The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 3

People should be able to choose a minority faith without expecting the Spanish Inquisition.

RECAP: In Part 1 we talked about the deprogramming era and how the ACLU helped to end it. In Part 2 we explored the transition from deprogramming to exit counseling, from physical coercion to psychological coercion. Our persistent theme is that the ACLU should still be concerned about the plight of minority adherents, since the manner in which the latter continue to be harassed by anti-cultists remains violative of their religious freedom and core civil rights.

Part 2 ended with a discussion of techniques and jargon associated with exit counseling and “cult recovery” groups. We talked about the way that former spiritual seekers are resocialized to view themselves as “cult victims,” and encouraged to generate atrocity stories in order to justify and reinforce this new identity based on victimhood.

It’s helpful to be able to decode anti-cult jargon, since it contains a plethora of stereotypes and bigoted assumptions built right into the language itself. A person who has a spiritual experience has fallen victim to a “dissociative disorder,” while a person who comes to feel closer to God through prayer, meditation, and reflection suffers from “delusions of grandeur” brought on by “cult mind control.” Devotion to a spiritual figure is “an unnatural fixation caused by lack of a strong father figure during adolescence,” while self-giving is “an ego disorder,” and community involvement constitutes “a life wasted in the cult.”

What’s obscured by such anti-cult jargon is the ineffable quality of joy often experienced by minority adherents, and the meaningfulness of their lives.

To pick up where we left off: Not all anti-cult groups are formally organized or accurately labeled by their creators. The brute force technique of old-style deprogrammers has given way to a recognition that most people want to see themselves as spiritual, or at least maintain some remnant of spirituality even as they’re persuaded to abandon the essence of their faith. Some anti-cult groups maintain spiritual trappings or a spiritual veneer, despite being populated by apostates and being primarily concerned with discrediting or undermining bona fide faith groups.

Such is the case with “Abode of Yoga,” an anti-cult web site (Blogspot blog plus Facebook group) started by attorney Joseph C. Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego. Though the “Abode of Yoga” blog features apostate testimonials of the why-I-left-the-cult variety (and some fake revenge porn), the blog’s name, artwork, and header quote are all designed to imply that one is visiting a spiritual site rather than an anti-cult site — in essence, to “pull in” the casual visitor who may have some spiritual interest, but would not knowingly visit an anti-cult site.

The Chinese have a saying: “Hanging out a sheep’s head to sell dog meat.” With anti-cult sites masquerading as spiritual sites or using confusingly similar names, it’s not always easy at first glance to figure out what’s going on. But as we explore the topics of “cloaked hate” and use of fictional narratives by hate groups, it will all make sense.

Joe Kracht is typical of many so-called “career apostates” who now rail against “magical thinking” (the perpetual bugaboo of anti-cultists since Margaret T. Singer), but who nevertheless try to retail themselves as having some sort of spiritual credentials in order to gain sway with their target audience of potential deprogrammees and/or legal clients. Kracht is also typical inasmuch as many apostates seemingly unavoidable for comment on the Internet actually left the faith group they oppose 10, 20, or even 35 years ago, but are still trying to exact vengeance for some imagined wrong. Obsession hardly seems too strong a word to describe this mindset.

Joe Kracht once followed a spiritual path which entailed love, devotion, and selfless service. He was then known by the spiritual name “Yogaloy,” but having renounced the love, devotion, and selfless service — and indeed now publicly opposing his former faith group — he continues to use the name Yogaloy as a calling card, pulled out of mothballs as it were. In one bizarre incident, Kracht uploaded a video in which he burns his former spiritual name — a tactic used in old-style deprogramming.

Joe Kracht, the Lawton law firm's

Joe Kracht, the Lawton law firm’s “Burning Man”

Kracht’s particular McCarthyite tactic is to make outlandish charges and demand that they be investigated. When they are not investigated to his satisfaction (because no one can be located who will substantiate them), he then suggests that his former church “might as well be burned to the ground.”

To understand how this type of hypocrisy and demagoguery can flourish, it helps to know a bit of the history of the anti-cult movement. The largest militant U.S. anti-cult group, the old Cult Awareness Network, developed a reputation as a hate group, and was ultimately put out of business by a lawsuit holding it accountable for its involvement in abduction-type deprogrammings. The activities of the old CAN have been described as a combination of street crime, white collar crime, and corporate crime in this paper by Anson Shupe and Susan E. Darnell. The authors also note:

The jury was quite clear in its decision to award compensatory and punitive damages to [Jason] Scott. CAN’s primary activity, this case and others have revealed, was to provide false and/or inflammatory opinion in the guise of “information” about minority religions to the media and other inquires. All or virtually all such “information” was derogatory, consistent with CAN’s goals of “educating” the public that various new religious movements (NRMs) are “destructive cults,” that all of the members thereof are “cult victims,” are “brainwashed,” and are therefore at risk, possibly needing “rescue.” The jury’s decision, under the definitions provided in Washington law, was that CAN was truly an organized hate campaign. CAN described its activities in a euphemistic manner to make its activities seem less outrageous from a civil liberties perspective. The reason CAN ever became involved in the Scott lawsuit was that, consistent with its organizational pattern, it served as a conduit for referrals to coercive deprogrammers (later termed by CAN “exit counselors”) who would, for a fee, abduct and during detention harangue family members into religious apostasy.

— Anson Shupe and Susan E. Darnell, “CAN, We Hardly Knew Ye”

Since the demise of the old CAN, surviving anti-cult groups both small and large — including CAN’s sister organization the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association) — have continued to employ euphemism to disguise their activities. They may claim their primary purpose is research, investigation, and education concerning “cultic groups,” but like Holocaust deniers, their research activities are often both limited and biased, providing little more than an excuse for the spread of inaccurate and intolerant views of spiritual minorities.

Their studies are often circular, based on interviewing people who’ve already been indoctrinated into anti-cult ideology. Their scholarship is considered shoddy because it isn’t value-free but rather proceeds from a vested interest in perpetuating the cult scare which arguably reached its peak in the U.S. in the 1980s, and has since died down. Thus, in order to remain a growth industry, AFF/ICSA has to keep expanding the number of groups considered to be “cultic” until it numbers in the thousands. This reflects an organizational bias towards alarmism.

With the rise of the Internet, there’s often a cutout layer placed between large anti-cult groups who claim to be research-oriented, and some of the more toxic hate material. I have found in my own research that some people circulating hate material on the Net turn out to have ties to AFF/ICSA. (Example: The Samuel Bradshaw who was once known as Parichoy, but used a number of different aliases — as well as anonymous remailers — to spread virulent hate material.)

At a minimum, one would find that there’s a vigorous link exchange between AFF/ICSA and sites which publish hateful and obscene screeds attacking minority faiths. Post-CAN, there seems to have been a decision at AFF/ICSA to unquestioningly support decentralized ex-member groups, while trying to appear above the type of gutter rhetoric such groups often employ, even as AFF/ICSA dispenses legal advice to help the more extreme groups survive charges of libel and harassment.

Carol Giambalvo, a deprogrammer turned exit counselor who migrated from CAN to ICSA (and also started reFOCUS), describes herself by such additional terms as “Thought Reform Consultant” and “Family Intervention Counselor.” In a non-apology apology titled “From Deprogramming to Thought Reform Consultation” she writes:

The actual process of a deprogramming, as we see it, differs a great deal from voluntary exit counseling. Some of the ideas about cults and brainwashing prevalent at the time contributed to that process. It was believed that the hold of the brainwashing over the cognitive processes of a cult member needed to be broken — or “snapped” as some termed it — by means that would shock or frighten the cultist into thinking again. For that reason in some cases cult leader’s [sic] pictures were burned or there were highly confrontational interactions between deprogrammers and cultist. What was often sought was an emotional response to the information, the shock, the fear, and the confrontation. There are horror stories — promoted most vehemently by the cults themselves — about restraint, beatings, and even rape. And we have to admit that we have met former members who have related to us their deprogramming experience — several of handcuffs, weapons wielded and sexual abuse. But thankfully, these are in the minority — and in our minds, never justified. Nevertheless, deprogramming helped to free many individuals held captive to destructive cults at a time when other alternatives did not seem viable.

— Carol Giambalvo

I feel like waxing Rachel Maddowish here and saying: Yes! Remember those people who used to burn pictures of spiritual leaders and have sex with the people they were supposed to be deprogramming? Well, guess what? They’ve reformed. They’re oh-so-sorry about those things they used to do, but you can trust them now, and anyway it was all for a good cause — the same cause they’re espousing now: People shouldn’t be allowed to join groups that we don’t like or disagree with. If they do, something should be done to them. It ought to be a service people pay for.

As for other alternatives not seeming viable, well… Acceptance, tolerance, and love are always viable responses to disagreeing with somebody about their religious choice. That’s also a lot cheaper for the family than mortgaging the house to pay for a cult intervention.

I don’t know how many deprogrammers/exit counselors still physically burn religious icons, but one slang meaning of “burn” is to destroy someone’s reputation. I can state categorically that deprogrammers/exit counselors circulate hate material — sometimes openly, but sometimes through pseudonymous Internet operatives. It’s a lot like what was done to Sen. John McCain during the 2000 presidential campaign, as recounted in this New York Times article:

People in some areas of South Carolina began to receive phone calls in which self-described pollsters would ask, “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”

It was a reference to Bridget, who was adopted as a baby from an orphanage in Bangladesh and is darker skinned than the rest of the McCain family. Richard Hand, a professor at Bob Jones University, sent an e-mail message to “fellow South Carolinians” telling recipients that Mr. McCain had “chosen to sire children without marriage.”

Literature began to pepper the windshields of cars at political events suggesting that Mr. McCain had committed treason while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, that he was mentally unstable after years in a P.O.W. camp, that he was the homosexual candidate and that Mrs. McCain, who had admitted to abusing prescription drugs years earlier, was an addict.

— Jennifer Steinhauer, “Confronting Ghosts of 2000 in South Carolina”

The same type of dirt about spiritual leaders is often circulated on the Internet, and deprogrammers/exit counselors are the beneficiaries, since it fits right into their “fear marketing” campaign. See Chinmoy Kumar Ghose v. and Maria Sliwa, where spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy attested that he is a celibate Yogi, but that his name was being used for fake websites publishing scurrilous material and offering “to ‘deprogram’ students of eastern spiritual studies.”

A fake spiritual site with links to deprogrammers Rick Ross, Steven Hassan (Freedom of Mind), Carol Giambalvo (reFOCUS), Dan Shaw (Essay), and the American Family Foundation (AFF)
A fake spiritual site with links to deprogrammers Rick Ross, Steven Hassan (Freedom of Mind), and Carol Giambalvo (reFOCUS), exit counselor Dan Shaw (Essay), and the American Family Foundation (AFF). This example, apparently the brainchild (or half-brain child) of Samuel Bradshaw, is far less subtle than Joe Kracht’s later efforts employing similar techniques of misdirection.

Anti-cult sites which put up a spiritual veneer may claim they’re only “investigating” spiritual groups. However, Joe Kracht famously uses his blog to conduct show trials of spiritual figures — some of them long under the earth. His “investigations” are similar to congressional witch hunts which start with an assumption of guilt, and call unsworn witnesses (often lacking surnames) who adhere to the party line and may not be cross-examined.

The scholarly literature tells us that apostates are unreliable informants because they’re typically obsessed with self-justification, with proving that their former faith group was bad in order to feel good about themselves — to assuage guilt and relocate blame. Kracht suffers from this syndrome in spades. Like Fox Mulder in The X-Files, he wants to believe — so much so that he can easily be used by anyone with an invented narrative to peddle.

Attorney Joe Kracht will believe anything (as long as it's negative) about his former faith group.

Attorney Joe Kracht will believe anything (as long as it’s negative) about his former faith group.

His “Abode of Yoga” has therefore come to prominently feature hate propaganda which Kracht stamps with his legal seal of approval, or which he may even materially contribute to developing.

What the discovery process in a libel suit would reveal, one can only imagine. A number of negative “testimonials” published on his blog or uploaded by him in PDF form give the strong impression of being coached, edited, or shepherded through multiple versions. They tend to contradict previous written statements made by the same parties, but that exculpatory evidence is suppressed or ignored.

The Internet is still the Wild West, and people like Joe Kracht can get away with publishing libelous material by using legal Jiu-Jitsu. What looks to the casual observer like publishing libelous material may not be treated as such under current Internet law.

The legal loopholes create a power asymmetry whereby cyberbullies feel empowered while their minority targets feel harassed. This asymmetry is aggravated when a white male attorney circulates graphic hate material falsely claiming that women who follow the teachings of a respected Indian guru are forced to become lesbians or concubines. I’m 100% for free speech — but free speech is only maximized when speakers from marginalized groups aren’t driven from the public square by hateful depictions hurled in their direction.

For Joe Kracht, targeting a dead guru is only a proxy for harassing the living women (and men) who follow the guru’s teachings. This is of a piece with tactics used by the anti-cult movement historically. I would hardly call this acting in an ethical manner; I would say, rather, that it reflects questionable ethics.

Although it’s difficult to bring people like Joe Kracht to legal justice, one can at least shine a light on their activities and let the free market work its will. This is what law professors associated with the cyber civil rights movement call “challenging hateful speech by responding with counter-speech and empowering community members to enforce norms of digital citizenship.” (See Danielle Citron and Helen Norton here.)

The redux is that San Diego’s a big town; there must be other law firms one can hire besides Lawton. It’s only logical to wonder whether the positive testimonials appearing on are as fake as the negative testimonials uploaded by Joe Kracht (“Yogaloy”) to I have never hired LawtonLaw and have no factual information in this area. Perhaps clients really do consider them a “godsend.” Lawton is a micro firm; it’s possible other lawyers/staff aren’t aware of Kracht’s hate-mongering activities and would feel personally disgraced if they inspected the salacious material he’s uploading.

Of particular concern is Kracht’s practice of dishing dirt about former colleagues. Why is this acceptable behavior? If Kracht were to leave the Lawton law firm, would Dan Lawton become just another chapter in Kracht’s online autobiography? What about former clients? Kracht’s ability to “otherize” those with whom he no longer has a working relationship seems limitless, so would client files become a rich new source of blog postings?

Even where it’s not an explicit violation of ethics or privacy, talking trash about former colleagues is incredibly déclassé, and creates a strong impression of untrustworthiness. Kracht posts reams of sanctimonious hogwash about people (by name) whose cause he abandoned over twenty years ago, but whom he imagines should be grateful for being told (via the public medium of the Internet) how they should conduct themselves.

Kracht’s “investigations” seem to have the true purpose of muckraking, scoring political brownie points, enhancing Kracht’s image with fellow apostates, and locating potential clients for himself or other attorneys. This would seem to create ethical problems for Kracht, at least in the broad sense that conducting show trials of dead people on the Internet is a shabby way to use one’s legal training, and is arguably in contravention of everything our legal system stands for. (Can dead people defend themselves or confront their accusers? Is there some inherent cowardice in targeting the dead? To the lay person it looks patently unethical.)

Indeed, based on the accepted definitions which have emerged within the collegium of religious scholars, I would have no problem describing Joe Kracht as an “information terrorist.” According to sociologist Massimo Introvigne in this paper:

Authoritative scholars of information terrorism via the Internet, such as Denning, include “perception management” in their studies, in the form of “offensive operations [which] reach the minds of a population by injecting content into the population’s information space.” She lists systematic “lies and distortions,” fabrications, hoaxes, social engineering, “denouncement” (“messages that discredit, defame, demonize, or dehumanize an opponent”), and — strictly related to the latter — “conspiracy theories.” Denning also includes harassment through hate mail or “spamming,” and even systematic copyright infringement.

What differentiates anti-cult information terrorism and offensive information warfare via the Internet from less extreme forms of anti-cult activity in cyberspace, is the presence of one or more of the criteria outlined by Denning: “messages that (…) demonize, or dehumanize an opponent,” “conspiracy theories,” and the systematic “publication of false statements.”

— Massimo Introvigne, “So Many Evil Things”: Anti-Cult Terrorism via the Internet

(See also “How does information terrorism work?” at the bottom of this blog post.)

Of course, high quality propaganda doesn’t consist of a nonstop stream of negativity. (That would make it unpalatable.) It’s more likely to consist of conversational chatter, some truths, but the systematic inclusion of falsehoods and dehumanizations. The poison is wrapped in hamburger or bon-bons. As Matthew Johnson explains in an article on “Preparing youth to deal with hate on the Internet”:

Consciously or unconsciously, hate groups draw on a number of basic psychological mechanisms to attract and indoctrinate believers. Some of these techniques work to make people more interested in or sympathetic to the group’s message, while others are used to make those who are already part of the group more committed.

[I]t’s important to teach [young people] to recognize the elements that distinguish ideologies of hate from legitimate discourse: the characterization of one or more groups as “the Other,” [and] a narrative of victimhood[.]

“The Other,” which is dehumanized and portrayed as being simultaneously inferior and threatening, is at the heart of all messages of hate. These groups justify their hatred by portraying themselves as being victimized by the Other; the ultimate example of this is often the accusation that the Other is responsible for the loss of the group’s proper place in the world at some time in the past.

While most hate sites are simple screeds, the more sophisticated ones mimic popular commercial websites with many offering audiovisual material and discussion forums and featuring professional-looking design and graphics. Most of these websites are not aimed at general audiences but rather are used for “narrowcasting” — targeting a specific group with content that is known to resonate with them. Narrowcasting also makes the target feel as though he is part of a community with shared ideals and values.

Perhaps most pernicious are the sites delivering what scholars call cloaked hate: these sites, which present themselves as being neutral and educational, communicate a subtle message of hate where their true nature only gradually becomes apparent. To achieve this, cloak sites put on as many of the trappings of legitimacy as possible[.]

As well as teaching young people to recognize the characteristics of an ideology of hate, we can also teach them to recognize and decode the various persuasive techniques hate groups use, such as employing misinformation, denialism and pseudo-science[.]

Besides teaching young people critical thinking skills, we can also fight online hate by helping them to develop empathy[.]

— Matthew Johnson, “Preparing youth to deal with hate on the Internet”

I would add that hate sites try to convert readers from passive information receivers into active stakeholders in a narrative of hate. What does this mean, and how does it occur? Well, as Johnson notes, hate sites often circulate “narratives of victimhood.” Intelligent readers might view such narratives with skepticism; but if instead they embrace a narrative and act on it, then they become active stakeholders who have a vested interest in supporting the narrative because it justifies their own actions.

Suppose someone visits an anti-Semitic site where they read propaganda claiming that the problems of the poor are caused by an “international Jewish banking conspiracy.” If they respond by spraying anti-Jewish slogans on the walls of a synagogue, this turns them into active stakeholders.

Conversion to stakeholder status occurs when receivers of information act on it in a way which might appear heroic if the information were true, but unethical (or even illegal) if the information were false. In the case of hate material taking the form of a fictional narrative, some receivers might respond by harassing the target. This converts them into stakeholders, since their own self-image and public image now depend on the narrative being true. They want to be seen as heroes or avengers, but if the underlying narrative is false, then they’re vigilantes harassing an innocent person or group. Their willingness to believe the narrative thus becomes bound up with their own self-esteem and professional reputation.

One reason activist claims need to be carefully checked and verified is that activists often take actions which make them major stakeholders in a narrative. They can easily reach the point where they’re so personally invested in a false narrative that they reflexively insist on its truthfulness, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

This also applies where people make life-changing decisions in response to hate material. If Person A was a follower of Teacher B, and then read on a website that Teacher B is evil incarnate, and so left Teacher B and began to publicly harass him, then Person A has become a stakeholder in the hate material. If that material is revealed to be false, then Person A may look like an idiot or ingrate. Sometimes the most vigorous supporters of a false narrative are those who were taken in by it. This comports with British spy novelist John le Carré’s suggestion that the more you “pay” for a fake painting, the less inclined you are to doubt its authenticity. Those who abandon their faith in response to a false narrative pay a high price indeed.

As in the Tawana Brawley case, some people may incorporate a false narrative of victimhood into their personal biography. This can lead to a web of lies from which they find it difficult to extricate themselves, because the lies have been externalized (there now being an interest group which bases its activism on the lies).

Yet, some people do manage to disentangle themselves and admit that their claims of victimhood were actually confabulations produced by suggestive therapy or support group pressures — or that they hurled false accusations out of anger. In a 1998 New York Times article, Joseph Berger writes:

[Stacey] Hoehmann … said her accusations against her father grew out of a lie she told a friend in her simmering anger at her father’s strictness. That lie, she said, “spun out of control.” … Soon, she said, she felt compelled to invent lurid details so she would not be branded a liar. “They kept wanting more and more details,” she said. “I didn’t know what they were looking for, so I made stuff up.”

See also Meredith Maran, “My Lie: Why I falsely accused my father.”

The group dynamics of hate sites engender victimhood, creating a demand for someone to “come forward” and willingly play the role of a victim, in order to fuel hatred and justify vigilantism. In an anti-cult context, atrocity stories portraying former minority adherents as victims are used to assuage apostate guilt and justify social control measures like deprogramming or euphemistic “cult interventions.” (See Thomas Robbins, “Euphemizing Dramatic Intervention.”) Faux victimhood may also be turned into a cash cow in the form of phony lawsuits targeting benign spiritual groups. Here, plaintiffs become financial stakeholders in a narrative of victimhood, as do so-called “cult-buster” attorneys who specialize in such lawsuits.

Though not “cult” related, the Tawana Brawley case is an example where activists became both ideological and financial stakeholders in a false narrative. Attorney-activist Alton Maddox, Jr. was eventually suspended from practicing law for his role in the case, essentially because he continued to push a false narrative even after he had reason to know it was false. See “The Lawyer’s Duty to Check Facts,” where Joel Cohen notes that “a lawyer cannot be ‘intentionally ignorant.'”

In making a critical examination of anti-cult websites, we plainly need to get past the window dressing and uber-supportive recovery talk in order to ask: What is the poison pill here? How is the killing blow being delivered? At whom is the narrative of victimhood being directed? We may see some attractive spiritual graphics and links to spiritual readings, but then we find that the distinctive anti-cult message being peddled is that a respected spiritual figure is really a rapist or child-molester, contrary to all known facts or evidence. That is information terrorism.

The delivery may be white-collar or blue-collar; this is something we understand from anti-Jewish hate material. There are the arcane, pseudo-scholarly dissertations claiming to prove that the Holocaust never happened, using gentlemanly language and appealing to white collar readers; then there are the working-class “testimonials” of hate: “Jewish bankers stole my farm, and now my kids are crying.” This is the same organ playing the same tune, sometimes using the vox celestis, sometimes the vox populi.

This phenomenon also applies to anti-cult material. If Joe Kracht represents a lunatic fringe of anti-cult beliefs, another anti-cult activist with whom he is associated, Gary Falk*, represents “beyond the fringe.” Kracht tends to gussy up his hate material to appeal to a white-collar audience, while Falk tends to dress down his appeals to reach the sensimilla/Budweiser crowd. Yet the two men understand each other perfectly, collaborating on projects such as establishing procedures for admitting members to a private Facebook group, or making YouTube videos where one man interviews the other. Both men are in fact peddling the same core hate “testimonials,” packaged differently to reach different audiences. *Note: The Gary Falk referenced above is not the doctor or mountain-climber, but a Staten Island resident.

As regards the use of hate testimonials, this phenomenon was analysed by Elissa Lee and Laura Leets of Stanford University in their paper “Persuasive Storytelling by Hate Groups Online,” published in American Behavioral Scientist:

Increasingly, hate groups have used the Internet to express their viewpoints, sell their paraphernalia, and recruit new members. … [According to William Pierce,] “Fiction or drama gets much more inside the head of the person who is experiencing it because the reader or viewer identifies with a character.” … Pierce’s enthusiasm for fiction displays how hate groups have begun to use narratives to influence others and to promote their vision. … Historically, narrators have often intended to persuade their audiences of their points of view or the legitimacy of their claims with stories. The power of storytelling lies in its ability to make an argument without eliciting mental resistance. Empirical studies have supported this claim with findings that narratives elicit fewer counterarguments and less resistance to persuasion. Narratives, especially fictional stories, may raise less scrutiny and suspicion through suspension of disbelief and identification with the protagonist’s mental perspective.

— Elissa Lee and Laura Leets, “Persuasive Storytelling by Hate Groups Online”

The use of fictional narratives to proliferate religious hatred is hardly new to scholars of religion. The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, are two literary forgeries intended to spread hatred of Roman Catholics and Jews respectively. Both are now over a century old.

The Maria Monk work is of special relevance because of its status as a “captivity narrative,” which genre is often reprised on anti-cult sites, including Joe Kracht’s and Gary Falk’s. In such narratives, former minority adherents write in the first person, depicting themselves as captives of an evil cult where they endure horrible abuses (often sexual in nature, and arousing prurient interest), until they are rescued by an apostate or anti-cult activist who rides in on a white horse and liberates them from the life of slavery to which minority religion must inevitably lead.

Religious scholar James R. Lewis writes that “the motive behind captivity propaganda is to involve the reader – to inspire the reader to take up the role of the heroic avenger[.]” According to film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and English professor Elliott Gruner, “modern captivity narratives seek to titillate as they mimic morality tales.” They may combine entertainment with propaganda, and recount incidents of abuse as a generic requirement. (Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, p. 70-71.)

Captivity narratives with a “cult survivor” theme are hero tales for apostates. They depict the apostate not as a defector or traitor, but as a victim who subsequently becomes an heroic crusader by telling the world how he/she was once captive to a marginal religious group, but has now returned to embrace majoritarian values like baseball, motherhood, and apple pie.

Despite the childishness of the rhetorical devices and the typically poor quality of the writing, such “testimonials” are used to stimulate defections from spiritual groups, to induce moral panics, and to justify harsh social control measures targeting spiritual minorities. Such testimonials therefore tend to undergo numerous revisions and to receive extensive coaching before they’re finally unveiled for public consumption. If they are too specific, they can be refuted; if they are too vague, they will not be believable; and if they’re not sexual enough, they may fail to elicit the desired combination of interest and disgust.

(See “How Disgust Enhances the Effectiveness of Fear Appeals” in the Journal of Marketing Research, which recounts with cold, scientific precision how advertisers can achieve greater “persuasion and compliance” by combining fear with disgust: “The results across a series of four studies demonstrate that adding disgust to a fear appeal appreciably enhances message persuasion and compliance beyond that of appeals which elicit only fear. … The success of [real-world ad campaigns] suggests that disgust can indeed be used to enhance fear appeal persuasiveness and, more important, to effectively alter behavior.”)

Now hearken back to our earlier discussion (in Part 2) of techniques of psychological coercion used in exit counseling, such as bombarding the target with “alternative information about the cult.” The actual content of such “alternative information” will often be hate testimonials written by other counselees during anti-cult therapy sessions — testimonials employing alarming and disgusting imagery, based on models provided by counselors or activists, and invoking familiar cult memes.

This is one reason anti-cultists are so obsessed with getting former group members to produce a written denunciation of their faith: such denunciations are then taken out of context and flaunted to the public or used as deprogramming aids. They may be edited to remove any reference to the type of leading questions, support group pressures, or model-based techniques which produced them. This type of material is well-suited to Internet show trials and hate campaigns, even though it would be inadmissible in a court of law. (There are also serious ethical questions about using the work product of therapy for PR purposes.)

Such apocryphal material portraying benign sects in a hateful manner can be recycled from one generation of deprogrammees to the next in a kind of Ponzi scheme, falsehood layered upon falsehood, with the process never bottoming out. In this way, anti-cultists create their own bizarre (but persistent) mythology about spiritual groups they oppose. Bona fide scholars of religion are forced to play whack-a-mole. Just when they think they’ve rooted out one ignorant stereotype in America, they find the same hate material being recycled for use in French or German anti-cult campaigns.

In fact, some of the hate material currently being circulated by Joe Kracht was actually developed years earlier by Samuel Bradshaw, using techniques Bradshaw had learned from AFF/ICSA, and from dialoguing with deprogrammers like Rick Ross and Steven Hassan. (Hassan was a member of the anti-cult group Bradshaw started in 2001, which pretended to be a neutral informational site.) One such technique was to ambush people with a negative “testimonial,” then get them to pen an immediate reaction, which would be used as an additional testimonial in true Ponzi fashion. (One wonders whether Oliver Wyman, where Bradshaw was working as an IT specialist at the time, knew that their computers were being used to circulate hate material on the Internet. Bradshaw is currently with Tata Consultancy Services, who might be surprised to learn of his history harassing Indian gurus, and his interest in computer hacking.)

The problem with model-based testimonials where writers are shown samples which meet with the approval of the interrogator is that this results in scripted accounts. Consider this posting by Samuel Bradshaw under his “SEEKER” alias:

From:  Anonymous <remailer@r…>
Date:  Thu Mar 14, 2002  2:43 pm
Subject:  Re: Putting facts together

Mind control is powerful folks. Look at Sai Baba, he has millions who adore him, no one wants to even look into the widely published facts that he is molesting many young children. If we modeled our testimonials after what I read on the Sai Baba sites, we would be in much better shape. Some of the documents are even in handwritten format, available to see. Do a search on this Yahoo group for Sai Baba, and you can take a look. ***SEEKER***

Obviously, if ex-disciples of Guru A have to be shown testimonials about Guru B before they can “remember” how they were abused, this has the appearance of a racket. Elsewhere, Bradshaw talks about cobbling together a lawsuit, so we’re really looking at potential subornation of perjury.

In the postmodern era, the legal system is increasingly moving away from evidence-based claims, and toward “voices and narratives.” When an ideologue or activist tries to fix or rig what those voices and narratives will sound like, we should rightly cry foul. The subtext of Bradshaw’s posting is:

Gee, folks! Your atrocity stories really don’t have much oomph to them. You’re just not getting the idea of what sorts of things to write. But if you look at these testimonials about some other guru (not the one you followed) — or read the material on our reading list concerning “traumatic abuse in cults” — then maybe you can bring your testimonials up to spec.

In postings from December 2007, Bradshaw recounts earlier meetings he had with Herbert Rosedale, then president of AFF/ICSA, where they discussed legal strategies, and how Bradshaw et al. could avoid being sued for libel:

From: Samuel Bradshaw <sam@…>
Date: Mon Dec 10, 2007 6:20 am
Subject: Re: clarifications

[I] want to also add that according to Herb Rosedale (who has libel litigation experience directly linked to Internet) a group owner (or moderator approving messages) on Yahoo groups (aside from Yahoo the company) is technically also the “publisher” of any content which sparks potential libel action — just as a publishing company is liable for publishing a book — very interesting — Again, this is coming from a guy who was also used to be [sic] sued by cults. He was a partner at a law firm in midtown and I had several lunch meetings to discuss all the legal threats I was receiving at the time.

Judging from the results, the strategy eked out in meetings with Herb Rosedale did not involve ceasing and desisting from publishing libel, but rather using the Internet in an increasingly deceptive manner. For example, in Chinmoy Kumar Ghose v. and Maria Sliwa, the Complainant alleges that “The Respondent has attempted to avoid prosecution by shunting registration data for the domain names between various fictional names and addresses from month to month, only occasionally including the name of a real person. … The Respondents did not reply to the Complainant’s contentions.” (In fact, they filed no response at all.)

Upon information and belief, Bradshaw had at least six different aliases (including “Steve Stevens”), and one of his tactics was to pretend to retire from leadership of the group under one alias, only to continue involvement under another alias (e.g. “Steve Stevens” –> “SEEKER” –> “iamschubert”).

Why is the Internet the medium of choice for anti-cult demagogues? Because it’s the perfect medium for creating the appearance of wrongdoing where no wrongdoing exists; because on the Internet it’s easy to conduct show trials without the cost of hiring a hall; because the anonymity of the Internet lends itself well to vigilantism; and because Internet law has yet to catch up with Internet ethics. (See sidebar at bottom, including quote from British documentary producer Bernard Clark.)

To recap, some of the techniques used to resocialize former spiritual seekers into viewing themselves as “cult victims” include:

• Getting them to read “testimonials” which portray spiritual teachers in a frightening and disgusting manner

• Persuading them to write their own testimonials which conform to existing models, thus making them active stakeholders in a new narrative for past events

• Stepping them through fringe psychological theories which insist that the only valid paradigms for understanding spiritual communities are mind control and traumatic abuse

• Resituating them in a new community — the ex-cult “support group” — which is a negative community in relation to prior spiritual goals, ideals, and practices (e.g., one that burns spiritual icons rather than reverencing them)

In some cases (as with “Abode of Yoga”), the new community is fitted with spiritual trappings. But as I noted in Part 2:

Look to the methods, not the labels. Some ex-cult groups aren’t explicitly labeled as such, but practice techniques like circulating atrocity stories, false confessions, or testimonials of abuse. They may use the soft sell; they may claim to be unbiased, informational, or engaged “critical thinking;” but if you observe carefully, you would see that these are ex-members groups where the main thrust is to get people to read highly negative material, and respond by abandoning their faith. Sites which prominently feature (and heavily weight) deconversion narratives are typically apostate sites, even if they’re given spiritual-sounding names.

Beneath these scholarly discussions lies a simple truth: Hate propaganda poisons the public information space, creating a climate in which civil rights violations breed and multiply. People don’t feel free to make a religious choice according to the dictates of their conscience because they’re afraid of what may be done to them by aggressive majoritarians. This can be very traumatic for people who grew up thinking they had religious freedom, only to find that when they try to exercise it they get slapped down hard. We teach people in English class to cherish Frost’s road less traveled by, but punish them when they take it.

Information terrorism tends to escalate in the bubble world of the anti-cult group, with the result that perfectly harmless minority adherents who are obviously sincere in their spiritual beliefs, are engaged in beneficial activities, and have no history of abuse, nonetheless find that their civil rights are curtailed because they’re falsely depicted as criminals by anti-cultists. Who can function in such an environment? Is this what religious freedom looks like? Such harassment is something the ACLU should rightly be concerned about.

The connection between the previous era of violent deprogrammings and the present era is that now anti-cult groups are using the Internet to target spiritual minorities for wholesale reputation destruction (via information terrorism), and are choosing their targets based on religious animus.

Put in terms of a classic legal concept: American society consists of both a secular sphere and a religious sphere (the latter to be largely left to its own devices, according to a series of Supreme Court decisions, e.g. Watson v. Jones). The typical goal of anti-cult information terrorism is to persuade the secular sphere that it is threatened by some little-known group in the religious sphere, and to incite a disproportionate response from vigilantes and/or social control agents. (See these articles concerning raids on the Tweleve Tribes community in the U.S. in 1984, and in Germany in 2013: Twelve Tribes 1; Twelve Tribes 2; Twelve Tribes 3; Twelve Tribes 4.)

My reference to social control agents includes mental health workers, who are sometimes compassionate healers, but at other times are called upon to decide (in effect) who gets sent to the Gulag. This is the context in which we should understand efforts by anti-cult groups to persuade the government and the public that participation in minority faith groups is a form of mental illness demanding both prevention and treatment. The problem is so huge (the anti-cult argument goes) that massive government funding is needed to cope with the danger. Groups like AFF/ICSA (who lobby for such funding) would certainly be the beneficiaries. While the U.S. government has largely declined to take up the anti-cult cause, the situation in Europe is more dire, with some anti-cult groups gaining governmental or quasi-governmental status.

I happen to be a liberal, but to me liberalism is about freedom of choice. When I see forms of liberalism which entail the government enforcing secular humanist beliefs on small religious communities, to me that looks more like totalitarianism. Democracy needs strong safeguards to ensure that the rights of religious minorities are protected.

I would like to discuss the right to choose faith over reason (at least in matters of faith), but before proceeding to that topic in Part 4, let me close this section with a quote from the U.S. Supreme Court in Watson v. Jones:

In this country the full and free right to entertain any religious belief, to practice any religious principle, and to teach any religious doctrine which does not violate the laws of morality and property, and which does not infringe personal rights, is conceded to all. The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect. The right to organize voluntary religious associations to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine, and to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions of faith within the association, and for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers within the general association, is unquestioned. All who unite themselves to such a body do so with an implied consent to this government, and are bound to submit to it. But it would be a vain consent and would lead to the total subversion of such religious bodies, if any one aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts and have them reversed. It is of the essence of these religious unions, and of their right to establish tribunals for the decision of questions arising among themselves, that those decisions should be binding in all cases of ecclesiastical cognizance, subject only to such appeals as the organism itself provides for.

— U.S. Supreme Court, Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1871)

It is this broad view of religious freedom rooted in the U.S. Constitution which has the potential to save America from the excesses of counter-movements which threaten to take America in a quite different, more repressive direction.

I’m encouraged that we continue to teach our children to believe in the promise of religious freedom, but I think we need to do more to actually deliver on that promise. Otherwise it can become like the piggy-bank which, when finally opened, turns out to contain only a few rusty coins. People should be able to choose a minority faith without expecting the Spanish Inquisition.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Sidebar: How does information terrorism work?

The following is taken from an article in The Guardian excerpting the book After Leveson. This portion is by Bernard Clark, a former BBC correspondent and later independent producer of hundreds of documentaries:

We are heading into a future of no regulation with the internet where its monoliths will have plenty of clout, pretty well unfettered by democratic national governments (but not totalitarian ones, like China).

Content doesn’t matter to net companies as long as editorial issues don’t interfere with the bottom line. Citing “freedom of expression”, which like motherhood and apple pie is impossible to attack, they will host their anonymous contributors’ bullying, lies, smears, breathtaking invasions of privacy and reputation-destroying carnage while refusing all responsibility for what they host.

To illustrate an example of information misuse, it’s worth recounting the alarming experience of a work colleague at the hands of Facebook. Someone he did not know took his name and set up a Facebook page purporting to be his, along with a photo and several intimate details, some true, some false.

The entry included enough facts and events to appear credible, and it played havoc with his personal life and relationships. He had a sense of being stalked, as if someone had stolen his very being.

He contacted Facebook but they, more or less, didn’t want to know. Pointing out that they had very few staff to look into such matters, their unconcerned operator put the whole onus on him to prove he was not responsible for the page and to demonstrate personal harm.

Ultimately he gave up, and eventually we bluffed his anonymous character kidnapper – we still don’t know who it was – into believing they would be exposed, so they finally stopped. But not before he had suffered several weeks of shame and embarrassment.

Even the Press Complaints Commission would not dare to be so cavalier about what was clearly an outrageous denial of responsibility. Yet this was probably only one single crazy weirdo making someone else’s life a misery.

What Leveson needed to examine was the way in which reputations are traduced on the internet by accusation, images and innuendo before any evidence is produced.

In my view, though controversial and possibly abhorrent to some people, much of the reputational damage that has followed the Jimmy Savile allegations falls into that same category of information terrorism, or certainly information assault.

Post-Savile, family men, often with lives of unblemished public success, have been suddenly traduced by anonymous, out-of-the-blue allegations from 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Why?

Because of completely unrelated media stories, about completely unrelated people, mainly completely unrelated circumstances, and unrelated crimes – inspired by the pass-the-parcel “it happened to me too” accusation culture, fed by the never-sleeping information machine.

— Bernard Clark, as quoted in The Guardian

Further clarifying why I view attorney Joe Kracht (a.k.a. “Yogaloy”) as an information terrorist: it’s because he publishes or uploads “denouncement messages” that discredit, defame, demonize, and dehumanize. Some such messages contain salacious sexual material (fake revenge porn using words instead of pictures), and some are anonymous or semi-anonymous (or were originally anonymous, but someone (not the original poster) filled in a first name later). Kracht then uses this material cherry-picked from Internet message boards to make what he calls “the ethical case” that person x, who has been dead for y years, was a sexual abuser.

These are Internet show trials not subject to any judicial authority or oversight. Kracht suppresses or ignores exculpatory evidence, for it turns out the denouncement messages often contradict earlier statements by the same people. My strong impression is that Kracht catches these people during a spiritually low period or at a time when they’re angry over a job or wage dispute, and gets them to publicly commit to statements which make them appear vindictive and two-faced, e.g. Sundari Michaelian (Lynn Michaelian). These statements then follow them around for the rest of their days. In the cosmic reckoning, it’s like five minutes of anger release, followed by a lifetime of looking like an ingrate.

In other cases, what’s not revealed is that these denouncement messages or negative “testimonials” are the product of creative therapy sessions where people are tasked with constructing a new narrative for past events, with the intent of “uncovering” abuse. This type of therapy is highly problematic because it often leads to false accusations, which are then adopted by an interest group and trumpeted to the press.

Of course, there’s other content on Joe Kracht’s blog, but the shock testimonials seem to be the headline attraction, for which the quote lifted from Sri Aurobindo and the artwork lifted from Sri Chinmoy are only a setup. It’s a little like an old Saturday Night Live routine where the town planners of Sodom try to gentrify the city’s image:

“All we want people to know is that they can come to Sodom, check into a hotel, visit a museum or a gallery in the afternoon, have a nice dinner in a fine restaurant in the evening, and then, if they want it, the sodomy is there.”

Saturday Night Live, s03e20, “Sodom Chamber of Commerce”

Perhaps the gentrification will help people feel less embarrassed by the sodomy. Like that, Joe Kracht’s “Abode of Yoga” throws in some spiritual trappings to make the information terrorism feel less like being screwed with your pants on. The Lawton law firm of San Diego, which employs Mr. Kracht, claims on its website that “We fight hard for you, but we practice civility in dealing with our adversaries.” Maybe that means they pass you the lube. 😉

It’s not uncommon for attorneys to use the Internet to spin or propagandize, even where it may cross the line into ethics violations. According to Diane Karpman, a California State Bar certified specialist in legal malpractice, there’s been an “explosion of dedicated ‘lawyer spinners’ in law firms attempting to influence public opinion.” Their goal is typically to try a case in the media (where standards are lax and hearsay is not only admissible, but slavered over), rather than in a courtroom, where standards of evidence tend to be higher.

Consider the following hypothetical: Attorney A whispers in the ear of some people that if they’re unhappy with the way they were treated by a spiritual organization which expelled them for misconduct, they might want to file a lawsuit. He then refers them to Attorney B, and she handles the case. While the parties are in negotiations and the possibility of a jury trial still looms large, Attorney A applies public pressure by pounding the Internet with hate material vilifying the spiritual organization being sued (which Attorney B would be barred from doing). For example, Attorney A could post that the spiritual organization “has no f-cking integrity” and “might as well be burned to the ground,” or he might even go as far as publishing denouncement messages from the plaintiffs themselves. Later, after the case is settled, Attorney A receives cash gifts from the plaintiffs, perhaps disguised in the form of a “Birthday Fund.”

Ethical or unethical? I would say unethical, because Attorney A is acting as a de facto member of Attorney B’s legal team, doing things which aren’t permitted under ethics rules, and receiving a payoff at the end.

Leaving aside the world of hypotheticals and returning to the real world… I’m not Joe Kracht’s biggest fan, but I do want to wish him a happy 50th birthday. If you’d also like to do so, or even slip him a hundred on the sly, please visit this site:

Joe Kracht’s 50th Birthday!
Money raised so far: $1,490; Goal: $4,000

There you can join such plaintiff-contributors as Sundari Michaelian, Lucian Balmer (who organized the fund), and “anonymous” in expressing your gratitude for all Joe does to make the world a better place. (I don’t actually know if “anonymous” is another plaintiff. He/she could just as easily be a hypothetical attorney who received a referral from Kracht.)

Attorney and Kaywoodie spokesmodel Joe Kracht

Attorney and Kaywoodie spokesmodel Joe Kracht

Other sites you might want to visit include the California State Bar Association, where you can download a complaint form to report any ethics violations you might know about:

Please be truthful, accurate, and specific. 😉

All levity aside, the principle demonstrated by the hypothetical is that in addition to ideological motives, there can also be economic motives for practicing information terrorism on the Internet. Remember that the definition of information terrorism cited by Massimo Introvigne includes “offensive operations [which] reach the minds of a population by injecting content into the population’s information space.” A real world example would be contaminating the prospective jury pool for a case that’s currently under adjudication, by pounding the Internet with hate material (or pre-poisoning the environment for a case that the attorney knows is about to be filed).

Information terrorism is a topic which dovetails with media smear campaigns and publishing industry corruption, topics I’ve also covered. Please see:

Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1
How far would you go to get a book deal?
Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign

The latter article opines that:

In a populist society, rights, freedoms, and the enforcement of laws intended to protect people come to depend on popularity. If you can make a group appear unpopular, you can do a great many things to them before anyone will sound a note of protest. That’s why accurate definitions, descriptions, and information are not merely of abstract interest to scholars. These things affect how people are treated (or mistreated) every day in society. Where hate material is successfully injected into the public discourse, this spurs acts of hatred and harassment, and also encourages local law enforcement to ignore pleas for help from victims, despite top-level policies intended to foster respect and tolerance.

What can be done? Well, as I noted earlier, one can take a cue from law professors Danielle Keats Citron and Helen Norton, who urge those targeted with cyberhate to challenge “hateful speech by responding with counter-speech and empowering community members to enforce norms of digital citizenship.” That’s what I’m doing here. This is fully in keeping with the view that the cure for bad speech is more speech and better speech.

Internet shows trials work by suppressing exculpatory evidence, so something else I’m doing is uncovering and bringing to light the exculpatory evidence being suppressed or ignored by Joe Kracht. Then people have a choice as to what they want to believe. Do they believe something posted on the Internet in a fit of anger, or do they believe the far more voluminous material written by the same person over a 20-year period, which says the exact opposite? It’s kind of like the old joke: Will the real Celia Corona please sit down! 😉

Stating real world facts is also helpful. Someone leaves a spiritual group to elope and get married, but in order to save face she says it was because the guru was a fraud. She’s working at a Trader Joe’s, and he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Gee, who do I believe? Is the decision really all that hard?


One metaphysical conclusion is that as individuals we need to search for truth, because truth won’t be handed to us. We inherit illusion by default. That’s why one of the most powerful Hindu prayers is Asatoma sat gamaya. “Lead me from the unreal to the real.”

Michael Howard

Note: On my blog, I write about everything from Pablo Picasso to music from Taiwan. My goal is always to provide insight and analysis. Clearly, some of my posts take strong social advocacy positions on pre-existing issues, or serve as personal rebuttals to material found elsewhere on the Net, including material by anti-cult activists urging people to “investigate.” Such folk have no cause to complain when I publish the results of my investigations.

As a latecomer to these issues, I inherit the level of discourse established by the original authors, who purposefully manufactured public controversies through denouncement messages, false sexual slurs, etc., thereby inviting commentary which corrects the record. I believe anyone who analyzes the nature of point/counterpoint discussion developing in different areas of the Net would conclude that I’ve tried to raise the level of discourse by taking a reasoned approach to the problem of hate material targeting spiritual minorities. To occasionally poke fun at ideological opponents is not inconsistent with this approach, and is part of the great American tradition of vigorous debate over politics and religion. Indeed, this is a tradition which the American Civil Liberties Union has always fought to uphold.

Read all five parts in this series:

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 1
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 3
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 4
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 5

16 comments on “The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 3

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