Monthly Archives: November 2014

Reflections on Sexual Assault and Its Contemporary Cultural Context

Protester at UVA. Photograph by  Bob Mical.

Protester at U.Va. Photograph by Bob Mical.

Like everyone in this community, I read the Rolling Stone story about the violent gang rape at the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity with profound sadness and indignation. I’ve been following the debate that ensued over the past week, and it seems to me that this is a community struggling to find a moral language adequate to the crime that was perpetrated, the outrage we feel, and the response we demand. Again and again, though, we seem to come up against an impoverishment of language that obscures important aspects of what happened and how we should address it.

By way of background it must be said that the dynamics of gender are central to this particular crime and to the larger matter of sexual assault. The denigration of women by men has been a part of this university and the larger culture for a long time. As historian Phyllis Leffler pointed out, the dynamics of gender, like those of race, have deep historical roots at this university. They express themselves institutionally in ways that are grotesque, to say the least, but have been conveniently ignored. These denigrations have their own ontology and are not reducible to other factors. Full stop.

That said, the problem is bigger than one might imagine, for women are not the only victims of sexual assault. The National College Health Assessment survey makes it clear that men are also regularly sexually assaulted and abused. The occurrence of rape, attempted rape, sexual abuse, and physical abuse in an intimate relationship for men is less than it is for women (by one third to one half), but the rates are consistent. Men too are victims of sexual violence.

So how do we think about it? Clearly, nothing happens in a vacuum. Continue reading

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Law and Violence

Firefighter in Ferguson surveys the rubble at a strip mall set on fire by rioters following the grand jury announcement in the Michael Brown case.


The most important thing I learned in law school was that the law is violent. In the unforgettable words of Robert Cover: “Legal interpretation takes place on a field of pain and death.” Lawyers, judges, politicians, and police officers—and grand juries—don’t interpret poetry. They interpret laws and facts. And those interpretations have consequences. As Cover notes: “When interpreters have finished their work, they frequently leave behind victims whose lives have been torn apart by these organized, social practices of violence.”

Legal interpretations pronounce guilt, deny custody, demand payments, and destroy lives. These are violent acts. The grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson was a violent act. Like many acts of legal interpretation, it confronted two different narratives, two different claims of truth and justice, and chose one over the other. In affirming one narrative, it necessarily negated the other. And there were consequences to that act.

The violence of legal interpretation does not make the grand jury’s decision a moral failure. Nor does it make the grand jury in any way responsible for the physical violence that has ensued. Rather, the decision is one of many violent acts within the violent system of law that we inhabit.

The grand jury would not have escaped the ubiquity of law’s violence with a different decision. Its interpretive act would still have chosen between two narratives, and its act would still have had consequences. In fact, it’s possible that the decision not to indict was the correct interpretation of law and facts. I can’t answer that question. I haven’t evaluated the evidence presented to the grand jury, and even if I were to do so, I could never replicate the deliberation that preceded this particular decision by these twelve people.

I do know, as my friend Chad Flanders has observed, that Missouri’s use-of-force statute—the law through which these facts had to be channeled—is a shockingly broad law that risks grave injustice. And although it looks as though the grand jury was instructed under a better standard, we may never know what expectations and baselines the Missouri law created in the mind of Officer Darren Wilson. We may never know if a different law might have led to a different answer to the question: “Is there any reason why you didn’t wait in the car until your backup came?”

Missouri’s flawed use-of-force law was in place long before the day Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. So were many other flawed laws in Missouri and around our country that affect law enforcement, criminal justice, housing, employment, credit, and education. Those laws are interpreted, and their interpretation drives actions with consequences. The law that structures our society kills people. Some of the people it kills are innocent. All of the people it kills are human.

Our flawed system of law is still far better than those that govern many people around the world. It is less violent than many alternatives, and less violence is no small thing. But less violence is still violence. And less violence does not always feel that way to those who are most vulnerable to abuses and injustices.

Some of us will pretend otherwise—we will mask the reality of the violence of the law with suits and ties and pristine courtrooms. We will talk in abstract terms of “justice” or “process” or the “rule of law” without asking the harder questions of the flawed laws that distort those concepts. But we can choose to do otherwise. We can recognize that the violence of the law doesn’t just raise the stakes for law’s practitioners—for lawyers, judges, politicians, and grand juries. It also raises the stakes for the rest of us who inhabit the world that it shapes.

John D. Inazu is associate professor of law and political science at Washington University in St. Louis, and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

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The Spectacle of Waste

A protestor. Photograph by Bob Mical.

UVA protester. Photograph by Bob Mical

For the second time in as many months, the University of Virginia is being asked to reckon with the fact that predatory sexual violence—so prevalent in many parts of the world—is also present in its midst. Last month, we read that the body of Hannah Graham, assaulted and abandoned, was found hastily buried and decomposed in a wooded area a few miles from the university. In Rolling Stone recently, we read that the body of another student, identified as Jackie, had also been assaulted and abandoned. And although this young woman survived, the subsequent burial of the event and the dissolution of her life felt like something close to another lethal assault.

Inevitably, the public grief has turned its attention to the university, to the question of whether events such as these are related to the institution itself. This is because the university—and not just the one in Charlottesville—remains one of the few institutions in western culture held in high regard by both parents and children alike. It is an institution set aside for the nurture of our children, of their minds, bodies, character, and future. But universities are betraying this trust, to the point that we have come to fear for the physical safety of those children who are enrolled in them.

Part of the current scrutiny has focused on the university administration, and the role of its consumer logic and bureaucratic ethos in creating a culture where predation is both present and effectively ignored.  But what of the faculty? What role do professors play in the construction of a culture in which the humanity of young women comes under repeated assaults ? Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: November 21, 2014

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Noteworthy reads from last week:

“A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” Sabrina Rubin Erdely
“… at UVA, rapes are kept quiet, both by students – who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture – and by an administration that critics say is less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal.”

“Either One: the Video Game that Tries to Simulate Dementia” Michael Thomsen
“The game casts the player as an employee of a futuristic memory-retrieval company called the Ether Institute of Telepathic Medicine. Your job is to dive into the mind of Jean Thompson, a sixty-nine-year-old woman diagnosed with dementia, and retrieve a series of lost memories.”

“Why It’s So Hard for Millennials to Find a Place to Live and Work” Derek Thompson
“The paradox of the American Dream: The best cities to get ahead are often the most expensive places to live, and the most affordable places to live can be the worst cities to get ahead.”

“Gross Violations” Carol Hay
“Disgust is often used as a tool of persuasion. But are gut feelings ever a reliable guide in questions of right and wrong?”

“What Happened the Last Time Republicans Has a Majority This Huge?” Josh Zeitz
“Since last week, many Republicans have been feeling singularly nostalgic for November 1928, and with good reason. It’s the last time that the party won such commanding majorities in the House of Representatives while also dominating the Senate.”

“The New ‘Normal Barbie’ Comes With an Average Woman’s Proportions—And Cellulite Sticker Accessories” Laura Stampler
“A lot of toys makes kids go into fantasy, but why don’t they show real life is cool?”

“Distribution Isn’t Outdated” James Mumford
“G.K. Chesterton offers a non-statist vision for economic and social change that’s still relevant in the age of the iPhone.”

“Why Independent Bookstores Are More Than Just Places to Buys Books” David Rosenberg
“They’re a meeting place away from the often segregated, homogenous world of social media.”

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A Century of The New Republic

JPNEWREPUBLIC5-master495Let me start on a grumpy note: Although I’ve been responsible for some myself, I’m no fan of magazine anniversaries. Smarmy accounts of past achievements and highlights, the recycling of old hits, the chummy accolades of well-chosen celebrity subscribers. Maybe an obligatory carp or cavil. Tossed together, stirred not shaken, and served up with a black-tie gala event—and there you have it, a gigantic blast of self-congratulation.

Eeyorishness aside, I’m happy to see The New Republic rounding a century. To make it for more than a few years is a feat for any publication these days, and The New Republic has had its share of near-death experiences. But the magazine, in print and online, has arrived at this milestone with at least the appearance of fiscal stability and talk of even bigger things ahead, thanks in no small part to the deep pockets and ambitions of its current owner, Facebook millionaire Chris Hughes. More important, the journal continues to bristle with editorial brilliance and contrariness. Still fundamentally liberal in spirit, though less certain than ever about what liberalism means, the magazine reflects the uncertainty that many Americans feel about the viability of politics, and political ideas, in our fragile democracy.

Much could be said about the The New Republic on this occasion. Let me restrict myself to two concerns. The first is in response to what the New York Times reported on Hughes’s vision of the future of the magazine:

Eyebrows were raised last year when Mr. Hughes, a former organizer for Barack Obama, introduced the redesigned magazine with an editor’s letter that omitted the words “liberal” or “liberalism.” These days, while he says he remains committed to print, he is also ready to jettison “magazine.”

“Twenty years ago, no question, it was a political magazine, full stop,” Mr. Hughes said in a joint interview with Mr. Vidra in New York. “Today, I don’t call it a magazine at all. I think we’re a digital media company.”

Mr. Hughes (who gave up the editor in chief title but remains publisher) and Mr. Vidra dismissed speculation that they wanted to take the magazine in a more lowbrow, BuzzFeed-like direction. But they did say there was room to increase the digital audience to as much as “tens of millions” of unique monthly visitors by focusing on a broader range of topics and on new forms of digital storytelling that “travel well” on the web.

A digital media company that jettisons the “magazine”? Excuse me, but this is the kind of crazy cant you hear in all discussions of the crisis of journalism these days. I won’t get into a long argument here (though this article gets into it nicely), but I maintain there is no current crisis of journalism. Journalism, the craft of covering and reflecting upon all aspects of our changing world, is doing just fine. But there is a crisis of media companies that are trying to to take over, absorb, and manage journalistic organizations and publications.

The crux of the crisis is this: The hardy captains of these great media combines generally have a poor understanding of, or at least a low regard for, journalism. Yeah, yeah, they say they respect the ethic and hard work of the journalists, but the truth is they find journalistic content a little hard to peddle—at least compared to zippy, frothy gossip about celebrities or deeply human human-interest stories, or lists of my five hundred favorite peanut butter recipes.

If you want a brief primer on the difference between what media companies do and what journalism does, just look at The New Republic. Most of what it publishes in print, and a fair amount of what it publishes online, is substantial journalism; but a great deal of what it fills its website with is fluff. It’s not difficult to guess which is harder to produce and which we’d see more of if The New Republic jettisons the magazine.

We’re not just talking platforms here, but platforms matter. They variously demonstrate a commitment to varying degrees of quality, excellence, and depth. The New Republic’s commitments to the highest standard of journalism are tethered to its magazine. Jettison the magazine, and the brand will decline into, at best, mediocrity.

My other concern is related to the liberalism that owner Hughes feels reluctant to mention. I am hopeful that The New Republic‘s current and brilliant editor, Frank Foer, will continue to make his own deep interest in the history and debates of American liberalism a central focus of his journal. If liberalism is to find new vigor and direction in this country, while resisting either simplistic leftism or accommodationist neoliberalism, I count on The New Republic to help lead the way.

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Portrait of the Artist as Algorithm

pianist_glowimages_FLATAuthor and photo-historian David King has become something of a cottage industry, publishing books that draw on his massive collection of Soviet-era photographs, posters, and ephemera. In his 1997 book The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, King examined the commonplace practice of rewriting history by removing from official photographs inconvenient apparatchiks who had outlived their usefulness. It was a crude method, but effective. By airbrushing, clipping, or cropping out obsolete Bolsheviks—Trotsky, for example, was completely removed from the photographic archives—the dictator was able to revise history, direct public perceptions, and control people’s memories to an astonishing degree.

The urge to rewrite history has by no means been confined to the past. Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić would also like to airbrush the past, but this time his own. We generally think of artists as living to express themselves and to leave indelible records of their existence—but Lazić would apparently prefer to be forgotten.

Or forgotten in part: In 2010 Lazić played a recital at the Kennedy Center that was reviewed by Anne Midgette of the Washington Post. The review, while unflattering, was hardly career-ending. Lazić’s primary offense seems to have been that he allowed ego rather than musicianship to take center stage. The pianist would probably have moved on if Google’s implacable algorithms didn’t keep this review in the top five search results for his name.

In September, Lazić requested that the Washington Post remove the review from its website, citing May’s European Union “Right to Be Forgotten” ruling. After letters to the editor and an October interview with the Post, Lazić remained unsatisfied. This month, Lazić posted on his website a long explanation of his behavior, insisting that his case has nothing to do with sour grapes over a bad review, but rather with a “web data hierarchy run by some major corporations that needs to be questioned and investigated.” He went on to say that he would rather not contact said “hierarchy” (Google EU) himself and ask that the review be expunged because he believes in free speech. What Lazić really wants Google to do is remove the review by itself.

Lazić’s case suggests what might be called the ethics of editing. Editing oneself is preferable—even imperative—if we are to make it through the day. If Lazić had chosen to ignore Midgette’s review, his carefully tended public persona as a composer, pianist, and arranger would have filled in the gap left by the critic’s momentary assessment. Instead, Lazić has taken the position of trying to edit the Internet editors, those many gatekeepers, curators, and mediators of the media who keep the digital current flowing. By citing the “Right to Be Forgotten” ruling, he has called on a notoriously elusive and difficult-to-enforce law that aims to determine exactly how Internet information is, in the EU Court’s wording, “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, excessive.” Does Lazić really want to relegate himself to the status of “data subject” and be ruled by a law that gives him the right to be forgotten? It’s difficult to imagine an outcome less in keeping with the artistic spirit.

Lazić’s quest is essentially quixotic. As Chad Wellmon has pointed out on The Infernal Machine, algorithms don’t communicate. They compute. It is true that some Internet outlets have brought on human beings to edit the algorithms in an attempt to corral millions of data points by means of norms, practices, and expertise (and Lazić would probably like to meet those particular apparatchiks). If Lazić succeeds in persuading the Washington Post to remove the review or if a brace of EU attorneys do so, the result is uncomfortably close to that achieved by Stalin and his team of photo doctors. Surely, it would be preferable to be remembered for playing in a past recital, no matter how questionably, than to be utterly eliminated from memory banks of potential concert promoters?

Lazic’s willing embrace of the right to be forgotten is, in other words, a voluntarily abdication of the right to self-determination. The EU Court specifies that its ruling focuses on data protection and that the “right to be forgotten” is not absolute; it does not trump fundamental rights such as freedom of expression or freedom of the media. The Court further asserts that the right to have one’s data erased is not unlimited and must be considered on a case-by-case basis. All of this jurisprudential circumspection may sound comforting, but our modern-day airbrushing of history is all the more worrisome because, in our digital age, we may all become complicit in our own obsolescence.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.


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The Hedgehog’s Array: November 14, 2014

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Noteworthy reads from last week:

“Why Read New Books?” Tim Parks
“Hasn’t it all been done before? Perhaps better than anyone today could ever do it? If so, why read contemporary novels, especially when so many of the classics are available at knockdown prices and for the most part absolutely free as e-books?”

“Reason and the Republic of Opinion,” Leon Wieseltier
“We need not be a nation of intellectuals, but we must not be a nation of idiots. The task is not to intellectualize humanity. It is to humanize intellectuality. To this end, the cultural reputation of reason needs to be revised.”

“Big Bang Berlin,” Nick Paumgarten
“The division of the city, a function of a global struggle over territory and ideas, had a host of not only unintended but also widely unobserved local repercussions.”

“China, America and Our Warming Planet,” John Kerry
“Our Historic Agreement With China on Climate Change”

“The Challenge of Teaching Science in Rural America,” Alexandra Ossola
“With fewer students per school and limited funding to match, rural school districts have been behind in STEM education.”

“Why Students Have No Idea What College Actually Costs,” Danielle Paquette
“Confusion between a college’s sticker price—the advertised price for fees, board and tuition—and the net price—what students pay after receiving aid—can separate the country’s brightest students from better futures.”

“Can Mesh Networks and Offline Wireless Move from Protest Tools to News?” Susan E. McGregor
“Perhaps one day soon it will be possible to stop by a newsstand to pick up localized digital edition of a newspaper or magazine, and know that even in a crisis, a lack of Internet doesn’t mean total isolation.”

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