Sock Puppet Theatre – A Tribute to Samuel Bradshaw

Combining the Doctor Who and anti-cult movement themes

Samuel Bradshaw is an IT manager famous for abusing the Internet (and his former friends and colleagues) by using multiple sock puppets to post hate material. Bradshaw was associated with the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association), which tries to maintain a respectable public face, but often links to extreme hate material and uses people like Bradshaw to post it. According to Bradshaw, he met with attorney Herbert Rosedale, then president of AFF/ICSA, on a number of occasions to discuss how to avoid being sued for libel. The strategy they apparently worked out was for Bradshaw to keep changing sock puppets on a regular basis, going from “Steve Stevens” to “SEEKER” to “iamschubert” et al.

But though Bradshaw changed sock puppets, he was less conscientious about changing IP addresses. People eventually caught onto his scams when they noticed that various postings alleging crimes against humanity by spiritual groups all came from the same IP address at Oliver Wyman, where Bradshaw was working at the time. Rumor has it that in some lexicons of Net jargon, the icon for NSFW is a headshot of Bradshaw. 😉

Samuel Bradshaw (center) here shown with two other ICSA deprogrammees

Samuel Bradshaw (center) here pictured with two other ICSA deprogrammees

Though Bradshaw has no training in psychology or counseling, he began giving anti-cult advice on the Internet. He would tell people to stop meditating because meditation reinforces destructive mind control. (Everyone who believes this, raise your hand!) He also began promoting exit counseling services, offering to get people discounts. This is consistent with a familiar type of fear marketing used by anti-cultists consisting of the “one-two punch”: a sermon on the evils of cultism followed by a sales pitch for some sort of anti-cult product or service alleged to cure afflicted individuals. Maybe a cream to smear on your temples so you can stop chanting nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

While Bradshaw’s antics may seem funny in retrospect, they call attention to the serious problem of hate on the Net, which I’ve addressed seriously elsewhere. Those familiar with AFF/ICSA would know that its leadership consists primarily of a subset of psychologists and lawyers who take the fringe view that spiritual groups pose a danger to scientific rationalism and secular materialism. Few spiritual seekers or scholars of religion would agree. The religious tolerance point of view is based on everyone just getting along.

AFF/ICSA opposes spiritual groups not only by circulating anti-cult propaganda (sometimes using third-party technique), but also by persuading former spiritual seekers to view themselves as “cult victims,” to purchase anti-cult “therapy” sessions, and (once they’ve been told during faux therapy that spiritual practice is abusive) to then sue their former spiritual group.

A bit of a racket IMHO. For example, when Samuel Bradshaw was trying to stir up enthusiasm among apostates for filing a lawsuit, he became dissatisfied with the lackluster quality of atrocity stories or “testimonials” they were submitting. So he gave them a link where they could read stories about a different guru (not the one they followed) which they could then use as models for stories alleging abuse.

I view this as tantamount to subornation of perjury by Bradshaw. It’s also typical of the idiotic notions floated by anti-cultists: All Eastern gurus are alike (they claim), so stories about them are completely fungible. If you’re tasked by an exit counselor with going on the Internet and posting something negative about your former spiritual group (as part of faux therapy), but don’t know what to write, just borrow someone else’s story. To paraphrase the famous New Yorker cartoon: On the Internet, no one knows you’re a plagiarist (or a sock puppet). Indeed, though this may be a slight exaggeration, I’ve often thought that more than half the messages on a particular anti-cult message board were written by Samuel Bradshaw and Anne Carlton under their various sock puppets. (Carlton’s specialty is starting a sexual rumor under one alias, then pretending to “confirm” it under a different alias.)

What does all this have to do with Doctor Who? Well, a comedy act making rare appearances on Doctor Who DVDs is the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre, which (like Craig Ferguson) is an oddity that might possibly endear itself to American audiences. (I can just picture them performing during halftime at the Super Bowl, though they might have to wear shorter kilts.) This is them riffing on the fan obsession with cataloguing old Doctor Who episodes:

The above was an Easter egg for “The Dominators,” and if you ask me the serial code, I think it was “D.” 😉 Their routine may owe a little something to Abbott & Costello (“Who’s On First”) and to the Monty Python Cheese Shop Sketch.

So a hearty hats off to the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre, the American Family Foundation, and the ever-protean Samuel Bradshaw. If someone knocks on your door and offers to attach electrodes to your arm to determine whether you are or are not a cultist, it might just be Bradshaw — whether or not he’s wearing any socks.

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About Dailymotion videos: If you have trouble playing a Dailymotion video embedded in a WordPress post, try clicking on the Dailymotion logo and viewing the video on the Dailymotion site. Here’s a direct link to the above video:

I usually prefer Firefox, but if you’re still having trouble viewing a Dailymotion video (even on the Dailymotion site), try using a recent version of Google Chrome. Dailymotion should really make their site backward compatible and equally accessible from all browsers and from Flash 11 on up. I’ve even dared to propose this to them, but you know how the French are: between making cheese and surrendering, they’re already severely overtasked. 😉 Software designers frequently get caught in the bells & whistles trap. They think that what makes a site popular is bells & whistles, when what most end users want is basic functionality. Just play the damn video!

Michael Howard

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


Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities

Tips for journalists on overcoming false balance, rejecting hate material, and making sense of moral panics


As someone who’s been familiar with Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run for three decades, I’ve noticed that press coverage varies widely in reliability and accuracy. Here are some tips for journalists covering religious and ethnic minorities. These tips also apply to Sri Chinmoy, the Peace Run, and related entities (some of which are secular, but are inspired by spiritual beliefs).

Note: Many people would to be quick to point out differences between “religious” and “spiritual” — with “religious” perhaps connoting dogma and ritual, and “spiritual” suggesting a personal quest for meaning. Yet, there is a continuum between the two, and in this article the terms are used somewhat interchangeably.

Near the end, I include a list of resources which I find helpful in understanding Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run.

The problem of false balance

I greatly respect journalists and journalism, and know there are practical reasons why some journalists don’t get a story quite right. There are time pressures, and difficulties making sense of an unfamiliar subject. Particularly if the story is considered low priority, there’s always the temptation to simply cut-and-paste material from the Internet, or to invoke a familiar meme rather than doing careful research. There’s also the problem of “false balance.” Rem Rieder writes:

No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day.

The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.

Often journalists are reluctant to state the conclusions that stem from their reporting, out of the concern that they will appear partisan or biased. But just laying out both positions without going further in an effort to establish the truth can create [false balance]. And that doesn’t do much good for the readers and the viewers.

Journalism isn’t stenography. It’s not treating everything the same when it’s not the same. It’s about giving citizens information about public affairs that is as accurate as possible.

— Rem Rieder, “The danger of false balance in journalism,” USA Today

Continue reading

A Shibboleth Is Not A Speech Impediment, Part 2

Definitions can be limiting. A quick survey of the word “shibboleth” yields:

“a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.” (Google)

“a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups.” (Wikipedia)

“Shibboleth is among the world’s most widely deployed federated identity solutions, connecting users to applications both within and between organizations.” (

“Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right.” (Judges 12:6)

Now let’s talk turkey…

As this Thanksgiving-themed clip from The West Wing (s02e08) shows, a shibboleth can have a richer meaning than cursory definitions would indicate:

A shibboleth can be a core belief or principle which is meaningful to some people but not to others — one worth defending and making sacrifices for. When quizzed by the President on the names of the Apostles, a Chinese refugee tells him that “Faith is the true shibboleth.”

Those refugees risk dying in a cramped, poorly-ventilated container ship, hoping to escape from Mainland China to the (relative) freedom of America. They’re persecuted Christians seeking asylum. In America they’ll probably create their own small community, since mainstream American culture is fairly white and secular. They may face hatred and discrimination — and have to stare down everything from White Aryans to condescending atheists — but they won’t be imprisoned and tortured just for being Christians. That’s what’s good about America.

In both Christian and Masonic texts (as well as Firesign Theatre songs), the word “shibboleth” often occurs in close proximity to the word “sword.” A sword is not only a type of blade used in modern fencing and ancient combat. The metaphorical sword of which Blake wrote (and British Anglicans sing) is a palpable willingness to stick up for a principle:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

(Are you humming along?) In this context, a shibboleth is a living, relevant principle of faith, and a sword is not a weapon of destruction, but represents dedication to the spreading of a principle, and the overcoming of obstacles to building an idealized world — one built on compassion, not naked power or self-interest.

Am I being long-winded, obtuse, pedantic? I apologize. It’s really because I’m trying to avoid unpleasant tasks… I’m a city boy, not a gardener; but even I know that before you sculpt a zen garden, you may have to pull up some weeds. And once when I was living away from home, I had a landlady who took a pair of gardening shears to an ugly green tomato hornworm that was fiendishly attacking her modest suburban yield of plump, red fruit (or vegetable).

It seems unavoidable, then, that to stick up for a principle sometimes means dispelling wrong views and correcting the record where it has been fudged. This might seem easy in the abstract, but can be rather difficult in the concrete (no Mafia jokes please!). I suppose I have some rather large (cement) shoes to fill.

Real as hell…

In recent posts I’ve talked about the problem of hate on the Net and how it affects minority spiritual groups. I’ve quoted cyber civil rights advocates and other scholars who analyze the problem of hate propaganda in a very cerebral way, which is helpful for understanding how it operates. I too am trying to connect the dots and shed some mental light. But it’s always possible that the analysis will fall short of illuminating the reality of the harm done to real people.

Just the other day I was watching Chris Matthews on MSNBC. He’s a bit of a populist, but a good communicator. He described the issues raised by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson as “real as hell.” That’s the way I feel about the problem of hate on the Net which targets Eastern spiritual teachers and their students. It’s real as hell for those people subjected to hatred and harassment. This passage from Danielle Citron’s “Cyber Civil Rights” bears repeating:

Cyber attacks marginalize individuals belonging to traditionally subordinated groups, causing them deep psychological harm. Victims feel helpless to avoid future attacks because they are unable to change the characteristic that made them victims. They experience feelings of inferiority, shame, and a profound sense of isolation. … Such attacks also harm the community that shares the victim’s race, gender, religion, or ethnicity — community members experience attacks as if the attacks happened to them. Moreover, society suffers when victims and community members isolate themselves to avoid future attacks and when cyber mobs violate our shared values of equality and pluralism.

We live in times when every hare-brained idea has a plethora of hare-brained folk defending it, and false information is spread by those who gain some petty advantage from doing so. Yet, the stakes are not petty. We seem poised on the brink of creating a more peaceful, compassionate, and enlightened world; but a side effect of this would be a change in the balance of power. In such a world, we would come to value peacemakers more than warmongers, and value those who can enlighten us more than those who merely entertain or titillate us. We would find that our appetite for lies has been more than sated, while our hunger for truth springs forth as a noble instinct long starved.

Those who are inured to mere cleverness, sharklike ambition, social control, and world domination will be losers in such a world. While great intellects will still abound in science, what we will come to treasure most is the spiritual heart, whose ability to satisfy us has long been underestimated.

What we often see in history is that wherever a point of light springs up, there’s an effort to extinguish it, usually by foul means. The Crucifixion was not just an event, but a metaphor for what the crooked does to the straight and true. It is repeated a thousand times a day all around the world. This was well-known to admirers of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and was well-known to labor Catholics of the mid-twentieth century. It is epitomized in this scene from Elia Kazan’s 1954 film On The Waterfront:

Actor Karl Malden plays activist priest Father Barry in On The Waterfront

The famous “This is my church” scene shows Father Barry (based on real life waterfront Catholic priest Father John M. Corridan) taking a stand against corruption in the longshoreman’s union. With dramatic oratory, he drives home the point that Christ is not just a spiritual figure, but also an ethical figure, and ethics forms a connecting link between the high principles one hears in church sermons and the tribulations of daily life. Nor is this a uniquely Christian view; all the world’s great religions connect the ethical with the spiritual. For example, in Entering The Tao, Chinese Taoist Hua-Ching Ni writes:

Before one is able to receive spiritual enlightenment, one must be absolutely virtuous, practice the principle of appropriateness, and display one’s innate moral qualities of selflessness and responsibleness. If one does not have the foundation of true and pure ethics, any spiritual teaching will be without influence on the reality of one’s life. Spiritual knowledge and techniques alone may create mental stimulation, but are merely another form of LSD or mental opiate, and have nothing to do with the truth of spirit and the reality of life.

This seems like a good place to stop for now. If it’s not yet clear where I’m going, let me add that one of the issues I plan to tackle is the problem of people whose ethics are quite low, but who spend much of their time attacking spiritual teachers, hoping to extinguish their light, or at least to discourage the public from accepting and benefiting from that light. Look for a post called “Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics” coming soon!

In the meantime, I offer you this esoteric blessing via the Firesign Theatre: May your cornflakes rise.

Hate Propaganda and Anti-Cult Ideology — What’s Wrong Here?

In her “Hate On The Net,” sociologist Evelyn Kallen points out that hate propaganda frequently employs “invalidation myths” meant to “dehumanize” the targets “and thus to legitimize violation of their human rights.” Such myths may present a contrarian, inversionist, or caricaturized view of the targeted persons in order to achieve the objective of vilifying them. This is true whether the target is an individual or group; or the shamed individual may then be used as a stand-in or “avatar” for the group itself.

For example, in the AutoAdmit scandal, cyber attacks on female law students focused on particular individuals, falsely portraying them as “stupid,” or “sluts,” or “lesbians.” In the minds of the male attackers, this then seemed to justify rape fantasies about the targets. More broadly, it seemed to feed into misogynist views that “all women are stupid, “no women can be lawyers,” “all women are sluts,” and “all women deserve to be raped.” In this way, targeting individuals for harassment can function as a gateway to invalidating and dehumanizing entire groups. We might use the term “travelling invalidation myths,” since once applied to the individual, such myths can then be hurled with equal venom at the group (via some twisted commutative logic on the part of the attackers).

The relation between shaming of individuals and groups is also touched on by law professor Danielle Keats Citron:

Cyber attacks marginalize individuals belonging to traditionally subordinated groups, causing them deep psychological harm. Victims feel helpless to avoid future attacks because they are unable to change the characteristic that made them victims. They experience feelings of inferiority, shame, and a profound sense of isolation. … Such attacks also harm the community that shares the victim’s race, gender, religion, or ethnicity — community members experience attacks as if the attacks happened to them. Moreover, society suffers when victims and community members isolate themselves to avoid future attacks and when cyber mobs violate our shared values of equality and pluralism.

— Danielle Keats Citron, “Cyber Civil Rights”

According to Kallen, invalidation ideologies “are spurious theories which are designed to give credibility to invalidation myths by providing purported ‘evidence’ for them. The arguments are premised on scientifically unsupportable assumptions about differences in human attributes among various populations; prejudicial assumptions which serve to inferiorize, to invalidate, particular populations and thus to provide a platform for discriminatory action against them. … [The] ‘evidence’ of minority inferiority or dangerousness is manipulated in order to justify violations of minority rights.”

Kallen considers “[h]ate propaganda [to be] probably the most malignant expression of invalidation ideology, for it not only inferiorizes target populations, but it also singles them out as dangerous and threatening to society. Not surprisingly, it follows from this premise that hate propaganda urges its audience to take steps to eliminate the purported threat. What begins as prejudice is thus translated into discrimination through hate-mongering activities which incite hate and harm against the target group.”

Moving from the general to the particular: In anti-cult ideology there is no such thing as a benign, wise, and saintly guru who is well-qualified to teach sincere students about Eastern spirituality. All such gurus are depicted as charlatans and abusers, and their students as brainwashed dupes forced into a life of slavery. This particular genre of hate propaganda adds new worlds of meaning to Mary Anne Franks’ concept of “unwilling avatars.”

Anti-cultism is largely an invalidation ideology, built on the myth that people don’t participate in spiritual movements as a reasonable means to achieve worthy goals, but rather because they’ve been subjected to “pernicious mind control” by dangerous “cult leaders.” Within this ideological framework, breaking the faith of minority adherents by coercive or propagandistic means is redefined as “rescue” or “education” — highly Orwellian inversions of language!

Breaking someone’s faith by exposing them to hate material is considered “rescuing” them from a life “wasted in the cult.” But on careful inspection, this turns out to be just another aspect of invalidation ideology. The underlying assumption is that people who devote themselves to some spiritual mission or quest don’t lead meaningful lives. Their lives may be filled with travel and meetings, friendship and activities, reading and reflection; but if their activities aren’t primarily secular, scientific, consumeristic, egoistic or pleasure-oriented, then they fall off the radar screen of anti-cultists measuring “meaningfulness.” As per Kallen, note the scientifically unsupportable assumption about what is meaningful to whom.

Note also the strong undercurrent of conformism and interventionism. If adherents find meaning in activities like spiritual reading, reflection, prayer, meditation, chanting, etc., there must be something wrong with them that needs fixing, since most secular people don’t care for these things and don’t build their lives around them. An inherent logical fallacy in anti-cult ideology is to conflate the statistically unusual with the pathological.

A neutral, common-sense reading of history and civilization — as well as any decent textbook on comparative religion — tells us that in every society there are always a few people who feel a spiritual calling which is stronger and more definite than what is felt by the general populace. These people are in the minority just as musical prodigies are in the minority, Olympic athletes are in the minority, and red-haired, green-eyed people are in the minority. None of these groups require “deprogramming” or “exit counseling” to make them more like the majority, and neither do spiritual adherents. It is, of course, unethical to take people who are peaceably pursuing their minority interests, and subject them to some sort of hatred, discrimination, or forced conversion to majoritarian values. As Danielle Citron helps us understand, real people suffer when anti-cult groups undertake such actions against minority adherents.

Anti-cult invalidation ideology frequently employs circular reasoning and a specialized vocabulary. Code words like “rescue,” “intervention,” and “education” really signify coercive deprogramming, unwanted psychological counselling, and publicity campaigns vilifying purported “cults.” A person who develops spiritual beliefs and affiliations which are disliked by another family member is to be treated as a “cult-affected loved one” whose every move must be recorded in a notebook and submitted to “cult experts” for evaluation and possible “treatment” options. The considerable profit to be made from such “treatment” then becomes an economic incentive for anti-cultists to tell atrocity stories about bona fide spiritual groups, as a type of “fear marketing” used to hawk psychological services or legal services.

The main conceit, then, of anti-cult groups like the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association) is to falsely equate strong spiritual faith with mental illness. This constitutes a type of pseudoscience in which faith-based phenomena are misclassified as psychological aberrations — in other words, a major category error. Such misclassification reflects not science, but rather scientism — a dogged insistence that science (where it is practised) is an authoritative worldview on all subjects, to the exclusion of other viewpoints. Again, it’s one thing to believe in and practice science, but quite another to beat persons of faith over the head with it. That’s what’s wrong.

The intuitively obvious answer is to prefer science in scientific matters, and to prefer faith in matters of faith. The implication for religious freedom is that members of minority faith groups should be able to live their lives free from vilification. This is turn implies enacting legislation which places legal limits on hate speech targeting minorities. Such legislation has already been enacted in a number of Commonwealth nations including Canada, Great Britain, and Australia.

Evelyn Kallen frames the issue as “freedom of expression versus freedom from group vilification,” arguing that freedom from group vilification is a human right. According to her, “Freedom of speech, from [the egalitarian] view, does not mean the right to vilify.”

It may be argued that the U.S. has fallen behind other nations in enacting both compassionate gun legislation and compassionate speech legislation. What do you think?

For Further Reading

Rohit Bhargava on “Fear Marketing” (brief introduction to the concept)

Tana Dineen, “Are We Manufacturing Victims?” (Special Presentation at the Harassment Law Update 1998 Conference)