Scientology & huurmoordenaars

[Published n response to an English blog about Scientology.]

First. let me introduce myself. I’m Karin Spaink, a Dutch author and columnist, and I‘ve been sued by Scientology for no less than ten years on charges of copyright infringement, after I published excerpts of the OT-levels on my website. The courts kept ruling that I had legal grounds to quote; Scientology kept appealing each verdict. When the Dutch Supreme Court was about to rule in my favour, Scientology suddenly dropped the case. Ever since, it’s legal in the Netherlands to quote from Scientology’s purported ‘unpublished’ higher-level material, as long as the public interest is at stake.

My ten years of legal battles with Scientology have turned me into a bit of an expert of the cult. I’ve read a lot, studying both Scientology’s ‘official’ history, and stories from defectors and escapees. I’ve spoken with high-ranking church officials – such as Warren McShane, who at the time was heading RTC, one of the highest bodies within the organisation, and who is sometimes referred to as “David Miscavige’s top enforcer and crime boss” and with high-ranking church exits, from Jon Atack and Otto Roos (who used to be LRH’s private auditor), to Jenna Miscavige Hill.


In July 2007, a friend mailed me that an investigate news magazine article about a particularly violent group within the Dutch criminal scene, mentioned that murder-for-hire suspects Jesse Remmers and Peter la Serpe – both apparently involved in a number of highly publicized murders – were Scientology members. I made a blog post about it, quoting the article. Neither the Scientology reference in the original article, nor my blog post (a summary of which I also posted on the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology] received any attention from the press or from cult critics. I was OK with that – after all, there was only the *suggestion* that Jesse Remmers and/or Peter la Serpe possibly were, or had been, members of the cult.

The trial against the criminal group in question started in 2010. The court case – which dealt with at least seven murders, and was known by the moniker ‘De Passage moorden’ – took place in a highly secured bunker. There were unprecedented judicial efforts involved to bring the case to trial: the DoJ had invested a huge amount of time, and had accepted – a novelty, under Dutch law – a main suspect, Peter la Serpe, to act as its crown witness. La Serpe was going to testify against his former buddies; amongst them, Jesse Remmers. No mention was made of either Remmers or La Serpe’s possible ties with Scientology.

In October 2010, I was contacted by Remmers’ lawyer. She was eager to figure out whether Remmers had indeed been a member of the cult, and likewise, whether La Serpe had been. At her request, I witnessed the trial for three days, sitting in while Remmers and La Serpe were being interrogated, and even, at times, vehemently argued with one another.

Afterwards, I wrote a twelve-page report – extensive footnotes and all – for Remmers’ lawyer. I concluded that it was obvious that Remmers was a long-time member of Scientology, and that La Serpe had been a member for at least a good few years (but had meanwhile probably dropped out).


My arguments were threefold.

One: public sources. Records of the Dutch Chamber of Commerce, who also lists the membership of foundations, undisputedly state that Jesse Remmers had been on the board of the Dutch branch of Criminon, a Scientology front group. Also, in published interviews that Remmers and La Serpe have conducted with Dutch newspapers and magazines, both refer regularly to Scientology – something that non-members don’t tend to do.

Two: my own intimate knowledge of Scientology. An outsider might believe that a non-Scientology member could head one of the cult’s front groups, or that a front group might have rather ‘loose’ ties to the cult. Critics know that all Scientology front groups are strictly governed by the church, and that one needs to be a member in good standing within the church to become a board member of any of those. Together with Narconon and the CCRH (Citizens Commission on Human Rights), Criminon is one of Scientology’s best-known front groups. From August 2004 till December 2005, Jesse Remmers was the official “presiding director” of Criminon NL.

Three: language. Scientology uses an inordinate amount of highly specific jargon, and excels in phrases that are devoid of any meaning to non-members. When La Serpe talks about “clearing of overts” in an interview with Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf (September 23, 2007), it definitely rats him out as a Scientologist. In his interrogations during the trial, Remmers kept talking about ‘the tech’ and his ‘code of ethics’; he insisted that he had studied ‘the science’ and often spoke about ‘auditing’; all of which is Scientology shorthand. He even refers to Rule 22 of the Auditors Code, which prohibited from publicly acknowledging that La Serpe had confessed to him, in a private auditing session, that La Serpe had killed a prostitute.


Does La Serpe’s and Remmers’ established membership of Scientology have any bearings on their case? Would that knowledge have influenced the trial, and possibly have changed it, or would it have mitigated their sentences? Or, perhaps, could the membership of two self-proclaimed killers-for-rent, shed new light on the inner workings of the church, and prove that its inner teachings are inherently evil?

Some people have suggested that Scientology’s lesser-known ‘R2-45 policy’ refers to the option to “eliminate church enemies with the use of a Colt semi-automatic pistol (with .45 calibre ammunition”, and cite Remmers and La Serpe as possible adherents to this rather extreme policy.

Sorry – that won’t wash. La Serpe and Remmers admittedly killed quite a number of people, but not because they were Scientology critics. They killed them because they were hired to do so, or when they felt personally threatened, or when they panicked and didn’t know what else to do.

I dislike Scientology with a vengeance, but please don’t wash away these murders by pointing at your favourite target of criticism and shifting the blame on the cult. Scientology didn’t hire these guys to kill, Scientology didn’t order these murders, and nothing in Scientology’s (admittedly often villainous) policies would ever accommodate for the acceptance of, far less for the motivation for, such killings.

But their membership of the cult does indeed matter – in another way. It explains why Remmers, who had audited La Serpe a number of times, and thus got to hear about one of his earlier kills (the prostitute), never said a word about that to the authorities, not even while that same story – according to Remmers – showed that, years later, it wasn’t him who started shooting in a hangar, but La Serpe.

The judges wondered why Remmers brought up that story only now, while they were in court. Remmers’ answer was accurate, but unintelligible to anybody who is not versed in Scientology-speak. To summarize: “I had audited him. We had cleared his overt [which, earlier, had ‘caused’ La Serpe to kill the prostitute]. Years later, we were in a hangar, in a threatening situation. Suddenly, La Serpe reverted – he acted on his old overt, and started shooting. I couldn’t tell you [the court] about that shooting, because as his auditor, I understood why he did it, but I couldn’t talk about it with outsiders without breaking my ethics code as an auditor. Anything I would have said about La Serpe’s erratic behaviour in the hangar, would have brought up the prostitute, and what I learned by auditing La Serpe. So I kept mum.”

The court discarded Jesse Remmers’ explanation. I truly believe that, if they had known more about Scientology and its rules and methods, they would have taken Remmers’ testimony in a different vein. Which might have resulted in a lesser sentence for Remmers: on January 29, 2013, Remmers got convicted to life, mostly for the shoot-out in the hangar, which Remmers claims that not he, but La Serpe initiated.


Mostly, it’s rather interesting – hey, how’s that for an understatement? – to see how a cult that says that it is bent on eradicating crime and other ‘unsocial’ behaviour, has had its we-oppose-crime-so-aren’t-we-wonderful front group spearheaded by somebody who was by then already a known suspect for multiple murders.

You can’t blame Scientology for what Jesse Remmers and Peter la Serpe did, nor can their membership of the cult ‘explain away’ the murderous behaviour of these two. But you can wonder why a self-proclaimed, purportedly world-sanitizing religion would think that it’s OK to have convicted felons and known murder suspects act as its semi-public face.
Basically, that might go to prove that Scientology is currently so low on personnel, that they will accept anybody who shows up on their premises as an exemplary member who can tout their ideology. They are even happy with suspected killers.

[My report for Jesse Remmers’ lawyer is available on request. Send a mail to Karin Spaink, and I’ll send you a copy. Mind you, it’s in Dutch, and I have no intention to translate it…]

The luscious and the widow

‘The Luscious’ was my nickname for her: Chris was voluptuous and generous. For more than thirty years, we were best friends.

Early July she called with devastating news. She had cancer, incurable and untreatable, the type that kills quickly. Within fifteen minutes I was with her. We cried, made lists of what she still wanted to do, who needed to be called and what she had to arrange.

A day and a half later we decided to get married. Partly because Chris desperately wanted someone who would stand beside her the next months, someone who would never leave her; partly because spouses are legally entitled to more than best friends, more than brothers and sisters. And partly because if we got married we could wrap the bad news in a grand farewell party, and her friends would have the opportunity to see her in optima forma for the last time. And we got married because women today finally can, and now we could make good use of that right.

We called it ‘marrying against the grain’.

Mid-August, on the hottest day of the century, one hundred and fifty friends came together in the Tolhuis garden in Amsterdam. Her brother gave her away to me, her sister was our witness. It was a beautiful, moving party.


That first evening in July, Chris already said: “So, that will be euthanasia, in due time.” We signed papers. The hospital as well as her GP promised to work with us. That comforted her greatly. Because she knew that she ultimately could determine her limit, she could bear her illness and impending death significantly better. Her right to euthanasia made her feel that she would retain control. It allowed her to remain brave.

When the doctor finally appeared by her bed and asked Chris – as the law requires him – if she still wanted euthanasia, she answered resolutely: “Yes … please!” I held her when it happened. I felt her heart stop.

Since then I am a widow.

Eventually Chris survived for almost seven months and we were married for almost half a year. It was beautiful, it was hard, it was full of love and without any regret.

For her – and for her only – I would do it again, without hesitation.


Chris and I praised ourselves lucky that we live in a country where euthanasia is possible, and where same sex marriage is legal. Without those two things, her life in recent months would have been unspeakably much harder.

In December, Pope Benedict XVI claimed that abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage have plunged the world into destruction. Chris and I had a fit. Two out of three: not a bad score, we thought. (Fortunately, the right to abortion, which we have always defended, neither of us ever had to exercise.)

So I was strangely satisfied to hear the Pope, three days after Christiane’s euthanasia, had decided to resign. He had lost.

She and I have not – we have chosen. We could choose.

[Bridal photo: Reinoud van Leeuwen; translation: Iwan Boskamp]


Boudewijn van Ingen (also known as Bogie) died last Tuesday, September 4. He was 49.

Boudewijn was one of the first Dutch people who joined me in September 1995 when I put the Fishman Affidavit online. The Fishman Affidavit contains excerpts of the OT-levels, and Scientology had been rather successful in removing the document from the internet. Until the document hit the Dutch part of the internet: within a week, we had a hundred mirrors of the document. The ensuing lawsuit lasted for almost 10 years, and we kept winning; ever since 1996, the excerpts of the OT-levels as provided on my website are legal and anybody can copy and/or quote them.

Boudewijn joined the protest almost immediately. But unlike most others, he really read up about Scientology and decided that fighting the cult was a worthy cause. He became a real critic. He posted on alt.religion.scientology; he investigated; he joined IRL protests; he engaged (in as far as possible) in conversations with members, and – his most memorable feat – he engaged in debates with his co-critics when he thought that they were sloppy, immoral, or simply unkind.

Boudewijn was a kind and gentle person. Utterly smart but never condescending; utterly engaged, but never blinded.


The energy that he spent on Scientology, was even more precious because Boudewijn’s health sucked. He had hemophilia, the bleeders’s disease. His veins would break open at the slightest intrusion, and the blood clots that occurred everywhere in his body, had caused major disabilities. When I got to know him, he had to use crutches for support, and often a wheelchair.

A few years ago, Boudewijn got a brain hemorrhage that left him mostly incapacitated and very dependent (left side paralysis). He was forced to live in a nursing home while he tried to recuperate. And he hated that. It took him quite some time to finally be able to move back into his own apartment, and to feel independent again.

Last week, he got a new brain hemorrhage; and this time, he died. Somehow, I’m happy that Bouewijn didn’t have to negotiate another round of devastating adjustments to more and more minimal possibilities. Yet it sucks that he has died. Boudewijn has done everything he could possibly do to survive, and yet he managed to make time to try and help free others… May he never be forgotten.

[Picture: Nantko Schanssema, Jeta Eggers and Boudewijn van Ingen, August 2000.]


Today, I had the honour of delivering the keynote lecture at BobCatsss, an annual nternational conference on information management. The conference’s main venue is the beautiful KIT, our national colonial museum.

My lecture was titled ‘Privacy is the cornerstone of personal safety’; it’s about counterterrorism surveillance, general data collection, the lack of data hygiene and medical hacks. You can download the slides here (PDF, 1.4 MB).

Why blame Jobs?

Something bugs me about the public comments after Steve Jobs’ death. Yes, he had pancreatic cancer; yes, it was discovered at such an early stage that an immediate operation might have saved his life. Yes, Jobs initially refused the procedure: he abhorred the notion that somebody would open up his body and fiddle with his insides. Instead, he opted for a strictly vegan diet.

That tidbit of news made him fodder for skeptics. Oh dear: yet another dumbo who believed that ‘alternative’ treatments are more useful than science; yet another woozy-washy believer who threw himself at the mercy of fringe ‘treatments’; yet another victim of the war against rational behavior. How stupid! You can’t cure cancer by positive thinking, or by a diet of soybeans.

But Jobs never said that. He never rejected any part of medical science. Jobs fully accepted the diagnosis and he never doubted that his ailment was indeed a medical condition; nor did he ever distrust or rebel against the proposed treatment as such. He didn’t stall surgery because he did not trust it or did not ‘believe’ in its effectiveness; he stalled because he feared it. He just thought that surgery was his last recourse – not his first. He wanted to try everything else before he submitted to being cut open.

I’m a thoroughbred skeptic. I’ve read lots about medicine, and I abhor the promises of ‘alternative’ medicine. I’ve written a bestseller that debunked new-age quack theories about the origin and treatment of illnesses. I have multiple sclerosis. I have had a brain hemorrhage, which caused temporarily aphasia, paralysis, epilepsy and the mother of all headaches. I have had an aggressive kind of breast cancer, which was treated with amputation, chemo and Herceptin. I don’t fear medical science: I applaud it, and I owe my life to it.

Nevertheless, I am wary of the notion that health comes before everything else. I am not willing to give up all that I like, love, desire and value merely for my physical survival. Why strive to extend your life when that entails giving up all that you cherish? Also, I don’t believe that health mostly depends on your individual life style. (I smoke and I drink; none of my ailments were caused by that.)

I object to treatments that basically stall one’s demise, and I believe that most people – doctors especially– underestimate the impact that a medical regime has upon your daily life. You may live longer after chemotherapy, but much of the time gained is spent on recuperating from the effects of that same therapy. And I’m not quite sure that I would like my remaining months to be punctuated by hospital appointments and dictated by my white cell counts or any other lab results. I’d rather be led by what I really want to do while I still can, and by how I feel, as opposed to how my stats read.

Moreover, I do not subscribe to the notion that risks can (or should) be eliminated. You want me to do hormone therapy for seven years to reduce my risk that this cancer returns by eight percent? Eh…. Have you considered that by now the chances that I am over-treated are already at a massive eighty percent? Also, even with seven years of hormone therapy there’s still a twelve percent chance that my cancer returns. In other words, the chance that hormone therapy will save me is far less than the chance that I’ll die of this cancer no matter what. Really – how far do you propose to go? How many treatments do you want to subject me to? Will you ever stop wanting to treat me, for an increasingly smaller risk? How much overtreatment will you push on me?

Yes, Jobs stalled surgery. I fully understand why. It was my first response too when I heard that I had cancer: will you all please shut the fuck up and stop explaining about your proposed treatments and trajectories and your insistence that this is the only sensible response? Can I please have some time to familiarize myself with this new and scary assessment? Will you please stop forcing a solution upon me while I’m still trying to digest that I have a serious problem? And by the way, could you please be a bit less enthusiastic about cutting into my body?

There were two fast growing tumors in my right breast, and all the rest of it was already turning into one big cancerous mass. But the notion of having my breast cut off nevertheless freaked me out, and a big part of that freaking out was definitely caused by the notion of surgery itself. During one of the many diagnostic tests in which my breast was caught in yet another machine that painfully flattened it, I suddenly desperately wanted to tear myself lose; to leave that breast behind in the machine that held it, and to just run away – bleeding, but separated from the part of my body that threatened my life. Because in this same violent movement I’d be liberated from this massive and scary body of science that was plummeting down upon me… Also, it would be me doing it: I would rear myself away form this cancer. I would not be helpless and unconscious on somebody’s operating table.

So yes: I can honestly relate to Steve Jobs resisting surgery. But I cannot relate – not at all – to this sudden and rather fierce perception that his hesitance was stupid, dumb, anti-science, New Age-ish; that he ‘apparently’ rejected medical science and rather preferred quack therapies. Jobs did not reject medical science. (He actually had the proposed operation a bit later.)

Bashing Jobs for his initial hesitation and attempting to turn him into the poster child for the skeptic’s case against quack therapies, is short-sighted. What’s more: it’s both a dangerous denial and a painful slap in the face, precisely because it fails to – nay, actively refuses to – understand how scary medical science can be once it suddenly and very particularly applies to your own body, In the end, I think that anybody who demands that you only display a rational response to a life-threatening disease, is irrational himself.

Fear can be alleviated, but only when it is acknowledged; fear can never be reasoned away. Ignoring somebody’s fear or labeling it as ‘irrational’ is insulting and utterly unhelpful; such a response becomes painfully troubling when it concerns somebody’s existential fear. And no matter how you turn it, such a response ends up as a personal reproach. ‘Steve Jobs, you might have lived if you hadn’t been scared; if you had been more rational.’

Weirdly enough – I beg you: do me a favor, and please allow this notion to sink in – weirdly enough, this ‘rational’ approach ends up doing exactly the same as the New Age or ‘alternative’ would-be theories do: they blame the patient for not recuperating. Ah but if only you would have accepted our treatments! Then you might have had a chance. But you didn’t rely on us, you didn’t fully and immediately embrace our trajectory. Well, then you are to blame!

Let’s be clear: Steve Jobs died of cancer. He didn’t die because of his personal response to it.

Of course he was not inclined to have his body opened; he had always and rigorously propagated closed systems, to the point that he even hated screws on the computers that he designed. Of course he reverted to a strict diet when he heard that he had cancer; he had adhered to incredibly strict diets ever since he was a teenager, and he had come to believe that abstinence of substance was a virtue and helped him.

Why in the world do we believe that people should sacrifice everything for their health? Why do we believe that even somebody’s core tenets mean nothing – and should be promptly abandoned – when negotiating a disease? Why do New Agers and skeptics alike propagate that if one doesn’t adopt their regimen (and theirs only), one is to be blamed for succumbing to a disease? Why do we blame the sick if they hesitate about a proposed treatment? Why do we insist on making illness so horrifically personal? Why do we blame the dying for dropping dead?

[Note: This is an extended version of a column that I wrote for a Dutch newspaper. The original can be found here. In this translation, I added some personal information plus a description of my tenets.]


[Translation of Fideel, which appeared in the newspaper ‘Het Parool’.]

Father Yaseen has a photo studio in Bagdad, where people have come for years and years to have their portrait taken. The pictures are oddly formal. For portraits of brothers and sisters, for instance, only three poses are available; in all three the brother sits in a chair, while his sister stands behind him. And photographing was never easy: the photographer may never touch the women, so that it could prove difficult to get them in the right position.

Zaid and his brother worked in their father’s studio. Zaid noticed how the photographs were changing in the course of the years. In the eighties for instance, they often were asked to construct a portrait out of old snapshots, and the portrait had to be adorned with a black ribbon. Those were the mourning pictures for young men who had died in the war with Iran. Or they were the young men who didn’t want to fight in that war, and who were shot as deserters.

In the nineties, the Yaseen family mostly photographed children. Those portraits were utterly romanticised: colourful, Disneyesque backgrounds were used, so that it looked like all Bagdad children were living in a fairy tale. While earlier mothers would pose proudly with their children, they were now slowly disappearing from the photographs. They hid themselves behind their children, or they were cut out of the picture.

The Yaseen family are Sunnites, and the much more rigid Shiites were gaining ground in Bagdad. Father Yaseen started to receive threatening letters in which he was called a traitor. People would enter the shop and take down portraits of women. Zaid’s brother was attacked by men carrying guns with silencers. Zaid fled to the Netherlands, where he asked for asylum and studied photography.

By now, the Iraqi Shiites believe that people and animals may not be portrayed at all. Hence the departments of sculpture, theatre and photography of the Bagdad University have been closed.

The Dutch IND (Immigration Services) do not dispute Zaid’s story. They just think that the threats and the violence have nothing to do with his profession. Such violence is normal in Bagdad they say, and Zaid is not at more risk than any other Iraqi. They informed Zaid that he has to return to Iraq this month.

The only thing that Zaid has to do, the IND said, is to give up photography. That’s exactly what the Shiites think as well. How loyal of the IND to help the Shiites to implement their policy from within the Netherlands!

Network deceit

For years, it was unclear how the networking site Facebook makes profit. The amount of daily traffic a site generates weighs heavily in deciding the monetary worth of a web site, but invariably, there comes a time when actual revenue starts counting and mere ‘hits’ are no longer sufficient. How does Facebook earn its money?

Advertisements that visitors can click on Facebook won’t do the trick: their range is far too generic. You’re never presented with ads that bear a connection to the topics you write about. Their selection is based on your gender, your age and your relationship status. Thus, I am bombarded with ads about remedies for menopausal complaints (which I neither have nor care about), and my male friends are mostly offered dating sites (which they distrust). So Facebook won’t get rich off of that. Selling profiles or search-strategies, like Google does, is also not applicable.

Nonetheless, Facebook is making it big. Last month it became clear exactly how.

Facebook offers all sorts of extra applications, many of them games and quizzes. The most popular ones are Mafia Wars and Farmville: tens of millions of people are so into them that they log in every few hours to harvest their strawberries or to ensure that the gangster war they’re involved in, is decided in their favor.

When you sign up for such a game, you’ll get a free starter kit. Your co-playing Facebook friends can show you the lay of the land and supply you with extra weapons, ammo or seeds and help you to become a better gangster or farmer. Soon, the starter level will no longer suffice. You can only progress in two ways: either by playing the game more intensively, or by spending money on it. Of course, no one wants to resort to using their credit cards or their Paypal account: spending time on a game is ok, spending money isn’t. No problem: you can earn virtual money and use that for your game. Win points by taking an IQ-test, order a funny ringtone, get a trial issue of a magazine, download that hilarious video to your cell phone. All you have to do is text code so-and-so to such-and-such number. Click. Hooray! One level up.

Except – without realizing it – you’ve stepped into a trap. Suddenly you’ve got an annual subscription because you never sent back that trial issue, it turns out you’ve dialed an expensive pay-per-minute line or it turns out by sending that text message you’ve authorized a charge to your credit card. People have reported to have been conned for hundreds of Euros. And Facebook gets a percentage of those ‘sales’.

The deceit lasted for months. Proper companies advertising on Facebook slowly understood the method and withdrew, so that – in the words of the man who first published about the scam [1] [2] – the more honest companies gradually disappeared and only the scum remains: companies who truly couldn’t care less that they make their money through deceit. The longer the con lasted, the more ingenious the tricks and ruses became.

You’re a fool if you allow yourself to be bamboozled, you say? Perhaps. But blaming the victim doesn’t absolve the companies that conduct the scam of their responsibility. Should a scammer be forgiven merely because his victim wasn’t sufficiently distrustful? Besides that, the approach is a tad too familiar: give people their first few of fixes for free and wait until they’re hooked: only then you’ll show them the price tag that you’ve kept hidden all the time.

Karin Spaink, Het Parool (Dutch newspaper), November 24, 2009
Translation: Dirk van Sloten

Embody / Us body

(Article in the catalog of the ‘Embody’ exhibition by Chaja Hertog and Nir Nadler, Israel, 2008. I met Nir while I was a mentor at Das Arts, where I had co-assembled the block ‘Who is I?’. I fell in love with Nir’s work and we became friends, which is how I was introduced to his wife Chaja, whose work I found equally impressive. Thus, I gladly wrote something for the booklet publishe for their exhibition. // Bijdrage aan de catalogus van de tentoonstelling ‘Embody’ van Nir Nadler & Chaja Hertog. De tentoonstelling opent 8 augustus 2009 in Israel en duurt twee maanden. Nir leerde ik kennen toen ik in 2008 les gaf bij Das Arts in het semester ‘Who is I?’, dat ik had helpen bedenken en opzetten. Ik viel als een blok voor het werk van Nir en we werden goede vrienden. Ook Chaja’s werk vind ik ronduit imposant. Toen Nir me vroeg of ik iets wilde schrijven voor de catalogus van hun gezamenlijke tentoonstelling deed ik dat van harte, temeer daar hun thema was geïnspireerd op wat ik bij Das Arts had trachte n over te brengen. De tekst voor de catalogus is in het Engels en het Hebreeuws; hier de Engelse versie.)

Us body

There’s something utterly special about our bodies: we simultaneously are them and have them. They contain us, and yet they’re not a mere receptacle: they define us. Our bodies decide how we move, how we are treated, where we are socially peg holed, and even: how we perceive the world.

It is common – and weirdly seductive – to envision a split between mind and body: as if there’s an invisible ‘I’ somewhere inside, lodged in the brain or in the heart, an intangible tenant who inhabits the corporeal flesh. But whoever accepts such a split, reduces their body to an appendage; I cannot be separated from my nerves, my cells, my blood flow, my breathing, the batting of my eye.

Bodies are not houses. We don’t live in them in quite the same way as we do in buildings of bricks and wood. And there’s no ‘I’ who lives in a body, I is not mind. Again, that would reduce our bodies – us bodies – to a mere ‘it’, and reintroduce that same split between mind and flesh, between pure idea and cumbersome practice, between invisible thought and wet, messy physicality. There really is no such easy splicing. Please don’t. You’re killing us if you do, you’d be chopping I into pieces. After all, a mind without a body is a ghost, and a body without a mind is a corpse.

I is body. Our mind is carved in flesh, the mind is an organ that floods trough our veins and tickles our toes. My mind is an instinct, my body makes firm decisions. I is mixed from both, and whoever makes us choose is lethal.

I carry my parents in my genes. My mother resides in my nose, my father in my hair. I once lost a breast and I am still me, whole and complete. I once lost a lover, and the gaping wound in my side has never fully healed: there’s still a part of me missing somewhere and living in somebody else.

I is permeable. And so is you. After all, I live in you.

I extends. My voice reaches over waters, over woods, over deserts to whisper in your ear. When I shut my heart, that same gesture closes the door to my house for you. The musical instruments that I love and play inhabit me: I play the piano on my ribs, I tune the violin strings in my arms and legs by stretching my limbs until they hit C sharp. I am InstruMan.

Medical interventions fuse. No longer do I wear glasses that can be taken off: my eyes are lasered. My heart runs on a pacemaker. I need to have my batteries replaced every six years. I change my mood with uppers and downers, my fertility with pills that need to wear off for months before I can conceive again.

Sometimes my body isn’t. My immune system gets confused occasionally. It’s trained to attack alien intruders, but mine thinks that I-cells are X-cells. My body believes me to be my own stranger. Thus I attacks I. I implodes.

I swallow and digest what politicians tell me, I digest and regurgitate it. I am a jukebox politician. Press play, and we’ll dance to the ideology of your choice. I don’t need a name. I carry yours.

I reach for you when you are in another country, and I am carried towards you. I merge with my surroundings to speed up my travel. I don’t see where I’m going because I only have eyes for you, you, who is too far away to be seen. You’re pulling me to you through skies, dunes and meadows, time stops while we travel, and when we meet I am you and you is me, and we’re both stateless. Later, I am right next to you, we are so close that we can almost touch, your breath touches my skin, my hair dresses your face, but suddenly we can’t cross the ten centimeters that separates skin from skin and I from you. Mind the gap. I is not you. We are bound to ourselves when we least want to be.

When I am alone, I am cut off. When I am with other I’s, I become you, and then, slowly, me.

The world is our body. I is relations.

Power in numbers

[Originally published in Het Parool; translation by Anonymous, at]

The unexpected effect of the internet is, organizing becomes easy. The costs of gathering information and getting people together have been reduced alarmingly: no printing is required, no shipping, no “snowball” list of phone numbers, no member administration, no desk clerk. Apart from that, internet enables evenly distributed participation and variety in different kinds of contribution, without anyone having to direct, or plan or distribute tasks. Mary will start an article, John adds to it, Ann edits it and Carl can use it.

Clay Shirky describes the phenomenon in his wonderful book Here comes everybody: the power of organizing without organizations. Because doing something has become so easy and costs so little – whatever that “something” may be: setting up a website for birdwatchers in Amsterdam, gathering costumer reviews of hotels, TVs or vacuum cleaners, e-mailing al your friends you’ll be at bar X that night – suddenly it’s become relatively easy to get projects off the ground that would previously have been too costly. And some of those new, formerly too expensive activities turn out pretty advantageous.

Shirky doesn’t describe the current protests against Scientology, those are too recent, but they would seamlessly fit in his book. After Scientology attempted to take a video off the net in which Tom Cruise, in a confused speech, sounds Scientology’s praises, Anonymous rose up and told the cult by “video letter” it had gone quite far enough. “Duh”, I thought, as an old time Scientology critic, “that’s gonna need a whole lot more.”

But it works. Anonymous has by now held four worldwide protests against Scientology in about fifty cities, and more people are drawn to it every time. The participants all wear masks. That makes their protests a sensational spectacle, and at the same time accentuates their criticism that the cult regularly makes the lives of their critics miserable. Each protest is extensively documented on Flickr and YouTube. For example, the video in which a Scientologist last month in Amsterdam willfully destroyed a camera belonging to a member of Anonymous found its way: because of it, it quickly became apparent who that aggressive cultist was, and consequently he’ll be presented with the bill for a new camera this week.

Anonymous is making Scientology very nervous indeed. The funniest part is that Anonymous is not an organization: Anonymous is an ever-changing group of people who plan openly for protests on a number of websites, without knowing who will show up. Anyone can join in the discussion on those websites, including Scientology itself. And that won’t help Scientology one bit. The most they can do is organize their own counter-demonstration (which they’ve in fact tried once) which only got Anonymous more attention from the general public and the press. Ouch.

As an old time critic, I look on with amazement. More people are protesting Scientology now than ever. Anonymous is lobbying to undo Scientology’s tax exempt status. Anonymous is so many – and so ever-changing – that the cult can’t even begin to trace people, let alone intimidate them. And meanwhile, more and more of Scientology’s documents are leaked. Whereas I had to endure ten years of trouble and lawsuits from the cult over twenty pages from OT3 – the most secret piece from the cult – now all of OT3 has been on the internet for months, and there’s nothing Scientology can do.

Anonymous understands the internet. Scientology does not, and it will be their Waterloo.

A bad case of nostalgia

Critique of Andrew Keen’s The cult of the amateur

Deciding upon the manner of my response to Mr Keen’s book required much, much more time than composing the response itself. It’s truly seductive to be scathing about the The Cult of the Amateur. Making an inventory of the book’s sloppy argumentation, its fallacious reasoning, its myopic stance, its uncritical praise of copyright, its unwitting foot soldiery of the entertainment industry, its selective choice of facts and its misquotations would be quite to the point – especially since Mr Keen accuses ‘today’s internet’ of being unwitting foot soldiers, sloppy, myopic, uncritical, selective, misrepresentative and fallacious.

But I’d rather not. Many of these points have been raised elsewhere, and rather convincingly so – by amateurs and professionals alike, I might add. Instead, my endeavour will be to come up with a series of points that I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere: the public and the private sphere, the press and impartiality, and commercials.

Keen argues that many blogs and most submissions on YouTube are trite. They are not artistic, they are not interesting, they are not worth anybody’s time. The net is gradually being filled with nonsense. Keen describes this development as narcissistic, and labels it the Cult of You: everybody is broadcasting themselves.

He’s actually right. There is an abundance of nonsense, of non-artistic clips, of badly written prose, of dreary streams of photographs. Some people argue that this is a necessary by-product of the open structure of the internet, and that we need to suffer this for a few pearls to surface. As Clay Shirkey wrote in his review of Keen’s book: ‘One of the many great things about the net is that talent can now express itself outside traditional frameworks; this extends to blogging, of course, but also to music, [..] or to software [..] and so on. The price of this, however, is that the amount of poorly written or produced material has expanded a million-fold. Increased failure is an inevitable byproduct of increased experimentation.’

To which Keen counters: ‘In the same way that not everyone should be doctors or teachers or astronauts, not everyone should be an author. Most people do not have anything interesting to say.’

What both Keen and Shirkey disregard, is that we are witnessing the private going public. People increasingly use the internet to capture, comment upon and share their lives. And while I’m not always sure what to make of that, in itself there’s nothing new about the phenomenon, only about its scale. People have always kept diaries, wrote updates for their friends and family, made snapshots documenting their life. The manner in which they did so changed whenever technologies changed, but the urge to share has always been present. It is ridiculous to demand that people in general should shut up, as Keen does, even though sometimes the urge to share is really annoying.

My parents’ generation poignantly remembers those long evenings during which they were forced to watch reels of slides of their friends’ vacations; they remember groping desperately for polite comments to make while inwardly growing more bored with every passing picture. And I vividly remember the shock, when I was sixteen and paid my second or third visit to our new neighbours, upon being made to watch a video of Mrs Neighbour giving birth to their kid while the couple sat next to me, proudly pointing out details that I tried to ignore. ‘See, that’s the placenta,’ they said, helpfully and happily, while I was trying not to vomit.

The good thing about this stuff being on the net is that you can easily click away when you happen to run into videos like this. The good thing about it being on the net is also that if you are interested what it entails to give birth, you can easily find videos like this and learn from them. Suddenly, witnessing somebody’s private life has become a choice, while before it was a social obligation.

The debate that Keen and Shirkey are conducting – whether these public expressions of private lives could carry some pearls, or it’s just a bunch of narcissistic monkeys hammering on their typepads – is simply misplaced. You don’t judge the drawings that your kid makes you by aesthetic criteria. The missive to family and friends that serves to update them about your vacation or your cancer treatment is not meant to compete for a Pulitzer, and should not be judged by its newsworthiness. The pictures of your new house are just that: pictures of your new house, and not intended to be of interest to others. What is interesting – and that question merits a discussion of its own – is why people nowadays find it so easy, nay: so self-evident, so natural, to publish details of their life for all to see.

One explanation is that people increasingly use their own private material (pictures, videos, blogs) as a means to find the like-minded. To find people who share their taste in politics, film, music, food, clothes, gardening, travelling, wine, cars, books; or to find people who are going through similar life events. People use one another’s private life to connect and to learn. In those cases, they are actually exploring the social fabric – and sometimes political dimensions – of their life. Indeed, that can only happen through a public process, which in turn makes a public place a logical and legitimate choice. A second explanation, and a slightly more pessimistic one, is that we simply have not managed to wrap our minds around the notion exactly how huge and how public the internet really is. We’re not yet used to thinking on such a grand scale; there is no precedent. Public places are often perceived as private or semi-private: my blog, our forum, our neighbourhood café. But gradually, social network sites are adjusting and are adding tools that allow users to define layers of intimacy: outsiders see hardly anything, acquaintances a bit more, and only to friends all is revealed.

But you can’t demand that people just shut up unless they have something interesting to say. That’s tantamount to robbing them of the narrative of their own life.

Next, Keen argues that all these people broadcasting about themselves represents the fragmentation of our culture, and that we need experts and gatekeepers to show us what’s worthy, valuable, and true and what is not. I would argue that insisting on a uniformed or codified point of view is not only patronising, but worse: it kills culture. Culture is never stable, nor is it something to be handed down by the few to the many. Culture is born of the clash of tradition and change, it grows and expands through public narratives and social conflicts, it is shaped by comments and clashes, and once it’s stable and preserved, it dies of undernourishment and poverty.

In some ways, The Cult of the Amateur reminded me of Allen Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind. In that 1987 bestseller, Bloom argued that pop culture was erasing high culture and that the effort of women and black people to have the literary and historical canon revised to include some of their experiences and milestones, was tantamount to dethroning good taste. But while Bloom saw social change as a war he was losing and chose sides, Keen regally disregards that there are, indeed, sides. In other words: Keen completely ignores the politics of culture and perceives culture as a monolith. What he calls fragmentation, I call social diversity. What he calls fragmentation, I call political argument. What he calls codification, I call cultural ostracizing and the smothering of dissent and diversity. What he calls trite, I call the fabric of other people’s daily life.

On to the second point: the press and impartiality. Keen holds the press in high esteem and applauds them as knowledgeable authorities with trained journalists in their employ and fact checkers at hand, who make responsible choices and cover the whole gamut. Thus, they have become institutes that have gained enough respect to get some special treatment: they are granted interviews with the high & mighty, they have their sources, they are granted impunity; all of which in turn improves their reporting.

Again, Keen is absolutely right. However, he’s only right for a tiny part of the press and television news, and thus, he presents us with a highly idealised and romanticised description of the press. Many newspapers and news shows are simply sloppy, copy or parrot one another, broadcast stuff that is just short of being gossip, consider news as an impure commodity (no longer good if touched by anybody else), are not impartial by a long stretch, publish press releases or syndicate news without any research, care less about truth than about sales, care more about sensationalism than about backgrounds or aftermaths, dress up ads as ‘infomercials’ or ‘advertorials’, and consider tidbits about an actor divorcing (or maybe not) to be prime news. (Even respected newspapers occasionally fall for hypes, as we have recently seen in the Netherlands with all the Fitna bruha.) In short, many newspapers and news programs behave exactly as Keen claims that only bloggers do.

Furthermore, his view of the press is unforgivably Western. With glee, Keen quotes a newspaper editor who states that the difference between newspapers and bloggers is that journalists , other than bloggers, are prepared to go to court – or to jail – for what they write. Never mind that quite a number of bloggers have been sued in Western countries for the news that they published and that Keen chooses to completely disregard them. (I do suggest however that he could do with a subscription to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s news feed and familiarise himself with my own ten-year lawsuit.) With his outspoken approval of that editor’s statement, Keen shows a severe lack of understanding of the press and of the internet in struggling countries. In many Central European, North-African, Middle-East, Asian and South-American countries, newspapers are in cahoots with the government. If they weren’t, they couldn’t publish at all, and as it is, they are severely curtailed. In those countries is it bloggers who courageously escape censorship and find means to publish real news, and who often find themselves being persecuted or jailed, and sometimes worse, on account of that. Reporters Without Borders publish a yearly tally, and it’s a very uncomfortable picture that they paint: blogging can be fatal. Yet, even then – or perhaps especially then – people blog. Because they care enough about their country’s condition to tell the truth – albeit another kind of truth than the one that their governments cares to hear.

Next, Keen describes how newspapers are losing subscriptions and advertisements. Again, it’s the internet’s fault, according to Keen. Craigslist and Google now attract all the ads, and readers cancel their subscription because they can find the news on the net anyway, and hence have grown to believe that the news is or should be ‘free’.

However, newspapers have been going down in circulation ever since the 1980’s, and for the bigger part, they lost their readership to television. At the time, newspapers tackled the problem by focusing on their ad revenues – to the point where they created specialised supplements and weekend magazines in order to garnish more commercial space – and by devoting pages to more frivolous subjects such as life-style-news, in the hopes of regaining some readers. That is to say: newspapers countered their crisis by becoming less newsy and by moving away from their core business.

Keen also conveniently forgets that commercial television has cannibalised public channels. He ignores that some newspapers have been heavily subsidised by their owners not for the love of quality news but in order to kill off a competing paper and thus to get a bigger piece of the market. He fails to mention how newspapers that were loved by their readers were robbed of their identity because their owner ‘reshuffled’ some titles. He disregards that groups of newspapers have been bought and resold by venture capitalists looking for a quick buck, leaving the papers bleeding – as happened in the Netherlands.

In other words: their crisis has a longer standing and is much wider than Keen cares to admit, and its roots far precede the advent of the internet. And while Keen is rightly worried over the newspapers’ dwindling circulation in as far as it equates the downfall of investigative journalism, he fails to see that alas, that pitfall has perhaps more to do with the rise of commercial television and its perceived ‘free’ dissipation of news than with the rise of the internet or of Web 2.0.

We might want to discuss ads here. Keen regards commercials as the breath of life of the press, radio and television. But the main reason that I have completely given up on radio and almost stopped watching television is that I can no longer stand the barrage of ads. In newspapers, you can just flip the page or toss out the supplement, but in broadcasting media, you can’t. You have to suffer them. Everything that you’re trying listen to or watch and immerse yourself in, is being poisoned by yelling people trying to sell you something that you don’t want or need. By and large, it feels like broadcasting media are using content as a mere wrapping for ads.

I’m not the only one who is quite fed up. Hence the immense popularity of TiVo for television and of ad blockers in web browsers, and I am quite sure that some people’s habit of downloading episodes of series (whether on BitTorrent or on iTunes) or of waiting for the DVD release, can at least be partially explained by the fact that in these formats, the program comes ad-free. Oh, the relief. No ads. Unhampered content. At last. Mr Keen, making money by selling ad space is not a media-saving strategy. It is its nemesis. (It’s helpful to note that in the Netherlands, box office numbers rose after cinemas dropped the ads.)

If the printed press wants to reconsider its role and place – and I certainly hope that it will – it should place more weight on its content and its readership, less on ads. And while we’re at it: if they move to the internet, which many in the end will to do, they can cut on printing and distribution costs, thereby freeing a considerable part of their budget. Money that can be used to pay journalists and editors with. Yes, parts of the newspaper industry will suffer and people will lose their jobs – from paper producers and printers to newspaper delivery boys.

But we don’t lament the implementation of printing technology because it put scribes out of work. We did however decry the implied loss of authority: suddenly, everybody could read what the bible said and form their own opinion about its content, instead of having to patiently wait for the priest to give his selection, his interpretation, his guidance and his verdict. Printing created the wish to become literate; literacy created choice and dissent. And I’m quite sure that when the first novels were printed, some people complained that this was not what we had invented that wonderful technology for.

Yes, we are losing gatekeepers. We actually have been doing so for centuries. Almost invariably, that was a terribly useful and liberating development. Indeed, sometimes – but usually for brief periods only – we were confused, at times frighteningly so. These changes have certainly not always been uniformly positive, but unlike Keen, I don’t think for one second that any technology has made us dumber per se or has robbed us of our culture. We tend to turn any and all communication technology into a means of cultural production, with or without our being paid to do so, and Keens self-professed nostalgia is just that: a bad case of nostalgia.

[In de Volkskrant verscheen een Nederlandse samenvatting van deze lezing, een beetje staccato want met meer dan de helft bekort.]