Is Tony Ortega Warranted in His Attacks on Reza Aslan?
As an Independent Scientologist, I try to spend my time doing productive things that improve the quality of my daily life. I generally don’t dally long in reading overtly damning articles, and I am especially turned off by articles or blogs, which might openly attack people. Who has time for that kind of negativity?
However, I was looking forward to the TV show in which Reza Aslan took on Scientology outside the church, in his recently-aired episode of CNN’s “Believer,” a series about exploring comparative religions. That led me to peruse online discussions and social media on the topic, since I was interested in how it was being received. I found many positive responses by individuals who are not associated with the church. But when I arrived upon Tony Ortega’s blog, I found a series of uninhibited thrashings upon Aslan and the newly-aired Scientology episode. I discovered his article to be full with unwarranted bile. In my view, I found the attacks groundless, upon someone whose open curiosity seeks to appreciate some positive aspects of what has been typically a highly-charged topic.
I feel compelled to speak in Aslan’s defense. For context: I defected from the Church more than 20 years ago, and I continue to practice as an independent Scientologist. I spent two days experiencing personal interaction in interviewing with Reza Aslan.
Ordinarily, I find Ortega’s reports on church defections to be useful, well-reported information. But this piece was not the same tone or intent, as his other stories. His criticisms about Aslan’s “Believer” are quite different in character. The patronization and acrid opinions, among numerous made-up “facts” sought to vilify the educational focus of Aslan’s work, with an unnatural voracity I found difficult to understand.
Given the lead-up to the show, Ortega posted an article about Aslan and the still-pending episode on March 21st, immediately labeling Aslan as “dishonest” in the title. Ortega’s “proof” of this dishonestly was in reference to a New York magazine interview with Aslan in which the journalist says, “I had no idea there’s a reform movement going on in Scientology.” Aslan’s response was, “I don’t think the church knows that.”
Ortega errs in assuming a literal translation of Aslan’s words, slipping into a bellicose rant about how well-known the defection trends are to the church. “For crying out loud,” he says.
Ortega has documented the Church of Scientology’s activities for many years. Naturally, he is very familiar with the upper management censorship tactics upon its own staff and parishioners, including information spread about defectors and detractors. This is one of the Church’s many commonly-known, documented abuses. There exists no doubt in my mind that Aslan was likely speaking for the uninformed and suppressed members of the church and public.
Even if Aslan did mean the executives-- if he was sincerely ignorant that the church heads were aware of the reformation movement, the statement, “I don’t think” or even “I think” does not evoke a strong certainty by the speaker. Thus Ortega is so weak on his remark, the whole discussion really merits instant disqualification. Somehow, Ortega makes a huge deal out of nothing.
Ortega continues in an effort to convince unsuspecting readers that there is no independent “movement;” and if there is a movement, it isn’t growing. He introduces us to his personal friends who practice independently in Haifa, Israel, the same team that is featured in Aslan’s episode. Ortega claims, “We admire the Lembergers,” but in the same breath he pompously shoots down their hard life's work, “But this is not a growing movement in Haifa, or anywhere else in Israel.” His comment surprised me and caused me to wonder: Does he really know, for sure, about all the other parts of Israel? Has he traversed every square mile to confirm? Now that he’s declared this, should they all just give up and stop this silly dream? Juxtaposed to his claim, he reports that the Lembergers began to run their center independently from the church four years ago with about 50 members. Today, their members are 60, in total. Last I looked, 60 is a growth factor of 20 percent. While it may not be explosive, it is still growth. It’s just plain rude to nag an up statistic.
So in actuality, the Haifa group is moving along at a very acceptable rate, with its independent studies; and, of course, it isn’t the only such center in the world. There exist many places and auditors, around the globe, who are offering Scientology outside the church, such as can be located via Scientolopedia.org, as a resource, for example.
Ortega stretches hard to degrade the Lembergers’s success. So much for “admiration.” I gather that his appreciation caps at the fact of their defection. In my view, Ortega thus reveals himself in a bigoted sort of way, on the border of abusing in his opinion-leader role. This is disappointing.
Another attempt to further invalidate the Freezone and Independent Scientology field is in Ortega’s discussion of the annual convention produced by Rey Robles. He reports a two-digit attendance number (which may or not may not be accurate) at one year’s conference with a blatant carelessness in naming only one statistic out of context. According to some random corporate convention attendance trend charts of relevance here and here, convention and entertainment attendance trends are troubling in plenty of other industries. And they don’t have to contend with the negative PR that the subject of Scientology inspires. We should consider all the factors at play, in order to judge whether Ortega’s report is relevant.
In regard to the annual convention, Ortega fails to share that it has run consistently for 15 straight years. While the event has shown varied attendance numbers over the years, the conference has brought attendees and delegations of Independents from all over the world and continues to attract positive interaction from far corners. The symposium has also, more than once, gathered the largest concentration of Old Timers (those who personally worked and trained with Hubbard. Many who watch the Church may notice how few old people it has.)
I see Aslan’s intent with “Believer” as conveying, “Hey, there’s something going on here. It’s pretty interesting and not as bizarre as you might think. Let’s take a look at some meaningful distinctions that were ignored until now.” Ortega offers the idea that this scholar’s viewpoint is somehow reprehensible.
Unlike Aslan’s perspective and, instead of any acknowledgement of what real independents are doing to further their true progression, Ortega holds up Leah Remini as a beacon of progress, which is supposed to be an argument for failure by Aslan’s non-coverage. But Leah’s story is already being more than adequately promoted; moreover, it’s her own story to tell, and there’s no point in anyone repeating an already-told story. (“Yesterday’s news.”) Aslan has no obligation or reason to acknowledge Remini’s own tale. Especially since Remini has unsurprisingly soured on the (altered and thus, faulty) “Miscarried” church. As a result, Ortega’s reliance on Remini’s story being more important or even relevant to Aslan’s is inauthentic.
I don’t write to criticize Remini, her experiences, or her reporting. Through no fault of her own, Remini was nearly born into the church (was brought in at 6 years old). She is a Miscavige product, maybe more than she is LRH’s. Not even a teenager when Hubbard left church lines, she didn’t start the bulk of her Bridge work until around the time she hit it big with King of Queens (1998), as I understand. The famous “Bridge” was, by that time, grossly tweaked by Miscavige. Regardless, I will always, sincerely thank her for doing her invaluable part in exposing Miscavige’s crimes. (That’s the “progress” which Ortega celebrates and many defectors appreciate.) However, while I can welcome the significance of Remini’s heart-wrenching expose, that she is the most-suited individual to do it, she remains perhaps a faulty authority on the tech itself, which is the main focus for independent practitioners.
Infamous Miscavige (via the corporate entities behind the curtains) has abused his station as overseer to maintain the purity of the technology with his gross negligence and overt alterations, deletions, and hardened applications of the tools that LRH had established for positive, lighter-touch use. I’m not saying that LRH was perfect in any sense, but the original methods had brought us closer to the stated goals of the religion and with clearly better results,. So while Remini’s actions assist the reformation movement, these alone are not the entirety of it, since she has probably become embittered by the altered tech, at the same time she’s aiming at Miscavige. (In my view, Miscavige’s departure would be only a part of what needs to happen to clean up the whole mess in the Church. Naturally, that attitude is among the reasons I’m an independent.)
Ortega’s allegations of journalistic dishonesty by Aslan may, more accurately, reflect his own situation. He again derides Aslan for ignoring coverage of another defector. This time, Marty Rathbun, as though this would even be relevant to Aslan’s story, which is about people currently practicing outside the church. Aslan states at the beginning of the episode, “[Regarding Scientology] I’ve heard everything you’ve heard,” and then refreshes the viewer with news report sound bites of many frighteningly-true allegations about the church. For Reza to cover the Marty Rathbun expulsion/defection and subsequent (and unsurprising) failure to be a leader among the Independents and Freezone, would be not only redundant, but highly irrelevant. This story too, was already covered elsewhere and is old news. With a only a 1-hour show format for Aslan to barely touch upon this “new” topic, wouldn’t it be dishonest to repeat the old and immaterial when you’re promising a fresh viewpoint?
Ortega brings into focus two former church executives, Rinder and Rathbun, as leading the “most visible independent movement.” Rinder and Rathbun were hardly “leaders” of any movement, if ever they were, once out. Ortega erroneously considers them as leaders because those two individuals were of high rank in the church and went out their way to create a relationship with him personally.
However, these two are highly unsuitable representatives as “reform movement leaders.” That just never could fly. I have been in the independent movement for over 20 years, so I would know if Rinder and Rathbun were “leading” anything… Except perhaps, a life of mostly quiet, cringing misery once they go home from the spotlights, to contemplate their years of accumulated crimes against the good parishioners under their prior "leadership." These were the same awakened parishioners who’d earnestly tried to correct the upper management “from the inside” before giving up altogether, because they believed (and many still do) that there was no good auditing for them anywhere else.
Suppressing good peoples’ right to fair and honest treatment is what Rinder and Rathbun ought to be famous for. Yes, I give Rinder a few points for his amends project for exposing, with Remini, the Miscavige Mayhem. Hopefully for him, it might make a dent in all the years of “no service” delightfully allowed by him and Rathbun when they were in the right position to do something about it, but acted as accomplices instead.
Ortega puts a warp spin upon Reza’s simple three-point premise of the tech. As shared by Aslan: “We are eternal souls trapped within bodies; We gather trauma throughout past lives; and Trauma is cleared through a process called ‘auditing.’” In Tony’s first two citations, he hyperbolizes the ideas to make them incredible.
But on the last point, Ortega lets loose a truly naive attempt to convince us with his own false narrative and personal evaluation: “[Auditing is] trying to install an entirely new vocabulary and way of thinking in order to convince you that L. Ron Hubbard is the sole source of anything positive in your life.” [What?!]
Apparently he couldn’t exit his run-away train soon enough. Ortega is neither an engineer nor a scientist, yet he rails the e-meter as a “parlor trick.” While his opinion of the e-meter is not relevant to the main story of the Independent Movement, I find it noteworthy that Ortega used this as a platform to discredit whatever ancillary Scientology thoughts he could load upon reproaching Aslan, an independent researcher. If nothing else, Aslan is there to report on what he sees. It is his job to explain the tools used by the people he interviews.
In his concluding paragraphs, Ortega asks one of the most unsuitable candidates for his opinion of Aslan, Mike Rinder, who (along with Rathbun) is actually worthy of his own investigation and discovery for his participation in crimes against the more ethical practices of Scientology (and he knows what those are, since he was there, aiding and abetting every whim of Miscavige.) Subsequently, Rinder propitiates a transparent answer to Ortega.
In the progression of Ortega’s three blogs (so far) in ‘attacking one’s own’ upon Reza Aslan, he made himself susceptible to the very same argument by which he sought to damn. Ortega lessened his credibility with his hen-pecking upon a researcher, such as Reza Aslan, who has only shown an astute ability to maintain his own unarguable objectivity with his originally-stated goals.
Reza Aslan’s “Believer” remains the introduction to the world-at-large of Independent Scientology, bringing this significant subject out of relative non-existence to the greatest number of previously unaware general public, than ever done before. That is a first. I was happy with the show, and I continue to respect and applaud Aslan for presenting it so well.