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.

14 Apr

In the Kiddie Pool

Book Review: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

The Shallows book cover

The Shallows cover

I wanted to read The Shallows because, like the majority of people in my generation (or at least, among those in my generation I talk to), I spend a huge amount of time online or otherwise connected. I was skeptical that being so involved in digital life was making me stupider (as the title implies). Now having read the book, I think that the premise is less about how we’re becoming stupid, although I think Carr does convey that sentiment at points, and more about how technology shapes the way we think. Humans mold themselves to the available tools, rather than the tools to the humans, it seems.

The central thesis of The Shallows seems to be that computers have changed our behavior in a fundamental way. The way that we learn, remember, and retrieve information has been altered thanks to widespread computer use. Or, to quote Nietzche–as Carr does after relaying an anecdote involving Nietzche and a typewriter–, “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” To support this claim, Carr spends the initial portion of the work discussing neuroplasticity and working through a history of other technologies that have changed the way humanity uses their minds. Carr raises the point that studies show that the brain is both able and willing to reallocate neurons to new tasks, if those neurons aren’t being made use of elsewhere. He cites work showing that when someone becomes blind, that person’s brain reconfigures such that the area of the brain formerly given over to visual processing is put to use in auditory processing or other pertinent tasks. In fact, neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone’s (a researcher at Harvard Medical School) opinions are shared. He explains that neuroplasticity is one of the most important traits that humans have evolved. Carr states, “The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring, but that it doesn’t,” i.e. that we’ve made it this far as a species because we can adapt well. My response to the fan fare over neuroplasticity was to wonder why the author seems to be decrying another step in the brain’s inevitable adaptation to our modern computing landscape.

There are a few fascinating examples of technological developments and how they changed humanity. One that I particularly enjoyed was a discussion on clocks and timekeeping. For much of the history of civilization, time was primarily kept only by the rise and fall of the sun, but in the Middle Ages, Christian monks decided that they needed more precision in their schedules, and as such, pushed for superior time keeping technology (superior to sun dials and water clocks). Eventually, every town had a clock and kept time by the bells ringing during the day, but it came to a point when that wasn’t enough either; people wanted absolute time precision. Of course, clocks were developed, soon pocket watches, and all the rest. Now, we think about the whole day in the abstract medium of hours, minutes, and seconds. Having the technology available made people change their habits. Some people saw that keeping accurate time was an improvement, and eventually everyone else standardized too. By presenting these historical anecdotes on technology, Carr draws an analogy between these instances of technology and our current matter: computers. He even states, “In large measure, civilization has assumed its current form as a result of the technologies people have come to use.”

After discussing technology in general, Carr goes on to discuss writing and reading. When the Greeks first started to use writing, Socrates complained about it, stating that it had some practical benefits, but it would not affect us for the better (sidenote: he then told those damn kids to get off his lawn and turn down that music). Something interesting that I didn’t know (but once I read it, seemed obvious) was that reading was originally only an out loud activity. Silent and solo reading were not things that people thought to do. Even though people started writing things down as an aid to memory or to communicate stories, people still only read in the same way that they had communicated for ages: with spoken word. It wasn’t until the middle ages that people started reading silently and methods of writing text (like using spaces between words) were developed to support silent reading. Carr argues that we are now at a point where reading is a feat of sustained attention and quiet effort. This is where Carr’s complaint about reading on computers comes in. Computers as a medium are inherently distracting due to the way that we navigate the text. Furthermore, “Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch. It’s tactile as well as visual.” I would be interested to see if there is any research on how the tactile sensation of reading is interpreted for readers of different generations. I feel like, when I close out other distractions, I can read just as well on the computer as I do with a book. I wonder if there is a generational divide in this issue. If the brain has as much plasticity as the reader is lead to believe in earlier chapters, would it not be possible that the brain can learn to get as much out of digital reading as analog reading?

There are a couple chapters in the middle of the book that strike me as rather self-indulgent. Take this statement, for example, “Despite years of hype about electronic books, most people haven’t shown much interest in them. Investing a few hundred dollars in a specialized ‘digital reader’ has seemed silly, given the ease and pleasure of buying and reading old-fashioned books.” Ah, yes, the simple allure of analog books, that ultimate argument against digital reading! You know, based on the ridiculous amount of statistics on this issue, I think I am going to have to disagree that e-books aren’t catching on. Carr also discusses the fact that some people predict social media conversations happening within e-books. One the one hand, I can see that being annoying, but as long as there is the option to disable it, I fail to see the problem. In some texts, I can even see it being beneficial. Readers could start discussions and connect with each other this way. In textbooks or technical books, readers might as each other questions. The future isn’t necessarily horrible, Mr. Carr!

Finally, we get to how the Internet is changing our brains. Inquiring minds want to know: what is the word on this? Carr characterizes the modern Web as a “high speed system for delivering responses and rewards … which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions.” He argues that we keep interneting because it stimulates our brains and bite-sized information chunks make us feel happy; it boils down to basic operant conditioning. Carr also states that the Internet keeps our brains distracted. The brain needs downtime away from highly stimulating environments to do deep thinking and refresh itself, but it’s hard to pull away from the computer because we feel rewarded when we use it. I do agree with this, but I also think there isn’t anyone who really disagrees with this. Even the most internet addicted among us (Redditors?) will agree that spending the entire day online results in feeling kind of bad at the end of it all. Everyone has to learn to moderate their own time online in order to get things done. That’s the nature of modern life. Carr also cites some work on attention and multitasking, making the case–again–that the desultory nature of reading online is making us dumb because we can’t remember anything. There is a case in which people were assigned a reading comprehension task, one with hyperlinks throughout and one without. The people with no hyperlinks understood the story they read on a deeper level because they didn’t get lost on tangents with the hyperlinks. Furthermore, the people who had the hyperlinks remembered less about everything they had read than the no-links group. In a similar study, a researcher found that readers understood less for every additional link in a text. I can see that this is a problem, just from my own experience. I find that if I click on links through a text and read all the links immediately, it is harder to understand what is going on. However, I think this problem can be solved quite simply by opening new links in a tab and reading things all the way through before going onto the next one. So, again, the tone seems somewhat alarmist to me, especially when there are so many easy ways to get around these problems.

Next, Carr considers the effects of “outsourcing” one’s memory to the Web. On this subject, I do agree with the author that this is a dumb idea. Some people take the approach that they don’t really need to remember things because everything is online. Carr brings up some interesting research on this subject, noting that “the very act of recalling a memory appears to restart the entire process of consolidation,” which is to say that when you remember something, your brain strengthens the neural pathways to the memory and you probably deepen your understanding of the issue by thinking about it again, but with new knowledge in your brain. I must agree with this based on my own experience. I find that the more I know, the more I can know. Remembering a lot of things allows more links between information to be formed, thus making me smarter. Treating the mind as an index to things online works in some ways (perhaps for things you want to learn later, or for incidental information), but the best course of action for actually being a more intelligent person is to use your damn memory! I also appreciated the William James quotation in this section, “The art of remembering is the art of thinking.” I like it.

Overall, The Shallows has discussions about some interesting research and I felt that it did make some valid points about the metacognition, but I thought the tone was needlessly alarmist. I don’t think people are becoming more shallow in their thinking as a whole, but I do believe we are in a transitional period in terms of how we view technology and its role in cognition and learning. The technology will change and we will adapt to it. In some ways it will be better, and in some ways it will be worse. Such is humanity. Should you read the book? If you like reading about technology and the brain, yes, you will likely be interested. I particularly enjoyed the beginning of the book because of these topics. The end of the book has some interesting modern research on attention, which I also appreciated. On the whole, I am ambivalent about The Shallows, but I would not say that I regret reading it (in between opening all the hyper links, checking email, and generally going to hell in a hand basket).

31 Mar

It’s a Trap!

Book Review: The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers & Fathers are Going Broke

The Two-Income Trap cover

The Two-Income Trap cover

I picked up this book not because I am a mother (as if I would have time to read if I had a child), but because I came across this quotation on Reddit about a month ago, “Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse.” And my thoughts were That’s all the reason I need not to procreate and also I should read that book. This is a big claim though; the main thing that will bring a woman down is children. I was interested to see how Warren and Warren-Tyagi (the mother-daughter duo that wrote the book) substantiated that claim and treated the issue.

The basic premise of The Two-Income Trap is that by sending mothers (the book does focus on mothers, rather than second-earner more generally) into the workforce, we have doomed ourselves. At first, this sounds very anti-feminist. I found myself wondering whether the authors thought women should go back to staying at home, but they later make it clear that this is absolutely not what they are proposing. Rather, the “trap” is twofold: having two income earners means that families structure their budgets around having two full time workers. Using this increase in cash (compared to families with only one income), these two-income families buy homes in better school districts, driving up the home values of everything in the area, making it impossible (for most people) to afford a home in a decent district on only on income. The second piece of the trap is that because families are focusing all their resources on affording homes in a nice school district, if one parent becomes unable to work or loses his or her job, the family is immediately sunk. We have created a system in which the only way to compete is to have two full time incomes and no one gets injured or laid off.

I was surprised to learn that school districts were such a major factor in where people decided to live (although, as a former teacher, I should not have been). In fact, “A study conducted in Fresno found that, for similar homes, school quality was the single most important determinant of neighborhood prices [emphasis theirs].” And furthermore, I found this statistic quite telling, “Schools that scored just 5 percent higher on fourth-grade math and reading tests added a premium of nearly $4,000 to nearby homes.” What! That’s basically adding a whole year’s salary onto a mortgage just for 5% more in test scores. The tone of this book definitely communicated the importance of getting into better school districts to middle class families. People are willing to bring themselves to the brink of financial ruin just to make it happen. I expect this is a function of the middle class drive for children to do better than their parents and the parents make this part of the American Dream come true by positioning themselves as strategically as possible, even if it means spending almost all your money on a house. Warren and Warren-Tyagi’s solution to this housing madness is “a well-designed voucher program.” I know that for anyone in education, vouchers make you tense up, but the goal of their proposed voucher is to make it so each child is entitled to go to school somewhere, but that school doesn’t have to be tied to the family’s domicile. The “voucher” travels with the student to whatever school the family chooses. I like the idea of de-coupling residence and school; however, I find it hard to believe that this can work in a pragmatic sense. Won’t everyone just try to get into the best school in the area? Wouldn’t this just result in lotteries like many charter schools already do? How are kids going to get to school? I will admit that I don’t have a better idea (of course I’m not a professor at Harvard Law School like warren is), but I am not confident that this would work without seeing a lot more data and plans.

Even though the book is primarily about two-income families, it also gives some attention to single mothers who have it even worse than everyone else. Unfortunately, “Single mothers are more likely than any other group to file for bankruptcy.” Essentially, anything that is financially negative, will happen to single mothers more than anyone else. They are more likely to lose their homes and to be past due on bills. Even though the “trap” described in this book is for two-income families, single mothers (and presumably fathers) are caught up in it in their own way. According to Warren and Warren-Tyagi, “For every increase in the paycheck of a single mother, there is now a corresponding increase in a married couple’s income as well … the income gap between single and married parents is growing.” So, if you think that being a single parent will let you opt-out of this two-income trap, you’re wrong about that.

Another issue that is discussed in detail is the issue of debt, consumption and inflation. They explain that one of the major things that can drive a family into debt—and potentially bankruptcy—is medical bills. They state that “Over the past twenty years, the number of families declaring bankruptcy in the wake of a serious illness has multiplied more than twentyfold, or 2,000 percent.” They also discuss the rise of subprime mortgage lending (and for anyone who has lived in the 21st century, subprime is not a term I need to define for you). Subprime mortgages offer interest rates of more than twice as much as a standard loan. The authors give the example of a 6.5% and a 15.6% interest rate: on the life of a $175,000 mortgage, the higher rate would result in $420,000 more in payments over a 30 year loan. That is insane, you could buy two more houses (in someplace that isn’t California, I suppose) for that amount, yet people are racking that up as mere interest. Apparently, the mortgage industry was being somewhat less than honest at this point in time, and the authors cite a figure that 40% of people who were sold subprime mortgages could have qualified for a standard loan. It seems that many people are not well enough educated to know when they are being scammed by the bank, and thus were taken advantage of by lenders who were pretending to be friendly. Again, this is madness and it is absolutely irresponsible and predatory on the part of banks.

From my standpoint in 2013, I’m thinking, Well, obviously, but this book was published in 2003. It pre-empted the financial crisis by five years. Some of the issues they discuss make them seem almost prescient, but of course, they weren’t making magical predictions, it was clear even then that our economic model was not a sustainable one. To get on my soapbox for a moment: the fact that people knew and were writing about the problems of medical debt and people getting into mortgages that they could barely sustain in 2003 (which means the data would have been primarily from the 1990’s), but nothing happened and the economy was allowed to completely fall apart in 2008 is infuriating. The authors mention that in 2002, Citibank’s subprime lending arm was “prosecuted for deceptive marketing practices.” And yet, nothing happened. They paid $240 million to settle and, presumably, went on stoking the fires of financial ruin for the country. My generation is going to be trying to cope with the after effects of all this thanks to the legislature deregulating so many industries and bankers profiting off of all this foolishness.

At the end of the book, Warren and Warren-Tyagi offer some suggestions for how to avoid the two-income trap. The first is the somewhat obvious “Stay home?” I get that having a parent stay home can be a way to opt-out of this trap, but for that to work, one partner has to be making a significant amount of money and the other must be okay with staying at home and leaving the workforce. I don’t see that being a great solution (and even the authors present it in a tentative kind of way). However, I think the lesson from this suggestion is to not rely so heavily on two incomes. If a family has two incomes, then they shouldn’t be putting a full income of one member into a mortgage. An entire lifestyle cannot be predicated on having just enough to pay for necessities without any savings. The second solution (and my personal favorite) is “No children?” (all the suggestions have nice, tentative question marks). Notably, “By forgoing childbearing, a woman decreases her chances of going bankrupt by 66 percent” and “By remaining childless, a woman greatly improves her odds of having a comfortable retirement.” If you read this book looking for reasons you shouldn’t have children, then here it is, you win this round!

I had a hard time figuring out what I thought about this book on the whole. A part of me wants to say Well, just never have children! Problem solved, but of course that is not an actionable solution for everyone, and frankly, there are lots of people who want children and feel good about having them, and I wouldn’t want to deny people that choice just because the financial game is not a fun one for families with children. Another part of me was enraged because injustice is upsetting for me. Every school should be a good school that parents want their kids to go to! People shouldn’t be pushing themselves to the brink of bankruptcy just so their kid can get a free and appropriate education. That is the most anti-democratic concept that I can think of. It guarantees that only rich (or relatively wealthy people) will get a good education, thus perpetuating a cycle of socio-economic inequality. I’m not sure what a good answer would be, but I feel that, as a society, if education, equality, and democracy are things that we actually value (rather than things we just say we value) then this is a problem that needs to b e fixed.

Finally, if you hate reading, or just like watching things, here’s a lecture by Elizabeth Warren about things from this book and “the coming collapse of the middle class.”

The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class – Elizabeth Warren [57:37]