Thursday, May 23, 2013

GOING CLEAR---A Book Review

Lawrence Wright is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and I have now read two of his books. The first was “The Looming Tower,” published in 2006, which remains the book on the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, and the jihadist movement. Beginning in the 1920s, with the carving up of Arab lands by Western powers following WWI, and telling the story to the present, “The Looming Tower” is the fruit of years of dogged and thoughtful research, and the story is rendered so carefully and respectfully that you will understand Islamism by the time you get to the end.

But that's not the book I'm recommending today.

If you're like me, you find the Church of Scientology fascinating in a five-car-pileup-on-the-Boulevard sort of way. There's Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch and there's John Travolta and other celebs, and there's Si-Fi writer L. Ron Hubbard behind it all, and there's lawsuits and claims of abuse by former Scientologists and there's Germany banning them as a cult, and a hundred other snippets you've seen in the newspapers. But what's it all about, really? Is it actually a religion, with a God and a theology? Why are its acolytes so fanatical in their devotion though the whole thing seems (to an outsider) to be about 50% pure goofiness and 50% money-making scheme? Does the church really hold its fallen-away members in captivity? And is John Travolta gay?

Having read “Going Clear,” Lawrence Wright's latest book, I now get it. I understand why people join and why people believe in it. I understand that my previous view of L. Ron Hubbard as simply a flim-flam man was wrong, superficial, and unfair. He was in fact a genius and a visionary. At the same time, he was far more evil, far more power-mad, and far more monstrous than I had ever imagined.

The first half of this book concerns the life and times and madness and genius of Hubbard. The last half is primarily about David Miscavige, who took over Scientology after Hubbard's death and functions as the first popularizer. He is Brigham Young to Hubbard's Joseph Smith. If Hubbard were Jesus, Miscavige would be St. Paul. Miscavige got Scientology recognized as a religion by the IRS, recruited celebrities, and turned Scientology into one of the world's fastest-growing religions. He also presides over Scientology's current problems (including its dramatic falloff in membership), and he is largely responsible for them.

“Going Clear” is another stunning labor of research by Lawrence Wright. It is a story rendered in a matter-of-fact fashion you will find chilling at times, but in the end, you will understand what Scientology is all about.


Sunday, May 12, 2013


On the fifteenth hole at Augusta this year, in the second round, Tiger Woods hit his third shot into the water guarding the front of the green. His options at that point were governed by Rule 26-1, under which he chose option #3. This allows the player to return to the prior spot of his shot and drop the ball “as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played.”

This was not, however, what he did. He returned to the original area and then dropped his ball several feet away, further from the hole. He did this on purpose, though he did not know he was violating Rule 26-1 by doing so.

The penalty for an improper drop is found in Rule 27-1. There is a two-stroke penalty. However, since Tiger did not know he violated the rule, he did not assess himself the two-stroke penalty. This meant that later, when his round ended and he handed in his signed scorecard, that card was incorrect. This brought Rule 6-6.d into play:

“The competitor is responsible for the correctness of the score recorded for each hole on his score card. If he returns a score for any hole lower than actually taken, he is disqualified. If he returns a score for any hole higher than actually taken, the score as returned stands.”

A few years ago, that would have been the end of the analysis. Having signed an incorrect scorecard, Tiger would have been disqualified from the tournament. Then Rule 33-7 was passed. It states:

A penalty of disqualification may in exceptional individual cases be waived, modified or imposed if the Committee considers such action warranted.”

Committee” is a defined term. It is the group in charge of the competition which, in this case, was the Board at Augusta.

Unfortunately, the term “exceptional individual cases” is not defined at all. The rule gives a great deal of discretion to the tournament officials about waiving the disqualification penalty, but doesn't “exceptional individual cases” have to mean something? Something about Tiger's case has to be “exceptional,” doesn't it? Otherwise, Rule 33-7 could not be invoked. But what was it? What was “exceptional” about this situation?

Tiger violated Rule 26-1 by failing to drop his ball correctly. He did so by dropping his ball in a place not permitted under that rule. He did this intentionally. He did it on purpose. He thought about it and he decided, for strategic reasons, where he was going to drop the ball. He had a reason for doing so and he gave an interview telling the world what that reason was.

He was mistaken about Rule 26-1, of course, but the rule itself is not at all ambiguous. Tiger did not misinterpret the language of Rule 26-1. He simply did not know the rule, or perhaps confused it with other rules. In golf, however, ignorance of the rules is no excuse. The player is expected to know the rules and to assess penalties on himself if he violates them. In addition, at the Masters, there is always an official no more than a minute or two away. If Tiger was unsure about where to drop his ball, he could have called for an official and one would have appeared. He did not do so. Whether this failure was foolishness or hubris is a question he can wrestle with in the dark of night, staring at the ceiling, but such an error is attributed to the player. It always has been. And there is nothing “exceptional” about it.

The term “exceptional individual cases” must have some meaning, or it would not appear in Rule 33-7. And actually, when you think about it, it is not hard to imagine what that meaning might be.

An “exceptional individual case” might involve a local rule specific to a particular course, for example. Suppose a seaside course is built largely on sand, with many outcroppings of same hither and thither, and suppose the golf club has a local rule that deems all 23,000 of such outcroppings “bunkers” where one may not ground one's club before striking the ball. Penalizing a player for violating that rule might be unfair unless we could be sure the player had actual knowledge of it. That might be an “exceptional individual case.”

Or suppose Tiger had asked an official whether he could drop his ball several feet behind the original spot of his third shot, and the official had mistakenly told him he could. It would still be a violation of Rule 26-1, and under the rules of golf, Tiger would be disqualified for failing to assess a penalty on himself. That, however, would be palpably unfair. That would be an “exceptional individual case.” All of us would think it wrong to disqualify Tiger in that situation.

It appears that the only thing “exceptional” about this case was that it involved Tiger Woods, and it is reasonable to ask whether a lesser light on the PGA Tour would have gotten the same consideration. The very fact that one can fairly ask such a question means that the reputation of golf as a game rooted in sportsmanship and etiquette took a serious beating at the 2013 Masters.