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I love Jon Stewart.
So I was disappointed when, with only a few episodes of The Daily Show left, he didn’t confront Tom Cruise about human rights abuses in the Church of Scientology.
He did make a sly inside joke. He wondered out loud that he might like to see, as a stunt, Tom Cruise jump into a volcano. It was a veiled reference to Scientology’s sci-fi origin story in which Xenu, the galactic overlord, drops narcotized aliens into volcanoes and then peppers them with atomic bombs, insuring that Teegeeack, the prison planet — aka Earth — would forever be haunted by bits and pieces of those pulverized spirits.
What a missed opportunity. For once, someone with intelligence, rhetorical skill and insight could have confronted Cruise about the engine of cruelty that drives his chosen religion and reminded the world that the smiling movie star sits idly by, effectively endorsing a longstanding and ongoing pattern of human rights abuses.
But it’s too easy to blame Stewart. After all, Jimmy Fallon didn’t say anything. Nor did any of the other talk show hosts who boosted their ratings by having Cruise on to promote his new movie, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.
The problem is much bigger than any one host. It’s the machinery of celebrity.
It takes hard work and lots of resources to manufacture celebrities. And once they produce profits, investors don’t want to see their products tarnished. So deals are made. In the case of Cruise, according to recent reports, shows were offered a choice: If you want Cruise on, you must agree not to mention Scientology or the film Going Clear. (Insiders at The Daily Show say no such deal was made there despite the coincidence that Comedy Central and Paramount, which made and released Rogue Nation, are both owned by Viacom.) These were the same kinds of deals made for Lance Armstrong (if you want him on your cover, don’t mention doping), Bill Cosby (instead of running the claims of a woman accusing him of rape, how about an exclusive interview with Bill?) and many others.
In protecting celebrity, the gears of power have teeth. Recall when Cruise used his clout to pull repeats of the South Park show mocking Scientology. When I was making Going Clear, a number of people in the entertainment industry who wanted to testify to what they claimed was Cruise’s complicity in the cruelty of the church were afraid to come forward, terrified of the retribution he could exact.
Some may ask, “Why should Jon Stewart or anyone else raise the issue of Cruise’s religion? Isn’t that a private matter?” In this case, no. Through Scientology’s tax exemption, we all subsidize the church’s documented cruel and unusual punishments of its adherents and critics. Yet what’s left of the church’s credibility remains because Tom Cruise — the movie star with the hundred-million-dollar smile — is the religion’s most powerful pitch man and recruiting tool. Tom Cruise is not just a believer; he’s essentially part of the church’s power structure.
He can believe what he wants. But, as one ex-Scientologist told me, it’s not the creed, it’s the deed. The public actions of the religion demand that Cruise be held to account. That’s how change happens.
As audience members we can do our part. While we crave the entertainment that celebrities offer (Lawrence Wright has famously said that the worship of celebrity is the real American religion) we can’t let star power blind us to abuse. We should insist that celebrities play by the rules the rest of us do. And we need to be willing to encourage those who can to ask uncomfortable questions on our behalf. Just because Tom Cruise is promoting a movie we may like, we can’t allow him — or talk show hosts — to use his star power to silence questions about the viciousness exercised in the shadow of his reputation. Human rights are more important than Hollywood stunts on the wing of an airplane.
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