13 Feb

What to Expect When You’re Divesting

I said in my last post that I would write about divesting from Bank of America. I am here to deliver.

I had never really thought about where my money goes when I put it in the bank. Money is just in the bank, right? I guess I pictured a Scrooge McDuck-ian style vault, or something like you see in a heist movie. I’ve learned that’s not the case at all.

Scrooge McDuck jumping into a pile of gold coins

This is not what a bank is like.

I gradually became aware of the Dakota Access Pipeline issue via Facebook, which seems to be the popular method for obtaining information these days. At first my opinion was “That’s terrible, but it’s not like I can go protest in North Dakota in the middle of winter.” I started paying more attention to the issue and following the Injustice Boycott. I learned that there are actions that I can take other than going to North Dakota. I can divest from banks that fund the pipeline. I was also surprised to learn that Bank of America is invested in private prisons. This is not what my money is for.

Preparation

A week or so before I went to the No DAPL protest, I polled my Facebook network to ask if anyone had a credit union in Sacramento they liked and wanted to recommend. I got a lot of responses. Asking Facebook is, of course, not a replacement for actual research, but if you have well-informed friends I think it’s a good place to start. I got a number of responses including Golden 1 (which I was familiar with), SAFE, and Patel Co, among others. I also learned about the credit union co-op, which links credit unions together. This allows credit union members to use other credit unions’ ATMs. I would not have thought to look that up on my own.

I looked at the sites for a few of the credit unions my friends suggested and decided on Golden 1. For my banking, they seemed to have the best rates. There are also two branches near my apartment, so I knew it would be a convenient choice.

Before heading out, I paid my credit card off and moved all but $25 to my checking. I wrote down how much I had left in my account and put a check in my purse so I could give myself the money. I think there are other ways to do balance transfers, but that seemed the most straightforward to me.

Opening New Accounts

Fresh from the excitement of the protest, I went to Golden 1 on Saturday morning. My boyfriend came along, too. Although he wasn’t ready to switch banks, he wanted to learn more about the accounts they offer. We were also keen to find out more about getting a mortgage. We’re not ready to buy a house, but we are trying to figure out what we could reasonably afford in the near future.

I hadn’t been into a bank to do anything other than deposit or withdraw money in a long time. I went in, wrote my name down on their list for people who want to speak with someone, and waited for maybe 30 minutes. I suppose Saturday mornings are a busy time for the bank.

When my name came up, the bank employee invited us into his office. I told him I wanted to open checking and savings accounts and apply for a credit card (all replacements for accounts I had through Bank of America), and that we were interested in learning more about mortgages. Getting the accounts set up was fairly straighforward, but we were informed that we’d have to talk to a mortgage specialist over the phone and they’re all quite busy on Saturday. I asked that they call me back during the week (they never did call me back. We’re planning to go talk to someone at the bank soon).

To set up the accounts, I only needed to bring a photo ID and, of course, money. They have it set up so you can open a savings account with just one dollar. I had a lot of dollars. I wrote a check to myself (I wrote “Divestment #NoDAPL” in the check memo, just to feel good) and left about $50 in my old account, to cover any direct payments I might have forgotten about. The bank employee had me fill out a few forms and got my checking and savings accounts opened on the spot. I got a debit card that day, but was informed I might not be able to start using it for a few hours. One thing to be careful of if you are changing accounts and moving a large amount of money is that they will probably put a hold on the funds. I got a few thousand dollars within two or three days and the rest of my money dropped in after a week or so. Fortunately, this wasn’t an issue for me, but I recommend that anyone divesting plan accordingly.

I also wanted to open a line of credit to replace my Alaska Airlines Visa, which was managed by Bank of America. I found out that the airline miles I accrued as rewards stay with my mileage plan account, not with my credit card. Even though I was closing the card, I still kept the rewards. It seems like a petty concern, but I have a lot of miles saved up for a trip, so I was quite relieved. The bank employee had me fill out a few forms. I wasn’t able to find out right away how much I would get because a real person had to assess it. However, they figured it out quickly enough. I got a call two hours later to tell me how much credit I’d been approved for.

In total, I spent about an hour in the bank and probably another hour researching and preparing to switch accounts.

Closing Old Accounts

The main thing I wanted to ensure was the continuity of my paychecks. My paycheck is direct deposited into my bank account every other week. The people at Golden 1 said it could take two pay cycles to get my direct deposit set up and provided me with a form to do it. I came home and looked on my company’s employee site. I was able to update my direct deposit account online. I thought it might take two checks to start, but I got paid to my new credit union account the next Friday with no trouble at all.

After my paycheck came through, I went to Bank of America to finish closing my accounts. I run most of my bills through credit cards (and most of them through an account other than the one I was closing). If I depended on my Bank of America accounts, I would have waited a little longer before closing it all up. I only had about $8 left in my checking account.

I spoke to the employee there and told him I wanted to close my accounts. I said that Bank of America is invested in companies that fund private prisons and oil pipelines. He responded, “I can’t argue with that.”

I handed him my debit card, credit card, and ID. He seemed surprised that I wanted to close my credit card too. When I quit, I quit all the way. He had to make a phone call to close the credit account, but he was able to close up my checking and savings accounts through his computer. When he was finished, he took me up to a bank teller, who gave me my $8 and a receipt. This took about 15 minutes total.

Next Steps

It took two weeks to get my new credit card. After it arrived, I made a list of all the bills I pay and set about switching everything to my new accounts. It helped me to write it down, but I still found things I forgot as I worked through it. The good thing is that most places you send money to want to keep getting your money, so they will give you a warning when your card stops working. Now nearly all my bills are getting paid through my new Golden 1 credit card.

I still have an Amazon Visa card through Chase bank. Chase is worth divesting from, but it’s not as dire as divesting from Bank of America or Well’s Fargo. I have decided that, in the interest of maintaining my credit score, I’m going to stop using that credit card, but not close the account right away. Closing a lot of accounts at once can impact your credit score.

Overall, switching banks was fairly simple. I can understand that if you have a car loan or a mortgage, there is probably more involved than there was for me. That said, I think it is important for individual citizens to do what they can to spend money in a way that supports or defunds causes, as appropriate.

Corporations do respond to the pressure of people voting with their wallet. Just last week Nordstrom, among other retailers, announced it would stop carrying Ivanka Trump’s brand. Specific to divesting from DAPL, the City of Seattle and the City of Davis have both voted to remove their cities’ funds from Well’s Fargo. That’s major. Far from being hopeless, the cause is gaining momentum. Two cities have divested. Individuals are divesting. It might take longer than we like for us to stop this oil pipeline and others like it, but it will happen. I am choosing the radical stance of believing that our actions have an impact.

One More Thing

If you’re following the Injustice Boycott and you decide to divest (I hope you do), you can check out their instructions and fill out a survey saying you participated. This helps track the true impact that the boycott is having.

28 Jan

What Do We Want? Divestment

I had never gone to a protest before, until last Saturday. Things being what they are, I went to my second rally in the same week. Yesterday, I went to a “divestment block party” in downtown Sacramento.

I was hesitant to go protest in the middle of the work day. Ultimately, I decided that doing whatever I want in the middle of the day is my prerogative as someone who works from home. I arrived downtown early. Unnecessarily early, but I was nervous. I brought a backpack full of snacks and warm clothes, but I stupidly forgot my wallet. After debating about whether to go home to get it, I paid for parking using the car’s emergency stash of  quarters.

I walked around the block to the courtyard in front of the Well’s Fargo building, where the protest was scheduled to take place. I sat on a bench to wait, cold in the tower’s shade. Because I was so nervous about being early and didn’t see anyone else around, I texted the organizer to ask if people had met somewhere else, he told me they would arrive soon. Before the rest of the protesters showed up, a few cops on bicycles rolled in. Several Well’s Fargo employees came outside, joking that the protesters must have already come and gone.

A bike covered in knitting bearing a sign that says "Make America native again."

“If you’re not knitting bike cozies, you’re not paying attention,” one woman quipped to me.

People began to trickle in: two young women, another pair of women toting babies, a handful of professionally dressed people wearing neon green caps proclaiming them impartial legal observers, an old lady with a bicycle covered in knitting. I had never met the protest’s organizer before, but I sensed that the man with a bullhorn and a giant drum must be the guy. He said we would start soon, once the sound system arrived.

In the meantime, the police approached to let us know the rules. The protest organizer was not interested in speaking with the police, but a legal observer jumped in. I edged closer to find out what stance the cops were taking on the event. They told us we were not allowed to enter the bank or block the sidewalk. Because we didn’t have a permit, we were technically not allowed to be there but, the officer generously added, as long as we kept the noise level to a “dull roar,” they would let us stay.

The sound system—an amplifier in a wheelchair, with speakers perched on boards atop the armrests—arrived and the rally started in earnest. Another organizer started us in a round of chants. A woman handed out pieces of paper with lyrics.

Street by street, block by block, Sac stands with Standing Rock.

We got a good bit of a ruckus going, people started chanting louder, some were waving banners and signs with messages like “It’s easier to change banks than to clean water” and “Mni wiconi” (Lokotan for “Water is life.”). Once we were warmed up, an elder of the Lakota Sioux came to speak to us. He prayed in the Lakotan language, which was really interesting for me. He spoke to us about what is happening in Standing Rock, describing the actions there as domestic terrorism. As he talked, a women waved a type of incense around the group, in what I believe was a sort of blessing. Then, a woman of the local Miwok tribe spoke. She told us that native people here are also suffering. She said we need to focus on conserving water and that, after they are done attacking our water supply, the food supply would be next. She encouraged us all to use grey water systems and plant gardens. Then, she taught us a warrior song. Singing the song with the group felt powerful. I don’t know if it was the fact that we learned it from someone who has suffered, or because we were singing it together in a group, but it felt important.

Listening to native people speak about the oil pipeline affected me deeply. I admit that I have maintained a only surface level awareness of the DAPL protests in the last few months, but I had not looked too deeply into it. Maybe I knew that if I did, I would be horrified and I would need to act. You know what they say about ignorance. Hearing directly from native people about their connection to the land and how their lives are being destroyed was impactful. We learn so little about native peoples in school. What we do learn has a museum quality to it. This is what they believed, this is how they lived. But they live and they believe now.

After these speeches, they asked if anyone was ready to divest from Well’s Fargo. Two young women came forward and they were asked to kneel before the group. They bowed as if in prayer. We chanted and sang more. They asked if the women intending to divest wanted to say anything. One did. She held up documents from her new bank. She told us she feels she is a good person and she can’t stand by while her bank funds hate. She was on the verge of tears, and caught in something akin to religious zeal, she encouraged us all to leave our banks in search of banks that use their money to help people.

The women rose and the protesters walked them to the front door of the bank. A news camera sidled along the group. I stayed towards the edge, since my boyfriend begged me not to end up on the news during work hours (“It’s a long lunch,” I’d told him. “Still …” he demurred).

What do we want? Divestment!
When do we want it? Now!

The bank did not allow the women to enter. The police stood in front of the door. “They’re customers! Let them in” People shouted. Bank employees flitted about their fishbowl office. The young women held up their Well’s Fargo bank cards in front of the door. “We’re customers! We are your customers!” Soon a new chant swelled, “Let them in! Let them in!” People surged towards the door. The woman with the “It’s easier to change banks than to clean water” sign shouted at employees visible through the glass.

I saw three men wrench the bank door open from my spot at the back of the group. I had decided the best use of my person was to chant loudly, from the diaphragm, demanding justice. These men had decided their bodies were best used in a demonstration of force. I think at least one of them got arrested because I didn’t see any sign of the organizer after that, only another man toting the drum.

The door open, the bank employees yielded, welcoming the women inside. A cheer went up and a new chant began.

A people united will never be divided!
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!

The crowd pulled back from the door and reestablished itself in the center of the courtyard. The mood was ebullient. The woman with the microphone asked if anyone had something they would like to say. One native woman asked the elder who had spoken earlier to sing the Native American national anthem. Then the son of another elder took the microphone. He was angry, angry that his dad was in the hospital, angry that the government continued to deny natives their rights. I don’t blame him. If I were protesting an oil pipeline and the government did what they’re doing in Standing Rock, I’d be pretty fucking mad too.

The women emerged from Well’s Fargo after what seemed like an hour. One held her bank reciept aloft. The crowd cheered again. Then, we were directed to march across the street to Bank of America whose funds also go to the DAPL.

You can’t drink oil. Keep it in the soil!

Bank of America is my bank. I’ve had been considering switching banks, but hadn’t yet done more than research. When we reached the bank, they asked, “Who is ready to divest?” I raised my hand and so did one other woman. “Let’s get you inside!” she declared. It was then I remembered my forgotten wallet. “Actually, I don’t have my wallet today. I feel really dumb,” I admitted before the crowd. We sent the other woman in alone and I held her bullhorn for her in a silent apology for my uselessness. Unlike Well’s Fargo, Bank of America gave its customer no trouble, perhaps because we hadn’t been causing trouble at their door for the last two hours. She was in and out in five minutes, announcing “They take your money fast, but they give it back just as quick.”

A building with a long banner reading "Divest No DAPL" hanging from the roof

The DIVEST banner hanging from Well’s Fargo

The march continued. We moved to the sidewalk across from Well’s Fargo. When we approached, we saw that someone had unfurled a banner heralding the cause: “DIVEST No DAPL.” Then the marchers grew truly excited. “We have support on the inside!” they hollered.

I decided that was a good time for me to leave.

This was an interesting experience. I knew it wasn’t going to be anything like the Women’s March, which was huge and had no trouble with the police. I didn’t know what to expect but it was great to feel like I was accomplishing something. I would think that 50 or 75 or however many people showed up does not look like much to a bank like Well’s Fargo, but the people inside sure looked worried. Only three people closed bank accounts that day, but I wonder if anyone else was influenced to take their business elsewhere. Just participating in this processed pushed me from “This is something I’m seriously considering” to “This is something I need to do right now.”

In fact, I’ve already started divesting myself from Bank of America. I’ve been talking to other people about ditching their bank. My sister said she would look at moving her direct deposit to her credit union account. My boyfriend is thinking it over too. These are small changes. I’m one person with less than $10,000 in my accounts. I would like to believe that these small actions are adding up. I went to the protest thanks to a small action. I saw that a friend was interested in going on Facebook and I decided that I should go. That’s why I have decided to write about the experience. I will also write about my experience of getting a new bank account after that is finished.

It seems like so much is happening so quickly right now, but all these current events are the culmination of years of work by right-wing jerks to dismantle what I consider to be civilized society. Let’s all take some small actions and get out of our comfort zones. We’re going to need all the help we can get.

05 Jul

Come at Me, NSA

Book Review: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald

book cover

Book cover: No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide is the culmination of a year’s worth of work with Edward Snowden’s cache of NSA documents. The author, Glenn Greenwald, is perhaps best known for his articles in The Guardian documenting national security abuses and the NSA’s surveillance programs. No Place to Hide gives context to the whole event and speaks in detail to the NSA’s actions, the problems with mass surveillance, and the complicity of the media in the whole affair.

What the NSA is doing …

The first section of the book reads a bit like a thriller novel. Greenwald receives an anonymous message from someone promising a major scoop, but the source won’t share the information unless Greenwald sets up some complicated email encryption. Although Greenwald was interested, he did not follow up with the source. Later, Laura Poitras, friend to Greenwald and the other journalist involved in the Snowden leaks (by the way, they won a Pulitzer Prize for their work on this subject) encourages Greenwald to follow a lead that she has. The lead, of course, turns out to be from Snowden who was also the person trying to convince Greenwald to set up encryption Greenwald almost missed the most important story of the decade.

Both Greenwald and Poitras, along with another reporter from The Guardian (with which Greenwald was affiliated) to Hong Kong to meet Snowden. The set up for the meeting is elaborate—the reporters identify Snowden by looking for a man with a Rubik’s cube and exchange pass phrases. Eventually, they begin interviewing Snowden, barely beat The Washington Post to the story and have to leave Hong Kong in a hurry to avoid discovery.

I did want to hear more about the personal story of Snowden, Greenwald, and everyone else involved just because it seems like the kind of story that does not really happen in the modern world. Yet, it did happen. But No Place to Hide, while garnering the reader’s attention with this exciting tale, then turns to the real issue after this exciting introduction: NSA surveillance.

Greenwald reviews some of the major revelations from Snowden’s meticulously organized material. Snowden explained that one of the reasons he wanted to provide this information to a reporter, rather than dump it onto the internet, was that he wanted someone who could put the information in context and make it meaningful. I know that if I were to scan all the documents Snowden provided, I would not get a lot out of it. Fortunately, Greenwald helps readers understand the ecosystem of NSA surveillance, guiding the reader through some rather complex issues.

As usual, I do not want to summarize in any great detail because the book is available to those who want to read it. The overall theme that I took from Greenwald’s descriptions of the NSA’s programs was that the scope of these programs is much, much larger than the average person realizes. The goal of the NSA is literally to collect everything. That is not hyperbole. Greenwald includes slides from various training presentations in the book and the “gotta catch ’em all” attitude is prevalent. The NSA has multiple programs, plus collaborates with the other “Five Eyes” countries (the United States, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) to gather everything about everyone.

Metadata is one of the critical pieces of the NSA’s program. As someone with a degree in library science, I know what metadata is without asking. When we talk about phone records, metadata is information about when you make calls or send texts, who you call, and how long you stay on the phone. Most people dismiss metadata collection as a minor issue. Greenwald points out that, using metadata, an expert can get a strong sense of how you spend your time. An analyst could determine when you normally sleep, what religion you are (do you make a lot of phone calls on Christmas?), your social network, and a lot more. In fact, metadata can be more informative than the content of a call.

the exterior of the NSA headquarters in Maryland

NSA Headquarters

Another startling issue was what tools the NSA uses for surveillance. A lot of people heard about PRISM, the program that uses technology companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook to collect people’s information. What I found more alarming was what the NSA does with hardware. Greenwald writes, “For years, the US government loudly warned the world that Chinese routers and other Internet devices post a ‘threat’ because they are built with backdoor surveillance functionality that gives the Chinese government the ability to spy on anyone using them. Yet what the NSA’s documents show is that Americans have been engaged in precisely the activity that the United States accused the Chinese of doing.” So, so much for quitting specific websites to avoid being spied on.

The reason all this is a problem, Greenwald explains, is that mass surveillance limits our freedoms. People behave differently when they know they are being watched. They self-censor, limiting possible choices because they know they need to behave within a certain range of social norms. This is problematic in fields such as the arts. If authors or film-makers are censored (like during the McCarthy Era Hollywood Blacklist), they don’t make things that they know will not be published or produced. They create works that are within the realm of social acceptability. People become afraid to speak out even if no one is being punished (yet). The fact that they are being observed and that there may be repercussions for deviant behavior is enough to stop people from creating dissident works or otherwise speaking out against the government.

Finally, Greenwald calls out the media, the “fourth estate,” for failing us. The main criticism is that the media has become a comfortable part of the political establishment. Reporters are no longer the outsiders they were in the mid-twentieth century. Greenwald describes the media as courtiers to the throne of American political power, “eager to defend the system that vests them with their privileges and contemptuous of anyone who challenges that system.” He also rails against so-called objectivity, which, for the media, is “nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of entrenched Washington. Opinions are problematic only when they deviate from the acceptable range of Washington orthodoxy.”

and what you can do about it

After reading No Place to Hide, I realized what is really insane about all of this: the scope of it. The fact that the NSA intercepts shipments of hardware like routers, outfits them with their spyware, then sends the shipments on their way. That is insane. Even if you delete your Facebook and stop using Skype, there is no way to get around someone snooping in your internet pipes unless you quit the internet entirely. And who would do that?

I don’t know what the answer is to all this, but I think that educating people on the issues of privacy, civil liberties, and surveillance is an important starting point. The fact that my boss thinks it is a good idea to say things to me along the lines of “I would rather be safe because of my children!” or the classic “It doesn’t bother me because I’m not doing anything wrong.”

a man dressed as Elvis talking to another man

A man impersonating a dangerous terrorist icon

Well, this bothers me because I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not breaking the law. I’m not selling drugs or supporting terrorism (domestic or otherwise). The problem with mass surveillance is that whoever is doing the surveilling has the power to decide what is wrong. What if you read about anonymous? Elvis? Are tracking a package? Curious about satellite phones? You need to look at your life and look at your choices, you potential threat to national security! Those are all topics on the NSA’s list of words that flag you as a potential threat.

If you think it’s insane that your email discussions about encryption or the dictionary might be of interest to the NSA, you are not the only one. The site Hello, NSA generates keyword-rich phrases based on the NSA’s wordlist. In 2013, RedditGifts had an anonymous gift exchange called Now Sharing Absurdity – the NSA Gift Exchange, which encouraged participants to theme their gifts around subjects in the NSA word list.

I am glad that there are other people who find the NSA’s behavior ridiculous, but unfortunately, a lot of people with decision-making power are not among them. The secret FISA court has made this type of warrantless spying permissible. Greenwald writes that Snowden hoped that the Obama administration would “change the excessive abuses of national security that had been justified by the War on Terror … ‘but then it became clear that Obama was not just continuing, but in many cases expanding these abuses.’”

Right now the only method that seems like it will be effective in curbing these “abuses of national security” is putting pressure on legislators to make changes and voting for people who are not committed to the status quo. One positive outcome is that the House of Representatives voted in support of an amendment that would “prevent intelligence agencies from using the funds to force software companies to build back doors into their products,” according to an article in The Daily Beast.

I wish I had more ideas for how to do something, but I do not. My biggest advice is to vote. Don’t just vote for anyone, but cast an educated vote. Follow organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which works to defend civil liberties in digital space. Educate yourself and don’t be afraid of having an unpopular opinion if your opinion is based on the facts. Edward Snowden said that his biggest concern with leaking his trove of NSA documents would be that no one would react and nothing would change. The least we can do is read up on the issue and move forward with our eyes open.

What to read next:

  • I started working my way through the original articles that Greenwald wrote for The Guardian about the Snowden leaks. I did not read many of them as they were coming out; most of my news on the subject came from Democracy Now. I am interested in seeing the progression of the leaks. Also, Greenwald is not done yet, there is at least one more major article set to release soon, as of this writing. Greenwald is now writing on a site called The Intercept.

  • When Greenwald and Laura Poitras met Snowden, they asked why he did what he did. Snowden cited the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell as one of his influences. I found this interesting because I had already checked it out from the library. Campbell wrote prolifically on comparative mythology and the role of myth in our culture. I enjoyed his book The Power of Myth, so this is definitely on my to-read list.

21 Apr

Scientology, Comparative Religion, and Fun with Cults

Book Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear cover

There is so much to say about this book that it’s hard to know where to begin. I love reading about cults/people who survived cults/wacky religious beliefs and the rest, but this is my first read on Scientology. Up until this point, my main exposure to the subject was via South Park (I’m not proud). Going Clear spans nearly 100 years of history, beginning with L. Ron Hubbard’s birth in 1911 and ending with Paul Haggis’ (the work’s protagonist, such that it can be said to have one) departure from Scientology and the subsequent uproar in 2010-2011. This book is packed with information and there are a lot of people who were interviewed and who played parts in the narrative (it has more characters than a George R. R. Martin novel). Some of the people involved are introduced early in the book as young people involved in Scientology and show up again later as adults, which I found hard to keep track of–I didn’t know I’d have to manage all the people!–but I don’t think you need to remember exactly who everyone is (other than a few power players) to appreciate the absolute insanity of a lot of the things that happen.

Going Clear is meticulously researched. It draws on interviews with lots of current and former Scientologists, court documents, medical records, and the writings of L. Ron Hubbard and other parties. The book is also peppered with footnotes to the tune of “[person’s name]’s attorney denies that X happened” and “The church denies that [person] ever did Y,” which makes one wonder what kinds of behavior that anyone’s attorney would admit to, but that is another matter. The title of the book, Going Clear, refers to the first step in being a Scientologist. When one becomes “clear,” one is free of malicious engrams and is able to work towards being an Operating Thetan (OT). Various people throughout the book are described by their Scientology levels; OT VIII is the highest level that anyone other than Hubbard has ever had access to (Hubbard supposedly penned several more levels, but no one has seen them). Operating Thetans are supposed to have amazing mental powers that can prevent sickness, bend others to one’s will, and basically a certain level of telekinesis. At least, OT levels are described this way. There is as yet no one on the record demonstrating these amazing powers, which of course makes one question why people keep on believing in it, but of course, we could ask such questions about any number of movements.

The book opens with Paul Haggis, that archetypal, directionless young person of the 1970’s who finds Scientology. People like Haggis were attracted to Scientology because of its idealism, they state that they’re working toward “A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where Man is free to rise of greater heights,” as stated by Hubbard himself. This narrative that Scientology is actively working to improve the world seems at odds with basically everything that happens to individual Scientologists in the book, and yet, they all kept stating that they were in it for this ideal; they thought they were really helping. Haggis is the bread in this Scientology sandwich. After his introduction, the reader doesn’t hear about him again until much later in the book when he begins questioning Scientology.

L. Ron Hubbard’s (the L is for Lafayette) early years, when examined from the perspective of Scientology as it is today, are quite revealing. Wright traces the development of some of the themes of Scientology back to Hubbard’s youth, which I think is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Analyzing modern “religions” and charismatic leaders is so different from tracing the history of someone like the Prophet Muhammad because there is actually a record of what people did and one can draw conclusions about how that influenced their later work. One of the formative experiences of Hubbard’s life was traveling by boat from Seattle to Washington D.C. via the Panama Canal. Hubbard was taken in by Commander Joseph C. “Snake” Thompson on the trip, who was “of the US Navy Medical Corps. A neurosurgeon, a naturalist, and a former spy, Thompson made a vivid impression on [Hubbard].” Thompson also schooled Hubbard on Freudian theory, which doubtless had an impact on Hubbard’s later preoccupation with pyschiatrists and psychologists. There are so many anecdotes (and fabrications, which Wright compares to evidence and accounts from other people) about Hubbard’s early life  that it is difficult to choose what to discuss in a short review, but I will mention that Hubbard briefly served in the US Navy during World War II. He insisted he was a hero and I’m sure this also was a part of his choice to later make Scientology a maritime venture. He was also connected with several people on Hollywood, and it seemed that he was fascinated with society there, but he never made it big, which I think was also a factor in the later choice for Scientology to court celebrities so seriously.

Dianetics was Hubbard’s first effort and producing a work that would define a movement. It quickly became popular because it capitalized on the public’s interest in psychology and psychotherapy, but it supposedly offered people the tools to treat themselves without any actual academic or scientific grounding. Although its popularity burned brightly, it burned out quickly when people realized that Dianetics didn’t actually enable them to do fantastical feats with mental powers. Hubbard, an autocrat at heart, decided that Dianetics had gotten out of hand, and choose to rebrand it as Scientology. He is quoted as saying “I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is.” Shortly after Scientology began, Hubbard moved to England with his family (well, his new family, Hubbard had three wives and seven children throughout his life). Soon, Hubbard became paranoid that “British, American, and Soviet governments were interested in gaining control of Scientology’s secrets in order to use them for evil intentions.” To combat this, he bought three boats, gathered up his staunchest believers (who all signed billion year contracts, yes, billion since Scientology subscribes to reincarnation) and founded the Sea Org, which came to be what is essentially Scientology’s clergy. The Sea Org is when, it seems to me, that the real abuses of power began. Parents were separated from their children, abandoned at various ports, and in one case, representatives were caught up in a popular uprising in Morocco. At this time, many of Scientology’s procedures were codified, like the RPF rundown, which involved locking up a dissenter in a room with no contact for several weeks. The practice later evolved to include making such people stay in confinement for years, in some cases, and do labor while there.

There are a lot of tragic events described in Going Clear, but I want to spend some time looking at Scientology from a comparative religion perspective, with a focus on similarities between Scientology and Mormonism (full disclosure: I was raised Mormon). Later in the history of Scientology, when they were back on land, Hubbard was working to get a film made. The script was shopped around and an offer for $10 million came in (at the time, a record sum for a script purchase). Upon investigation of the buyers, they learned that the  buyers were mormons and “Hubbard figured that the only reason Mormons would buy it was to put it on the shelf,” which is probably true. I find it interesting that Mormons would want to suppress a Scientologist message, considering that the movements really have a lot in common as modern religious movements. There are a lot of parallels to be found between Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) and L. Ron Hubbard. Smith was a known huckster and treasure hunter before starting Mormonism, as Hubbard was a prolific science fiction writer before Scientology–both had a flair for the fictitious. Hubbard also took multiple wives (to say nothing of mistresses) without divorcing, although a few wives isn’t much compared to Smith, they are both outside cultural norms. I would also make the argument that Scientology’s doctrine of spirits being sent to Earth as punishment by a more powerful force has some parallel to Mormonism’s concept of there being a “war in heaven,” which Satan lost and God won. Except in the case of Mormonism, the losers weren’t sent to Earth for punishment, they went straight to hell. Both movements also have a period of being on a journey early in their  history. The Mormons, of course, were hounded out of New York and across the Midwest, finally taking a long trek to what is now Utah to escape persecution. Hubbard sailed the Mediterranean and Carribean for several years with his Sea Org to escape what he perceived as persecution. Although the early periods have a lot in common, I will admit that the later histories diverge. Mormonism doesn’t have the forced labor of the RPF (although young people are required to serve missions under extremely spartan conditions) and it also seems to have found a broader appeal than Scientology. However, as comparative cases they are interesting to consider in the context of the development of modern, American religions.

Although there are many differences between contemporary Mormonism and Scientology, some of the tactics they use have similar roots. One line from Going Clear regarding a Sea Org member who wanted to leave explained, “Most of those who fled were torn by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, they were often frightened, humiliated, and angry. They desperately wanted a life outside the organization.” Many people who leave Scientology quickly realize that they don’t know much of the real world, and many of the people who joined as young people or who were born into the religion lack a formal education and haven’t graduated high school (which reminds me of fundamentalist Mormons–the ones that practice polygamy and live in compounds). Scientology is described as being completely consuming. While Mormonism allows people to have lives outside of church, they pack the week so full of church functions that people often find it difficult to do much else, it truly can be difficult to figure out what one’s life is after the organization. Another tactic used by Scientology is “disconnection,” which is the practice of encouraging Scientologists to cut themselves off from anyone or anything that isn’t related to Scientology. This ensures that Scientologists are so emotionally and socially invested that leaving involves a total social suicide. Mormons operate in similar ways. As the good people of Reddit’s exmormon community will tell you, families do disown members who leave Mormonism with alarming frequency.

Comparing Mormonism and Scientology is both part of my fascination with cults and also a way of validating my own experiences. Something about seeing similar tactics documented in other cults (I will go ahead and call it a cult) makes me feel a little less foolish. Obviously these strategies work. We have seen all sorts of movements rise and fall and maintain zealous members using these strategies. Some parts of Going Clear hit close to home, but there were just as many things totally outside of my experience that were absolutely tragic. It’s hard to know what to write about this book because there is just so much to tell; so many stories, so many lives ruined or people’s emotions and sense of self destroyed. This is probably not my best review because I did react very emotionally to this book. I appreciate non-fiction work on religious movements like some people are into horror. It produces that “can’t look away” fascination. I marked a lot of sections in this book that I wanted to talk about, but instead I’ll leave you with this. Be rational for your own self. Be compassionate to other people and then maybe they won’t feel such strong needs to find meaning and acceptance in cults. Read this book because you will be horrified and sad and feel like you want to punch someone.

25 Mar

Welcome to Crazy Land

Book Review: Over the Cliff: How Obama’s Election Drove the American Right Insane

Over the Cliff book cover

I know I am not the only person to ask themselves “Why are these people completly insane?” while watching the news (or, while watching the bits of Fox News crazy that The Daily Show cherry picks for our amusement). I know this because John Amato and David Neiwert wrote Over the Cliff. Surely, they started with the same “What the hell?” sentiment that so many non-conservatives—and probably quite a few fiscal conservatives have felt since this century began and George W. Bush took office. What happened? How did we get here? More importantly, how can we get out?

Over the Cliff was published in 2010, so while a few things have changed since it came out, the analysis and coverage of the events leading up to Obama’s election and his first year in office are on point. Amato and Neiwert are both internauts of the original liberal blogosphere (do we have a better word for this yet?), with Amato being the creator of the Crooks and Liars blog. They both seem to have a fair bit of news watching street cred and, hey, they lived this period—and more importantly they were paying attention (unlike me, finishing college and having an existential crisis).

The first thing that stood out to me from reading the coverage of the Obama campaign was just how racist it was. I remembered that it had been racist, but seeing the vitriol compiled in text was alarming. I’m used to racism operating in its normal, insidious way, but seeing flat out racism is, for me, really shocking. Of course, much of the blatantly racist quotes are stated in that crazy, nonsensical way that we have come to know and love from Republicans. For a fine example: “Obama wins, I’m gonna move to Alaska. Haven’t you heard that the United States is gonna be taken down from within? What better way to get taken down from within than having the President of the United States be the one that’s going to do it?” Irrefutable logic, truly.

As much as it is fun to giggle at the apparent stupidity of some of these people, Over the Cliff makes the point that when networks like Fox News prominently feature incendiary rhetoric, people who hold these same beliefs feel validated, like their beliefs are correct and right because someone on national television is sharing in the same sentiments. As such, the book takes aim at people like Glenn Beck, in particular, for giving a forum to this militant fringe crazy bullshit.

A lot of these right-wing extremists subscribe to the “lone wolf” ideology, which is a form of “leaderless resistance.” By operating alone, it is difficult to pin down some kind of hierarchy that could be targeted by law enforcement, but it also means that a quite often crimes or terrorist acts committed by extremists often aren’t connected with the ideology because they appear to be a one-off event by a crazy person. In fact, the “oh, that guy is just crazy!” defense seems to be a popular one. The book discussed a few instances where there was a shoot-out or someone reacted with what was an apparently disproportionate response for the situation, at least based on the way the news reported it. Whereas in many such cases, the perpetrator can be connected with extreme right wing ideology, either via activity on the Stormfront forums or similar sites. What’s really convenient about that for the people on TV fanning the flames of these people is that they can just say “He’s a crazy person! Not my fault!” and move on from the subject. Glenn Beck did this pretty often. Unfortunately, unless you’re paying extremely close attention (or you are in on the right-wing extremist secret handshakes) they do seem like unrelated crazy people flying off the handle, making things seem just insane, when they represent a pattern of violence based on an extreme ideology.

Another theme of the book is Fox News’ promotion of the Tea Party. It seems like they never would have gone anywhere if it hadn’t been for Fox promoting their events and really signing on with the message (anyone remember the Tea Party Express?). With the emergence of the Tea Party movement, the “Birther” issue and the “Obama is a socialist/Marxist/Hitler” rhetoric took on a life of their own in the insane signage that many of the participants carried. Again, Amato and Neiwert make it clear that this is really a function of racism. These people did not have a cogent message other than “Oh no, black man!” Thus, they equated Obama with all the worst political things they could think of and continually tried to cast doubt on his legitimacy. Racism all the way.

When the issue of passing some health care legislation came up in is when the Tea Party found its voice. The authors express that after the initial tax day protests and the 9/12 foolishness, the Tea Party was losing momentum and lacked any kind of focus, but unfortunately for the rest of us, the health care debates invigorated them. The Tea Party leadership actually distributed guidelines to people on how to be maximally disruptive during town hall events so that there could be no civil discourse. From a rational point of view, it is really hard to understand why you would want to shut down a discussion where people might be sharing actual information. Even after reading this book, I still don’t totally understand that, but it seems to be fueled by racism and the espousal of just really extreme beliefs. I’m sure there’s a certain element of mental instability as well, but I’ll go ahead and admit that’s mostly speculation.

It ends on a not very hopeful note, cautioning us against being dragged down by right-wing madness, but also giving a call to action to everyone else. I think now, a few years down the line, things are more optimistic in some ways, but the same in some others. First of all, Glenn Beck—the book’s villain—no longer has a show on Fox News. For this, we all rejoice. I think that Obama’s landslide re-election beat back some of the crazier sentiments that emerged during his first term. The people have spoken! We’ve now elected a black man to the presidency twice, any person of color who comes after Obama will not have it as bad as he did. He has made it possible for everyone else.  In news that is both hopeful and profoundly depressing, Mother Jones offered this article on the outcome of adopting many Tea Party policies in Florida. The state cut taxes, 4 million people are without health care, $3 billion was taken from education, and agencies that serve disabled people were hugely cut. While there is nothing hopeful about this news for Florida, I hope that everyone else in the country sees this and realizes that this is the “logical” extension of the policies of the Tea Party. Hopefully, over the next few election cycles, Florida digs its way out of this madness and the rest of us can let the Tea Party become a historical footnote.