Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Scientology Versus South Park

Back in 2005 the television program South Park produced an episode mocking the Church of Scientology, which led to something of a scandal. Comedy Central refused to air the episode and Isaac Hayes, a Scientologist who voiced one of the recurring characters, resigned from the show on the grounds that it "makes fun of people's religions." It should be noted that Hayes did not resign over earlier episodes ridiculing Catholicism, Mormonism, and Judaism, not to mention the "Super Best Friends" episode from 2001 in which Moses, Jesus, Joseph Smith, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, and Lao-Tzu act as a super-team to defeat the evil sorcery of David Blaine - who calls his religious cult "Blaintology." Nope, no making fun of religion there!

At any rate, the scandal was a testament to the touchiness of the Church of Scientology, which is famous for threatening lawsuits right and left at the drop of a hat, regarding critcism of its beliefs. What is not widely known is how far the Church went in "investigating" Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park's creators. A recently leaked document supposedly details various actions the Church took in order to embarrass the two of them, which if true pretty clearly cross the line into stalking and harrassment.

Former Scientology executive Marty Rathbun, who left the church in 2005, released an internal Scientology document on his blog detailing the investigation by the religion's Office of Special Affairs (OSA) — which he calls "the harassment and terror network of Corporate Scientology." The probe of Parker and Stone was apparently direct "retaliation for the South Park episode that exposed the religion's bizarre upper-level teachings," says Tony Ortega at The Village Voice. According to Rathbun, the OSA uses methods comparable to Cold War-era CIA and KGB "intelligence and propaganda techniques," such as investigation, threats, and infiltration.

In order to find a "direct line" to Parker and Stone, the OSA allegedly identified close friends of Parker and Stone, including formerly married actors John Stamos and Rebecca Romijn, "in an effort to find some weakness," says Kimberly Nordyke at The Hollywood Reporter. These people were then the targets of "covert information gathering" that included searching through their trash, purchasing their phone records, hacking their airline reservations, going through their bank records, and reading their personal letters. "They'll read stuff into the kind of alcohol you're drinking and how much. Prescriptions. They'll figure out your diet," says Rathbun. "They can find out a lot about you through your trash."

Frustrated that these methods weren't producing "any vulnerabilities to exploit," says Ortega, the OSA allegedly attempted to employ a film student as a mole to "get intelligence" about Parker and Stone directly from the studio where they worked. The group hoped the film student would be able get a job either as an intern at South Park or as a writer there. It's unclear whether this plan ever panned out.

The document reveals that the OSA kept careful watch over Parker and Stone's workplace, discovering what catering service they used for lunch, where the duo's parking spaces were, and the makes, models, and license plate numbers of their cars. But beyond that, "whether Scientology was ever successful at digging up dirt on the filmmaking duo or their friends is something we'll be trying to find out," says Ortega.

The Church of Scientology denies authorizing any of the actions outlined in the document, and it's always possible that these allegations are false and part of a smear campaign. However, this is also not the first time the Church has been accused of taking these sorts of actions against its critics. Meanwhile, the South Park episode in question, "Trapped in the Closet," has become one of the most popular episodes viewed online despite never airing.

Personally, I'm left wondering how strong the beliefs of Scientology can possibly be, since the Church seems to think that its followers are delicate flowers that will be harmed in some tangible way by seeing it portrayed in a negative light on a comedy show that pretty much rips on every religious persuasion out there. I mean, it's not like Aleister Crowley and Thelema have never been criticized or mocked, but I'm still practicing because for me the system works. As I see it, people can make fun all they want without having to worry about me digging through their trash.

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