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Meme Update #22

In this issue:

Landmark Education sues Elle Magazine
OK, then what seminars DO you recommend?
Why is Richard Dawkins a Secular Humanist?
Book of the Week: The Father of Spin
Mind Virus of the Week: The Wishing Game


Landmark Education sues Elle Magazine

For the last decade or so, I have dipped my toes into a variety of evangelistic groups. Some of them I've dipped substantially more than my toes into. One of those groups is Landmark Education [], the offspring of Werner Erhard's "est" seminars so popular in the '70s. Landmark Education puts on a seminar called The Forum all over the world. it is an intense personal-growth course characterized by long hours, confrontational facilitators, and a heavy emphasis on "enrollment" (their term for evangelism of their product). Staff members of the $48 million company work 12-hour days, six days a week, for minimal wages and are frequently seen in hours-long meetings watching training videos produced by a corporate office headed by the self-exiled Erhard's brother and sister Harry and Joan Rosenberg (Erhard changed his name from Jack Rosenberg).

Memetic theory predicts that cultural organisms -- viruses of the mind if you will -- evolve to become better and better at perpetuating themselves. There are two main strategies for keeping a mind virus alive: evangelism and self-protection. The emphasis on evangelism at Landmark is nothing new. What is new is their decision to start protecting themselves by suing people and organizations who they believe are defaming them. On August 31 Landmark announced it was suing Elle, a women's magazine, for $10 million in actual and punitive damages. The press release can be found at

An article by Rosemary Mahoney in the September 1998 issue of Elle details the author's experience doing The Forum. [The magazine has not made the article available on line; however, there are copies posted on the web. One I found through DejaNews is at]

The article is typical of journalists who do one of these courses for the purpose of writing a story. The Forum isn't a movie; you can't watch it and report what it was like. The experience comes from participating in the thought exercises; in trying on new points of view about formerly unshakable beliefs. It is difficult to maintain a journalist's objectivity while at the same time diving in head first into the ontological whirlpool. Yet Mahoney does an admirable and fairly even-handed job of honestly reporting her own experience.

If fact, the scary thing about the lawsuit is just that: it's difficult to imagine that any jury would find this mildly worded article the least bit libelous. So why then is Landmark suing? Says Landmark Attorney Art Schreiber in the company's press release announcing the suit:

"Although the Elle article made it clear that Landmark and its programs are not cult-like, the lack of research and the thoroughly evident intent of the writer to denigrate the reputation of Landmark and our employee Beth Handel with irresponsible statements and shoddy research require a legal response."

In other words, even though the article was true, they are planning to sue anybody who portrays the cu--- ... er, I mean company --- in an unfavorable light? Can't be, can it? Using the legal system to harass enemies and chill criticism? [See Meme Update #20 for news of similar tactics used by the Church of Scientology.]

Still, this is more than an isolated incident. When reporter Tracy Hukill was researching a story on Landmark for the July 9-15 issue of San Francisco's MetroActive news weekly [ ], she received from Schreiber

"a 10-page letter advising me of his 'serious concern' that I might defame Landmark. What followed were six pages explaining why Landmark is not a cult, a page of why Landmark cannot be said to brainwash its enrollees, a page and a half of why I must not defame Werner Erhard or est, and a tedious summary explaining that should I 'leave Landmark and its programs depicted in a false light ... Landmark is fully prepared to take the appropriate legal action. He included 23 letters of recommendation from happy Forum grads; a letter like mine addressed to Self Magazine, whom Landmark sued in 1994 for calling The Forum a cult; a newspaper article describing a lawsuit by Erhard's daughter against a San Jose Mercury News reporter; and statements from Margaret Singer, author of Cults in Our Midst, and Cynthia Kisser, former director of the Cult Awareness Network, that Landmark is not a cult. Landmark has sued them both."

I've seen the six-page "why we are not a cult" document; it was standard stock in the supply room during the months when I was doing their programs. Part of the volunteer work we were required to do in one of the programs (which had a stated objective of grooming participants to be "world leaders") was tidying up the supply room. We also spent a lot of time lining up pens perfectly straight on the table where guests would fill out information cards. But not as much time as we spent using those information cards to call them the next day...week...month...and attempt to enroll them in The Forum.

Landmark CEO Harry Rosenberg, speaking to a group of 1300 Landmark "stakeholders" in New York, said

"In the United States, we have altered the public conversation about our work and our enterprise. For example, it is no longer possible for informed people or publications in the United States to pin pejorative labels on us. And in fact, the public conversation is beginning to turn to the value and benefits of our programs"

"Conversation" is Landmark jargon for memes. Apparently Rosenberg was noting that their strategy of chilling public criticism of Landmark was working. And to tell you the truth, it was bothersome even to me to see uninformed name-calling in poorly thought-out articles about The Forum prior to the piece in Elle. But what kind of group needs a six-page document explaining why they are not a cult? They maintain that they have been the victim of an organized smear campaign by a certain unnamed religious group and also subject to the confusion and fear that goes along with any new ideas. Both statements are probably true. But then they baldly assert that they have none of the four cult "symptoms" as defined by Landmark (see -- a letter from Landmark General Counsel Art Schreiber to Linda Chase, maintainer of the "Landmark Rants and Raves" web site

"(a) The members are required to give over to the organization ownership of all or a substantial portion of their assets. "

The straw man first. They do not exhibit this symptom at all. Landmark is much cheaper than Harvard and demands mostly your time and attention rather than your money. Allusions of "pyramid scheme" made in the Elle article are incorrect. The self-replication aspect is there; the financial pyramid is not.

"(b) The members are separated from their families and friends, often to the point of excluding any contact with such people. "

This seems totally off the mark when you consider that much of The Forum is about sharing your experience with friends and family. However, the time demands of higher-level positions in Landmark such as the 7-month program to train volunteers to lead Forum sales events (at least 10-15 hrs/week plus 4 weekends of essentially 24-hour immersion) or staff positions (at least 72 hrs/week) provide a de facto separation. Still, it's all voluntary and you can leave at any time with no retribution other than losing all your Landmark friends and perhaps some lingering guilt.

"(c) There is a theology or dogma or doctrine that the members are required to believe in and follow and in some cases worship. "

It's hard for me to believe that Landmark denies this. While they surround it with a slippery film of choice, you won't make many friends around Landmark if you balk at adopting such Landmark-serving concepts as "coachability", "rackets", and "enrollment". While they don't use the words "believe", "follow", or "worship", immersion in those concepts makes them memetically real nonetheless.

"(d) The members are restricted in their actions so as to no longer be involved in activities outside the cult. "

Again this is only de facto true for those who find that the hours spent at Landmark interfere with their outside interests. My personal experience was that while outside activities were not discouraged, they were hard to manage. And to get to the higher levels you must explicitly agree not to participate in any other kind of training.

Landmark's bottom line is they're tired of being called a cult. But rather than change the practices that keep making that appellation surface, deserved or not, they have decided to hire more lawyers. That's their prerogative, of course, but I'm guessing it will work to their detriment rather than their benefit as people decline to be associated with a group that so bares its fangs regardless of any benefits it may promise.

More than anything, though, I have a vague sense of what-might-have-been about the workings of the company. In some ways, it's a good place to do personal growth, especially for the hard-headed who need a boot camp to tear them down and build them back up. I have recommended The Forum in the past to a few specific people who I thought could benefit from going through the courses. And it certainly isn't the kind of harmful David Koresh nightmare that you think of when you hear the word "cult." But they are unnecessarily harsh on nice people, and I don't like that. And worse than that, they commit a sin so unforgivable that for that reason alone I can't recommend them.

They take themselves too seriously.

OK, then what seminars DO you recommend?

The more different courses I do, the more I like Context Associated's Excellence Series, which I first did nine years ago: playful, respectful, and centered about your individual life purpose. They first introduced me to many of the ideas in my best-selling book Getting Past OK [ ]. Find them at

Why is Richard Dawkins a Secular Humanist?

Ever want to pick the brains of some really smart people and find out how they came about their major ways of looking at life? Richard Dawkins, coiner of the term "meme," and other noted humanists reveal why they choose that philosophy in this article from Free Inquiry magazine.

Book of the Week: The Father of Spin
Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations
by Larry Tye
(Crown, 306 pp.)

Edward L. Bernays was such a master meme-spinner that we'll probably never know for sure just how much of the art of public relations he invented and how much he has just spun for himself in a propaganda campaign. The man who bragged that Hitler's minister of propaganda favored his book over all others has a colorful career of questionable ethics and unquestioned excitement. Among his claims: getting women to start smoking cigarettes in public, orchestrating the overthrow of the Guatemalan government, and changing the dominant color in fashion one year to green so women's clothes wouldn't clash with their cigarette packages.

Tye's light and fast-paced treatment of this fascinating character leaves us hungry in parts, but reading about Bernays should be part of any memetic engineer's curriculum. To order at your Memetics Bookstore discount, click on

Mind Virus of the Week: The Wishing Game

Thanks to reader Nick Knowles for this one. It's one of those psychological games that's fun and interesting enough to make you glad you did it and want to pass it on. To give the evangelism an added boost, well--- look for yourself. To quote Nick,

"note the amount of emotional sucking up it does before slipping in its evangelizing. This is true mind virus stuff as it is trying to sneak past defences. Interesting though how moot is the borderline between eu-memes (which help their host or give her some payoff, eg a joke, an idea, or an insight) and kaka-memes (which are pure parasites or detrimental to their host)."

Looks like Nick is doing some meming of his own with those new terms "eu-meme" and "kaka-meme." At any rate, I predict this one will spread quick. All my experimental viruses have counters at the bottom so you can tell which ones are winning

Here's the link to the newest Meme Central Experimental Mind Virus, "The Wishing Game":

All the best memes,


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