Internet idealism was out in full force in San Francisco on Saturday as an impressive roster of activist speakers contemplated the legacy of John Perry Barlow and his years of activism for free speech, transparency and generally good human behavior on both the internet and in life.
Barlow was the sort of character we are unlikely to see much of in our 21st Century world — a rowdy countercultural libertarianish cosmic cowboy with a heart of gold and rust roaming the world with few rules and big appetites — and yet still with some strong ethical grounding. The speakers shared loving stories about Barlow, the character (always massively late to the EFF board meetings); as well as Barlow the philosopher of total transparency, absolute free speech and the belief that humans are creating a sort-of unity of minds — a noosphere — and that this will be a good thing. The panelists spoke of participating with Barlow in organizing for free speech protection, transparency and the freedom to use and transform these tools as we wish — the programming that is being used to collect our data should be transparent and we should be able to use and alter the tools any way we choose.
At the same time, panelists shared some sharp skepticism regarding the utopian edge of the Barlowian vision, acknowledging that things have not gone entirely well — to put it mildly. Joichi Ito spoke of being in the darkest time he has experienced and wondered if those clouds would lift. He advocated bringing some counterculture flavor — a spirit of play and humor — into the powerfully growing social justice movements.
While the panelists referenced the dark complexities we’re currently facing, some aspects of that seemed to go unmentioned.
This difficult moment for free speech might have been best expressed in a conversation I ran here last week wherein Angela Nagle said, “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.” (emphasis mine). This is where the rubber is hitting the road regarding speech and it doesn’t fall before easy answers.
Which brings me to another point that I raised in a piece here — the announcement by Microsoft that they will be censoring speech on a variety of their platforms (including Office… Whaaaa?) And as I noted, the pressure that these giant corporate organisms are reacting to that is causing them to sloppily attempt to gain control over the cacophony of the online world comes largely from people who demand sensitivity towards those mainly bearing the brunt of that “cruelest stuff the human mind can come up with.”
Finally, these sorts of problems call into question the fundamental Barlowian optimism. The notion that minds linked together in cyberspace would become more enlightened. And the question many of us have been asking ourselves for awhile is whether disembodied minds aren’t, in fact, uniquely cruel — more capable of abstracting the people they hurt than those who aren’t sitting behind a keyboard but roaming the actual world. Of course, there have been epic moments of monumental dehumanization of embodied (and soon to be murdered) people that has occurred for the millennia before the internet, so it’s possible that our mutual agitation at seeing what the other “tards” say on the web may prove to be less consequential than it might seem. But it’s certainly an inquiry that needs to be made before the mass casualties pile up.
None of this is meant to distract from the spirit of Barlow or his visions. One of the panelists (I forget which one) spoke of his ideals as being like a north star to guide us through the ups and downs. I’m not so sure about the noosphere thing — seems a bit Borgian to me — but I hope his vision of an online and offline world that is both liberatory and humane comes to pass.
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.
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.
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. Read more “Sexual McCarthyism and the Neopuritanical Left: A Conversation with Laura Kipnis & Angela Nagle”
While the so-called “alt-right” is the main target of this books’ critique/expose, the excesses of the culture-obsessed left are also sharply assessed. KAL spreads its blame around for the ugliness currently extant online as it spills with increasing vigor into the physical political realm.
Most interestingly, for MONDO readers, KAL takes on transgression, libertinism and other tropes of hip culture and, more or less, concludes that we are not doing the right thing.
Here I present the parts of the book I underlined. They may be a little out of context, but most of you will get the point.
The culture of 4chan, Anonymous etc., in the pre-gamergate days of Occupy and Anonymous could have gone another way. Long before this ‘geeks vs feminists’ battle, the libertarian left had its own pro-hacker, pro-computer geek, Internet-centric political tradition, which some in the early Anonymous milieu obviously drew influence from. Hakim Bey’s idea of the temporary autonomous zone was based on what he called ‘pirate utopias’ and he argued that the attempt to form a permanent culture or politics inevitably deteriorates into a structured system that stifles individual creativity. His language and ideas influenced anarchism and later, online cultures that advocated illegal downloading, anonymity, hacking and experiments like bitcoin. Echoes of John Perry Barlow’s manifesto ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ can be seen in this earlier period of Anon culture and in analyses that reflect a more radical horizontalist politics, like Gabriella Coleman’s work. Barlow was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, anarchist hackers and defenders of an Internet free of state intervention, capitalist control and monopolizing of the online world. In a similar style to the rhetoric of 4chan and Anonymous (‘we are legion’), it warned: Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the home of Mind. On behalf of the future I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
Just a few years ago the left-cyberutopians claimed that ‘the disgust had become a network’ and that establishment old media could no longer control politics, that the new public sphere was going to be based on leaderless user-generated social media. This network has indeed arrived, but it has helped to take the right, not the left, to power. Those on the left who fetishized the spontaneous leaderless Internet-centric network, declaring all other forms of doing politics old hat, failed to realize that the leaderless form actually told us little about the philosophical, moral or conceptual content of the movements involved. Into the vacuum of ‘leaderlessness’ almost anything could appear. Read more “(Excerpt) Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right”