Sexual McCarthyism and the Neopuritanical Left: A Conversation with Laura Kipnis & Angela Nagle

 

 

Laura Kipnis: Avoid “unnecessary references to parts of the body” warns a recent directive from the commissars of sex on my campus.

The introduction to this dialogue between Laura Kipnis and Angela Nagle will focus largely on the contents of Kipnis’ book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia on Campus. Excerpts and introduction from Nagle’s book Kill All Normies Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right were previously published on MONDO 2000 here. Consider reading it first

 

Laura Kipnis

 

I like to challenge dogma — the type we once called political correctness before that term was deformed by the far right to mean anything they disagree with. But I was none-too-pleased when I finished reading Unwanted Advances by Laura Kipnis.

Not only did she provide a litany of examples of Kafkaesque (no, actually Kafkaesqe i.e. The Trial) activities taking place on college campuses involving “hearings” related to often bizarre accusations of sexual misconduct, the main subject in the book was someone who I knew, at least virtually, pretty well.

I finished the book with the queasy feeling that I needed to say something about it. The problem was (and is) — given the temper of the moment, and the horrible bigotry-for-all of the current White House occupants — one wished one could be unambiguously in solidarity with “The Resistance.” I weakly mentioned that a former MONDO associate was the subject of Kafkaesque events detailed in Kipnis’s book in a couple of tweets and then more or less let it go. But I went to work on organizing this conversation and now…. the moment of truth

The aforementioned MONDO associate Peter Ludlow was a vocal and frequent contributor to the MONDO 2000 Conference on The WELL, back in the early and mid-90s (when The Well was one of very few “social media” hangouts on the internet). And he became a contributor to How To Mutate & Take Over The Word: An Exploded Post-Novel the book that I, and my coauthor St. Jude Milhon (RIP), wrote along with “The Internet 21” — approximately 21 people who joined in the creation of that mess as part of a mostly-failed role playing game. Ludlow wrote some essays mocking the style of that periods’ “cyber-critics” — a branch of poststructuralism/postmodernism that had discovered the cyberpunk/cyberculture much to their excited borderline-erotic horror.

irresistibly charming Peter Ludlow

In Ludlow’s case, there was a kind of double-jeopardy Kafkaesque trial. Initially, he was investigated for allegedly groping a student who had spent the night in his apartment.  In this case, he was not informed of the charges against him nor the evidence against him, nor even what the specific actions were that he had committed.  He was not allowed to have a lawyer present, nor was he allowed to question his accuser, whose case later collapsed in a court of law. Even the University did not find evidence of the groping part — even under the very weak “preponderance of evidence” standard. As Kipnis notes, important elements of the student’s accusations were clear fabrications, not least of which that the student had jumped into lake Michigan in early February and then got out and walked outside for an hour to dry off.

When Northwestern seemed intent on getting rid of Ludlow anyway, they later pressured a graduate student and former lover of his to testify against him.  Her initial response was that she had merely been in a “deeply inappropriate” relationship with Ludlow (a time when she had a boyfriend in Boston that she would subsequently marry).  She had complained to Ludlow that if news about their relationship got out it would “ruin her”.  But clearly given Northwestern’s path, news was now going to get out.

When the second group of charges came, Ludlow was again not informed of the specific charges against him and had to meet with the university “investigator”  — a former prosecutor — for several hours without a lawyer present.  The initial charge against him turned out to be a date-specific occasion of nonconsensual sex (the student woke up naked one day just before Thanksgiving break, and did not remember having sex, but concluded she must have). When Ludlow produced a hotel receipt showing he wasn’t home the evening in question, and text messages from the following day showing Ludlow trying to break up and the student trying to preserve their (by then) nearly two month old relationship, the charges drifted. Now the charge was that Ludlow had used his power and “charm” — charm is actually the word used by the investigator — to manipulate the student into a relationship that lasted from October through December.  The student, a 25-year-old who had already been through a master’s program and dated a previous professor, did not have the tools to make such a decision on her own, it seems.  

Kipnis notes that the graduate student said to the investigator that “it was only years later” that she realized that she had been manipulated by Ludlow, and that a key woman in the philosophy profession convinced her of this.  So, by her own admission it seems, she concluded that her “consent” to a relationship that lasted for three months and thousands of text messages could be withdrawn years after the fact.  It seems her advisor not only had the power to tell her what she should consent to; she also had the power to tell her what she did consent to.  The paradox, is that “consent” is no longer an act of the student’s will; it is now the decision of an academic superior, and that decision by the superior can overwrite previous willful acts of consent by the student.

Some may assume that only those awful “cisgendered” males have been on the receiving end of these accusations and quasi-legal prosecutions/persecutions. In fact, an awful lot of gay teachers have faced the Kafkaesque “trial,” and more than a few women. The author of the book was subjected to a Title IX investigation for seven words in an essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education referencing one of Ludlow’s accusers case, though not naming the woman. (Kipnis was brought up on Title IX complaints a second time over the book, and is now also being sued over it.) One gay woman was accused of looking at a girl’s breast while whispering in her ear. The offending act took place in a library.

I organized this brief email conversation between Laura Kipnis, author of Unwanted Advances Sexual Paranoia Comes To Campus and Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies: online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Nagle’s book was discussed and excerpted in an earlier MONDO 2000 article. Both women are leftists who have been getting a ton of angry shit from what one might call the identity left for challenging their dogmas.

R.U. Sirius

 

Angela Nagle

I’ve also sprinkled a few quotes from the books of both authors throughout the discussion. Some of Nagle’s excerpts from the prior article are worth repeating.

Laura Kipnis: In the official version of events, causality can run in only one direction: Ludlow alone can be the prime mover; Cho can only be someone things happen to… What use to anyone is a feminism so steeped in self-exoneration that it prefers to imagine women as helpless children, rather than acknowledge grown-up sexual realities.

R.U. Sirius: These are two very different books from two very different minds… but a commonality may be that both of you are leftists and your books have upset some other leftists (which isn’t hard to do but…). And I think it’s because you’re telling them about things they don’t want to know. Particularly with Laura’s book, even I got to the end and thought… I wish I didn’t know about these events. Now I guess I have to say something about it.  

I’d like to get both your thoughts on this… and do you think it’s a unique phenomenon of our virtualized times or is it just the same old circular firing squad? Also, any specific nastiness you’ve incurred that you’re willing to share….

Laura Kipnis: The Left has always been riven by sectarian differences and idiocies, but my problem answering this question right now is that I’ve lost a sense of who or what the left is. It seems to have become monolithic, at least when it comes to campus issues, which has lately been my subject, and where the nominal left starts seeming like a bunch of prigs, hysterics, censors, and authoritarians. As far as the feminist left, is there one if by “left” we mean attention to some version of redistributive justice along with the tenets of gender equity? They’re not either/or propositions obviously, but class has become the ugly stepsister, the identity that dare not speak its name, when it comes to the intersections of concern on the campus left.

But it’s worse than that. If you’re talking about — or with — students, for the most part the politics are incoherent. I’m willing to say, as an academic leftist, that it’s leftwing professors who’ve stopped teaching students how to think. I recall an exchange I had last year with a student at my own university (now graduated, I believe) when I wrote a letter to the school paper about due process. I was for it. (And against rushing to judgment without evidence, as had happened in a campus incident involving anonymous accusations against a frat.) There was the one response, from a student I didn’t know, about what I’d written:

“The letter refuses to hold hegemonic structures accountable for their endorsement of misogynistic masculinity and subsequent dehumanization of female-assigned bodies. This unwillingness is connected to the structures that secure white, cis privilege among faculty at institutions such as NU. These are the very structures that produce a confirmation bias against and invalidate survivors. The rhetoric that demands “we know exactly what happened” before taking action is trauma-inducing for survivors. I would hope any educator would feel that same obligation toward allyship to their students, some of whom are among the survivor community.”

Where does this gobbledegook come from? This was someone who, I presume, would describe herself as on the left. Yet she has no concept of democracy, which requires due process. I’m sure she would describe herself as “on the right side of history,” while overlooking the histories of false accusations against sexual and racial minorities. She spouts boilerplate phrases. And I suspect she learned all this as a student at an elite university, from professors spouting slightly more polished versions of the same boilerplate. 

Laura Kipnis: At the moment a legal case is pending against the Office for Civil Rights itself, by a male student charged with having nonconsensual sex with a consenting woman. The woman has said repeatedly that the sex was consensual. The problem came when a friend of hers spotted a hickey on her neck and reported it. The accused student, who was black, by the way… received a multiyear suspension.

Angela Nagle: As someone who has studied the rise of far right politics among millennials, watching the cannibalism of the left, its extreme puritanism and its refusal to live on the same planet as ordinary people is not just frustrating but something that fills me with a sense of hopelessness. It’s obvious right now that free market ideas are very unpopular and there is a new desire out there for, if not radical economic transformation, then certainly a return to much more redistributive economics. If this historic opportunity is lost it will be because of the social justice left making the left totally unattractive to most people. 

I think there may be a more obvious schism between the economic left and the cultural left. I often meet young American women who spout jargon you would have only heard in anarchist social centres just a few years ago but if you ask them if they like Bernie Sanders they say no because his whole free college idea is unrealistic! They’ve essentially got a slightly wackier version of corporate policy — have as many gender options as you like but don’t mention taxes.

I do believe we are living through an age that will be remembered in history for its puritanism and mass hysteria. It has brought the worst group impulses out in people. It has shaken my belief in progress, for example, because I now look at how people behave during a witch hunt and have no doubt these people would be capable of any form of human cruelty if they could get away with it. We haven’t progressed or evolved one bit. It just happens that the mass hysteria and puritanism is unfortunately being channeled through ideas we associate in some vague way with ‘the left’ for now.

Laura Kipnis: …accused professor’s grad students… objected to being assigned readings by feminist scholars whose views on gender they disagreed with…. The diversity officer likened the professor, who’d grown up in Nazi-occupied Belgium, to Hitler.

R.U.: Reading Angela’s book, I was nauseated by the chapter that focused on left cultural silliness but then it was “trumped” by the murderous misogyny discussed in the chapter on “the manosphere.”  What would you say about the feedback loop between these cultures? Does Angela’s “manosphere” impact Laura’s “title ix” nightmares?

AN: The liberal and cultural left is trying to break down all taboos while erecting many more in their place, around sexuality, language, art and culture. They are trying to refashion the world but it’s genuinely hard to see how the world will be improved by any of it. The two online cultures, which have now increasingly moved onto college campuses and to the media more generally, are definitely symbiotic. On the one hand you have an ultra-sensitive culture that allows no room for impure thoughts or ideological wrong-think, on the other you have a culture that seems to justify all the worst fears about what happens when you allow free speech — extreme misogyny, dehumanizing racism, and just the most cruel stuff the human mind can come up with. So the alt right sees the SJWs as a constant reinforcement of their own view of what contemporary western society is like and likewise the ultra-sensitive pro-censorship millennial left then sees the evil of the alt right and it reinforces their own view of world as a place of cruelty and power wielded by straight white males. There is truth in both but neither really reflect where mainstream society is. I think sometimes people on my side of the free speech debate (the pro side) dismiss it all as a bit of banter. It’s not. It’s politically serious and it may shape the future..

Angela Nagle: In 2015, Iranian socialist and feminist Maryam Namazie was invited to speak at Goldsmiths University, London. Because of her militant secularism and open apostasy as an ex-Muslim, a style that makes Western leftists uncomfortable, controversy followed. The Islamic Society objected to her presence on campus and when she spoke anyway, a gang of men from the society sat in the front row of her talk trying to intimidate her. They shouted over her, squared up to her, turned off her projector, turned off the lights and for much of the talk she had to shout in order to be heard over them. Video evidence of the talk shows a level of intimidation that would be unthinkable if Namazie or her Islamist intimidators were white and western, and yet she not only didn’t receive solidarity from her Western comrades, but she was also further condemned and attacked by them over the incident… To put in context those who the liberal students were defending at the expense of Namazie, the President of Goldsmiths Islamic Society, Muhammed Patel, was a supporter of hate-preacher Haitham al-Haddad, who in an article titled ‘Standing up against Homosexuality and LGBTs’ wrote, ‘In order to combat the scourge of homosexuality Allah has ordained us to speak out, and that we should co-operate with others in righteousness and God-consciousness.’

LK: That’s really well put. I completely agree with your description of the situation. I’ll add that I found myself in the unaccustomed position, the other night, at a panel discussion on whether “the left is eating itself” (an ugly way of putting it) somewhat backtracking on my usual pro free speech position. I should obviously be a free speech absolutist out of self-interest if nothing else, speaking as someone whom others on campus have tried to shut up via title IX accusations and so on. But the political situation is increasingly worrisome to me: to label fascists “the manosphere” underplays the rise of white supremacy as, increasingly, an official state ideology. It’s not just idiots like Richard Spencer we’re talking about, it’s the executive branch of the government and a good portion of Congress, and the systematic suppression of the African-American vote in the last election, among other new realities. I asked this question at the panel discussion: If it were 1932, would we invite Joseph Goebbels to campus to debate whether Jews and homosexuals should be “removed” from Germany, on the principle that good speech will obviously trump bad speech, and all ideas deserve a hearing?

The connection between the manosphere and the Title IX sphere is a veering toward authoritarianism on both the left and the right. The surprising thing is that the left has become more sexually censorious than the right. Okay, this is depressing me, so I’ll stop here.

Angela Nagle: One Twitter-famous intersectionalist admonished those who had called (the Las Vegas Stadium shooting) the worst mass shooting in US history by reminding them that ‘the worst was wounded knee’. Other similar tweeters raged against the use of the term Latina/o instead of Latinx in the reporting, while still others made sure to clarify that it was the shooter’s mental illness, not his allegiance to ISIS and the caliphate, that caused the shooting. Not to be outdone, others then tweeted back angrily about the ableism of those who said the shooter had a mental illness. At one vigil to the atrocity where hundreds showed up, a young woman lashed out at the crowd: ‘There are so many white people here. That wasn’t a joke… Who are you really here for?’

Sex Panic Goes to Hollywood?

RU: The Title IX frenzy around sexual harassment appears to have moved into the broader mediated landscape in the US. Any observations on this? Is it harder or easier to have this discussion now?

LK: It’s both harder and easier to have the discussion. It’s easier because it’s practically the only subject being discussed! It’s harder because it’s difficult to make meaningful distinctions, i.e. between campus culture/Title IX and #MeToo. The issues under debate on campus concern, for the most part, consent: who did or didn’t consent to what. The #MeToo moment keeps changing. Initially it was about men in power using that power to extract sex — or as far as Weinstein, apparently rape with impunity for decades — in professional/workplace contexts. Some of the later expose’s/charges, i.e. the Aziz Ansari story, are closer to the campus situation — what is and isn’t consensual? — which has evolved into the question of what is/isn’t bad sex. You also hear people raising the due process question, which I raised in Unwanted Advances as far as campus proceedings, and demanding due process for, say, men on the Shitty Media Men list, or those accused in online articles. But I’m not sure what due process is available for a comedian accused of porny sexual moves. I do like the idea of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions for bad sex, and I hope it takes off.

Laura Kipnis: As with the creative writing teacher forced to defend Whitman, Title IX officers who know nothing about the relevant subjects seem rather too willing to pounce on hints of sexuality in the curriculum.

AN: It should go without saying that genuine sexual predators being brought into the light is a great thing but #metoo has quickly become something very ugly. The chaos of the present moment in America is that the world of dating and romance has become sexualised to a point of being cold and calculating, where all sexual taboos have been broken down but very normal and healthy forms of sexual expression like flirting and seduction are treated as sinister. Young feminists are trying to keep the sexual revolution going on some things like abortion and prostitution while simultaneously imposing ever stricter penalties for other behaviours like unwanted touching. We now suspect everyone else of sexual perversion while celebrating all of the things that were considered sexual perversions before the sexual revolution. It is an attempt to redraw a new code of etiquette that I think will lead to further atomisation, loneliness and social distrust. I think it’s nothing short of a social disaster, quite honestly, and it is a war on all the things that are intuitive and sensual and therefor blurry and messy about romance and sex. Human interactions are a complex unspoken negotiation and always will be. We all need to be hugging and kissing and touching each other more, if anything, without consent forms one would hope. The more vocal Italian and French rejection of #metoo was great because it was two flirtatious and affectionate cultures rejecting American cultural Imperialism bulldozing all other cultures via liberal social media culture. There are many great things about America but I do wish this anti-social mania could be contained.  

LK: I think it actually does need saying that if we all need to be hugging and kissing more, the hugging and kissing needs to be voluntary. What’s been most valuable about #MeToo has been the tranche of revelations that fall in between predators like Weinstein and the people ragging about bad dates, about just how normalized workplace harassment — of the ugliest sort — has been. What seemed silly to me about the “Deneuve” letter (though I know she wasn’t the author) was the ease with which it elided such realities — not just at the upper echelons, like a pundit rubbing his erections on random jobseekers, but the hotel housekeepers and fast food workers, for whom “the right to bother” — if I recall the wording of the Deneuve letter correctly — is nothing but business as usual.

 

Laura Kipnis: She (Heide Hawkins Lockwood, feminist activist who helps prosecute Title IX cases) acknowledges that forcible sex… isn’t the problem on campuses these days: the real issue is consent, or the lack of it. Yet she would also shrink any possibility for consent to the point of vanishment. “You can threaten my agency… by using the power of your mind to mentally manipulate me, to persuade me,” as Lockwood puts it, running down the reasons that sexual autonomy is a myth. So who can consent to sex? Not women obviously — how could we? Someone might be mentally manipulating us… consent is a moving target, and the direction in which it’s moving on campus is sentimentality about female helplessness.

 

 

 

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