Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Landmark forum. A few final words of my own.

UPDATE, Thursday, March 11. You may recall that in our last post, I wondered about the status of Landmark's license to use the intellectual property developed by Werner Erhard as part of est and, later, the original Forum. The 1991 deal between Landmark and Erhard gave the new company an 18-year license for such usage, which obviously would've expired in 2009. I wrote to Ms. Beroset, and here is the response I just received by way of an outside publicity firm that works for Landmark:

The license was not renewed. Between 1999 and 2002 Landmark acquired the intellectual property [italics present in actual answer].
Interesting. The cost and precise nature of that acquisition, and Erhard's stake in same, may warrant further exploration.


Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

It's a great and memorable line
and if I may be permitted a brief digression, the tragedy of modern Washington is that so few denizens of Moynihan's erstwhile milieu, Congress, are willing to live by it: When facts become inconvenient in a given platform or agenda, today's legislators simply make up new ones.

But in the bigger picture, Moynihan's point is well taken. It's especially germane to this series of posts. I cannot write, in this space or anywhere else, "Fifty-nine people were killed during various Landmark Forum programs last year." I most particularly cannot write such a thing in the pages of a highly visible publication like The Wall Street Journal. The reason I cannot write it is that it isn't true. It is not a fact. And authentic facts, in most cases—notwithstanding the implications that surfaced during a recent thread on this blog—are nonnegotiable. There is a commonly understood knowledge base that underlies the civilized living of life, and that most of us who are sane are willing to accept as Truth. George Washington was the first U.S. president. Maybe he was a good choice, maybe he was a poor one; those are opinions, and people are allowed to hold the latter opinion, even if they're in a decided minority. But he was the first president. Birthers aside, Barack Obama is the current president; and even if you give the Birthers their due, the fact remains, Obama occupies the White House. Interestingly enough, though I happen to think Obama is a very smart man, and though I also think the evidence for his superior intellect is voluminous and beyond question, that is not a fact in the same category as his status as president. You might have different standards than I do for what constitutes "intelligence," or you might have a different meaning in mind when you use the term. Accordingly, you might argue that Obama is an idiot—based, say, on the way he's run this country to date. In most contexts you could describe him that way without fear of penalty, even though publicly quoted estimates of his IQ put him well above the "idiot" range in every textbook sense. Many words and ideas have a vernacular usage that supersedes their literal meaning, and it's "understood" that when people use those words in an offhand way, they cannot be held accountable for failing to hew to the textbook meanings.*

Which is why, for the purposes of this post, I would turn the Moynihan quote around, inverting its emphasis: No one is entitled to have his own facts, but everyone is entitled to have his own opinion. This nation was founded, in no small part, on that very ethic. So, while I cannot write that Landmark killed 59 of its customers last year, I should certainly be allowed to write that I think it's a reckless, potentially dangerous program. I dare say (and that may be the perfect phrase for introducing what comes next), I should be allowed to write that I think Landmark Forum is a cult, or has many cult-like qualities, regardless of what they say. Understand, I'm not making that allegation here; I'm just saying that I should be allowed to. And the fact that Landmark has enjoyed some success at bringing suit against people who have expressed that view (or who merely talked around the edges of such a view) is a blemish on the nation's commitment to free speech and a damn, crying shame.

All of which brings me to Beroset's line, towards the end of her letter: "And again, should you reference us in the future, we would expect to be contacted."

You would expect?

Let's be clear about something. I wrote an opinion piece that ran in the opinion section of an opinion-leading newspaper. In my opinion piece, I quoted the opinion of Margaret Singer, an expert in the field. (Actually, two experts, if we include Michael Hurd, who is at least as skeptical as I am of pop psychology's progressive encroachments into the recognized mental-healing arts.) In this country, Ms. Beroset, we are entitled to hold opinions, all the more so when those opinions are informed by a broad survey of the available data and/or literature. (You are equally free to think [and write] that you consider me a hack journalist and an embarrassment to the breed.) No matter how many epiphanies and personal breakthroughs Landmark claims to have engineered, it is my opinion that the guiding principle of Hippocratic medicine is operative here
First, do no harm.
If your self-enrichment coursework is a material factor in even a small handful of catastrophic breakdowns or suicides or homicides, then in my opinion there are valid questions to be raised about your assumptions and practices, no matter how many people who attended the same program believe that they were helped. (Moreover
—and I haven't made a big deal about this so far—how much do we really know about what happens to the lives of Landmark graduates in the 10 or 15 years after the course? More specifically, do we know, say, what happens to their relationships with the folks around them—the folks who loved and depended on the pre-enlightened version of those 1.2 million Landmark graduates?) In my opinion, Landmark's first duty is to adhere to the above-referenced Hippocratic oath, especially sincein my opinionthe plaintiff in Weed was spot-on: the Forum curriculum comes very, very close to practicing psychology without a license.

And that is how I see it.

Read Part 1 in this series.
Read Part 2 in this series.

* Of course, context is everything here. If you're a professor who's up for tenure or a scientist who's in line for a key appointment, and you boast a proven IQ of 168, but a colleague of yours says during your hearings that he believes you to be a "genuine idiot" who's somehow managed to fool people
and on that basis you lose outit's possible that you could bring successful suit for damages.


Matt Dick said...

I enjoyed this. On the subject of opinion, libel and lawsuits, have you read about the British Chiropractic Association's libel case against the columnist Simon Singh?

The case itself seems ridiculous to me, but that aside, what the case reveals about the laws in England is shocking. Did you know that in an English libel case it is the accused who must prove innocence?

If you haven't read about it, it's worth the effort to track down a summary and educate yourself, it's scary and begs for reform.

Steve Salerno said...

Matt: Yes. We journalists are well aware that laws in the UK are very different from what they are here. In particular, most Americans would be stunned at the legal recourse available to Brit public figures and celebrities, who, in the U.S., enjoy far fewer protections under existing libel and, especially, privacy laws. One could plausibly say that the differing views of "free speech" that apply here vs. in the "homeland" hark back to some of the core disputes that prompted the American revolutionary movement.

I remember that when my book was being syndicated in the London Times, we had to do a very careful reading for sections that were perfectly OK here but might have prompted libel actions there. As I recall, a few passages were omitted or condensed.

Anonymous said...

This is a ballsy move, Steve. As a fellow journalist and someone who has written about Landmark in my own right, I applaud you.

Mary Anne said...

What I never understood throughout this series, is how the word "opinion"is not understood by Landmark. It was an opinion piece. This bugaboo by Landmark reminds me of Shakespeare's wonderful line: "doth protest too much."

Good work Steve. Remember, a hallmark of good writing is controversy.

Steve Salerno said...

MA: Thank you. As I said in a comment on a recent thread, one of the more sinister trends among corporate types in recent years is the attempt to chill free speech by filing nuisance lawsuits (or threatening same) in response to letters-to-the-editor, op-eds, and related writings. Though a few high-court rulings have taken much of the steam out of that endeavor, especially since the advent of the blogosphere, many a corporation will still try to deprive people of their honest opinions, filing lawsuits in which they claim "damage to our brand" or "irreparable harm to our public image" or some such. The average person doesn't have the means to fight back, so the company wins by default. And of course--the real reason for the suit--it sends a message to all other would-be critics.

Mary Anne said...

I have seen the trend of filing nuisance lawsuits in order to shut people up, but it just makes the groups/cults/companies in question look bad. If everything is alright in the group/cult/company, then why be so hard on a few opinions? I always question any group that cannot take some criticism or differing views. That was the basic point I was trying to make. It would have been better PR for Landmark to just ignore you, then raise such a stink.

Steve Salerno said...

For a sterling example of how outlandish this whole "defamation" climate has become, consider the latest: Lindsay Lohan's suit over ETrade's supposed depiction of her in its "milkaholic" Super Bowl ad:

First of all, the premise of her suit--that the ad contained both the name "Lindsay" and the term "-aholic," and is therefore an indisputable reference to her (!)--is not only absurd on its face, but ironically self-deprecating, as it implies that Lohan is so well identified with dysfunction that any such reference in an ad would have to be construed as a reference to her! More to the point, how could ETrade defame this woman in any sense beyond what she's already done to herself? So you can have repeated bouts with addiction, whore around*, and basically transform your life into a sick joke...but when somebody alludes to it, they're at fault?

This is what kills me about the litigation climate nowadays: People (or companies) do awful and/or embarrassing things, then call in the lawyers when you bring it up.

* (and, yes, men can "whore around," too)

SustainableFamilies said...

It concerns me heavily that they have ever one a law suit over such allegations.

It makes me want to scream "Landmark is a harmful damaging organization" from the mountain top.

They "expect to be alerted"?! LOL!!!!

ATTENTION PRESIDENT OBAMA: I am planning to have a conversation with two of my friends over some of your actions that I don't like. If you'd like to join and present your side please join us at Imaginary Location, 4pm central.

Like really, in order to discuss a business or public figure you need to alert them? When was that a law? Does Perez Hilton consult Paris Hilton before plowing through all her miserable actions?

I've never heard of such a bizarre notion that any one in the press has a legal OR moral obligation to alert every single person entity or organization they write about?

Ridiculous!! Landmark: You guys are ridiculous.


(PS Dear Landmark- I am so very sorry (not) that I seem to have forgotten to alert you I was going to respond to a response to your response about an opinion piece about your organization. Please contact at me at kissmyasslandmark@gmail.com to discuss this)

Steve Salerno said...

An "open letter" to Anon (and you know which one I'm talking about): OK, I asked you to go away--and the reason I asked you to go away was not that you posted dissenting views. It was that you posted dissenting, useless gibberish. You refused to stay on-point when you were requested to do so, and then you resorted to a series of increasingly tedious questions, comment after comment, and then ultimately, when your back was against the wall, you lied in an effort to hold your ground. That is why you were banned; it had nothing to do with "free speech." It had to do with maintaining a certain integrity of dialogue.

I am not going to tolerate--nor have I ever tolerated (for long)--the "free speech" of those who use my blog as a kind of rhetorical latrine. I am not being dictatorial in taking that stance... no more than the Congressional sergeant of arms would feel squeamish about kicking out a gallery member who thought that "free expression" meant he could walk into Congress during session and play his boombox at full volume.

If you'd had something to actually say--rather than just playing word games with the comments of others, and then hiding behind your own obfuscatory language when you find it expedient to do so--I would have allowed to you post for however you chose to continue the debate.

But now that you've been banned, you seem determined to send through increasingly harassing and even vaguely intimidating comments, under the apparent theory that you're "still participating" somehow. I am asking you nicely to stop. Now. With every additional comment you "post," you're simply adding further testimony to my point about how odd and possibly scary mind-control programs can be, at their outer limits.

Anonymous said...


As you osted in the public domain I consider this a dialogue and stand behind every word I said to you.

You saying that "I lied" is so bizzare and out there I just don't know what to say to that. That is your ammo? You even said yourself that I did not lie that you only suggested whatever.

Alot of you internet guys are in an imaginary war of your own contruction. I called you on your inaccurute posts is all that happpened and you did not like it and labeled it this that and the other thing.

I had more to say to you so I said it in these comments knowing they would not be posted. You are running an agreement propagnada blog and you have no backbone for dessenting views - no matter how much you brag to the contrary .

I take your open letter as a request to not be contacted further. I have no problem with that. I viewed this as an exercise in free speech that you chilled. And now you are playing the victim card on that "open letter" to elicite yet more agreetment and high fives from the Steve Salerno fans at your agreement party.

I will not write again.


Steve Salerno said...

NOTE: Inasmuch as Anon has promised not to write again, I thought it was only fair to allow him the last word.

NormDPlume said...


I applaud you for taking on Landmark and their flaming esthole lawyers. There are plenty of organizations which bristly at the slightest whiff of criticism of their cult-like (but not actually "cult" per se) behavior. If you really want to get crucified, try shedding a little light on the Church of Scientology. Those dudes play hardball at another level.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - Get a grip, man! There IS no last word where the LandBorg are concerned. I discovered this on my own blog, after foolishly engaging her several times. I finally had the good sense to make use of that wonderful little trash can icon and delete the redundancies and obfuscations (as well as my own ill-advised responses... mea culpa).

Connie just made a very valid point - If anon's offerings are indicative of the efficacy of the Landmark "Education" process, there is very little in the way of outside criticism that would be nearly as effective as simply allowing voice to its "graduates."

Rational Thinking said...

*am sitting on hands not to dissect anon 2.01's post*

Actually, I restrained myself from not commenting "Do not feed", but then succumbed (a post or so back).

I may be kidding myself but I feel a relentless dissection of absurdities might be useful. It helped me, immensely, a couple of years ago.

IMO, your solution, Steve, to recuse yourself and allow commenters to debate, was worthy of Solomon. And that's not snarky.