion, and Bunthorne was all the rage and he was rich, too, thunderously rich by their standards. Ferlinghetti had been the first to publish parts of Trout Fishing in his City Lights Journal, but like most Beats, he had never taken Richard’s writing seriously. ‘As an editor, I always kept waiting for Richard to grow up as a writer,’ he says now. ‘I never could stand cute writing. He could never be an important writer like Hemingway — with that childish voice of his. Essentially he had a naïf style, a style based on a childlike perception of the world. The hippie cult was itself a childlike movement. I guess Richard was all the novelist the hippies needed. It was a nonliterate age.’

But it was an extraordinary time in every other respect. Cultural forms were exploding in the face of furious experimentation with drugs, art, sex, music, religion, social roles. Richard’s attitude toward all this, however, was ambivalent. He was widely credited with being the voice of the Summer of Love, but in fact he was contemptuous of most hippies, whom he saw as freeloaders and dizzy peaceniks. He had a horror of narcotics that seemed fanciful to his friends everybody used dope in those days except Richard.

His passions were basketball, the Civil War, Frank Lloyd Wright, Southern women writers, soap operas, the National Enquirer, chicken-fried steak and talking on the telephone. Wherever he was in the world, he would phone up his friends and talk for hours, sometimes reading them an entire book manuscript on a transpacific call. Time meant nothing to him, for he was a hopeless insomniac. Most of his friends dreaded it when Richard started reading his latest work to them, because he could not abide criticism of any sort. He had a dead ear for music. Ianthe remembered that he used to buy record albums because of the girls on the covers. He loved to take walks, but he loathed exercise in any other form.”

Another Richard Brautigan post:

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The perfect opening of “The Double Game,a just-published New Yorker article about the best-laid post-war American plans for Pakistan and India, written by the resolutely excellent Lawrence Wright:

“It’s the end of the Second World War, and the United States is deciding what to do about two immense, poor, densely populated countries in Asia. America chooses one of the countries, becoming its benefactor. Over the decades, it pours billions of dollars into that country’s economy, training and equipping its military and its intelligence services. The stated goal is to create a reliable ally with strong institutions and a modern, vigorous democracy. The other country, meanwhile, is spurned because it forges alliances with America’s enemies.

The country not chosen was India, which ’tilted’” toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Pakistan became America’s protégé, firmly supporting its fight to contain Communism. The benefits that Pakistan accrued from this relationship were quickly apparent: in the nineteen-sixties, its economy was an exemplar. India, by contrast, was a byword for basket case. Fifty years then went by. What was the result of this social experiment?

India has become the state that we tried to create in Pakistan. It is a rising economic star, militarily powerful and democratic, and it shares American interests. Pakistan, however, is one of the most anti-American countries in the world, and a covert sponsor of terrorism. Politically and economically, it verges on being a failed state.”

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