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Updated: 2018-04-27T00:00:00-04:00


Humanizing the Struggle at the Oslo Freedom Forum in New York


"Some of our speakers don't live through the year because they're executed, or they're assassinated," Oslo Freedom Forum founder Thor Halvorssen told an audience at Alice Tully Hall in New York. The conference—a smaller version of an eight-year-old international event variously described as "the Davos of dissidents" and "a bit like Comic-Con, only all the heroes are real"—coincided with the United Nations General Assembly session a short distance away. At a pre-conference reception, Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess master and opposition activist, took note of the meeting of tyrants on one side of Manhattan and the meeting of freedom champions on the other. Somehow, he quipped, freedom always seems to be in the West. Halvorssen said that one goal of the one-day New York conference last week was to "humanize the struggle" of freedom fighters and freedom seekers; indeed, it brought together people with very different stories and struggles. North Korean defector and human rights activist Ji Seong-ho, now in his early thirties, survived the famine of the 1990s. He lost his left hand and foot in 1996 after being run over by a train while scavenging for coal to trade for food, and endured grueling surgery without anesthesia. A decade later, on wooden crutches, he and his brother made a 6,000-mile trek through China, Laos, Burma and Thailand to escape to South Korea. Ji's raw, emotional account in Korean, in a sometimes-breaking voice—aided by photos on a big screen, such as the schoolroom by emptied famine—told a powerful story even though I had forgotten to get a translation headset. Ji's story ended in finding freedom and in being made whole by modern medicine and prosthetics. No translator was needed for his final triumphant gesture, holding up the crutches he no longer needed. But it is also a story of unfinished work: Ji's activism on behalf of those still trapped under North Korea's hellish regime. The coexistence of the harrowing and the upbeat, of victory and never-ending battle at devastating cost was a central, if unspoken, theme of the Freedom Forum. Iranian-born author Marina Nemat, now living in Canada, was arrested in 1982, at the age of 16, for criticizing the Islamic revolution in the school newspaper; she was tortured in prison and sentenced to death. (Her life was spared largely to the intercession of a guard to whom she was forcibly married.) Russian democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza not only lost a close ally and friend, Boris Nemtsov, to assassination but was himself the target of two apparent poisonings that left him comatose and near death. Kara-Murza spoke in flawless, almost unaccented English of the yearning for freedom in Russia, a country often stereotyped as craving the whip. He spoke of the risks taken daily by critics of the Putin regime, of political prisoners—now numbering about a hundred, comparable to the late Soviet period—and Nemtsov's murder ("when smears and threats fail, they use bullets as their final argument"). Kara-Murza recalled his "first conscious political memory" at the age of ten: the Soviet hardliners' coup in August 1991, when Russians, including his father, "not armed with anything except their dignity and their determination to defend their freedom," were able to stop the coup leaders who had everything, from the mass media to tanks, at their disposal. The activism of Somali-born Leyla Hussein, now a psychotherapist living in England, is driven by a much more gruesome childhood experience: the genital cutting she suffered at the age of seven, together with her younger sister. "I started to campaign against [female genital mutilation] not because I thought it was wrong; I wanted to protect my daughter," Hussein said. She is co-founder of the non-profit Daughters of Eve and author of a much-discussed television documentary on FGM in England, The Cruel Cut. Hussein said she has been threatened and physically assaulted for her activism, which some see as offensive to religious and cultural values. Because of safety concerns, she has had to move twic[...]

An Interview With James Damore


James Damore, a former software engineer at Google, was suddenly propelled to fame after an internal memo he wrote criticizing diversity policies at the company leaked to the media. The document, sometimes labeled a "manifesto" (and, less kindly, a "screed" and a "rant"), asserted that the gender disparities in tech jobs are at least partly the result of innate differences between the sexes (primarily of women being more people-oriented and less attracted to such work) and that the diversity programs intended to boost the number of women at Google are counterproductive and possibly illegal. While the document proposed alternative ways to make the workplace at Google more female-friendly, it was widely labeled "anti-diversity" and "anti-woman." After 28-year-old Damore was identified as the author of the memo, he was fired for "perpetuating gender stereotypes." Since then, the controversy has raged unabated—perhaps unsurprisingly, since it touches on many hot-button, polarizing issues from gender equity in the workplace to freedom of speech. A few days ago, I wrote about the debate for USA Today. I interviewed Damore via Google Hangouts text chat on Friday. The transcript has been lightly edited for style, flow and clarity. Cathy Young: All this must be a little overwhelming? James Damore: Yes, especially since I tend to be pretty introverted. CY: Did you think when you wrote the memo, that it could become public at all, let alone as such a huge story? JD: No, definitely not, I was just trying to clarify my thoughts on Google's culture and use it to slowly change some of our internal practices. CY: You've mentioned in other interviews that you decided to write this memo after attending a staff meeting on diversity at Google. JD: Yes, I decided to write my thoughts down after attending a particular "Diversity and Inclusion Summit," although I had seen many of the problems in our culture for a while. CY: Who was this summit for? All employees, or employees at a certain level? JD: It was generally for high level employees in my organization that were interested in diversity efforts. CY: Does Google have a lot of diversity events? Do any of them have mandatory attendance, or is it primarily for those interested in the issue? JD: Google has many diversity events, including many during our weekly company-wide meeting (TGIF). They've also recently made "Unconscious Bias" training, which is ideologically similar, mandatory for those that want to evaluate promotions, all managers, and all new hires. CY: You've mentioned that the summit that prompted the memo had some material that you found disturbing and offensive. I don't know how specific you can be, but any examples? JD: They outlined some of the practices where employees were being treated differently based on their gender or ethnicity at Google and during the hiring process. For example, there's special treatment during the interviews (like more being given) and there are high priority queues for team matching after an employee gets hired. Also, there were calls to holding individual managers accountable for the "diversity" of their team, which would inevitably lead to managers using someone's protected status (e.g. gender or ethnicity) during critical employment situations. CY: More interviews being given, as in women and underrepresented minorities being given a second chance? JD: Yes, and I, of course, don't have anything against women and underrepresented minorities, but I think that we need to rethink these practices because they may be illegal and actually increase intergroup tensions, as we've seen in academia, which is exactly what we don't want. CY: Do you think practices like that amount to "lowering the bar," as you suggested in the memo? Some would argue that it may be a good idea to give "diversity candidates" a second shot, since they may have been unfairly prejudged in the initial interview due to hidden biases. JD: Yes, I do think that some of these may amount to "lowering the bar." Google's hiring practices are curre[...]

Discredited, the Legend of Mattress Girl Just Won't Go Away


Emma Sulkowicz, the infamous "mattress girl," surfaced this week on National Public Radio talking about her efforts to get a serial predator, "a sadist in the truest meaning of that word," off the Columbia University campus. Sulkowicz, referred to in the story as an "activist and survivor," mentioned that the subject of her efforts won a settlement from Columbia this month in a lawsuit charging that Sulkowicz's activism amounted to gender-based harassment. When a disciplinary hearing in late 2013 cleared Paul Nungesser of charges that he raped Sulkowicz, she refused to accept the outcome. Her protest—which included carrying a mattress on campus for most of her senior year to represent the "weight" of her victimization—made her the heroine of a new feminist revolution. It also made him the campus pariah after she outed him as her alleged rapist. While the terms of the settlement are unknown, Columbia issued a statement effectively reaffirming Nungesser's exoneration. This was an important victory not just for Nungesser and his family, but for those who have argued the war on campus rape, however worthy its goals, has often trampled on the innocent. It is a timely victory, given the current controversy over possible shifts in federal policy to ensure more protections for the accused. As the first journalist to fully report Nungesser's side of the story with important exculpatory evidence, I consider it something of a vindication as well—after such reactions as a piece on the feminist site Jezebel titled "How to Make an Accused Rapist Look Good." When I first read the front-page story on Sulkowicz in the New York Times in May 2014, I actually believed—despite having criticized the excesses of the college rape crackdown—that she was probably a victim wronged by campus bureaucrats. There were no "blurred lines" of consent here. Sulkowicz described a brutal assault by a (then-anonymous) friend and occasional sexual partner who, she said, suddenly turned violent during a consensual encounter, hitting her, choking her, and anally raping her while she screamed in pain. According to Sulkowicz, the man was found "not responsible" after a botched investigation and remained enrolled at the university, even though he had been accused of sexual assault by two other female students as well. The facts grew considerably murkier when I read an earlier report on the case in Bwog, Columbia's online student magazine. The multiple complaints, it turned out, were not independent of each other, and the other two women were not alleging rape. One was an ex-girlfriend who had "felt emotionally and sexually exploited" by the accused, though she did not recognize it as abuse at the time; she and Sulkowicz both decided to file complaints after sharing their experiences. The other one said he grabbed her and tried to kiss her at a party when they went upstairs to get more beer—an incident that she admitted she didn't regard as assault until she learned about the other charges. In late December 2014, long after "mattress girl" had become a national icon, The New York Times published a story that included an interview with Nungesser (who had been named by The Columbia Daily Spectator in May). What piqued my interest was his contention that "he was not allowed to bring up communications between himself and Ms. Sulkowicz after the night in question" in his defense. Oddly, nothing was said in the story about the content of those communications. About a month later, I met with Nungesser for an interview on the Columbia campus in upper Manhattan. His parents, Karin Nungesser and Andreas Probosch, who live in Germany, had contacted me after reading my articles on campus rape controversies and after I mentioned my interest in the case on Twitter. Among the materials he gave me were several pages of Facebook messages, which later figured extensively in the lawsuit. They show that for weeks after he supposedly raped her on August 27, 2012, Sulkowicz had affectionate chats with Nungess[...]

Men as Likely To Be Harassed Online as Women


A new study released by the Pew Research Center supports what some of us have argued all along about online harassment: that it affects men as much as women and that the problem should not be framed as a gender issue—or defined so broadly as to chill legitimate criticism. If anything, the study says, men tend to get more online abuse than women, including serious abuse such as physical threats (though women are, predictably, more likely to be sexually harassed). However, when people are asked about free speech vs. safety on the internet, women are more likely to come down on the side of the latter. Thus, it is very likely future efforts at speech regulation will continue to be cast as "feminist" initiatives. Online harassment has become something of a cause célèbre in the last three years. It has been explored (and deplored) in numerous media reports; it has attracted the attention of politicians and even of the United Nations. A basic premise of these discussions has been that women, especially outspoken women, are specifically and maliciously targeted for hate, abuse, and threats; many feminists have claimed internet misogyny is the civil rights issue of our time. The Pew survey of over 4,000 American internet users over 18 conducted in January challenges those contentions. Forty four percent of the men and 37 percent of the women said that at some point, they had experienced at least one of the behaviors the study classified as harassment. Most of this abuse involved offensive name-calling and being embarrassed on purpose. However, 12 percent of men and 8 percent of women said they'd been the target of a physical threat; 6 percent of men and 8 percent of women said they had been stalked; 8 percent of men and 7 percent of women they had experienced "sustained harassment"; and 4 percent of men and 8 percent of women said they had been sexually harassed. Men and women under 30, who are the most likely to spend a lot of time online, are, unsurprisingly, the most likely to experience all kinds of online abuse, including its more severe forms. It's true that women who been targets of online abuse were more than twice as likely as men to describe their last such experience as extremely or very upsetting (35 percent vs. 16 percent). But, interestingly, there was no gender gap in actual negative effects of online harassment, be it mental stress, problems with friends and family, romantic problems, reputational damage, or trouble at work. Twelve percent of both male and female victims—or about 5 percent of all respondents—said that online harassment had made them fear for their or their loved ones' safety. One percent, with no gender difference, had been victims of doxing—the unwanted disclosure of their personal data online, ranging from real names for those who post under pseudonyms to place of work or home address. Few will be surprised to learn that women under 30 were substantially more likely than their male peers—53 percent vs. 37 percent—to report receiving unsolicited sexually explicit images. But in a more counterintuitive finding, men in that age group were more likely than women—14 percent vs. 10 percent—to say that explicit images of them had been shared online without their consent. (For those 30 and older, the figure was 5 percent for both sexes.) This differs sharply from feminist scholars' claims that 90 percent of so-called "revenge porn" targets women, a figure based on a self-selected and mostly female sample. But it supports a 2013 study by McAfee Security in which men were more likely to report both being threatened with having intimate photos of them posted online and actually having such photos posted. More women than men in the Pew Study, 11 percent vs. 5 percent, said they had experienced gender-based abuse online. But this gap may be partly due to differences in what men and women perceive as gender-based. A woman who is called fat and ugly on Twitter is likely to see the insult as sexist; a[...]

Russia's Global Anti-Libertarian Crusade


One of the surreal twists of the past year in American politics has been the rapid realignment in attitudes toward Russia. Democrats, many of whom believe that Russian interference was key to Donald Trump's unexpected victory last November, are now the ones sounding the alarm about the Russian threat. Meanwhile, quite a few Republicans—previously the keepers of the anti-Kremlin Cold War flame—have taken to praising President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader and Moscow as an ally against radical Islam. A CNN/ORC poll in late April found that 56 percent of Republicans see Russia as either "friendly" or "an ally," up from 14 percent in 2014. Over the same period, Putin's favorable rating from Republicans in the Economist/YouGov poll went from 10 percent to a startling 37 percent. The dominant narrative in the U.S. foreign policy establishment and mainstream media casts Putin as the implacable enemy of the Western liberal order—an autocratic leader at home who wants to weaken democracy abroad, using information warfare and covert activities to subvert liberal values and to promote Russia-friendly politicians and movements around the world. In this narrative, President Donald Trump is like the French nationalist Marine Le Pen, whose failed presidential campaign this year relied heavily on loans from Russian banks with Kremlin ties: a witting or unwitting instrument of subversion, useful to Putin either as an ideological ally or as an incompetent who will strengthen Russia's hand by destabilizing American democracy. At its extremes, the Russian subversion narrative relies on a great deal of conspiratorial thinking. It also far too easily absolves the Western political establishment of responsibility for its failures, from the defeat of European Union supporters in England's Brexit vote to Hillary Clinton's loss in last November's election. Putin makes a convenient boogeyman. Nonetheless, there is a real Russian effort to counter American—plus NATO and E.U.—influence by supporting authoritarian nationalist movements and groups, such as Le Pen's National Front, Hungary's quasi-fascist Jobbik Party, and Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Today's Russia is no longer just a moderately authoritarian corrupt regime trying to maintain its regional influence. Cloaked in the mantle of religious and nationalist values, the Kremlin positions itself as a defender of tradition and sovereignty against the godless progressivism and the migrant hordes overtaking the West. It has a global propaganda machine and a network of political operatives dedicated to cultivating far-right and sometimes far-left groups in Europe and elsewhere. Tom Palmer, vice president for international programs at the Atlas Network, has been actively involved in projects promoting liberty in ex-Communist countries since the late 1980s; he has taken to warning against a new "global anti-libertarianism." Writing for the Cato Policy Report last December, Palmer noted that "Putin, the pioneer in the trend toward authoritarianism, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting anti-libertarian populism across Europe and through a sophisticated global media empire, including RT and Sputnik News, as well as a network of internet troll factories and numerous made-to-order websites." Slawomir Sierakowski of Warsaw's Institute for Advanced Study and Emma Ashford of the Cato Institute have also warned about the rise of an "Illiberal International" in which Russia plays a key role. Of course, for many libertarians, the post–Cold War international order that Putin seeks to undo is itself of dubious value. For one thing, that order is based on America's role as GloboCop, which isn't very compatible with small government. For another, it enforces its own "progressive" brand of soft authoritarianism, from over-regulation of markets to restrictions on "hate speech" and other undesirable expression. Yet for all the valid criticisms of the Western [...]

Is Donald Trump Trying to Prove Feminists Right About Rape Culture?


Since the script writers for the lowbrow comedy-drama called "2016" are fond of bizarre twists and turns, no one knows for sure whether Donald Trump's quest for the White House will be undone for good by the 11-year-old candid audio in which he brags about his sexual advances toward women. Nonetheless, it is clear that the so-called "pussy tape"—in which Trump tells then-Access Hollywood host Billy Bush that his star status allows him to "do anything" to pretty women, including "grab them by the pussy"—has dealt a serious blow to Teflon Donald, until then largely unscathed by unsavory incidents. Is this a sign of changing attitudes toward sexual misconduct—specifically, feminist-driven refusal to tolerate behavior once brushed off as "boys will be boys" but now unequivocally seen as assaultive and misogynistic? The response to Trump's repulsive comments has been undoubtedly affected by the prominence of gender issues in this election and the fact that it follows a resurgence of feminist activism intensely focused on sexual violence. But as the experience of earlier generations shows, the cultural winds can shift in unpredictable ways. Pussygate (who could have imagined the ways in which Trump would enrich our political vocabulary?) has inevitably elicited comparisons to the scandals surrounding Bill Clinton in the 1990s. That Hillary Clinton is now Trump's Democratic rival for the presidency just makes the parallels all the more relevant. Bill Clinton survived the scandals—both the revelation of the affair with Gennifer Flowers during his 1992 campaign and the later claims of sexual harassment and assault as well as the disclosure of the affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Whether this attests to the benighted sexual politics of the 1990s, frequently portrayed these days as a pre-feminist Dark Ages, is another matter. It's easy to forget that the early 1990s were another major feminist moment. That was when Anita Hill's testimony at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings turned into a "national teach-in" on sexual harassment, the 1992 elections became the "Year of the Woman," moderate Republican Bob Packwood was undone as a serial harasser, and the trials of William Kennedy Smith, Mike Tyson, and O.J. Simpson generated intense discussions of acquaintance rape and domestic violence. Even the modern-day conversation about campus rape is large a replay of a 1990s debate that landed on the cover of Time magazine. Clinton weathered the storm for several reasons. For one, his only proven improprieties involved consensual adultery. But no less importantly, feminists—including First Lady Hillary Clinton—stood by him. Women's movement veteran Gloria Steinem even claimed that an unwanted advance, however lewd and aggressive, was not sexual harassment if its initiator took "no" for an answer. (This was dubbed the "one free grope" defense, likely not available to Trump.) At the time, I wrote that feminist hypocrisy on the Clinton scandals was helping undo the excesses of ideological zeal which had sought to purge the workplace of all sexuality and treat accusations of sexual wrongdoing as proof of guilt. Fast-forward to the Trump candidacy and Pussygate. Like Clinton, Trump has faced several allegations of sexual assault, none proven, and has a known history of adultery; unlike Clinton, he has also talked publicly about bedding married women. The "pussy tape" contains what can be read as a confession to sexual assault—though, in my view, it sounds more like sexual trash talk. (Trump's actual behavior to soap actress Arianne Zucker on the same tape is quite different from the aggressive moves he brags about). Even so, it's a fairly vile kind of trash talk. Had Clinton been caught on tape bragging that his status as a politician allows him to grope women with impunity, it would very likely have turned public opinion against him—and killed his chances if rele[...]

Canadian University Student Convicted of Rape, But Was the Judge Biased Against Men?


Concerns that the crusade against "rape culture" is creating an accusation-equals-guilt mindset in sexual assault cases have been mostly aimed at colleges. It's campuses that employ extralegal tribunals to settle rape disputes—tribunals where the accused often do not have the right to an attorney, to cross-examine their accusers, or to examine the evidence against them. But the latest contentious rape case comes from a real court—albeit in Canada, where feminist activism has been much more successful in influencing the justice system than in the United States. On July 21, Mustafa Ururyar, a 29-year-old York University graduate student, was found guilty of sexually assaulting fellow grad student Mandi Gray, 28. The verdict was handed down by Ontario Court Judge Marvin Zuker in a non-jury trial. The alleged rape—and I say "alleged," because after reading the 180-page judgment I see no grounds for a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—happened in the early morning hours of January 31, 2015. The case is a classic he sad/she said. Ururyar and Gray, who had been casually involved for two weeks—he told her he was in an open long-distance relationship with his girlfriend—had spent the evening drinking with friends. It was Gray who had invited Ururyar to join them with a text that said, "Come drink and then we can have hot sex." When they were leaving the bar around 2:30 a.m., Ururyar asked another woman in their group to come with him and Gray to his apartment, but she refused and left in a taxicab. At that point, Gray's and Ururyar's accounts sharply diverge. Gray claimed that Ururyar suddenly became angry and verbally abusive, blaming her for not helping persuade the woman to come over for a threesome. Though shocked and upset, Gray said that she still went with Ururyar to his apartment since she was drunk and feeling too "vulnerable" to take a cab home by herself. She said that he continued shouting and berating her during their walk and then at his apartment, finally telling her, "This is the last time ever that I'm going to fuck you and you're going to like it." Then, Gray said, he forced her to perform oral sex and raped her vaginally, and she was too scared and psychologically shattered to protest. Ururyar's version was very different. He said that Gray flirted with him all evening and that he even told her to stop touching him when she groped his thigh, twice. He admitted wanting a threesome, supposedly because he had heard from a friend that Gray was interested, but denied insulting or berating Gray. He also said that back at his apartment after they got into bed, he told Gray he wanted to end their relationship and mentioned being annoyed by her behavior at the bar. He said that Gray began to cry and he comforted her, and that she then initiated sex. There was no independent evidence to strongly support either account. Both Ururyar and Gray had sent ambiguous messages referring to the night's events. Gray texted Ururyar the next day saying, "Last night was really fucked up" and he replied, "Okay." She also texted a female friend asking, "If you don't consent to sex, but you don't not consent, I don't know what is that?" to which the friend replied, "That's rape." Five days later, Ururyar sent Gray an apology, unaware that she had already gone to the police. He wrote: "I am sorry things went as they did. I shouldn't have said and done some of the things I did. I was upset and felt wronged by you but that does not excuse my own mistakes." Gray's story may well be substantively true. If so, ururyar's actions certainly amount to sexual assault. Submission out of fear is not consent, and even if Ururyar made no over threats, his behavior as described by Gray sounds threatening and coercive enough. Her earlier sexual offer is irrelevant to her state of mind at that point. But ururyar's story, too, is entirely believable. You don't e[...]

Defending Atticus Finch


There is a bitter irony in the fact that the final year in the life of legendary novelist Harper Lee, who died last week at 89, was marked by what many saw as her hero’s inglorious downfall. Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman—a sort-of-sequel, sort-of-first-draft to her 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird—showed the revered Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who stood up to racial injustice in the 1930s South, as a cantankerous old bigot defending segregation twenty years later. Many were appalled; but others applauded. That reaction was summed up in the title of a New York Times op-ed by University of Miami law professor Osamudia James: "Now We Can Finally Say Goodbye to the White Savior Myth of Atticus." On the feminist blog Jezebel, writer Catherine Nichols asserted that without the corrective of Watchman, Mockingbird is a "shameful" and "racist" book, and Atticus is a virtuous white patriarch who believes in being kind to blacks (and women) and keeping them in their place. The campaign to knock Atticus off his pedestal started long before Watchman. Both Mockingbird and its hero have been criticized for naïve and simplistic moralism and for perpetuating the idea that a white man’s individual goodness and benevolence is an adequate answer to pervasive racial oppression. But the naysayers are wrong. To Kill a Mockingbird will endure as Lee’s legacy, and its morality is far less naïve and more complex than the critiques allow. Atticus, too, will endure, as a good, flawed—and yes, often heroic—man who does not always have the right answers but always tries to live by his conscience. It is quite true that, as Malcolm Gladwell argued in a 2009 essay in The New Yorker, Atticus does not challenge the system that relegates blacks to second-class status; he simply tries to do his best to ensure that they are treated decently within that system. (Or, as Nichols puts it more scathingly, he believes in "powerful white people being very polite.") At times he minimizes societal bigotry; memorably, he waves off the Ku Klux Klan in Maycomb County as a basically harmless "political organization" whose members could be shamed into dispersing when the Jewish store owner they were harassing reminded them that "he’d sold ’em the very sheets on their backs." At times, he also seems to treat racism as lower-class vulgarity or a bizarre mental affliction: he chides the eight-year-old narrator, "Scout," for using a racial slur because "it’s common" and expresses bafflement that "reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up." But while this is Atticus’s perspective, it’s certainly not the novel’s perspective—and it may not even be Atticus’s perspective eventually. We see, for example, that many of Maycomb’s "fine folk" are just as bigoted as the "white trash": the schoolteachers, the prosecutor, the Finches’ next-door neighbor Mrs. Dubose, the ladies in the missionary circle of Scout’s aunt Alexandra. What’s more, toward the end of the book, after Tom Robinson, the black man Atticus defends on a charge of raping a white woman, is wrongly convicted, Atticus has a conversation with his children in which he makes it very clear that racism is deeply entrenched in their culture: "In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life." While he still goes on to frame the issue in terms of individual character—a white man is "trash," no matter what his background, if he mistreats a black man—he clearly sees the bigger picture: "Don’t fool yourselves—it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it." This is not a man who, as his detractors claim, is comfortable with white supremacy as long as he can be nice to black folk. Later on, when Tom is sho[...]

Common Sense and Liberal Values Prevail in Twitter Harassment Case


On January 22, a three-year legal drama that made few headlines but was closely watched by those with an interest in free-speech and online-harassment issues came to an end in a Toronto courtroom. Gregory Alan Elliott,* a 55-year-old graphic artist, was found not guilty of criminal harassment toward feminist activists Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly. The trial judge took pains to stress that he felt the women were truthful and did feel harassed. But he also concluded that their perception of harassment was not reasonable, since it was based on the assumption that Elliott had no valid points to make or opinions to defend.  Breitbart News columnist Allum Bokhari called the case's outcome the "Stalingrad" of the online speech wars, a key victory in the resistance to would-be censors and authoritarians. Vice columnist Sarah Ratchford deplored it as sending the message that "harassing women online is not a crime" and making the Internet "an even uglier place for Canadian women." There is no question in my mind that the real issue in this case is the dangerous drift toward criminalizing political speech, often in the name of protecting women. Elliott’s defenders may have oversimplified the facts at times—claiming that he was facing charges merely for disagreeing with feminists on Twitter. But here was a man with no criminal record facing six months in jail for tweets which, by the admission of the police officer handling the case, were neither threatening nor sexually harassing—and were part of mutual sniping. One of Elliott’s offending comments, "Heather’s fat ass gets fatter," was a response to Reilly urging other women to block him and using the hashtag #GAEhole. Elliott and Guthrie first became acquainted in April 2012, when he volunteered to design a logo and poster, for free, for Guthrie's Women in Toronto Politics (WiTopoli) project. Elliott says he was genuinely enthusiastic about this at the time. The pair met for dinner and got along fine, but after some email discussions Guthrie told Elliott that her group had decided to go with another artist. Guthrie later told the police that Elliott was "very angry" about this, but in fact, he sent her a friendly note which expressed the hope for future collaboration and signed it, "Love, Greg." (On the stand, Guthrie testified that she thought the email had a "seething undertone.") She also said she’d gotten a "creepy" vibe from Elliott when they met, particularly because of his repeated offers to give her a ride. Nonetheless, the two interacted amicably by email and on Twitter until July, when Elliott took issue with Guthrie’s Twitter witch-hunt against another man. That man was 24-year-old Ontario resident Bendilin Spurr, creator of an infamous online game in which players could virtually punch feminist videogame critic Anita Sarkeesian until her face looked bruised and bloodied. (Spurr had previously made a similar game targeting Jack Thompson, a conservative Christian crusader against videogame violence.) Having tracked down Spurr’s Twitter account, Guthrie decided to, in her words, "sic the Internet on him." She not only publicly attacked him but tweeted information about his game to his local newspaper and sent out a general warning addressed to employers in Spurr's area. Elliott objected to Guthrie's antics, suggesting that the retaliation was as repulsive as the face-punch game itself, and got embroiled in a heated Twitter argument with Guthrie and her supporters. After he tweeted that Guthrie’s campaign was simply "revenge" which could conceivably drive Spurr to suicide, Guthrie replied, "I’ve had it with you" and blocked Elliott. Her friend and fellow activist Reilly later did the same. Four months later, Elliott was under arrest for criminal harassment. His detractors say that during those months, he relentlessl[...]

The Crucible, Now at a Campus Near You


The centennial of the great American playwright Arthur Miller, born in New York on October 17, 1915, has been noted in articles and recognized with commemorative events and editions. For all the tributes, Miller (who died ten years ago) seems more a relic than a living voice on today's cultural scene; his earnest old-style liberal leftism alienates both conservatives and modern-day progressives obsessed with racial and sexual identities.  Yet one of his most famous works, The Crucible—a mostly fact-based dramatic account of the 17th century Salem witch trials—is startlingly relevant to today's culture wars, in ways that Miller himself might have recognized. Everyone knows that Miller's 1952 play was his response to McCarthyism, with the witchcraft hysteria an allegory for the anti-communist panic. (The latter, unlike the former, was grounded in a real danger; but, contrary to some recent claims on the right, McCarthyite paranoia that swept up many innocent people in its wide net was quite real as well.) In 1996, when Miller wrote a screenplay adaptation for the film version of The Crucible, many saw a metaphor for the day-care sexual abuse panic that had swept the country a few years earlier, with men and women arrested on suspicion of lurid acts and Satanic rituals.  When I recently watched a webcast of the compelling 2014 production of The Crucible at London's Old Vic theater, I was struck by the parallels to another panic we are witnessing now: the one over "rape culture" and, in particular, the "campus rape epidemic." "Believe the victim"—the mantra of today's feminist anti-rape movement—is a remarkably prominent theme in Miller's play. At one point, Deputy Governor Danforth, who presides over the trials, notes that unlike "an ordinary crime," witchcraft is by its nature invisible: "Therefore, who may possibly be witness to it? The witch and the victim. None other. Now we cannot hope the witch will accuse herself; granted? Therefore, we must rely upon her victims—and they do testify." Today, advocates for "survivors" of sexual violence argue that since such crimes virtually always take place in private, especially when victim and offender know each other,  it is imperative to believe those who come forward with accusations.  Of course, "believe the children" was also the mantra of the child abuse trials of the 1980s and early 1990s. But in those cases, the children themselves were a somewhat passive presence, more victims of adult manipulation than active accusers. Not so the girls of The Crucible, whom Miller made older than their 10- and 11-year-old historical counterparts—more young women than children. (Danforth and other adult authority figures in the play often refer to them as "children"; but today's anti-rape advocates, too, often use language that infantilizes young people and young women in particular, sometimes explicitly insisting that college "kids" are not really adults.)  When the Salem girls' veracity is questioned and Danforth asks their ringleader, Abigail Williams, if her visions could be false, Abby responds with self-righteous outrage: "Why, this—this—is a base question, sir. I have been hurt, Mr. Danforth; I have seen my blood runnin' out! I have been near to murdered every day because I done my duty pointing out the Devil's people—and this is my reward? To be mistrusted, denied, questioned…" As Danforth backs down, assuring Abigail that he doesn't mistrust her, she warns, "Let you beware, Mr. Danforth. Think you to be so mighty that the power of Hell may not turn your wits?" The McCarthy era has no direct parallels to this fetishizing of victimhood or this demand for absolute trust in accusations. But there are uncanny echoes here of today's crusading "survivors" who cry "victim-blaming" when ques[...]

Culture Warriors Invade Sci-Fi/Fantasy


The latest pitched battle in science fiction is not between space pirates and alien monsters but between fandom factions, with the Hugo Awards as the battlefield. Depending on where you stand, this fight pits either forces of progress against reactionary barbarians or the elitist establishment against anti-authoritarian rebels. The progressive elites have decisively won this round; but was it a pyrrhic victory? One thing is certain: this culture war is here to stay. The Hugos are science fiction's Oscars, selected by fans—anyone who pays the $40 World Science Fiction Convention membership fee is eligible to nominate and vote—and presented at the annual WorldCon. Earlier this year, a large share of the nominations was captured by the so-called "Sad Puppies" slate, organized by a group of writers opposed to what they saw as a politically correct domination of the Hugos. It was the culmination of an effort that began in 2013. (The group's name is an in-joke born from a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Ad featuring dejected-looking doggies and a quip that "puppy-related sadness" was caused by "boring message-fic winning awards.") When the nominations were unveiled in April, the science fiction fandom and much of the popular culture media had a meltdown. The Puppies were accused of "gaming the system" by voting as a bloc—and portrayed as a right-wing "white boys' club" reacting to the growing prominence of female, nonwhite, progressive voices in the field. At the 73rd WorldCon on August 22, the empire struck back. Not one Puppy nominee won a Hugo.  In five all-Puppy categories, the top choice was "No Award," just as progressive sci-fi bloggers had recommended. At the presentation, each "No Award" was met with applause and cheers, which Puppy supporters saw as unseemly gloating at sticking it to "WrongFans." Of course, the "Puppy Kickers" (as the Puppies called them) and their mainstream media backers  saw it very differently: as a defeat for ballot-stuffing reactionaries and a victory for both quality and diversity. So who are the Sad Puppies and what do they want? In a post-awards blog post, Puppy leader Larry Correia wrote that he started the campaign because he believed the Hugos had come to represent "tiny, insular, politically motivated cliques" that gave awards to their friends and rewarded "correct" identities and politics rather than talent. Is this, as the Puppies' detractors suggest, all about straight white males trying to protect their turf from interlopers like the women who snagged nearly two-thirds of the Hugo nominations for fiction in 2012? The Puppies' fiction picks were indisputably male-dominated, with only three female authors out of 17; yet some of the group's most dedicated members are women such as writers Sarah Hoyt, Amanda Green, and Cedar Sanderson. (The latter two were Puppy nominees for Best Fan Writer, which recognizes sci-fi related nonfiction work for nonpaying or low-paying magazines or websites.) And Hoyt told me in our email interview last spring that her personal worst example of the Hugos' political corruption was a 2013 win for a white male: the Best Novel award to "Redshirts" by John Scalzi, a satirical riff on "Star Trek." Hoyt, who dismisses the novel as "bad fanfic," thought the award was blatant cronyism on behalf of Scalzi, a recent president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and one of the fandom's high priests of "social justice" ideology. Then there are the politicized "message" stories. Thus, last year's Best Novel Hugo went to "Ancillary Justice" by Ann Leckie, whose protagonist belongs to a futuristic human civilization with no concept of gender distinctions and with "she" as the universal pronoun. The Best Story winner, "The Water That Falls on You from N[...]

Bomb Threat Disrupts SPJ Airplay #GamerGate Debate


We're coming up on the first anniversary of GamerGate, the online phenomenon variously described as a consumer revolt against unethical videogame journalism, an Internet mob targeting women in technology, a white male hate and harassment group, and a resistance movement against authoritarian "social justice warriors." During this year, there has been a steady stream of articles announcing the end of #GamerGate—literally from day one, when the hashtag's first appearance was greeted with several stories on gaming and pop culture websites heralding the "death of gamers" as a culture. And yet last Saturday, both gamers and GamerGate were very much alive at a remarkable event held as part of the 2015 regional conference of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in Miami: Airplay, a two-session panel presenting the pro-GamerGate side of the story to the media. I was one of the Airplay panelists. (Transparency time: while I received no fee, money for my expenses was raised through crowdfunding, primarily by GamerGaters who agreed to help defray the costs of the panel.) There was insightful and interesting discussion. There were contentious moments. And it all ended, just like the GamerGate meetup in Washington, DC in May, with a bomb threat and an evacuation that cut the event short. No one knows for sure who was behind the bomb threat. Responsibility has been publicly claimed by a member of an Internet troll nest that has been described as "aligned" with GamerGate by the movement's critics but that GamerGaters themselves generally regard as hostile. (The same shadowy group had previously harassed people on both sides of GamerGate, including a leading GamerGate blogger, "The Ralph Retort.")   But even assuming that GamerGate's ideological enemies had nothing to do with disrupting Airplay, they certainly tried hard to stop it. Airplay's organizer, SPJ regional chapter president Michael Koretzky—who had decided to host the event after engaging with GamerGate members on Twitter—detailed some of those efforts on his blog.  Emails sent to SPJ accused Koretzky of providing a forum to people who had "a history of threatening people online" and even of endangering "support organizations for victims of abuse." Koretzky also says he received several emails with "vague threats" to his career. Koretzky, a veteran journalist and ornery First Amendment champion, went ahead with Airplay—though his initial plans for a debate format were foiled by the fact that no GamerGate critics would agree to participate. Instead, the non-GamerGate side was represented by three "neutrals": journalists Lynn Walsh of NBC 7 San Diego and Ren LaForme of the Poynter Institute, and game developer Derek Smart. The pro-GamerGate lineup had dissident feminist Christina Hoff Sommers, Breitbart gadfly Milo Yiannopolous, Washington Examiner's Ashe Schow, Breitbart's token leftist (yes, really!) Allum Bokhari, and games writer Mark Ceb. Mindful of the bomb threat in DC, Koretzky took numerous precautions to ensure that the premises—Koubek Center on the Miami-Dade College campus—were secure. The initial plan was that if a bomb threat were called in, it would clearly be a fake and the panel could continue—with the option for anyone to leave if they wanted to do so. The morning session proceeded without a glitch, other than several  participants getting "doxxed" (i.e. having their home addresses and/or telephone numbers posted) in the comments on the livestream; as a result, the comments were disabled for the second session. As everyone returned from lunch, Koretzky announced that there had been a bomb threat and that the panel would proceed as planned. No one left and the two-hour session got underway; but about forty minutes before it was [...]

'Sexist' Scientist Tim Hunt: The Real Story


Remember Tim Hunt, the Nobel Prize-winning British biochemist mocked and vilified on Twitter and in the media after he reportedly told a gathering of women scientists that "girls" in the lab are a nuisance because they are lovesick crybabies, and suggested sex-segregated labs as the solution? Remember how we were told that this shocking incident reveals still-entrenched sexism in the world of science? Well, now that the dust has cleared and the story has faded from the American press, there’s a postscript that amounts to: Never mind. It turns out that, just as Hunt has claimed, the 72-year-old scientist’s comments during a luncheon at a science journalism conference in Korea in June were an awkward self-deprecating joke—greeted with laughter (not the reported "stony silence") by a mostly female audience. The "Tim Hunt, misogynist scientist” narrative has been falling apart piece by piece over the past month; last week, it was finished off by a snippet of audio recorded by a female attendee and made public by The Times. Attention should now tturn to the real scandal: irresponsible journalism magnified by social media frenzy. It all started with a June 8 tweet from City University London journalism professor Connie St. Louis, lamenting that the luncheon at the World Conference of Science Journalists had been "ruined by sexist speaker Tim Hunt." According to St. Louis, Hunt announced that he had "a reputation as a male chauvinist" and continued, "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them they cry.” Then, she wrote, he compounded it by advocating "single-sex labs" but adding that "he doesn’t want to stand in the way of women." Twitter exploded in outrage, and the story quickly got picked up by major media around the world, with such headlines as, "Nobel winner: Women in labs 'fall in love with you ... you criticize them, they cry'" and "Sir Tim Hunt's sexist remarks: With lab rats like him, is it any wonder there’s a shortage of women in science?" St. Louis’s account, corroborated by two prominent American science journalists—former New York Times columnist Deborah Blum and Retraction Watch blogger Ivan Oransky—was roundly treated as fact. To make it worse, Hunt was said to have stood by his comments in an interview to BBC Radio even as he apologized for causing offense. It was not long before the story was updated with news of Hunt’s resignation from his honorary post at University College London and from several prestigious science boards and committees. Even after The Guardian ran a sympathetic interview with Hunt and his scientist wife Mary Collins, who defended him against charges of sexism—as did several other female scientists—most of the coverage stuck to the party line. Blum stepped in to rebut Hunt’s assertion that he had been "hung out to dry" over an unfortunate joke; she claimed that she asked him the day after the luncheon if he had been joking, and that he simply reiterated his point ("he did think it was hard to collaborate with women because they are too emotional") and told her he had been "trying to be honest about the problems." St. Louis penned an essay for The Guardian portraying the sympathy for Hunt as "an outcry from the establishment" in a "typical pattern of oppression" and telling his supporters, "mainly men," to stop defending him. That narrative took a major hit on June 24 when The Times obtained information that a European Commission report on the conference, based on the notes of a European Union official who attended the luncheon, gave a very different account of what happened. The report summariz[...]

The Social Media Shaming of Pax Dickinson


Public shaming and professional retaliation, or even destruction, for unpopular speech seems to have become a regular feature of life—but also a subject of growing concern. Most notably, in the past month, scientists, politicians, and others have rallied to the defense of British biochemist and Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt, whose ill-conceived joke about women in science at a conference sparked a Twitter storm and ended his academic career. The pitfalls of social media shaming were recently explored by British journalist Jon Ronson in the acclaimed book "So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed," which examines such notorious incidents as the Twitter mobbing of public relations rep Justine Sacco in December 2013 over a racially insensitive joke. But before Hunt, before Sacco, before the ouster of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich over his opposition to same-sex marriage, there was another drama of career-killing Internet outrage: the undoing of Business Insider Chief Technology Officer Pax Dickinson. It is a story that raises troubling questions about speech and consequences. Unlike Sacco or Hunt, ruined by a single misinterpreted moment of levity—or Eich, penalized for what had been only recently a mainstream viewpoint—Dickinson had a long history of outrageous Twitter comments that were a mix of deliberate provocation and controversial opinions. His precipitous downfall began when those tweets caught the attention of a writer for Valleywag/Gawker, who described Dickinson as "your new tech bro nightmare." I followed the Dickinson debacle in September 2013. While I shared his critical view of feminism in tech, which often seems to be less about advancing women than fostering grievance, dispatches from the field made Dickinson sound like a genuine male chauvinist. (One of his much-quoted tweets said, "Tech managers spend as much time worrying about how to hire talented female developers as they do worrying about how to hire a unicorn," which seems to imply that female talent is mythical.) While such opinions certainly shouldn’t be punished or censored by the government, there are certainly good reasons for a company not to want a top executive who publicly voices them—from bad public relations to potential discrimination suits. I was, therefore, somewhat wary at first when another journalist contacted me with an offer to speak to Dickinson for a possible feature on his professional exile. After several email exchanges, I ended up meeting with him for a long interview at his New Jersey home and speaking to several women who had worked with him in the past. I came away convinced that there was much more to this story than the mainstream media narrative of a sexist "tech bro" getting his comeuppance. Even if Dickinson was in part the victim of his own recklessness, what happened to him was another chapter in the annals of self-righteous online outrage that mobs first and asks questions later. A lifelong computer geek who dropped out of college after one year to work for his father’s business, taught himself Web development, and rose from help desk technician to highly sought-after tech industry executive, Dickinson, now 42, freely admits that he has always enjoyed being "somewhat trolly" in social media—both expressing strong opinions and being deliberately provocative. In part, this was also related to the fact that for a long time, his following was limited to a small circle of people who knew him and were familiar with his style. Some of the comments that would later get Dickinson branded sexist and racist were clearly meant as provocative humor, and sometimes arguably as mockery of sexism and racism.  One [...]

As Another Accusation Bites the Dust, Columbia Rape Saga Takes New Turn


This week's graduation at Columbia University caps the bizarre, often sordid saga involving the two most famous members of the Class of 2015: Emma Sulkowicz, the activist who protested the school's alleged mishandling of her alleged rape by carrying a mattress around campus, and Jean-Paul Nungesser, the German scholarship student she accuses of raping her. On Tuesday, Sulkowicz carried her mattress across the stage at Class Day, despite half-hearted attempts by Columbia officials to enforce a regulation against bringing "large objects" into the ceremonial area—and despite the fact that the "mattress performance" was for a senior visual arts thesis she had already completed. Her activism was also lauded (with no mention of her name) by two commencement speakers, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power. This isn't quite the end of the story: Nungesser is suing Columbia, university president Lee Bollinger, and Sulkowicz's thesis supervisor for allowing him to be subjected to "gender-based harassment" which severely damaged his educational experience and future prospects, even though a campus panel found him not culpable on the sexual assault charge. Meanwhile, there is new information related to one of this story's many strange twists: another sexual assault complaint brought against Nungesser late last year by a male classmate. The charge was made public in February, on the heels of my article in The Daily Beast questioning the pro-Sulkowicz narrative. Now, I have learned that after a hearing in late April, Nungesser was found "not responsible" in this latest case—altogether, the fourth time he has been cleared of a sexual assault charge at Columbia. When Sulkowicz first went public a year ago, the fact that her alleged attacker was still on campus and had never been subjected to any formal sanctions despite being accused of sexual assault by three different women helped fuel the outrage. Yet the latest investigation strongly supports Nungesser's claim, made in media interviews and in his lawsuit, that the multiple complaints were not independent of each other and may have been part of a vendetta stemming from the original charge by Sulkowicz.  Several days after my Daily Beast piece, which featured not only Nungesser's account of his relationship with Sulkowicz but social media messages tending to support his version, the feminist blog Jezebel ran a purported rebuttal titled "How to Make an Accused Rapist Look Good." Much of the story, by Jezebel editor Erin Gloria Ryan, dealt with Sulkowicz's not entirely convincing explanation of her friendly messages to Nungesser days after what she says was a terrifyingly violent rape. But the piece also contained a new revelation meant to bolster the claim that Nungesser was a serial sexual predator: the existence of a hitherto unknown male victim, identified by the pseudonym "Adam." Adam, who also graduates this week, told Jezebel that "he was close friends with Paul during his freshman year in 2011" and that "one fall night, in the midst of an emotional conversation in Paul's dorm room...Paul pushed him onto his bed and sexually assaulted him." He claimed that after much self-doubt and internal struggle, he finally reported this incident, first to a student society to which both he and Nungesser belonged and then in a formal complaint to the university in the fall of 2014. Adam rather melodramatically lamented that my Daily Beast piece "invalidates and completely erases [his] experience." It should be noted that, as accuser and accused in a sexual misconduct case, both Adam and Nungesser had presumably received the usual instructions from the universit[...]