Joe Kracht and Lavanya Muller (parody)


“She entered into doubt-parlor

Only to be tattooed by ignorance-ink.

He learned the jiu-jitsu of betrayal
Studying at university of no ethics.”

For further discussion, see “Paint It Black!”

(If the embedded video doesn’t play, watch on DailyMotion here.)

Explaining The Aphorisms

Sometimes aphorisms are like poetry — to get the full meaning we need to examine the language carefully in all its fine shades.

What does it mean to enter into “doubt-parlor”? Suppose you are a spiritual seeker, a person of faith. You have some friends who used to be spiritual seekers, but now their main focus is on doubt and speaking ill. You feel, “Oh, my faith is secure so of course I can mix freely with them and I will not suffer.” But doubt is like poison in the spiritual life. Just because you know it’s poison doesn’t mean you can drink it and not suffer.

You may also think, “Just because I’m not attacking anyone, therefore they won’t attack me.” But imagine you put your hand inside a snake’s cage. You may do so innocently, harmlessly, but still the nature of this snake is to bite.

In the same way, former spiritual seekers who now specialize in doubt instinctively attack the faith of any person who enters their environs. They feel your faith is an impediment to joining their social clique and want to make you faithless like them. So once you agree to go where they congregate, whether it’s a physical location or a place on the Internet, half the battle is already lost.

This battle may not take place openly, but may be more like a clandestine encounter with a pickpocket. The pickpocket embraces you warmly, but a few hours later you discover he has stolen all your money!

Never think that ignorance is not a strong force. Even one person’s ignorance may overpower your faith. How much more easily you can be overpowered when you are the only person of faith in a place where everyone else has become a black doubter. It is like one person fighting against a whole gang. (This is assuming you even bother to put up a fight. Some people go to a bad place because they secretly want to become bad people.)

So “doubt-parlor” is a place where doubters meet and congregate and advance their clever arguments. (“Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.”) Now, what is “ignorance-ink”? If you have a cloth that is pure white, then if you get ink on it, it can never be made the same again. Still, there are different types of ink. Sometimes children are given finger paints which are water-soluble and wash off easily.

Ignorance is like ink because it spoils the pure-white tablet of faith so that it is smudged or dirty. Now what does it mean to be tattooed by ignorance-ink? The ink used in tattooing is extremely permanent and is etched into the skin. This comedy skit suggests that people get tattoos when they’re drunk and are then stuck with the results, unless they want to opt for laser surgery:

So to be tattooed by ignorance-ink means that ignorance puts its permanent mark on you and calls you its own, so that you are no longer fit for a spiritual purpose.

To take the meaning of the aphorism as a whole: You are invited to join in the festivities at a place where doubters congregate. You think, “Alright, I will go but I will maintain my faith.” However, once you enter into their parlor, then like others you become drunk with doubt and are tattooed by ignorance so that you cannot get rid of it. The stain is permanent, or you do not possess the means to wash it out. Will a simple spot remover remove a tattoo? No, because the ink is in too deep. That is the favor some so-called friends are doing you.

To come to the second aphorism, what is the connection between “jiu-jitsu” and “betrayal”? Here, jiu-jitsu signifies any type of tricky move or maneuver which must be learned. The heart and soul by their nature want to remain true, but the tricky mind and vital want to find a way to throw off the spiritual commitment and live a life based on ego, desire and ambition.

It is rare for a person of faith who loses their faith to simply admit “I have fallen. I have lost what I had previously attained.” First comes disobedience, then self-justification, then a guilty conscience comes. Finally, in order to escape their own guilty conscience the person will throw all the blame on their former spiritual teacher or path. For some people this develops into a kind of complex, so that even though they left their spiritual teacher 10, 20, even 35 years ago, they are still obsessed with trying to discredit him, in order to assuage their deep-down guilty conscience.

Some people even openly admit to this without truly understanding it. They say, “Oh, I have found a wonderful new way of getting rid of guilt. I joined a support group for former spiritual seekers where we spend most days and nights publicly attacking our old teacher. Hate is a wonderful antidote to guilt.”

The only problem is that this is actually a symptom of the complex. It does not truly get rid of guilt, but only masks it temporarily. Those suffering from this complex tend to need bigger and bigger fixes of hate to mask their guilt, so they end up vilifying their former teacher to a mind-boggling extent, making up the wildest stories in order to keep the hate jag going. There is no true healing in this approach because it’s all based on lies and self-justification, not honest insight.

So “the jiu-jitsu of betrayal” is any tricky method someone learns as a way to throw off their soul’s deep spiritual commitment and betray the teacher who first gave them illumination, out of sheer compassion.

Modern science is ethically neutral. It is often not concerned with net effects on people, but only whether something is do-able. If making a bomb, can they make a bigger bomb? If making a biological weapon, can they produce a more deadly strain? That is how some destructive people think. Doubt is usually “slow poison,” but some people actually become connoisseurs of doubt. They try to refine it and make it more potent, more concentrated. Modern doubters have produced more virulent strains of doubt which are quick-acting.

When people develop an ugly and impure mind or vital, they can conjure up an ugly picture of things — things which are inherently beautiful in themselves. The impure imagination becomes a kind of demonic laboratory from which new, more virulent strains of doubt are culled. One should protect one’s aspiration by not visiting places where such people congregate — whether in real life, or on the Internet.

Some psychologists are dead set against the spiritual life, so they’ve developed powerful techniques or psyops for combating faith — comprehensive, systematized methods of injecting doubt and pressuring seekers to abandon their faith. This is known as deprogramming or exit counseling, but like tattooing or ear-piercing it’s practiced by amateurs as well as professionals. (See “Sock Puppet Theatre – A Tribute to Samuel Bradshaw.”)

Some anti-cult groups morph or change their tactics over time, renaming themselves and eventually coming to use a soft-sell rather than hard-sell approach. See Part 2 and Part 3 of my series on “The ACLU and Religious Freedom,” as well as “Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy.” People don’t know the history of these groups and don’t recognize the techniques being used to rob them of their faith — professional deprogramming techniques like employing apostates to circulate false “testimonials” vilifying the spiritual teacher or path.

If you look carefully, you’ll see that such euphemistically named “support groups” often have hard-core members who’ve undergone formal deprogramming, exit counseling, or anti-cult therapy, e.g. Samuel Bradshaw, Anne Carlton, et al. These people are then encouraged to practice the same techniques on others, sometimes in an informal setting where they conceal or deny their affiliation with anti-cult groups.

How does the soft-sell differ from the hard-sell? The hard-sell is all poison, poison, poison. The soft-sell is: “People are not drinking the poison because it is too bitter. Let us set up a fake spiritual site, something to do with yoga, with spiritual quotes and artwork. Then, once we sucker people in, let us give them just enough poison to kill them. Initially they won’t know that we are all apostates, so they will stupidly drink the poison if we sweeten it a little.”

sri-chinmoy-yoga

Look to the methods, not the labels. Some sites may put up a spiritual veneer, but are actually ex-members groups where the main thrust is to get people to read highly negative material, and respond by abandoning their faith.

Like wife-beaters, some people are deeply troubled in their nature. They may claim they love their former spiritual master, but they torture him regularly. Stop the torture and I will believe that you love him. Otherwise, I will say you are a sick individual.

Each person is different. It may happen that a spiritual master advises a student: “Stay close to the spiritual community. Don’t go for a law degree or it will totally ruin your spiritual life.” The student disobeys, and lo and behold! Now that he’s a lawyer, instead of showing devotion to the spiritual master, he only wants to subject the master (now long-dead) to mock show trials on the Internet! Such displays of vigilantism are worthy of disbarment. Still:

Joe Kracht Lawton Law Firm Parody 1

Joe Kracht Lawton Law Firm Parody 1

Continuing on with my analysis, what is “university of no ethics”? To learn a systematized method of doing something, you go to a school which teaches that very thing. Universities originally emerged from a monastic tradition in which faith and ethics played a most significant role. Gradually over centuries, a “great divorce” occurred between religion, science, and the humanities. Today, it’s possible to receive a university degree without knowing anything about spirituality or ethics. Some former spiritual seekers will even go to the length of getting a degree in psychology which they then use to attack spirituality. (Of course, spirituality and psychology can get along well together. Here I’m only referring to a fringe group of psychologists who actively oppose spiritual practice, just as there’s a fringe group of psychologists who participate in military torture.)

As I discuss in “Paint It Black!” apostates often trash-talk their former friends, colleagues and mentors in a shameful and two-faced manner. They may learn such behavior through participation in institutions which impart secular knowledge divorced from ethics and spirituality. They have been processed by a college or university, or by the military, or by a school which emphasizes physical conditioning and self-defense, but teaches next to nothing about loyalty or ethics. This conspicuous spiritual vacuum makes it easy for people to engage in wanton acts of betrayal. They may be experts in their limited fields, but in the field of life they are nowhere because they’ve sacrificed the core values which imbue life with spiritual meaning. This is what it means to learn “the jiu-jitsu of betrayal/ studying at university of no ethics.”

Such faithless persons of no ethics often end up coaching others in the ways of betrayal, helping them achieve the “full Judas position” — a position of utter treachery. Sadly, such coaches may fail to provide the requisite thirty pieces of silver, or the noose to hang oneself when conscience dawns.

Attorney Joe Kracht drilling a new deprogrammee

Attorney Joe Kracht drilling a new deprogrammee (artist’s conception)

Michael Howard

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

Items which may interest you:

Sarama — The Hound of Intuition
Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics

* * *

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LENIE and PENIE Awards for 2015

Brother and sister clinch coveted LENIE and PENIE awards!

Each year at this time,* the Ethics & Spirituality Blog presents one award for Legal Ethics Not In Evidence (the “LENIE“), and a second award for Publishing Ethics Not In Evidence (the “PENIE“) to two qualified candidates.

Candidates must demonstrate exceptional ability in at least one of the following areas: social climbing, backstabbing, insensitivity, demagoguery, hypocrisy, abuse of power, or avarice.

In a rare occurrence, this year a brother and sister have scampered away with both awards!

For exploits recounted in “The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 3,” Joe Kracht — sometimes known as the Lawton law firm’s “Burning Man” — wins this year’s LENIE. Joe will receive an autographed picture of Roy Cohn and a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

For exploits likewise recounted in “How far would you go to get a book deal?” Elizabeth Kracht — sometimes known as Kimberley Cameron & Associates’ “Godmother of Corruption” — wins this year’s PENIE. Liz will receive an all-expense-paid cruise to Yorkeys Knob with Rupert Murdoch, and a year’s supply of kitty-litter. As an additional bonus, her red hair helmet will be steam-cleaned and revivified.

Note: The phrase “all-expense-paid cruise” should not be inappropriately applied to Ms. Kracht’s teenage years.

Remember, there are 365 days in a year. If you act badly enough on any one of them (particularly on the Internet), you just might snag yourself a LENIE or PENIE.

DISCLAIMER: Taxes and gratuities not included. Not available in Nebraska, Idaho, or Yucatan. Some parts may be made of oleomargarine. Valid ID must be presented at time of award. Candidates may be required to sing the Tippy Tippy Tiptoe song while balancing on one leg and gargling Drano. Some ingredients may cause drowsiness or increased risk of moist armpits. Do not use if you are pregnant, thinking of becoming pregnant, or have ever used the word “pregnant” in a sentence, even humorously. Less than 2% of candidates saw little green men. Do not speak to these men or give them matches. If you see something, say something.

*Of course, there’s no tradition like a new tradition. 😉

Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1

The Rolling Stone/UVA debacle was preventable but not unique. Salon had a similar breakdown in early 2014, likewise due to somnolent editors and fabulist sources, plus a hidden element of corruption.

The essence of Columbia Journalism Review’s critique of the Rolling Stone campus rape piece boiled down to these three things:

1. Relying on a single source, and failing to interview subjects who might reveal a different perspective or show the original source to be inaccurate.

2. Failing to provide people accused by the reporter of committing crimes with detailed information about the allegations and an opportunity to respond.

3. Failing to locate a person who was deeply implicated in the story, and whose existence, non-existence, or strong denial would cast the story in a different light or even argue for its non-publication.

Another issue was “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to fall hook, line and sinker for a single source’s uncorroborated story if it corresponds to a “prevalent narrative” or one’s own cherished beliefs. A false story is embraced because it strikes a political or emotional chord, or fulfills a need to believe certain things about groups in conflict. (Of course, a false story may also be embraced as a means of boosting circulation.)

In the case of the Rolling Stone article, the underlying conflict was between feminists concerned about campus rape, and the Southern old boy network — thought to be represented by UVA’s “elite” Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, sought out a story that would fit a pre-existing narrative, would be emblematic, and would advance views shared by her editors (and which I also share): that sexual abuse of women and girls is a serious worldwide problem (including on college campuses).

The story, “A Rape on Campus,” focused on the pseudonymous “Jackie,” who claimed to have been brutally gang-raped at Phi Kappa Psi; and on the likewise pseudonymous “Drew,” who was portrayed as the ringleader, but was never contacted by Erdely.

As events unfolded, it became clear that Jackie was a troubled fabulist, and that Phi Kappa Psi didn’t conform to Erdely’s stereotypes. In the current universe of UVA fraternities, they seem to be known as nice guys. They hadn’t even held a party on the night Jackie claimed to have been gang-raped. A months-long police investigation (in which Jackie declined to cooperate) turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. The plain facts contradicted Jackie’s story, and Rolling Stone issued a retraction.

The CJR report didn’t blame Jackie, reasoning that had Rolling Stone reporters, editors and fact-checkers followed Journalism 101 procedures, the story would never have seen the light of day. (It’s the publisher, not the source, who’s responsible for what gets printed.) Still, Jackie’s inaccurate claims are at the heart of the harm done to innocents. Her motives remain unclear.

There are whole segments of the media (both left and right) obsessed with “advocacy journalism,” where the purpose is to float allegations for political ends, with little concern for truth or accuracy. Such journalism tends to reflect what people want to believe rather than reality, as with stories in WorldNetDaily that President Obama is both gay and Muslim. It’s easy to play “spot the deficiency” in such stories, where a tainted source or crucial questions never asked by the reporter lead to implausible results.

In “A Rape on Campus,” there were questions Sabrina Erdely never asked, perhaps on principle. Could Jackie have some motive for confabulating? The politically correct answer is that no woman ever has a reason to lie about sexual abuse; yet this does happen. The statistics are so bogged down in politics that no one’s sure how often. In “Are We Manufacturing Victims?” psychologist Tana Dineen points to the prevalence of “advocacy data: numbers created to make a point or support an argument.” She urges careful investigation of each claim, rather than over-reliance on statistics. Cathy Young’s analysis in “Crying Rape” is particularly clear-headed and balanced. Leaving aside the details and quoting her broad conclusions:

Rape is a repugnant crime — and one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, in the not-so-distant past, the belief that women routinely make up rape charges often led to appalling treatment of victims. However, in challenging what author and law professor Susan Estrich has called “the myth of the lying woman,” feminists have been creating their own counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies.

A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.

Our focus on getting justice for women who are sexually assaulted is necessary and right. We are still far from the day when every woman who makes a rape accusation gets a proper police investigation and a fair hearing. But seeking justice for female victims should make us more sensitive, not less, to justice for unfairly accused men. In practical terms, that means finding ways to show support for victims of sexual violence without equating accusation and guilt, and recognizing that the wrongly accused are real victims too.

— Cathy Young, from “Crying Rape”

90s Conflicts Revisited

Though the press is treating the Rolling Stone controversy de novo, many of the underlying issues hearken back to the repressed memory cases of the 1990s. At odds are some truths difficult to reconcile in practice:

1. Women in crisis need unquestioning support, and a therapeutic community where they can talk about their experiences with others who may have had similar experiences.

2. “It is inappropriate to be unconcerned with the truth of a client’s experience during psychotherapy. In the case of a person with no memory of sexual abuse, it is also inappropriate to engage in group counseling with other victims of sexual assault because of the danger that another patient’s problem or experience will be inappropriately suggestive to the client.” — Judge William J. Groff

3. Survivor groups are not politically or factually neutral. While at their best they can be a source of much-needed comfort to a genuine victim, at their worst they can encourage a non-victim to create a new social identity based on victimhood, in order to reap the emotional rewards of attention and sympathy, and to advance a political agenda.

4. It is necessary to distinguish between real victims and faux victims, since victimhood is sometimes used as a rhetorical platform from which to launch attacks which may be motivated by politics, personal grievance, or personal gain.

There would seem to be inherent conflicts between the therapeutic process, the legal process, the political process, and the journalistic process of gathering facts. In the instant matter, Sabrina Erdely may have acted too much like an advocate and not enough like a journalist. Had she been willing to ask more questions and interview more people, she would have discovered that Jackie was “catfishing” her friend Ryan, and had apparently made up a non-existent person, Haven Monahan, as part of her machinations. This would have been a red flag.

MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow recently interviewed Liz Seccuro, a genuine survivor of a UVA campus rape 30 years ago, and the author of Crash Into Me. Seccuro was mentioned in the Rolling Stone piece as if to bolster Jackie’s account, and Farrow questions whether Jackie might have co-opted Seccuro’s story:

Liz Seccuro: Anonymous people, blog commenters, my friends, and my family all called me, or commented, or wrote to me and said, “This is your story.” I can’t comprehend how someone would co-opt someone else’s pain and story for this.

Ronan Farrow: Do you think there’s a chance that that’s what happened, that Jackie co-opted your story?

Liz Seccuro: I think, as I said it’s been suggested to me so many times that I have to allow it to be a possibility.

Ronan Farrow: I understand the crisis management center [at UVA] gave out your book to survivors.

Liz Seccuro: Yes.

Ronan Farrow: Do you think that Jackie perhaps believed that your story was hers?

Liz Seccuro: I think that somebody who has now told this story so many times, and stuck by her story even after being discredited, I believe that that person would have some mental issues, and would believe that.

Ronan Farrow: If this is true, if by some happenstance Jackie co-opted your story (to use your words), what’s your message to her?

Liz Seccuro: Well I think right now, my message to her is to get some help and to understand — and I’m not ruling out that nothing happened to her. I think something traumatic has happened to her in her life, and I think she needs to get some help to address that. It’s very easy to become enamoured with the survivor community and dive into that. But unless you’re willing to talk to the police and to file a complaint, you can’t level these sort of allegations. It was hard for me, and we had evidence. You can’t make these sort of allegations that live on forever, because look at the mess we’re in now.

MSNBC interview with Liz Seccuro

Seccuro’s comments underscore points 2-4 above, since the implication is that Jackie may have gravitated toward a survivor group and adopted someone else’s prefab narrative in order to qualify for the emotional support, friendship, and camaraderie which the group provided. She may also have wanted her friend Ryan to develop a protective attitude toward her as the basis for forming a romantic relationship. This doesn’t necessarily mean she was “lying.” She may be emotionally troubled and trying to cope as best she can, perhaps by confabulating.

Confabulating is different than wilfully lying, though there may be a continuum between the two. The subject is controversial because we live in a period when we’re still negotiating the boundaries between behaviour which is pathological and in need of treatment, versus behaviour which is unethical and deserving of blame. I feel some sympathy for Jackie, because you don’t hang out with a survivor’s group unless you feel like a survivor. But of course, the true victims are those who were wrongfully accused.

Sometimes when people feel emotional pain, they want to externalize it, force it into a victim/abuser paradigm which is pre-scripted, ready-made, and supported by an interest group. But not everything fits into that paradigm. Sometimes the pain is real and is the result of emotional conflict, but there is no abuser.

This again hearkens back to the repressed memory cases of the 1990s. In response to false claims of abuse proliferating at that time, the British Psychological Society issued May 2000 guidelines stating:

Psychologists must be alert to the dangers of suggestion. Potential sources of suggestion include subtle cues about the psychologist’s attitudes and beliefs that may be inferred from the therapeutic context (e.g. particular books on the shelf) or client contact with “survivor literature” and subcultures of abuse. Psychologists must be aware that there may be situations in which clients are motivated to recall memories of abuse for a variety of ends.

The subtext here is the possibility of coaching, but none of this is an argument that sexual abuse (and even gang rape) doesn’t occur; we know it does. It is an argument that journalists have to be extremely careful when dealing with people who’ve immersed themselves in “survivor literature” and subcultures of abuse. And just as psychologist attitudes can influence what a client will recall, so can sessions with a journalist determined to impose a pre-existing narrative. If “A Rape on Campus” turns out to be a borrowed scenario from Liz Seccuro’s book, then who borrowed it: Jackie, Sabrina Erdely, or some combination of the two?

If there was collusion, then what type of collusion? I seriously doubt the two women engaged in a deliberate conspiracy to lie. Far more likely is the type of psychological collusion in which people and groups gradually take on each others beliefs and attitudes, leading to a socially constructed reality which is at odds with factual reality. This problem knows no gender or politics. It could just as easily affect “your crazy uncle who watches FOX news all day” (a figure popularized by Rachel Maddow).

Implications and Cautionary Notes

Events in the real world often have political ramifications, but journalists, media critics, and the general public should beware of the tail wagging the dog. When a too-perfect story pandering to populist stereotypes emerges in tandem with political ax-grinding and journalistic grandstanding, this should raise concerns about truthfulness. See, for example, Paul Krugman on Obamacare horror stories as a means of attacking the ACA.

The need for truth is not liberal or conservative, female or male, religious or secular, but something universal. We all need truth. Truth matters.

Another cautionary note is that while our justice system is imperfect, it has a more rigorous set of checks and balances in place than either trial by tabloid or trial by Internet (both of which can easily descend into vigilantism). When a person appears in the tabloids or on the Internet claiming to have been abused some years previously, but has never (and will not now) file a police report, there’s reason to be skeptical — especially if their claim surfaces in connection with a social control agenda (e.g. closing down fraternities, or discrediting spiritual groups). I believe there’s a higher incidence of false claims when the claim is not freestanding but is allied to a movement ideology, or is meant to be the smoking gun that “proves” one side right on a hotly contested social issue. (Remember the Tawana Brawley rape hoax.)

The implication, then, is that statistics concerning false claims of sexual abuse are not flat across the board, but vary according to the scenario. A person who promptly goes to the police station to file a rape complaint and doesn’t show an inordinate interest in publicity or politics is more likely to be telling the truth. A person who pointedly avoids filing a police complaint, but who seeks attention and publicity — and whose claims leverage a social or political cause — is less likely to be telling the truth. If there’s a span of years between the disputed events and the first report of them, this should also raise concerns; likewise if the person being accused is long dead and can’t possibly defend themselves. (Some people look for an unfair fight.)

Filing false police reports is a crime according to both federal and state laws. But nursing false claims of abuse in the tabloids or on the Internet may carry a civil penalty at most, and would require that the injured party file a lawsuit, which is often expensive, inconvenient, and subject to the Streisand effect  (as well as other legal loopholes). Thus, haunting the tabloids and Internet has become an easy way for opportunists to score political brownie points or wreak personal vengeance at minimal risk to themselves, particularly if they’re judgement proof.

To be fair, there are genuine victims of abuse who may find it difficult to engage with the justice system (which is not always friendly). It’s possible that a person could be raped, feel embarrassed and ashamed, never go to police, but become persuaded years later that “something must be done.” If there’s no evidence, they could conceivably decide that attention and publicity make a good substitute for legal justice. But do they? We should be extremely wary of trial by tabloid or Internet. There’s just too great a risk of destroying innocent people’s lives.

Twelve minutes into Hanna Rosin’s interview with Sabrina Erdely, Erdely claims that Jackie was too traumatized to go to police, but not too traumatized to have her story published in Rolling Stone. This logic troubles me. Richard Bradley, who is often a heartless critic of both Erdely and Jackie, writes:

All of Jackie’s dissembling — her failure to return phone calls, her evasiveness, her refusal to name names, her threat to pull out of the story — were behaviors that should have set off alarms in any good reporter. Not Erdely. To her, Jackie’s “behavior seemed very consistent with a victim of trauma.” In other words: Every single thing that Jackie did that would, to most reporters, suggest she was an unreliable source, actually confirmed to Erdely that Jackie was a reliable source. In that scenario, there is literally nothing that Jackie could do that would not then be evidence of her credibility. If she swore on a Bible that she was lying, it would only prove how “traumatized” she was.

Richard Bradley

While Bradley tends to poke the protagonists with a sharp stick, he makes a valid point about the catch-22 frequently encountered when trying to evaluate the accuracy of accounts by people who claim to be victims of some traumatic event: the less reliable they are, the more credible they’re claimed to be. Like too much ketchup on bad food, trauma apparently hides all defects. This makes the accuracy of their accounts into a non-falsifiable proposition. (See Virginia Hughes, “And the Memory Wars Wage On,” for discussion of how this conundrum dates back to the 1990s.)

My point is not that trauma doesn’t exist, but that it shouldn’t become a blanket excuse for ignoring sound principles of journalism or jurisprudence. In every facet of human experience, we’re always dealing with truth and falsehood. Just as there are genuine victims of trauma, there are also people who go into “victim mode” to launch attacks on a person or organization, or to provide the ammo for such attacks. That’s why we must always follow a fair process based on evidence — one which holds a steady course in spite of emotional and political elements which may be introduced.

The very real problem of sexual abuse has this attendant problem of false claims, which we also need to acknowledge. The flame wars between feminists and anti-feminists make it hard to hold both truths in our minds simultaneously. We live in an era of extreme polarization where any sensible middle position gets obliterated or shouted down. Cathy Young’s view in “Crying Rape” that we must continue to seek justice for female victims, while also recognizing that wrongly accused men are real victims too, represents the ideal balance.

Just as combating the problem of sexual abuse means understanding how abuse happens in the workplace or on campus, combating the problem of false accusations also requires insight and analysis. In one problem scenario, a person who is judgement proof (because they have minimal assets or are living overseas or are insane) is persuaded to front for an interest group which then mounts an Internet-based publicity campaign. An outlandish story is trumpeted all over the Net by well-heeled professionals who hide behind the original, judgement proof, fabulist source.

There are lawyers who will tell you they don’t believe anything they read on the Internet, because they know from experience that the Internet is still the Wild West, and libel laws are (for all intent and purposes) nonexistent. This is something to ponder when judging the credibility of material appearing on blogs or Internet-only publications like Salon or WorldNetDaily, or when dodgy Internet material makes the jump to print media due to somnolent editors or low ethics at a tabloid.

We should also be wary of claims of abuse which are a work product of therapy, but which are then removed from the original therapeutic context and unleashed on the public or the legal system. This was a huge problem in the 90s, but has not entirely gone away. (See this 2014 article in Pacific Standard.) Without digressing too far, I would say that real therapy is conducted in private, and no one is minuting every word for uploading to the Net.

Real therapy is about an honest search for personal truth, not an attempt to manipulate public opinion. However, just as we have seen a rise in “advocacy journalism,” there has also been a rise in “advocacy therapy.” In therapy driven by a social or political agenda, there is often an attempt to create a new narrative for past events, and that new narrative may not be truthful. Likewise, we should consider any therapy highly suspect if its “cure” for newly uncovered traumas involves phoning up the newspapers or bloviating on the Internet. These are quack remedies often embraced by synthetic victims. Psychologist Tana Dineen writes:

Synthetic victims are the people who become persuaded that they have been sexually harassed and often they appear to be truly suffering the psychological consequences. … [They include] the person who describes a scene to a co-worker, a spouse or maybe to a psychologist or even a lawyer and is provided with encouragement to think about it differently, perhaps as an incident of harassment or assault.

Memories change; reactions change; feelings change AND stories change. Relatively trivial events can become dramatic; they can be moulded, edited and modified to fit the sexual harassment script which people can easily find in pop psychology books, women’s magazines and on talk shows and now even on the Internet. As Mordecai Richler puts it in his most recent book Barney’s Version, these are people who “are tinkering with memory, fine-tuning reality.”

Scrupulously investigate any sexual harassment report that lands on your desk, looking not only for corroborating evidence, but, also, for possible contamination by the Psychology Industry. This contamination can take place, not only directly in psychotherapy but indirectly through pop psychology books, self-help manuals, media reports, support groups, comments made by family or co-workers, and even information posted on the Internet.

— Tana Dineen, “Are We Manufacturing Victims?”

I want to stress that just because there are synthetic victims doesn’t mean we should become insensitive to the worldwide problem of sexual abuse of women and girls. It does underscore the need to distinguish between real victims and faux victims, and to recognize particular scenarios where the incidence of false claims is higher. This might include divorce and child custody battles, employee wage disputes, and activist campaigns (whether left or right) to publicly discredit a person or organization. The latter includes anti-cult campaigns which attempt to falsely demonize minority faiths or get them to conform to pre-existing stereotypes. Again, if someone is portrayed on the Internet as committing crimes left and right, but in the real world there’s not a single police complaint, this suggests “the fix is in.”

A problem with survivor groups of various stripes is that in their zeal to produce social change, they may urge members to “come forward” with stories of abuse “to support the other women” and “to help society” (by opposing a targeted organization). Where the stories of abuse are only arrived at gradually over time (with pressure, coaching, and editorial assistance), it’s unclear whether they represent newly uncovered truths or painstakingly constructed falsehoods. Even the justice system may fail to make a clear determination, but at least it tries to eliminate hearsay, prevent collusion of witnesses, provide penalties for perjury, and ensure that accusers may be confronted and cross-examined. The same cannot be said of trial by tabloid or trial by Internet. This is why I remain critical of attorney Joseph C. Kracht for conducting Internet show trials which are mere vigilante exercises, with collusion between witnesses the order of the day.

Returning to the specifics of “A Rape on Campus”: While the Columbia report is very process-oriented and never mentions ethics, critics claim that Rolling Stone had an ethical obligation to question and corroborate before trumpeting such toxic accusations. Blaming the process lets individuals off the hook — individuals whose job it was to ensure that the process worked. See Slate.com, “‘Journalistic Failure’ Won’t Get You Fired From Rolling Stone.”

RS made so many mistakes, it’s a veritable fielder’s choice as to which ones to highlight. Scholar Clay Shirky tweeted that “Erdely got rolled by a source. Rolling Stone got rolled by Erdely.” (Or was it groupthink?) Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin note that it’s a cardinal journalistic sin to publish damning accusations of criminal wrongdoing without contacting the accused for comment. (See “The Missing Men” on Slate.com.)

What does all this have to do with Salon? Perhaps a teachable moment…

The Salon Article

In May 2014, Salon.com ran a false story claiming that Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007) — the genial Indian-American meditation teacher and humanitarian who had often received favorable coverage in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other papers — was really a “sex criminal.” The newspaper of record (which had covered Sri Chinmoy since 1971) had it wrong, and only one lone blogger at Salon knew the real skinny. Salon’s headline was: “The media’s love affair with accused sex criminal Sri Chinmoy.”

Simon and Schuster author Sri Chinmoy

Simon & Schuster author Sri Chinmoy

In the real world, Sri Chinmoy was an exemplary citizen who had received numerous awards and commendations for his spiritual, humanitarian, artistic, and athletic activities, including letters of appreciation from the mayors of New York City and San Francisco, remarks praising him in the Congressional Record, and nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. Needless to say, he was never under investigation for any kind of crime. He sometimes got decent press coverage because in the real world he did demonstrable, verifiable good and no harm.

He was much beloved by his followers and by countless people who got to know him while working with him on projects for world betterment; but there are also people obsessed with trying to discredit him. As a result, he’s an Obama-like figure who has a small segment of the media running occasional hatchet pieces which emanate directly from cloud cuckoo land and have no connection to the real world. Such pieces are typically based on fabulist sources who live on the Internet or are associated with anti-cult groups.

One reason such hatchet pieces didn’t end with his death in 2007 is that he’s survived by the nonprofit spiritual organization he founded, Sri Chinmoy Centre, and by various artistic, athletic and humanitarian concerns. His followers continue to hold events based on his legacy and teachings.

Sri Chinmoy Centre - sample poster

Sri Chinmoy Centre – sample poster

One such event was the 2008 “Paintings for World Harmony” exhibit at the United Nations. It would be well to view the video in order to take in the real world flavour and get some grounding before diving headlong into the Salon piece:

A problem with the Salon piece is that it tries to paint a hateful picture in words which simply doesn’t match the visual or the data. It’s unclear whether the “sex criminal” headline was the same headline Nevada-based blogger Edwin Lyngar submitted to Salon editors. As Dustin Rowles recounts in “How Salon.com Rewrote My Headline and Turned Me Into an Internet Troll,” Salon reheadlines pieces to drum up page views.

From the get-go, the Salon piece had that clickbait stench about it — the redolence of what Chez Pazienza at The Daily Banter calls “outrage porn.” Pazienza writes: “The editors of Salon are trolling you, all of us, and they’re doing it hard, because trolling drives traffic.” Ryan Holiday observes: “It used be that sites like Salon.com had the moral high ground compared to right-wing pundits and demagogues like Rush Limbaugh… now they traffic in the same garbage.”

Journalist inflation played a key role: The cherry-picked source, Celia Corona-Doran, falsely claimed that back in 2006 when she was 38, Sri Chinmoy once asked her to consent to one-on-one sex with another woman. She did not identify the other woman, and Sri Chinmoy passed away in 2007.

The unconfirmed incident was inflated to a “sex crime” in Salon, and the surviving organization which Sri Chinmoy founded, Sri Chinmoy Centre, was described as a criminal organization, notwithstanding its good reputation, pacific outlook, and total lack of any criminal complaints in its 45-year history.

The Salon story was shockingly wrong, and as in the Rolling Stone piece, the core allegation came from a single, uncorroborated source who was regarded with mindless credulity. The whole matter amounted to a “she said, he’s dead” (long dead), since there was never any complaint, evidence, or witness. (The alleged “other woman” cannot be produced.)

The false claim has since been posted on a number of anti-cult sites and trumpeted to mainstream media figures, always in connection with attempts to discredit Sri Chinmoy Centre or persuade followers to recant their faith.

The source, Celia Corona-Doran, was known in Sri Chinmoy Centre by the name “Suchatula.” She never reported the alleged incident and remained with Sri Chinmoy Centre until 2009. She spoke well of Sri Chinmoy both before and after his death in 2007. In 2008, she wrote about him with particular enthusiasm, describing her own positive experiences in detail, accompanied by photos where she appeared happy and smiling with friends. See these 3 screenshots from 2008 issues of the magazine Inspiration-Sun, published by an Austrian follower of Sri Chinmoy, or view the source documents here and here.

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatala - Screenshot 1

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatula – Screenshot 1

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatala - Screenshot 2

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatula – Screenshot 2

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatala - Screenshot 3

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatula – Screenshot 3

Her cheerful demeanour, glowing descriptions of “Guru,” and detailed accounts of fun activities certainly raise grave doubts about anti-cult material which later appeared under her name in connection with an Internet-based ex-cult support group. Since she seemed so happy in 2008, the obvious question is: what changed in 2009?

In 2009, she got into a labor dispute and some credit card debt. She eventually declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy and sued her former employer, who was a follower of Sri Chinmoy, for back wages. She also fell in with old friends who had left Sri Chinmoy Centre some years previously and who took a hard apostate stance. Their modus operandi involved posting uncorroborated “testimonials” of abuse on the Internet in order to “rescue” purported “cult victims” who (apparently) could not be relied upon to make their own decisions in spiritual matters. In this context, claims of abuse take on a rather utilitarian purpose, as a means to an end.

Enter James Doran, Elizabeth Kracht, and Joe Kracht

There were other factors which led to Celia Corona’s radical volte-face. While still with Sri Chinmoy Centre, she became involved with a male follower, James Doran (a.k.a. “James D”), partly via the Internet. Mr. Doran’s peculiar way of wooing her was to familiarize her with extreme hate material circulated on anti-cult sites which portrayed Sri Chinmoy as a fiend in human form (which is certainly counterfactual).

Sri Chinmoy holding the World Harmony Run torch

Sri Chinmoy holding the World Harmony Run torch

According to Ms. Corona’s later report, James Doran was in contact with a number of women in the San Francisco Sri Chinmoy Centre, whom he emailed regularly.

Like Jackie (from the Rolling Stone article), when Celia Corona began portraying herself as a victim, she may have been “catfishing” James Doran, telling him the kind of story which seemed to interest him and would make her appear special. The two of them began Skyping almost daily, and gradually colluded in constructing a new version of reality which conveniently justified their eventual marriage. Ms. Corona writes: “He [James] said he was going to leave the Centre and that I had to leave too.”

Neither Ms. Corona nor Mr. Doran wanted to appear unspiritual to their friends, or to admit that they had simply succumbed to romantic temptation. So their cover story was that they had found out the guru was a fraud, and that was why they had left. Yet, numerous figures in the interfaith community, themselves possessing impeccable credentials, have attested to Sri Chinmoy’s genuineness (see below).

It must be noted that like Jackie, Celia Corona was initially extremely reluctant to have her (false) story publicized. When that story first appeared on an anti-cult message board in 2009, it was not posted by her, did not use her name, and did not even mention Sri Chinmoy. However, over time Celia Corona was resocialized to view herself as a cult victim, and persuaded to incorporate the false narrative she now relates into her personal biography. This change occurred in the environs of an Internet-based ex-cult support group, and those doing the persuading included her old friends Elizabeth Kracht and Joe Kracht — disaffected former Chinmoy followers once known as “Nirbachita” and “Yogaloy” respectively. (They are sister and brother.)

Elizabeth Kracht and Celia Corona had become fast friends in the mid-1980s, when they attended Los Gatos High School and often partied together. Their exploits “hitting some of SF’s elite clubs” (using fake IDs) are chronicled on Elizabeth Kracht’s blog “Chosen Instrument Child” (or see excerpts here). Describing those nights of frenetic partying, Ms. Kracht writes: “In retrospect, we’re both amazed we survived.” Celia had once dated Elizabeth’s other brother, Andy Kracht (a.k.a. Jeevan). When the two women later joined Sri Chinmoy Centre, this represented a gradual shift from a party lifestyle to a modest lifestyle based on meditation. Elizabeth Kracht writes:

The summer of my graduation I was a thorn in the side of my stepmom and dad. I slept until 2 p.m. in the afternoon, lazed about in the sun on the back deck of our house in Morgan Hill and only motivated myself to meet friends in Los Gatos and do more of the same: party.

My brother Andy was on a different trajectory. He’d finally surrendered to his fate and joined the Sri Chinmoy Centre, joining my older brother Joe, who’d done the same years earlier. By this time Joe was living in New York, close to the master, and Andy joined the Cupertino meditation center and was working at a cafe affiliated with the group. I would make my way over the cafe from time to time to see Andy, and he was hard at work winning me over to the side of a simpler, happier life through meditation by making the most amazing avocado sandwiches, and stuffing me with black bottom cupcakes. Both food for the soul. And the couple people I met that were part of the cafe and disciples of Sri Chinmoy I liked too: Pujari and Giribar.

— Elizabeth Kracht, “Chosen Instrument Child”

But by 2009, Elizabeth Kracht had been away from the Centre for 8 years, having left with a male follower named Pinak, and that relationship having recently gone sour, leaving her bitter. It was a rocky period in her life when she was making a mental list of grievances and looking for someone to blame. She moved in with her brother Joe, who had started a blog critical of Sri Chinmoy Centre where he recycled negative material found on message boards, or dished dirt on former colleagues. The blog became a magnet for anyone who had left the Centre in disfavor. Elizabeth Kracht joined with those writing “testimonials,” which were retrospective accounts by apostates supplying new anti-cult narratives for past events.

When Celia Corona left the Centre in early 2009, she was identified as someone who might be willing to supply such a testimonial for public exploitation. It took weeks of phone calls for Elizabeth Kracht to drag a wacky story involving some sort of lesbian misadventure out of her old friend, and even then Ms. Corona flatly refused to publicize it herself or even have her name associated with it. Nevertheless, the story was posted on an anti-cult message board in May 2009 by Elizabeth Kracht, who seemed highly motivated despite her friend’s reluctance. In its original form, the story was a model of discursiveness involving dreams in which an unnamed person might have been depressed because an unnamed guru might have done something wrong — interspersed with Ms. Kracht’s own complaints that a café she had opened in Forest Hills, New York circa 2001 didn’t get as much support as she had hoped for, and eventually folded. Her narrative was difficult to follow because it contained about three levels of hearsay, and was rife with Ms. Kracht’s own resentments about being a self-described “black sheep.”

A few months later, attorney Joe Kracht announced on his blog that Ms. Corona had finally given consent for her name to be connected with the anonymous story which his sister had previously posted on a message board. This announcement did not come from Ms. Corona, who remained silent.

To connect the story to Ms. Corona at that point in time (August 26, 2009), one would have to read the anonymous story posted by Elizabeth Kracht, and put that together with Joe Kracht’s announcement (on a different website) that the story actually pertained to Ms. Corona. Whether or not this constituted “outing,” the appearance is that over time, Ms. Corona was groomed by the Krachts to become one of the cherished “testimonial writers” whose accounts were used to try and discredit Sri Chinmoy Centre. Ms. Corona was in dire financial straits at the time, while her friends Lizzie and Joe had become successful white-collar professionals.

Ms. Corona was eventually persuaded to play a public role which she did not originally contemplate, and to take ownership of a story which (like Jackie’s) was never meant for public consumption. It appears to have been meant for James Doran, but was later used by Ms. Corona to apply pressure to her former employer — a follower of Sri Chinmoy whom she decided to sue for back wages. Of Elizabeth Kracht and Joe Kracht, Ms. Corona writes: “Without them I am not sure if my story would have been told.” This is one of her few accurate statements.

How did a story of such dubious provenance come to be published in Salon five years later? Through corruption and nepotism. Elizabeth Kracht subsequently became a literary agent with Kimberley Cameron & Associates. She describes Edwin Lyngar (author of the Salon piece) as “her” author. Elsewhere, Mr. Lyngar confirms that Ms. Kracht is his literary agent and that she’s tasked with finding a publisher for his memoir Guy Parts. According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms. Kracht is also experienced in fiction writing & editing, storytelling, ghostwriting, content development, and public relations. Over a period of years, she collaborated with her friend Celia (who works at a Trader Joe’s) to turn the fabricated ramblings concerning anonymous actors which were posted on a message board in 2009 into the story libeling real persons which Edwin Lyngar planted in Salon.

James Doran, previously from New Zealand, but now working in the San Francisco Bay area as a web designer with Jade Orchard, has undergone a bizarre inversion of views similar to his wife Celia’s. Like Celia Corona, in 2008 James Doran seemed to have no problems with the late Sri Chinmoy or with Sri Chinmoy Centre. Like Ms. Corona, he participated in the 2008 World Harmony Run, and wrote detailed articles for Inspiration-Sun such as this one about a “California Joy Weekend.” There he describes a pleasant dinner at Jyoti-Bihanga restaurant in San Diego, a jovial mood, an early start the next morning to put on a popular swim & run event, a picnic lunch, games, hanging out enjoying sun and water, and “many happy faces.”

However, in May 2014 James Doran turned up on the Internet spouting rhetoric accusing Dr. Kusumita Pedersen — a respected scholar and professor of religion who knew Sri Chinmoy for 36 years — of being “in a cult.” He seemed to be trying to “deprogram” her over the Internet — perhaps another case of Guru Alienation Syndrome (or GAS), a condition I’ve described elsewhere.

An objective reading of the available evidence is that neither Celia Corona nor James Doran encountered any type of abuse during their years with Sri Chinmoy Centre. Their only real complaint was that — as Elizabeth Kracht puts it on her blog — “the Centre was a celibate path and women were to look upon the disciple men as brothers only.” Celia Corona and James Doran wanted to be together sexually, so they circulated all this argy-bargy about Sri Chinmoy as a diversion, in order not to look like romantic idiots themselves.

This is not to discount the possibility that sometime after leaving Sri Chinmoy Centre, Ms. Corona may have begun to experience grief and depression. As I noted in my original comments in May 2014: “Some people feel a genuine spiritual need which is satisfied by joining a community where people pray, meditate, sing, laugh, run, read, study, work, and reflect. If people leave such a community after 20 years, they may become unhappy. But this unhappiness is not caused by the spiritual community.”

I have often encountered people who were happy when they participated in the life of a spiritual community, but became unhappy after leaving it. Such people may misattribute the cause of their unhappiness to the thing they left behind. There’s an obvious fallacy here: Suppose you’re taking a certain course of medicine which seems to be improving your condition. Then, you stop taking the medicine and your condition worsens. How can you blame the medicine, given that it was helping you?

When the Salon article appeared, and knowledgeable people began decrying its falsity, Elizabeth Kracht’s response was to claim that Celia Corona-Doran was “traumatized,” and that those doubting her story were “retraumatizing” her — as if the trauma theory (also invoked by Sabrina Erdely) would somehow patch the huge holes in Corona-Doran’s story (which constituted a complete about-face from her prior statements). Ms. Kracht also went out of her way to bait and insult Prof. Kusumita Pedersen in a highly personal and offensive manner (as if James Doran’s rude comments weren’t enough!).

Literary Reality vs. Factual Reality

So, we have an unconfirmed story about a deceased peace advocate, with no complaint and no witnesses. The story first appears on a message board under Elizabeth Kracht’s alias (Nirbachita), then later “her” author Edwin Lyngar is attributing it to Celia Corona-Doran, who is judgement proof, having declared bankruptcy to avoid credit card debt. If this story were a horse, I’d shoot it to put it out of its misery!

In the real world, if you’re harassed you complain about it. But in the socially constructed reality where Celia Corona-Doran and Elizabeth Kracht hang out, you spend a few years massaging the fictional manuscript, trying to make the story appear credible, then use your influence to get it published in Salon, perhaps as a prelude to wangling a book deal. In how many ways can you say publishing industry corruption? This story is as false as the day is long, and there’s not one shred of evidence in the real world to back it up — only collusion or confabulation (to use two of the kinder available terms).

Why is it a problem when material accusing a person/organization of committing crimes or improprieties turns out to have been massaged by a literary editor for five years, then planted in the press through nepotism? Because it confuses literary reality with factual reality:

Over the past year, I’ve learned from my brilliant editor, Elizabeth K. Kracht at Kimberley Cameron and Associates Literary Agency, that there are segments in every manuscript that need to be refined, segments that need to be amplified, and segments, no matter how wonderful, that need to be ditched.

Barbara Donsky

Unfortunately, the parts Kracht ditched from Corona-Doran’s story are the parts dealing with factual reality, which I’m adding back through careful sleuthing. (All documents available on request.)

Ironically, in a Salon piece called “When narratives are so compelling that we don’t notice unbalanced reporting,” Erin Keane highlights this very problem: the blurring of lines between memoir and journalism. We expect memoirs to be biased, one-sided, fanciful, and delivered in the style of what-I-feel-is-the-only-reality. But journalists are supposed to care about balance and objective facts. A New York Times piece highlights the problem of nonfiction which turns out to be fiction:

In an extraordinary reversal of her defense of the author whose memoir she catapulted to the top of the best-seller lists, Oprah Winfrey rebuked James Frey, the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” on her television show yesterday for lying about his past and portraying the book as a truthful account of his life.

“I feel duped,” Ms. Winfrey told Mr. Frey. “But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.”

While the Random House legal department checks nonfiction books to make sure that no [living person] is defamed or libeled, it does not check the truth of the assertions made in a book.

Agents, publishers and authors are all going to have to be much more cautious in the way they approach the nonfiction market… Traditionally, publishers have not done fact-checking and vetting. But I think you are going to see memoirs read not only from a libel point of view but for factual accuracy. And where there are questions of possible exaggeration or distortion, the author is going to need to produce documentation.

— “Author Is Kicked Out of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club,” The New York Times

To pose the problem of literary reality vs. factual reality in dramatic terms, suppose someone walks into a police station and says: “Here’s something I’ve been working on. It’s version 2.03a of my story of how I once belonged to an abusive cult. I’d like to thank my support group and my editor for all the help they gave me in moulding and shaping this story so that it makes good reading, packs an emotional wallop, and will help discredit the group I belonged to for 22 years. I’m sure you’ll want to investigate one particular incident as a crime, since it happened 8 years ago, doesn’t actually involve crime, and the person I accuse has been dead for 7 years.”

Now, the officer on duty probably doesn’t say, “Just one moment, I’ll escort you to the room where we take statements concerning Literary Blockbusters.” He probably says something more along the lines of “What the hell?” The gentle reader should do likewise.

The Salon Formula

Here, I’m not going through the Salon story line by line, but if you’re a journalist, editor, or scholar of religion I invite you to do so. It’s strung together with rumour, innuendo, and boilerplate anti-cult material. (Eastern guru? Why yes, we have a stereotype that fits your needs…) The binding agent is hate, and stories fueled by hate often turn out to be bad journalism. This one’s no exception. It’s a cesspool of open libel. The author claims that “Even if one decides not to accept the sex allegations at face value, the Sri Chinmoy cult has many crimes to pick from.” Not one crime is specified.

As discussed below in greater detail, Sri Chinmoy Centre simply has no history of any criminal activity. Quite the opposite. Members of Community Board 8 in Queens, New York (where the group is headquartered) credit them with cleaning up the Glenn Avenue area in Jamaica Hill and keeping it safe for over 30 years. The Board voted unanimously in 2010 to approve the sale of city-owned land to Sri Chinmoy Centre based on the Centre’s demonstrated good stewardship.

To understand the mindset behind the Salon hatchet job, it helps to know where Edwin Lyngar’s coming from. He has virtually no experience in investigative journalism. 99% of his published work consists of personal confessions or opinions on news events. He describes himself as an “aggressive atheist” who is “hostile to religion,” and who writes “often self-indigent [sic] shit.” In a January 2015 Salon piece, Lyngar berates the left for not fighting dirty. He encourages “rhetorical bomb throwing” and putting out “really crazy stuff … even if you only half believe it. … See if it flies. If it doesn’t, screw it — just fix it up next time.” Is this what journalism has become?

Edwin Lyngar, famous for throwing out really crazy stuff he only half believes. But does he ever really fix it?

Edwin Lyngar, famous for throwing out really crazy stuff he only half believes. But does he ever really fix it?

Lyngar was used as an attack dog by Elizabeth Kracht. As his literary agent, she knew his pet peeves and obsessions, knew how to handfeed him false depictions which would push his moral outrage button and set him barking. There was no craft here, just Lyngar acting as a stenographer for a fabulist source, then adding his own pheromones to the mix.

The resulting libel would be of harm to any innocent person, but that harm is multiplied in the case of Sri Chinmoy, who had earned a good reputation in over forty years of service, and who moved and inspired thousands of people with his kindness and his love. Sri Chinmoy Centre likewise enjoys a good reputation in the community.

This was not investigative journalism or serious media criticism. The story was planted in Salon by Edwin Lyngar as a favor to his literary agent so she would find a publisher for his manuscript Guy Parts. It was a shameless quid pro quo that resulted in libel per se. Elizabeth Kracht had twisted personal motives for wanting to do a hatchet job on the kindly Sri Chinmoy, who was once her teacher and who always acted with integrity. She admits that in her sixteen years with Sri Chinmoy Centre, she never observed (or even heard of) any sexual abuse — unless it was her own “hot pursuit” of male followers, which she recounts with gusto on her blog. According to Ms. Kracht, that pursuit continued until the boys’ mother told her “in no uncertain terms” to “stay the hell away from her sons.”

elizabeth-kracht-kimberley-cameron-and-associates

Elizabeth Kracht of Kimberley Cameron & Associates

Salon never tried to contact Sri Chinmoy Centre prior to publication. But when Dr. Kusumita Pedersen — a Professor of Philosophy and Religion at St. Francis College, and co-chair of the Interfaith Center of New York — strongly objected to the published story’s falsity, Salon then updated the story to include an edited version of her comments. Salon also changed the title from “accused sex criminal” to “alleged sex criminal” (which is still both incorrect and libelous). Salon didn’t change the URL, which still reads “accused_sex_criminal.”

As Dr. Pedersen clearly indicated at the time, the Salon piece was not just an exaggeration, but a complete inversion of the narrative which defines Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre. (See sidebar on inverted narratives.) Hundreds of women and men who studied with Sri Chinmoy say that he helped them turn their lives around, by shining a spotlight on the good and noble part inside themselves. The outpouring of love at the time of his death in October 2007 was huge, and a memorial service held at the United Nations was attended by numerous ambassadors, dignitaries, and interfaith leaders.

Interfaith leaders gather at the U.N. to remember Sri Chinmoy

Interfaith leaders gather at the U.N. to celebrate the life of Sri Chinmoy

Who Was Sri Chinmoy?

This question goes to the heart of the Salon libel, which was meant to paper over the real Sri Chinmoy with a version more palatable to special interests. In truth, Sri Chinmoy was an agent for positive change — someone who stood for spiritual freedom and had a unique ability to create the sacred space around him, so that people who met him often experienced spiritual joy firsthand.

The Salon piece was not only factually wrong, it was also based on a false premise: that Sri Chinmoy had somehow gotten a free pass from “the media” and had never been subjected to critical examination. A broad survey shows that Sri Chinmoy received mixed press coverage, some of it tough — certainly nothing resembling a “love affair.” He was, after all, a counterculture figure — an Indian guru who came to America in 1964, who taught meditation and devotional yoga, and was a poet, artist, musician, and peace advocate. There are articles treating him with the ridicule and scorn often heaped on Eastern gurus, particularly in Murdochian tabloids.

Sri Chinmoy painting

Sri Chinmoy painting

Yet, by and large, Sri Chinmoy developed a reputation as one of the good ones. If meditation has become a household word — a recognized method for dealing with modern ills like stress, angst, materialism and meaninglessness — then Sri Chinmoy is one of those we have to thank. A 1976 piece in People Magazine noted that even among folk who weren’t inclined to accept an Indian guru, Sri Chinmoy stood out as being genuine.

He was a consistent, reassuring presence in the interfaith community for nigh on forty years, always active, always teaching, always setting a good example through his own high standard of conduct and comportment. He was beloved not because he was untested, but because he passed the test for authenticity with flying colors. His 1993 appearance opening the Parliament of the World’s Religions is particularly well-remembered. He did not speak, but only offered a meditation in silence.

Sri Chinmoy at the Parliament of the World's Religions, 1993

Sri Chinmoy at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, 1993

Sri Chinmoy found many allies in the interfaith community. Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman, in his introduction to The Wisdom of Sri Chinmoy (first published in 2000 by Blue Dove Press), writes:

Sri Chinmoy’s deep love for God is known worldwide. Long revered as a spiritual force for peace at the United Nations, this humble God-directed author asks people of this planet to look within, to rediscover the essential truths of spirituality that have so blessed his extraordinary life…

He is a champion of peace, attracting believers from all religions to see the oneness of the world. He suggests that true religions are recognized by forgiveness, tolerance, compassion, oneness and brotherhood. His work lends itself to a wide audience. Christians, Jews, Muslims and other believers will find many passages in his works of deep insight and helpful suggestion…

I find his works to be personally helpful. In an age when stress is real and it is hard to find the proper amount of time to pray, Sri Chinmoy reminded me that placing God at the center of my life, my work and my prayers will help me to make this a better, more peaceful world and to become the person of faith and love that I am called to be.

Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman

In a Newsweek article, Rabbi Marc Gellman similarly writes:

There are days when my hope wanes and when doubts corrode my faith. On those days I say that faith without reason is blind. But there are other days when I see miraculous things, and on those days I believe that faith without miracles is empty. When I awaken I am never certain what kind of day it will be. However, today I am standing behind Sri Chinmoy. On this day I remember the miraculous day of May 23, 2001, when Sri Chinmoy lifted me, my pal Father Tom Hartman, and a platform up into the air. Together — with the platform — we weighed more than 500 pounds (I had a very heavy cell phone in my pocket!). Sri Chinmoy took a seat underneath us and pushed up. With his two 70-year-old arms, he lifted us up into the air. … I am sad to see him go, but I know his journey continues and his strength endures in all those he lifted up into the air — either because he was really strong or because he knew the miraculous source of all true strength.

— Rabbi Marc Gellman, Newsweek

While press coverage of Sri Chinmoy was mixed, it does reveal a striking pattern: The most positive coverage was typically from news organizations who (unlike Salon) actually did the legwork: They sent reporters to cover a Sri Chinmoy related event, such as a meditation, concert, art exhibit, foot race, or charity drive. They scoped out the action and interviewed the people, finding out what they believed, what they practiced, and whether it all passed the smell test. They found the people to be sincere and the activities reflective of a genuine concern for the human condition. See this Newsday article about kids making dolls for children orphaned by AIDS. See also The New York Times, “Their Leader Gone, Devotees Gather at Spiritual Home” and NY Daily News, “Sri Chinmoy, spiritual leader, dies in Queens.” Also the Chicago Tribune, “Guru inspired harmony, French toast” (updated link to follow).

However, such stories based on sound journalistic technique found themselves in tension with a pre-existing narrative. This was a narrative crafted in the 1970s which portrayed all Eastern gurus as charlatans and abusers, a bad influence on our youth and a menace to society. This nativist stereotype became so prevalent that it was even satirized: “Santa Claus: A Dangerous Cult Leader!” (he abuses the elves).

As the once accommodating youth culture of the sixties split into political and spiritual factions which didn’t see eye to eye, left-wing media became all too eager to buy into the stereotype. If sixties youth considered it part of their mission to become both politically and spiritually aware, later generations tended to accept materialism as their default view, and to see politics through a materialist lens. This led to the view that all human problems could be solved through social activism alone, with no need for spiritual enlightenment. Partly due to its tussles with some right-wing Christians, the left began to associate all spiritual groups with constraints on freedom.

A Voice for Freedom

A paradox here is that Sri Chinmoy stood for freedom — not just spiritual freedom found through meditation, but also political freedom: freedom for East Timor. In nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, Prof. Utsahi St-Amand of the University of Ottawa cited this as one of his outstanding achievements. Now known as Timor-Leste, the new nation recently unveiled a statue of Sri Chinmoy at its National Parliament in honour of his contributions to their journey to independence. They had previously awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2004.

For those familiar with that nation’s history and struggles, the moment when leaders who had fought each other so bitterly joined hands around the peace torch was truly a miracle of peace.

Sri Chinmoy also championed freedom in art. He drew innumerable “soul-birds” symbolizing the freedom of the soul, a theme he also explored in lyric poetry, song, and thunderous keyboard improvisations. One of the sayings by his friend Nelson Mandela which Sri Chinmoy set to music was: “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom.” In a letter marking the August 2008 (posthumous) exhibit of Sri Chinmoy’s paintings in the lobby of the U.N. Secretariat Building, President Mandela wrote:

We are a single humanity. We must work together, united as one, to build a world of justice and harmony for all. Within each of us lies the power to build a world where we respect each other’s beliefs, understand each other’s culture, and support each other’s values — a world where hatred, pain and suffering have no place. This is the great cause of world peace to which my dear friend Sri Chinmoy devoted his life, and to which his Paintings for World Harmony at the United Nations are dedicated.

— President Nelson Mandela

Sri Chinmoy with Winnie and Nelson Mandela

Sri Chinmoy with Winnie and Nelson Mandela

Writing for Newsweek about the same exhibit, Katie Baker said:

With military scuffles breaking out from the Caucuses to the Philippines, it’s hard not to be cynical when the U.N. hosts an exhibit entitled “Paintings for World Harmony.” But in this case, the artist warrants a suspension of disbelief: the acrylics are by Sri Chinmoy, the recently deceased humanitarian who campaigned tirelessly for tolerance and peace. In the course of his travels, Chinmoy also found time to complete thousands of paintings — mostly airy and free-spirited bird prints — which have found permanent homes in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in St. Petersburg. The current show, which will go on a world tour after its stint in New York, displays 25 miniatures by Chinmoy on the theme of getting along globally.

— Katie Baker, Newsweek

Sri Chinmoy also championed women’s freedom and helped women to excel in new areas, such as breaking down barriers in women’s sports. Female members of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team have chalked up numerous English Channel swims, including this July 2011 one by Abhejali Bernardová.

They’ve also garnered renown in ultra distance running, with Suprabha Beckjord challenging distances few men would dare attempt. In 2009, indie filmmaker Jessie Beers-Altman made a film called The Spirit of a Runner about Beckjord’s participation in the Everest of distance racing: the annual Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. In August 2014, Sarah Barnett became the first Australian woman to complete this race.

Runners in the Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race

Runners in the Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race

At the opening ceremony of the 2008 World Harmony Run — an international relay run for peace founded by Sri Chinmoy — tennis legend Billie Jean King received the Torch-Bearer Award and held aloft the torch for peace.

 Bille Jean King holds the peace torch at the opening ceremony for the 2008 World Harmony Run

Bille Jean King holds the peace torch at the opening ceremony for the 2008 World Harmony Run

Women’s progress takes many forms, and can’t be limited to only the secular. Writing on Feministing, Kimberly George observes that “When we assume women of faith are ‘irrational,’ we elide their agency, and worse yet, we tend to marginalize important players in women’s history — because the truth is, women’s history is infused with super smart religious women who are writers, peace-keepers, reformers, and political agents.”

Students of Sri Chinmoy perform devotional songs at a church in Zermatt, nestled at the foot of the Swiss Alps.

To understand a thing we need to look at the thing itself and see it for what it is, freeing ourselves from prejudice. These women are not the enemy — unless, of course, you’re trying to form a circular firing squad. Liberal freedoms include the freedom to devote one’s life to peace and beauty. Anti-cult material which attempts to criminalize minority choices or falsely portray such choices as abusive is inconsistent with freedom and egalitarianism.

To understand a spiritual group requires basic human empathy. If we begin by “otherizing” spiritual groups or are obsessed with discrediting them, this will act as a heavy-handed filter of information and an impediment to understanding (and thus to journalistic accuracy). A helpful way to respond to unfamiliar faith groups is through tolerance and by learning firsthand what they believe and practice.

Sri Chinmoy helped people around the world set up spiritual communities where they can devote themselves to the things they love and which matter to them most. Many of these communities were founded by women and have women in strong leadership roles. These women have come to exemplify a new type of feminism. They are strong in mind, strong in heart, strong in limb, and would not put up with abuse from anyone.

British devotees of Sri Chinmoy

British devotees of Sri Chinmoy

Sri Chinmoy’s teachings are an open book thanks to his huge literary output, the many talks and interviews he gave, the thousands of questions that he answered, and the visual record of his activities and the activities of his followers. There are also numerous articles in bona fide encyclopedias of religion verifying that what he taught was consistent with yoga philosophy and practice. One would labour in vain to find any trace of hatred or sectarianism in his teachings. Throughout his life, he stated and restated the principle that:

Spirituality is not merely tolerance. It is not even acceptance. It is the feeling of universal oneness. In our spiritual life, we look upon the Divine, not only in terms of our own God, but in terms of everybody else’s God. Our spiritual life firmly and securely establishes the basis of unity in diversity. Spirituality is not mere hospitality to others’ faith in God. It is the absolute recognition and acceptance of their faith in God as one’s own.

— Sri Chinmoy, Yoga and the Spiritual Life, Agni Press, 1971

To society, Sri Chinmoy was a gentle voice of inspiration. To those who applied to study with him and were accepted, he was a spiritual guide. This is an important distinction, because Sri Chinmoy never tried to impose his views on society or tell worldly people how they should think or act. His counsel was reserved for those who eagerly sought it out, and who identified themselves as spiritual seekers. He was the leader of a voluntary spiritual community, and that community was never large because — as Philip Goldberg implies in American Veda — relatively few people were prepared to lead the modest, chaste lifestyle known traditionally as brahmacharya.

Many of his faithful students who remained with him and did not abandon their studies have written books or articles about their lifetime of experiences with Sri Chinmoy. These are not always as easy to locate as populist accounts written by apostates, but are far more accurate, and more consistent with scholarly material and with the visual record. To interview only those few former students now associated with anti-cult groups is a type of media bias.

The Salon piece reads like a compendium of bad stereotypes and mischaracterizations strung together by hate. It’s impossible to refute everything in just one article, because Salon appeals to a bumper sticker mentality, while the truth is subtle and complex.

I would note that Sri Chinmoy encouraged parents to be extremely loving, caring and responsible toward their children. His book A Child’s Heart and a Child’s Dreams is filled with love and concern for children and good advice for parents.

The notion that followers of Sri Chinmoy shun medical treatment is absurd. Some of them are medical doctors themselves, and in addition to their regular practice, they often help out their fellows with medical advice and treatment.

A Criminal Organization?

Who is actually harmed by the Salon libel? Not Sri Chinmoy the person, who died in 2007, though certainly his legacy is harmed. In the strict legal sense, it is Sri Chinmoy Centre which is harmed.

Female followers of Sri Chinmoy mourn his death in October 2007. New York Times photo.

Followers of Sri Chinmoy mourn his death in October 2007. (New York Times)

Who are the people of Sri Chinmoy Centre? To answer this question, we need to understand how the spiritual landscape has changed since the 1960s. When Sri Chinmoy first began teaching, a roughly equal number of men and women were drawn to his “path of the heart.” Men felt empowered to seek spiritual knowledge, to go on a vision quest. Even the word “devotion” could take on a masculine quality.

Sri Chinmoy with two of his early followers at the time, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Devadip Carlos Santana. November 1975 photo from a free concert held at the Central Park Bandshell.

Sri Chinmoy with two of his early followers at the time, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Devadip Carlos Santana. March 1975, Central Park Bandshell.

But in recent decades, while women’s interest in meditation and devotional yoga has continued or even increased, men’s interest seems to have waned. In some male circles, Vedanta philosophy has been replaced by Viagra philosophy. Power tools and ultimate fighting have regained their lustre as masculine image-enhancers. Courses in meditation are often attended by more women than men.

This phenomenon is also reflected at Sri Chinmoy Centre, where women have come to outnumber men and to assume strong leadership positions. Hate material vilifying Sri Chinmoy Centre also targets this demographic, by falsely claiming that women who follow Sri Chinmoy’s teachings are forced to become concubines or lesbians. The people most harmed by this libel are women — women who have the courage to make minority spiritual choices, and to stick by them even when harassed.

The Sri Chinmoy disciple experience: blissing out on a Christmas trip to a far-off land

The Sri Chinmoy disciple experience: blissing out on a Christmas trip to a far-off land

We should not be misled by the fact that anti-cult groups frequently use third party technique to try and discredit bona fide spiritual groups. Just as some anti-feminists flaunted by the right are women, some apostates flaunted (or made mascots) by anti-cult groups are also women. This doesn’t make the libel published by Salon any less false or any less destructive.

As for the idea that Sri Chinmoy Centre is a criminal organization, this is completely ridiculous, and (again) is an inversion of the narrative which accurately defines them. Sri Chinmoy Centre is headquartered in Jamaica, Queens in the middle of New York City. Writing about the sub-neighborhood of Jamaica Hills, Diana Shaman noted in The New York Times that it’s a “tranquil haven for many ethnic groups”:

Local houses of worship often had an influence on who settled in the area. Jewish families arrived in the 1930’s with the construction of nearby synagogues. A large influx of Greek families came in the 1960’s because of the St. Demetrious Greek Orthodox Church on 152nd Street just west of Parsons Boulevard, which opened in 1963.

In the last decade, followers of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian spiritual leader who lives in neighboring Briarwood, have moved in. Residents say sect members are good neighbors because they are quiet and law-abiding. In general, residents say, crime is not a concern here though some homeowners say that students attending Jamaica High School and the Thomas A. Edison school litter and create noise.

— Diana Shaman, The New York Times

In July 2011, The Wall Street Journal did a video piece about the 3100-mile race being held by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team. It included an interview with a neighborhood resident who talked about how safe she felt with the Sri Chinmoy people being out from 6 AM to midnight for the race. The report also suggested a good working relationship with the Police and Parks Departments. (See also “Ultra Marathon is a Winner for the Neighborhood” in the Queens Free Press.)

But the capper is this 2010 article in the TimesLedger:

CB 8 takes step to allow Sri Chinmoy land buy

Community Board 8 passed a resolution last week that brings the Sri Chinmoy Centre Church’s plan to purchase city land considered sacred by members one step closer to reality.

Board members unanimously passed the proposal to de-map Glenn Avenue in Jamaica Hill, which must happen before the city can sell the land to the Jamaica Hill church. Church members have maintained the Glenn Avenue area for the past 30 years, when the place had originally fallen into disrepair.

“It was a terrible eyesore, and Sri Chinmoy adopted it and became a very good steward of it,” said Steve Konigsberg, chairman of the CB 8 Zoning Committee. “They sort of turned it into a utopia.”

Glenn Avenue is located next to land the group already owns on which there is a tennis court and a meditation garden.

“It’s sacred area for us because our teacher used it,” said Ashrita Furman, the Sri Chinmoy Centre Church’s treasurer. “Because years ago we cleaned it up, it’s now a nice, open green space and we want to keep it that way.”

Sri Chinmoy was a spiritual teacher from India who died in 2007.

Church members have wanted to own the area, located around the intersection of 85th Avenue and 164th Street in Jamaica Hill, for decades, but Furman said they have been caught up in bureaucracy and have been unable to purchase it. The area was once riddled with problems, when it was a gathering spot for drug addicts, but 30 years ago church members cleaned it up despite the fact the city would not sell it to them.

“Once the city stopped using it 75 years ago, when it was used for a trolley track, it fell into disrepair and people would go there and engage in illegal dumping and drug activity,” City Councilman Jim Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) said. “People would use it as a lover’s lane. There would be mattresses back there. It was a blight, but then Sri Chinmoy cleaned it up at their own expense. They have protected the area from these tawdry people.”

— Anna Gustafson, TimesLedger

This area is mostly residential homes, and these board members know their neighborhood! They would not vote unanimously to sell land to Sri Chinmoy Centre if they didn’t know from decades of personal experience that these are good, law-abiding citizens who open up small businesses like vegetarian restaurants and flower shops which brighten the area and lessen crime. One such is Annam Brahma restaurant, a neighborhood pillar for over 40 years, owned and operated by two sisters: Nishtha and Pranika Baum.

Annam Brahma vegetarian restaurant

Annam Brahma vegetarian restaurant

Sri Chinmoy was a noble soul whose contributions to the world culture of peace, the upliftment of women, and his own Queens neighborhood were well-documented. For Salon to portray him as a criminal in order to generate clicks is offensive to those who knew Sri Chinmoy and know the integrity of the organization he founded. It’s also offensive to anyone who cares about journalistic integrity and preserving the public trust. Truth matters.

Salon and Corruption

While Salon criticizes The New York Times for remaining committed to fact-based journalism, with the Sri Chinmoy story Salon has sunk to new lows in what Paul Krugman calls “post-truth politics … in which no argument is ever dropped, no matter how overwhelming the evidence that it’s wrong.” Given that the Salon piece was so massively wrong, how did it even see the light of day? To borrow a meme from MST3K, “They just didn’t care.” But publishing industry corruption also played a role.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a closer look at the corruption factor, and the obsessions of a woman scorned (Elizabeth Kracht). Plus a stopover at bankruptcy court with Celia Corona-Doran! (Start hiding your assets now.)

For me personally, the only way to write about this debacle is to inject a little humour, as an antidote to the very real pain experienced by the Sri Chinmoy community (for which I do not speak) in response to Salon’s unfair cyber attack. This is different than when Salon ran a false story claiming that comedian Steve Martin sent a racist tweet. Steve Martin is not in a helping profession, and does not rely on a pristine reputation or a relationship of trust with the public in order to carry out his day-to-day activities. Sri Chinmoy Centre does.

Elsewhere, I’ve written extensively about the problem of harassment of minority spiritual groups, including the circulation of vilification material as a de facto means of curtailing their civil rights. I’ve often quoted cyber civil rights advocate Danielle Keats Citron, and do so once again:

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, from “Cyber Civil Rights”

Here in Part 1, I’ve tried to lay the groundwork for discussing issues which can be complex and subtle. On the one hand, media entertain and inform us, and some of the information they provide is genuinely useful. On the other hand, media can be manipulated and may be unreliable on certain issues due to excessive populism, or a tendency to filter information through a pre-existing commercial, political, or materialist mindset. Extremely biased reporting can reach the level of a cyber attack.

In Part 2, we’ll get into more specifics about how the Salon story went wrong. We’ll examine other material written by Celia Corona-Doran which contradicts her statements in Salon. We’ll consider the history, motivations and biases of the protagonists, with an eye to understanding the mechanics of the fraud. And since the Salon piece seeks to demonize the “religious other,” we’ll explore the question: How do I otherize thee? Let me count the ways… (Be sure and read the sidebar (below) on “inverted narratives.”)

If time permits, we’ll also tackle the often baffling phenomenon of apostasy. For a preview of that discussion, see “Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics.” See also:

False Salon Story: What was said at the time
How far would you go to get a book deal?
Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign
Ketan Tamm Memorial

If you can help with this story, please do. Help is desperately needed, and the Rolling Stone debacle provides a teachable moment for debunking another story gone horribly wrong, one which vilifies innocents.

Michael Howard

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


Sidebar: Inverted Narratives

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 targets 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 (e.g. the pseudonymous “Ryan” used as a stand-in for the whole Phi Kappa Psi fraternity).

Mary Anne Franks, an important writer on cyberspace freedom, discusses how people often turn to the Internet in hope of discovering “a utopian realm of the mind where all can participate equally, free from social, historical, and physical restraints.” Yet, cyberspace reality has its dark side, often unacknowledged. She writes:

Cyberspace idealism drastically downplays the Internet’s power to activate discriminatory stereotypes and social scripts. This Article focuses on the particular discriminatory phenomenon of the unwilling avatar. In stark contrast to the way users exert control over their online identities, the creation of unwilling avatars involves invoking individuals’ real bodies for the purposes of threatening, defaming, or sexualizing them without consent. Sometimes the creation of unwilling avatars takes a very literal form: for example, hacking into the account of a gamer and using her avatar as though it were your own, or creating a false profile of a real person on a social networking site. Other examples of unwilling avatars are more figurative. For example, women have been targeted for ‘revenge porn,’ a practice where ex-boyfriends and husbands post to the web sexually explicit photographs and videos of them without their consent. … Female law school students also become unwilling avatars when they are targeted by graphic and violent sexual threads at message boards such as AutoAdmit.com. In most cases of cyberspace harassment, the perpetrators use pseudonyms while identifying their targets not only by name but often also with private information such as home addresses and social security numbers. This informational asymmetry further aggravates the inequality resulting from cyberspace harassment.

— Mary Anne Franks, “Unwilling Avatars: Idealism And Discrimination In Cyberspace” 

I would hasten to add that men are also targeted, though not with the same frequency as women. And not all revenge porn is photographic or videographic. A sub-genre is the use of fictional narratives, storytelling, or negative “testimonials” by hate groups to portray real persons as committing sexual acts which they have never committed in real life. This is a way of “sexualizing them without consent” — fake revenge porn using words instead of pictures.

This points to parallels between the Rolling Stone and Salon stories: The detailed, graphic, but fictional portrayal of Phi Kappa Psi members engaging in sexual violence was a type of generic revenge porn, punishing innocent young men for the crimes presumed by the author to have been committed by some fraternities somewhere. That story invoked fraternity members’ real bodies for the purpose of sexualizing them without consent. Likewise, Salon’s false portrayal of Sri Chinmoy as a “sex criminal” was a type of revenge porn which sought to punish him for the crimes committed by a generic stereotype ingrained in popular culture: the abusive guru who is a charlatan and a scoundrel. A false image of the real Sri Chinmoy was invoked in order to sexualize him without consent.

In both stories, problems ensue when the targeted individuals or groups turn out not to resemble the stereotypes and not to have engaged in wrongdoing. Their wrongdoing only exists in the tabloids or on the Internet, but not in the real world. In other words, they’re only guilty of wrongdoing in someone else’s socially constructed reality, not the fact-based reality journalists are supposed to live in and be concerned with.

When Edwin Lyngar berates The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal for not publishing hate material about Sri Chinmoy, he’s only displaying his own ignorance of the journalistic process, including the need to question and corroborate stories considered “too good to be true” (such as those pandering to his anti-religious bias). The Internet is particularly prone to false stories which are socially constructed and are meant to serve as “invalidation myths” a la Kallen. People may become emotionally invested in such stories, but that doesn’t make them any truer. (See this post for more on the use of fictional narratives by hate groups.)

One of the ways that people are harassed on the Internet is by locating the narrative which would normally define them and inverting it in cruel and offensive ways. So, in the case of young women attending Yale Law School, we would normally think of them as bright and capable. But in the AutoAdmit scandal (see this Washington Post article for starters), they were misportrayed as brainless, sexually promiscuous, and only getting into Yale by performing sexual favours for female admissions officers.

Pick a minority and there are ready-made inversions available. In the case of minority spiritual groups, if they lead a pure lifestyle and are devoted to some saintly figure, they may be misportrayed as leading a depraved, immodest lifestyle, and as enslaved to a dangerous “cult leader” who is caricaturized as both a fiend and a charlatan.

There’s a connection between the AutoAdmit.com scandal and the Salon.com scandal. Forgive me if I wax Rachel Maddowish to explain it: You know those young female lawyers who got into Yale? You know it’s just because they’re lesbians, right? No straight woman wants to be a lawyer. And you know those women who pray and meditate and sing spiritual songs? You know they’re lesbians too, right? They don’t wanna be, but the cult leader forces ’em. They’re brainwashed to become lesbians and open up vegetarian restaurants. It’s partly the lack of beef that does it…

The serious point to be made is that this type of anti-cult material harasses women, and does so by trying to attach negative stereotypes associated with one minority group (lesbians) to a different minority group (Eastern spiritual seekers). The harassers don’t even have the decency to add the standard Seinfeld disclaimer (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that…”).

The difficulty of escaping such inversions and caricatures for minority spiritual groups is that there’s typically no one in society looking out for their interests. College-educated segments of the population who’ve been exposed to a broad range of views may easily recognize and reject sexist or racist depictions, but may never have had a course in comparative religion, and may tacitly accept hateful stereotypes of religious minorities when fed them, not having learned to do otherwise. That’s why it’s important to teach tolerance as a universal principle, rather than working from a short list of approved minorities. (See Andrew Kutt, Living In Harmony.)

Salon’s attempt to use Sri Chinmoy Centre for clickbait and make them the Liberal Outrage of the Week is idiotic considering that when women make minority spiritual choices, they’re exercising hard-won liberal freedoms — the freedom to be different, and to engage in community-building on their terms, not somebody else’s.

Temple-Song-Hearts, a women’s music group started by followers of Sri Chinmoy, now in its 26th year.

As the Supreme Court has said, freedom of mind encompasses the “freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse,” and the “right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.” Those who have truly understood Jeffersonian freedom of mind will therefore celebrate spiritual diversity and not attempt to suppress minority faiths by foul means.

The liberal left (to which I happen to belong) includes many Catholics, Jews, and other spiritual minorities who believe in working toward a more tolerant and compassionate society, and who believe that government can help. Liberal values are not about destroying faith, but about balancing faith with freedom and tolerance so that each person can find the space they need to survive, thrive, and choose what’s right for them. For some people that might mean making mainstream secular choices, while for others it might mean choosing spiritual alternatives.

Hate propaganda falsely portraying spiritual alternatives as abusive is meant to rob people of their free choice by artificially closing off spiritual pathways. Yet, reality is a rich enough phenomenon to accommodate both secular and sacred lifestyles. Those who work toward peace and freedom through primarily spiritual rather than political means are also making a meaningful contribution. There’s no reason to vilify or harass them.

Both the Rolling Stone and Salon stories were highly propagandistic. In both cases, the technique used by the writer was to try and reduce real people to cultural stereotypes. In Erdely’s case, this entailed fudging the data to make Phi Kappa Psi out to be a group of brutal gang-rapers. In Lyngar’s case, it entailed fudging the data to make Sri Chinmoy out to be an abusive guru straight from central casting, and the peace organization he founded to be a criminal enterprise.

One important difference is that in the Rolling Stone debacle, the groups in conflict were somewhat evenly matched — the power differential between them was not huge. So when Erdely engaged in over-the-top stereotyping of a Southern fraternity and falsely accused them of being sex criminals, there were people who noticed the misrepresentations and cared enough to debunk the story.

Sadly, in the year since Salon published its false story about Sri Chinmoy, either no one noticed or no one cared. That is very hard, and does point to a power differential. I’m making a personal plea to mainstream media, media watchers, and influential bloggers to please investigate this matter and help right the wrong. I can’t do it alone.

Michael Howard

Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy

Exploring the spiritual web of trust and remaining true to ethics, right speech, and right action. Avoiding spiritual fakery.

I recently completed a five-part series on “The ACLU and Religious Freedom” which actually covered many topics related to faith and reason, apostasy, anti-cult groups, faux therapy, and the victim mentality. That series was largely analytical, but I wanted to follow up with some comments which are more personal and philosophical, plus some good old-fashioned ranting. 😉

The type of faux therapy discussed in Part 2 — whether practised formally or by a loose-knit group on the Internet — robs former spiritual seekers of something precious: of a valuable relationship (with the spiritual teacher), and of what they had previously achieved in the spiritual life.

To borrow a quote from Doctor Who: “Every life is a pile of good things and bad things.”

When people pray, meditate, and engage in selfless work, they add to their pile of good things. But when people become doubting and hostile, and consciously try to take away the faith of others, this negates the good things and adds to their pile of bad things, their negative karma.

Life is cyclic; people sometimes go through phases which are more spiritual or less so. A wise person gradually adds to their pile of goods things, and even during a less spiritual phase they don’t subtract from it by committing acts which are spiritually destructive. In this way, they make gradual progress.

Even a squirrel has this much wisdom: that it gathers nuts for as long as it can, and when deep winter has set in and it can no longer gather, it enjoys the benefit of its good labours. But some spiritual seekers foolishly throw away all the good they have worked hard to accrue, casting it to the four winds so that it is scattered and wasted.

(Of course, with a wry smile I can say that attorney Joe Kracht is good at “gathering nuts” and turning them into witnesses for mock show trials, where he is both judge and jury and no defense is permitted.)

When a dog does not wish to enjoy food, the dog will sometimes urinate on it so that no one else can enjoy its good taste. Like this, some former seekers are carried away by their impetuous nature or by bad counsel. They try to destroy what they had built in concert with others, or they try and make the spiritual life unpleasant or unpalatable for others. They foolishly imagine that because they once helped to build something, that means they also have the right to break it. But building and breaking are not ethically equivalent.

You may earn high praise for helping to build something, but if you try and break that very thing, you may be sent to jail or suffer other consequences. Therefore, if you cannot do good, at least make a firm resolve to do no harm. This strategy will help you survive a spiritually low period, secure in the knowledge that such a period does not last forever.

A wise seeker recognizes that he is an eternal traveler. As a human being, his nature is mixed. He may still be troubled by desire and ambition, he may still have some destructive tendencies, but still he is trying to move toward the light. Even if his nature rebels against the difficulty of the spiritual quest, still he tries to gradually tame his nature and to refrain from becoming an outwardly destructive person. He knows that what he destroys today he will only have to rebuild tomorrow; he knows that if he causes other seekers to fall by injecting his doubts into them, then he will become karmically responsible for their suffering — suffering they would not have had to endure were it not for his wrong actions.

Building is synonymous with self-giving, and self-giving is a universal constant recognized as a virtue in both spiritual and humanistic philosophies. Often we see that the pinnacle of self-giving is reached by those who have purified their hearts through spiritual practice. (More here.) How does a great ultra runner like Sarah Barnett manage to complete 3100 miles? It is through heart-power, through dedication and selflessness. For 50 days she dedicates herself one-pointedly to the task of running, and afterward she basks in the joy of knowing that she has given her all. It is not just a physical, but a spiritual achievement, and at the core of it lies self-giving.

To become more self-giving is a great adventure, and is something people do as a means of self-improvement, to perfect their own nature. If they practice at it, then slowly and steadily they may improve. But occasionally one encounters people whose nature is brittle. Something in them snaps. They completely reject the years they spent in spiritual practice, and become more selfish than they ever were before. They become obsessed with discrediting the spiritual ideals and movements they formerly embraced. This type of negative ego reaction is something one has to guard against. One simple suggestion I would offer which applies equally to people of all faiths is to always try and be a good-hearted person, not mean-spirited or vindictive. If you have given, do not regret giving.

You have to be honest about why you chose to lead a self-giving life. It’s because you saw the wisdom in it, and because for many years it gave you joy. If you’re not honest with yourself, then you have no hope of regaining what you lost.

Just because someone has experienced a rebellion in their nature doesn’t mean their spiritual progress has to end. Some people have these extremes within them, so they progress by lurching from side to side. It is not ideal, but it is workable. After a period in which you have become doubting, selfish, and hostile, you can gradually bring yourself back to the starting point and once again begin to practice self-giving, which includes both inner charity and outer charity.

The outer charity we know: to give money or volunteer one’s time. But what is the inner charity? To think good thoughts, to feel kindness, sympathy, and love towards others, to feel gratitude to God.

Bad counsel may come in the form of apostates who urge people to burn their spiritual bridges behind them, to loudly and public denounce their faith. This is sheer stupidity when we understand that we are eternal travelers, that life is cyclic, and that we need to accomplish as much as we can in a spiritual phase, then hold onto it — do nothing to destroy it.

Just as worldly people have their pride, there is also Divine Pride — the pride which will have nothing to do with a person who has become false or treacherous, or who consciously and deliberately tries to sabotage others’ spiritual efforts. If you take bad counsel and burn all your spiritual bridges behind you, if you become a “spiritual saboteur,” then how will you cycle back to a spiritual phase of life? The spiritual world will disown you, and spiritual people will want nothing to do with you.

In Part 3 I talked about anti-cult groups which put on spiritual trappings or a spiritual veneer in order to fool people. These groups are populated by apostates and are primarily concerned with opposing or undermining bona fide faith groups, but they try and generate interest by disguising or mislabeling their activities. I talked in particular about “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 much of “Abode of Yoga” consists of apostate testimonials of the why-I-left-the-cult variety (and some fake revenge porn), the site’s name, artwork, and header quote are all designed to imply that one is visiting a spiritual site rather than an anti-cult site — to pull in people with positive spiritual interest who would not knowingly visit an anti-cult site.

Spiritual seekers tend to seek out spiritually supportive venues, and spiritual experiences tend to occur in a spiritual set and setting where there is support for them — a sacred space. When people leave the sacred space and immerse themselves in an environment which is doubting or hostile, they may find it difficult to retain their spiritual experiences or to have faith in their reality. They cannot make sense of these experiences apart from the sacred space, so back in the secular world they tend to passively accept the explanation that they must have been “brainwashed.” This can easily lead to an alienation syndrome in which they blame a spiritual teacher who only tried to help them, and whose counsel they actively sought at the time.

Truth must be lived. There’s a sense in which one can only understand spirituality by practising it; one can only understand devotion by feeling it; and one can only understand the essence of a mango by tasting it. This view is not totally illogical. After all, one can only understand differential calculus by studying it. Idle opinions from those who never cracked the book or who long ago abandoned their studies count for little.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, one way media bias operates is by choosing to interview a failed student rather than a successful one. If someone (by their own admission) lost spiritual interest as soon as they discovered dating, how much can they possibly tell us about spirituality? We may like Gidget, but can we really trust her advice on deep metaphysical matters?

Gidget — a nice girl to date (if you’re 16), but maybe not a profound source of spiritual wisdom.

Gidget — a nice girl to date (if you’re 16), but maybe not a profound source of spiritual wisdom.

Because the secular world has developed a supercilious attitude toward spiritual groups, populist media tend to pay more attention to palpably foolish sources. They interview Gidget and overlook Radha — overlook knowledgeable adherents who never broke with their faith and continued on with their studies. Such adherents tend to have a more mature understanding of what it means to lead a spiritual life. They are able to explain the teachings of a spiritual master.

Those with an immature or even hostile attitude are often turned into media darlings or mascots by the anti-cult movement, despite lacking spiritual insight. Anyone bagging groceries at a Trader Joe’s can become a “cult expert” on the Internet.

An apostate account saying “I used to be self-giving but that was all rubbish — now I’m materialistic” will be hoisted to the skies, billboarded, and given maximum bandwidth on the information superhighway. Such a view panders to what many materialistic people want to believe: that spirituality is all pie in the sky. One can even make money hawking this view, but just because it’s marketable doesn’t make it true.

There is a confluence of interests who want to persuade us that the purpose of life is production, consumption, and procreation. Spiritual teachers who say that the purpose of life is self-knowledge and self-giving are going against the grain. No matter how kindly and politely they try to deliver the message of renunciation, they are apt to be hated for it — even by those who asked to receive their teachings.

Likewise, there is a confluence of interests who want to persuade us that every human problem can be solved solely through politics and social programs. At times, these interests also form a powerful bloc which stands against those who rightly claim that human beings are not merely political, social, or material creatures.

As I discussed in Part 5, human beings also have genuine spiritual needs. For human progress to be meaningful it must balance material progress with spiritual progress. This balance has gotten out of whack, which is the root cause of many people’s unhappiness. The latest upgrade to “Materialism 2.0″ won’t solve this core problem. I strongly favour universal health care and similar programs, but we also need to honestly acknowledge our spiritual needs, and to create a culture which is broadly supportive of spiritual practice, rather than tending to be hostile to it. In short, we need more religious freedom.

In practical terms, this means respecting the integrity of sacred spaces, not trying to destroy them literally or figuratively — neither burning them down, nor circulating hate propaganda (in the form of misinformation) intended to discredit them, thus severely limiting their influence and ability to function. (See Part 4).

One way of undermining sacred spaces is by substituting insipid imitations: fake spiritual groups for real ones, even fake spiritual functionaries. China has taken the latter ploy to embarrassing extremes. See the NPR news story “Tibetans Reject China’s Panchen Lama,” which states:

In 1995, the Chinese [government] rejected the Panchen Lama chosen by the exiled Dalai Lama and had him taken away, along with his family. He has not been seen since. On April 13 [2011], the Chinese-chosen Panchen Lama made his first international appearance, advocating for national unity [as opposed to Tibetan independence]. Tibetan Buddhists, however, reject the Panchen.”

There’s a Chinese saying: “Hanging out a sheep’s head to sell dog meat.” This is exactly what the Chinese government is doing with their fake Panchen Lama. This tactic is also employed by U.S. anti-cultists, e.g., parading around a fake “Chosen One” who disavows spiritual teachings and stumps for materialism. It’s also the tactic used by attorney Joe Kracht in creating a fake spiritual site in order to circulate anti-cult material of a salacious nature. This is seen as unethical by people who value truth in labeling, integrity of purpose, and respect for sacred spaces.

Again, when we pray, meditate, and do selfless service we add to our pile of good things. But when we engage in low gossip on Facebook, we don’t accrue any spiritual merit from that. Quite the opposite! If with a posion tongue we attack those who are good and do good — if we desecrate the memory of a realized spiritual teacher — we are only adding to our pile of bad things.

A respected spiritual group like Sri Chinmoy Centre is respected precisely because for over forty years it has been a reliable source of quality information about meditation, yoga, and the spiritual life. That source was Sri Chinmoy himself, who developed a sterling reputation in the interfaith community, and was known to be an authentic teacher of bhakti yoga who never wavered in his commitment to spiritual truth and the highest ethical standards. He was a deeply good and spiritual person.

It’s no wonder that groups and individuals peddling something foul would try to piggy-back on his sterling reputation; but genuine truth-seekers should accept no substitutes. Perhaps a better label for the anti-cult activities of Joe Kracht, Gary Falk and Anne Carlton would be “Fugazi Disciple Experience.” They are spiritual fakes, and I would not trouble them if their fakery remained their own private misfortune. But they try to mislead genuine truth-seekers, and therefore pose some danger to the general public. That’s why I feel the need to speak honestly about their public activities. I mean no personal offense.

The problem may be understood in terms of a “web of trust.” On the Internet and in cryptography, this term is used to describe people or entities that are known to be trustworthy. They have been found trustworthy by a community, or they have presented proper credentials.

Despite the tremendous diversity found in the interfaith community, many spiritual leaders have been active for decades in meeting with others at the Parliament of the World’s Religions and similar venues. These leaders have become known quantities in the broader spiritual community, and have been found to be trustworthy through extensive personal dealings. It’s extremely difficult to impeach their reputation or portray them as monsters because everyone knows them and knows their inherent goodness. A person of no reputation who tries to attack a person who has built up a good reputation through innumerable acts of kindness and benevolence will find it quite difficult.

Therefore, the tactic of some anti-cult groups is to infiltrate the web of trust. They know they lack a reputation of their own, so they piggy-back their activities on the good reputation of the organizations they oppose, through mislabeling and impersonation. Apostates who have lost or squandered all their faith, all their devoted qualities, and who left a spiritual group 10, 20 or even 35 years ago, nonetheless try to gain publicity by misappropriating the name, symbols, and icons of the group they oppose, thus infiltrating the web of trust.

YogaloyThe deception does not always end at the front door, with mislabeling. It may run deeper, as in the case of people who have returned to worldly life, but who want to be known by the spiritual name they used 20 years ago — pulled out of mothballs, as it were. By this means they hope to gain credibility with the current faithful, and to likewise persuade them to abandon their faith. Their approach, in practical terms, is something like this: “Oh, you know me. This guru said I was an angel! Therefore, if I tell you now is the time to start doubting and suspecting, you have to believe me.”

Yes, that guru once said you were an angel, at a time when you were acting most angelically; but since then you have discovered doubt and treachery. You have completely disavowed your former spiritual life. You are acting like an ingrate, not an angel. I don’t need your doubt! Your spiritual practice of 20 years ago doesn’t entitle you to harass or impersonate the teacher who once gave you shelter, helped you when you needed help, and taught you the abc’s of spirituality.

In this way, when people make a very definite decision to abandon their spiritual practice and to snatch away the faith of others, we may need to revoke their credentials so that they’re no longer part of our web of trust. Otherwise, they can drag us through all kinds of suffering. They may come to us in the guise of friendship, but in many devious ways they will try to influence us negatively. Of course, I’m not saying we should hate anyone or treat them unkindly. But in important spiritual matters, our web of trust should consist of those we know to be spiritually trustworthy today, not those who use yesterday’s faded credentials to gain entrée and wreak havoc.

The Internet presents unique challenges. It differs markedly from the real world. In the real world, Park Avenue is not next to the Bowery. To go from Park Avenue to the Bowery, you will have to pass through stages, going from neighborhood to neighborhood. There is some physical distance, and you will notice the scenery changing. When you reach the Bowery, no one can put up a sign that says “Park Avenue” and fool you, because the surroundings are totally different. The Bowery itself has a different look and smell.

But on the web, everything is one click away, and it’s so easy to put up fake scenery! Just as there are “phishing” sites which are made to look like Yahoo or Citibank (but aren’t), there are sites which put up a fake spiritual veneer, but actually specialize in doubt. The way these sites are designed, they implicitly say: “Trust me, I’m a spiritual person and a friend.” But when you trust them, you suffer. You find that you are put in direct contact with the worst kind of doubt, which destroys all of your inner purity sooner than at once. (Call it “spiritual malware” if you like.)

These things might not be of concern to the average person, but they are definitely of concern to spiritual seekers who have worked hard to build something in their lives which they value, but which may still be fragile, easily destroyed. For most people, faith is like that; it can be so easily destroyed if we don’t take proper care of it! Such care includes spiritual self-protection, which at its simplest means knowing who is a true friend who will help you in your spiritual quest, and who may come to you in the guise of friendship but will try to sabotage your spiritual efforts.

This is not a Manichean world view which sees everything in terms of absolute good and absolute evil. Human nature is mixed and often changes over time. We sometimes need to track the changes and respond accordingly. A student may have great spiritual potential, but then he takes a fall and becomes an unreliable source of spiritual wisdom, and an unreliable friend.

An ordinary person may have the potential to lead either a spiritual life or a worldly life. If she chooses a spiritual environment, the virtuous circle of influences will work its magic and she will act in a spiritual manner and have spiritual experiences — especially if she is under the guidance of an advanced spiritual teacher.

But over time, she may fail to renew her spiritual aspiration, and allow worldly desires to enter in. Then, if the spiritual teacher dies, she loses interest and gets married or goes into politics or business or bagging groceries. The same person may totally forget her spiritual experiences back in a worldly setting where there is no support for them. In some cases, it is not insincerity but more like amnesia.

One person, two completely different phases of life. Away from the spiritual teacher, spiritual teachings, and spiritual community, she cannot make sense of things, so she just makes up some crazy story.

Back in the secular world, former seekers want to enjoy desire-life; but worldly people too have their pride, their sense of boundaries, their rules for re-entry. Worldly people are often suspicious of former seekers. They say: “How is it that you now want to party with us? We thought you wanted nothing to do with desire-life. We thought you were a spiritual goody-goody.”

Spiritual people know firsthand what it feels like be cold-shouldered by worldly people. So they say: “Oh, it was all a mistake. I wandered into the wrong auditorium by accident. Then a big brainwashing machine came down on my head. That’s why for 20 years I prayed and meditated and did selfless service. I’m just a poor cult victim. Won’t you let me party with you? PLEASE LET ME PARTY WITH YOU!”

In this way, pretending to be a “cult victim” becomes a social lubricant or business lie told without regard for ethics or consequences. In many cases people begin by deceiving themselves, then come to deceive others. Their desperation to rejoin the secular world and gain worldly advantage leads them to project a stereotyped view of themselves which they feel will help them fit in and not be blamed for their spiritual past. Former seekers are often counseled to follow this approach. Pretending to be a cult victim becomes their cover story for returning to the world.

Needless to say, they are not being honest with themselves, nor with others. This “innocent cover story” leads to a host of problems down the road. Simply labeling oneself a cult victim may not cut the mustard. People want to know: “Well, how were you victimized?” So there emerges a need for legends of abuse which will entertain and satisfy a worldly audience — an audience awash in hackneyed stereotypes about spiritual groups.

As many feminists would point out, in worldly life women have to compete to show that they’re sexually desirable and sexually experienced in order to attract a partner. In worldly life, celibacy has become the ultimate dirty word. Spiritual people are often “accused” of being celibate. Anecdotally, I remember that on the TV show Boston Public the ultimate put-down of one schoolteacher who wore longish skirts was that she “dressed like a nun.” Also anecdotally, YouTube’s community guidelines take pains to point out that: “We’re not asking for the kind of respect reserved for nuns, the elderly and brain surgeons.” The implication is that YouTube is for coarse, young, not-too-clever people. This is often borne out in the comments section. 😉

So, in creating a legend or cover story for returning to the world, former spiritual adherents tend to be wary of how they handle the issue of celibacy. If the truth is that a spiritual group encouraged (and lived) a modest, chaste lifestyle, that truth makes the former member look plain and boring, not glamorous and desirable.

What a worldly audience wants to hear is that spiritual people are all hypocrites and sex fiends, so among the more fantasy-prone and less conscience-driven ex-members, making up stories which pander to that view — and which also make the storyteller out to be sexually experienced and desirable — has become a form of self-indulgence. It’s often carried out in public, with no sense of shame and no empathy for those who suffer as a result of the made-up stories.

For people who still need to work out their desires in the world, there is such a thing as reasonable desire, ethical desire. This means working out one’s desires in an ethical manner. You have desires, but you don’t tell hateful lies; you have desires, but you don’t rob or kill. For those not quite ready for the spiritual life, to pursue their desires in an ethical manner can be a gradual preparation for the spiritual life.

However, apostates often find themselves ethically challenged. Much of their ethical sense is connected to their faith, so when their faith goes, their ethical sense also goes. Otherwise, they would not be able to tell lies with such impunity; they would not be able to harass those who were their former friends, colleagues, and spiritual mentors or treat them with such cruelty.

Ethics helps us understand what is valuable in life, and ethics also tells us not to destroy what others value. After a political revolution, there will usually be some people at the head of the crowd who are rowdy and eager to destroy something. They may break into a museum and start destroying works of art, because they feel that these works only have meaning for their enemies and not for them. They don’t realize that God often speaks through artists, and that beautiful art works are a universal treasure. They don’t understand why the world considers them vandals and criminals. They imagine that because they cannot see the beauty in something, therefore no one else can see it either.

People come and go from the spiritual life. Most come and go in joy. Even if they return to worldly life, they try to remember and cherish their spiritual experiences and all that the spiritual life once meant to them. These are the good and wise souls who remain rooted in ethics, and who continue to add to their pile of good things.

Those who act like vandals, who try to destroy the beauty of the Three Jewels — the spiritual teacher, the spiritual precepts, and the spiritual community — are only adding to their pile of bad things, their negative karma. Naturally, they will take hundreds and hundreds of years to realize the truth.

Often, the same people who are doing wrong things day in and day out are also searching frantically for some new enlightenment method that will magically transform them. Without knowing it, they are re-enacting the myth of Sisyphus. They do a few minutes of meditation. Fine. Then they go on the Internet and harass someone. Very bad!

For such people to make progress, they should remove the obstacles created by their own habitual bad actions. Learn right speech, right action. Practice basic ethics. Become a deeply good person, and you won’t have to chase after enlightenment — it will chase after you! Remember this helpful quote from Taoist Hua-Ching Ni:

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.

— Hua-Ching Ni, Entering The Tao

Each life is a pile of good things and bad things. Both good and bad persist long after the initial actions which created them. The wise seeker tries to accrue good actions while avoiding destructive actions which harm others. He or she learns right speech and is not misled by those of bad character to engage in false or hateful speech.

The law of karma does not apply only to spiritual people. It governs the entire world, but worldly people are unfortunately unaware of it, so they commit Himalayan blunders.

Spiritual people who return to the world because they still have some unfulfilled desires need to be careful of losing their ethical sense, their understanding of cause and effect. Otherwise, they can very quickly undo all the good they have done.

Worldly pleasures are like an invitation to enjoy unconsciousness. In unconsciousness, a person can easily do many things wrong. It is like driving: You can be a safe, careful driver for many years, but then if you fall asleep at the wheel, in only a few moments you can cause an unimaginable catastrophe.

Just because we don’t see the law of karma in our immediate vision doesn’t mean it’s not operating. There are two kinds of karma: near karma and distant karma. Near karma is: you stick your hand in the fire and immediately you are burned. Distant karma is more subtle: In this life, you tell millions of lies that hurt people; in the next life, you may be born mute because you abused the power of the tongue. Or, in this life you used your intellect not to illumine people, but only to cleverly plot how to harass spiritual people or bleed them for money; in the next life, you may be born a simpleton because you abused the power of the intellect. This is distant karma.

Sometimes a characterless fellow will try and incite people to take wrong actions. Even in this life he has suffered because of his wrong actions, but he doesn’t tell you that. Yet, if you investigate you can learn the truth: For harassing people, he was fired from his job, underwent a painful divorce, had problems with substance abuse, went through a twelve-step program, ended up living with his 100-year old mother until she finally died, and also had to undergo treatment for prostate cancer. Yet, the same individual will insist there are no consequences for wrong actions. Is this wisdom?

We cannot avoid some suffering in life, but through insight and ethics we can minimize our suffering and also learn from it, allowing it to ennoble us. By engaging in right speech and right action, we don’t harm others, and also we bring less suffering upon ourselves. This is wisdom.

Michael Howard

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

Of Further Interest

Making Sense of the Spiritual Life
A Question of Forgiveness
Bithika O’Dwyer: A Tale of Two Psyches

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. Continue reading