Movie review: Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief (2015)

Going Clear is a pretty disturbing documentary. Maybe I found it disturbing thanks to the age we live in—in an age of collective lies, misrepresentation, and alternative realities. Or maybe I would have found it disturbing even if we weren’t living in our current political and social reality in the US.

The documentary is interspersed with interviews of former members high up in the echelons of Scientology. As the narrative that the documentary recounts unfolds, one by one these people leave the organization.

“Leaving the organization” sounds so benign. In fact, leaving is not an easy thing to do. Often it sounds like the tactic an abused woman must take to leave an abusive man. By leaving they lose their social network, which is made up exclusively of other church members, and family members, who are told to sever all ties with them.

The documentary starts by focusing on the founder of Scientology, his background, and his motivations. L. Ron Hubbard comes across as an authoritarian, ego-driven blowhard who was motivated by the almighty dollar. It is not a flattering portrayal, though I have no reason to think it is unrealistic or exaggerated. His background was science fiction writing. With a need to make money, he parlayed his stories into a religion that he sold to millions.

The documentary also recounts the history of Scientology, its power, and the abuse it inflicted on adherents. The organization fought the IRS to recognize it as a religion so that it could avoid paying taxes. (L. Ron Hubbard lived out the later decades of his life avoiding the IRS.) The fact that the organization beat the IRS says something to its power and reach.

What could only be called human trafficking, kidnapping, and slave labor went on behind its cloak of secrecy. Those in power sought to destroy anyone who escaped and spoke out. Unimaginable amounts of money were at stake. Scientology was founded on a desire to make money and through the decades morphed into a monster fed by gluttony.

The experiences of the people who escaped are heart-breaking. They were all lured into the lie that they were working towards something bigger—Scientology claims to channel people to work for making things better in the world. In fact, these people lost decades of their lives and family members to this cult. It is a scary reminder that dreams and hopes can be manipulated, and people subjected to trauma all for power and money.

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Book review: Lies My Teacher Told Me

Lies My Teacher Told Me was a fascinating read. The author sets out to examine twelve school textbooks for their accuracy, completeness, and use in school settings and then write about different ways that the history in these textbooks and ones like them have failed us.

History in a school setting is often uninspiring, incomplete, and in some cases flat out wrong. It should, according to Loewen, invite questions and debates. It should encourage students to think about the past and how the past relates to their lives or informs the current situation. History should be an excellent way to develop the critical thinking skills that engaged citizens need. Instead, history is taught in a way to develop allegiance and blind patriotism—as if one cannot be patriot and also critical of or question the actions of one’s government.

All of these points are well taken. I don’t remember particularly liking history or social studies in school, but I didn’t particularly hate it. However, as an adult, I love history because of the very things that Loewen mentions—the sense of perspective it gives, an understanding of current events, and the development of critical thinking skills.

Throughout the book, Loewen shows time and time again the lies we were told about history and then explains the damage and consequences that resulted from these lies. It is all a bit disheartening. He unpacks the erroneous history about several events or subjects: hero-making, Columbus, Thanksgiving, Native Americans, the invisibility of racism AND anti-racism, the myth of opportunity, the federal government always on the side of good, the lack of recent history, and the myth of progress.

I enjoyed learning from the examples that Loewen provides about how we were misled and mistaught in school. I had no idea about Helen Keller’s adult life. I merely kind of thought (without questioning it) that her life ended in a figurative sense after Ann Sullivan taught her how to interact with the world. Instead, I learned about her rich life as a social activist for class rights and women’s rights.

And President Wilson, whom I suspected was not the squeaky-clean hero that he is portrayed to be, turned out to have been quite the racist and military interventionist. By learning about his actions in the early 20th century, I can see more clearly see the antecedents of the path the US went down in race relations. I can also see the roots of chaos in Latin America—all thanks to the wars we engaged in and the democratic governments we overthrew. By seeing the past, I see the consequences of these actions in the present.

Such knowledge is invaluable. How the US acts affects the future. Why aren’t our early 20th century actions in Iran taken into account when dealing with Iran today? We have collective amnesia or more aptly, we are all collectively ignorant of the fact that we created the Iran that we vehemently oppose today.

As Loewen works through the history that we were taught and unpacks misconceptions, he describes several archetypes. One is hero-fication. Individuals must be presented in a good light as defined by current norms. No blemishes. No complexity. Ignore the slave ownership of founding fathers or their contradictory statements on the issue.

Another archetype or assumption is the arch of progress. Loewen unveils this lie and the blame it causes. If everything is getting better and better, but they aren’t for you, then you are the problem. Those reaping the benefits of so-called progress see it as the result of their abilities. Those not reaping the benefits blame themselves.

Besides the blame heaped on those not in the privileged position, this myth of progress also encourages passivity. There is no impetus to change anything. No need to fight or condemn racist conditions. After all, things are better than they were and will continue to get better. Only we know from history that isn’t the case. After the progress made for blacks during Reconstruction, a dark period descended on the country and gains that blacks made were lost.

Another myth is one that insists that more education leads to tolerance. In fact, Loewen unveils this lie through information on who backed the Vietnam War at the time and who we think backed the Vietnam War, as well as our rationalism about our current interpretation. It is fascinating though disturbing work to unveil unseen myths and assumptions. Education is a socializing tool. The more educated you are, the more you tend to support the system. (There was a reason why re-education was/is used in the USSR and China. They knew that education can lead to allegiance to the state and the status quo.)

Couple allegiance with the myth that the state only does good and you have a populace that will support anything the state does, including wars. Loewen mentions that the college-educated tend to be Republican and the uneducated Democrat, though I wonder what he would make of our current climate where everything seems to be upside down and nothing in politics operates as normal.

After unpacking the lies we were taught, Loewen discusses why history is taught like this and proposes ways it should be taught. In brief, the answers about why are money and ideology, and the how is engaging students in projects to show how the past affects their lives now. Unlike other subjects, history is treated as subjective. We all have different perspectives on events and do not want our children to be taught potentially opposing views. As a nation that doesn’t foster debate, we do not want to foster debate in the classroom or teach our children to think. If they are to think, it is to think how we think, whether how we think is correct about an historical event or not, whether we think critically or not.

Without a critical understanding of the past, we cannot understand where we are and we cannot move forward to propose solutions to societal ills. We miss out on seeing the causes of racism and then cannot begin to recognize racism among us, let alone address it. The same can be said about social class and poverty. Or marginalized groups. Without critically examining the past and knowing what the past really is, we miss out on understanding the present and remedying long festering situations. Things do not get better with ignorance or misunderstanding (or even time). Instead, they get worse through perpetuation.

Loewen taught me about some of the mishistory I knew and some history that I didn’t know about. He also challenged me to question what I read, what I am told, and what I am taught. He proposes that students ask questions about sources of information:

  • Why was the source written or spoken? Contextualize it by placing it in the social structure and the agenda of the speaker or writer.
  • Whose viewpoint is presented? What interests does it serve? What viewpoints are omitted?
  • Is the account believable? Are there contradictions?
  • Is the account backed up by other sources? How is one supposed to feel about the America that has been presented? Look at the choice of words and images used.

I would propose, especial in the age of fake news, that these sorts of questions and this sort of critical thinking is what we should apply to all aspects of information, historical or current. I would also add that we should ask ourselves: what assumptions does this interpretation of events make? What assumptions am I making? Fish rarely realize the water they swim in. To see the water we swim in is to see reality. To see the assumptions that we and society make helps strip away interpretations so we can better understand and effect change when needed.

Loewen’s work on historical education came out of his time teaching in Mississippi. He was shocked to hear the erroneous views his students had about Reconstruction and how harmful these beliefs were to them. As a means of social control and white supremacy over blacks, Reconstruction had been reinvented as a time when blacks were in power throughout the south, made a mess out of it, and whites had to step back in to fix things. None of this is true but if this is the narrative you are told as a black American, what does this do to your beliefs about black Americans, their abilities, and yourself? In reaction, Loewen wrote a history textbook. He had to sue the state to get it on the state’s list of approved textbooks.

I bet Mississippi: Conflict and Change would make a fascinating read and follow-up after Lies My Teacher Told Me.

Movie review: National Gallery (2014)

National Gallery is another documentary directed by Frederick Weiseman, very similar to the format of his later Ex Libris. He and his cameras are flies on the wall during the normal activities that occur in the National Gallery in London. Through his camera, we the audience are present for lectures about paintings, sketching workshops, painting restorations, board meetings, and artistic performances. There is no single narrative. We are left to take from the documentary what we will—sort of, I would argue, as one does by viewing a painting in an art museum.

I enjoyed listening to the mini-lectures that docents gave to groups at the National Gallery about a particular painting or artist. The docents describe context around the painting in order to help us view the painting in a different way. In one case, in a small gathering, a museum employee explains how and where the painting was made—in situ over a large, high fireplace to the right of a window that let in light. That he knew from knowledge of the painting’s providence, how light was used for painting before the advent of electricity, etc.

In another lecture, a museum employee walks a group through restoration of a huge image of a nobleman astride a horse. Before restoration, X-rays are taken. In this case, it showed another full figure painted underneath. The artist painted over it and rotated the canvas before painting what became his final piece. Over time paintings underneath bleed through. In this case, some of that bleeding through probably confused previous restorers of the painting about what to restore or what not to restore.

And I learned more about the restoration process. I always thought it odd that museums would touch up paintings. Doesn’t that risk damaging them? How is the modern-day museum employee able to touch up a painting that doesn’t do a disservice to the skill and technique used by the original artist? I learned that at least in modern day restoration, they clean the painting, re-varnish the painting, and then do the touch-ups on top of the varnish. By doing so, future restorations can easily remove the touch-ups and varnish when they clean the painting. So in essence, the painting isn’t damaged or permanently altered by touch-ups. Well, that’s not entirely true.

In another talk, an employee discusses how sometimes the original artist used a particular varnish on the painting to get a certain effect with the color. With restoration, when cleaning is done, the varnish is stripped off. So the original intent of the colors may be permanently altered. The restorer is in effect altering the painting. My original fear was well founded.

Like libraries in Ex Libris, art museums are moving beyond their traditional mission. In addition to being places to enjoy art, art museums like the National Gallery are becoming much more. The documentary shows the plethora of lectures to different audiences—in the gallery and back in the areas where restoration is done (normally not accessible to the public). Workshops employ different techniques, creating more 3D type images of paintings that blind audience members can feel as the speaker discusses the painting. Other workshops are hands-on creative enterprises—participants sketch human nudes.

A recent trend with art museums is to become more than places that house works of art. In the case of the National Gallery, it is working to become a place of doing art and enjoying performances. The National Gallery hosts musical and dance performances. Audience members enjoy the performance surrounded by beautiful works of art. The ambiance is as important as the performance itself.

In meetings that the documentary shows, the board is not ready to popularize the venue simply to bring in revenue. Other art museums have chosen the path of popularizing their venues. The modern goal of art museums seems to be to bring people (and revenue) into their spaces, not necessarily to enjoy the works of art, but to enjoy more popular activities and spaces—all in the name of popularizing their space (aka bringing in revenue). At what point does it go too far? The National Gallery seem to have a clear demarcation. Other museums, like the Indianapolis Museum of Art, are becoming more popular community spaces.

The IMA for several years has embraced the popularization movement. Some of their new activities try to meld art with popular appeal. Others not so much. For two years the museum hosted a mini-golf course, with each hole a work of art designed around a theme. The museum also opened a beer garden with at least one beer locally crafted specifically for the museum. Recently the museum completed an indoor/outdoor exhibit of cracking art—brightly colored plastic animal sculptures that spoke to environmental themes. For the second year, the museum is hosting an outdoor winter lights display—a grandiose affair in terms of time, effort, and money. For years, the museum has hosted film festivals and musical/ballet performances. The common theme seems to be to reach out to the non-art museum goer and get them into the museum or at least on the museum grounds.

The National Gallery, at least at the time of this documentary, decided against such a popularization. They discuss a marketing approach to museum, but seem to want to maintain the museum as an art venue meant for lovers of art, artistic performances, and artistic endeavors.

With the numerous mini-lectures that National Gallery shows, I felt that the three hours was an easier watch than Ex Libris. But I am a lover of traditional art museums and eagerly attend lectures on the works in their galleries. With the documentary, I was able to attend a number of mini lectures and learn interesting tidbits about how paintings are restored and how to look at paintings as stories and examine the context in which paintings were created. But I am an old-school art museum attendee. I ride the popularization wave albeit somewhat reluctantly.