Because this was not an isolated episode, because of its consequences and because of the questions it raises for us all, some explanations are in order. And besides, as we used to say back in Colorado, "Yer honor, mah family's involved." That alone, especially if followed by the observation that "besides that, he needed killin'" still counts as a pretty good defense out there.
First: what happened. Next: what we're going to do about it. Finally: why it matters.
Our story starts about a year ago when, one morning while doing my usual get-up admin check on Nina Hartley's site nina.com, I discovered that it had been shut down to all access, both external and internal, and its home-page replaced with a fairly clumsy animation of Muslim funeral surrounded by a selection of Koranic verses damning Nina, along with all her fans and lots of other folks, and threatening various kinds of doom and damnation. It was a fairly crude job, technically speaking, and our dauntless web masters had it fixed in a couple of days. Some new safeguards were installed and we pretty much wrote it off as a mean-spirited prank by some bored teenagers sitting around in some cybercafe somewhere in the Middle East. Basically, we forgot about.
Big mistake. It's unwise not to take any fanatic at his word. The only thing distinguishing him (or her, let's be fair) from a garden-variety nut-job is the willingness and ability to act on a threat.
This time, the hack-job was much more destructive. Again, a new screen, this time with some boasting in English along with all the Arabic smack and the cityscape of what we now believe is Istanbul shadowed in the background. Not only did the hackers actually sign their work, they cheekily put up a copyright line at the bottom.
I won't go into the technical details of how they accomplished what they did for obvious reasons, but the practical effect was to transfer control of the site from our hands into theirs and lock us out of any portal through which we could have taken corrective measures. It took a ferocious legal intervention from counsel with the ever-so-even-handed folks at Network Solutions, who had previously offered us only the opportunity to explain our position in writing with no promises of action implied, to restore all our associated domain names, held by Nina since 1995 and paid for exclusively from California, to our control. When your lawyer uses the words "national security concerns," it does get people's attention. Now we have a case officer who specifically oversees our little corner of cyberspace.
How much did this cost us? In dollars, we don't know yet. We don't know how many potential paid memberships we've lost in the past week, or how many existing members took one look at the hacker screen and canceled. The legal bills haven't come in yet. So the bottom line remains murky. The cost to our piece of mind and to the community of longtime contributors at Nina's open forums: priceless. Those forums as they existed before are not coming back. Not ever. Every single hack, attack, spamming and trolling that has afflicted us over a dozen years has come in through that welcoming door. We'd be fools not to slam it shut and drop the bar after this. Nina and I have discussed starting up a linked blog, but to do so we'd pretty much have to maintain it ourselves, and with all the other things we have on our plates, we're not sure we have the appetite for that.
Too bad too, because the forums on nina.com were, in many ways, the heart of the venture. Sure, though they were free to anyone who signed up, they were attached to a porn pay-site. And they contained some familiar elements from that genre, including sex advice from Nina and friendly chat (the only kind we encouraged) about the XXX world, but what really set the forums apart was the breadth of the discourse and the variety of the contributors. We talked endlessly about politics, history, economics, technology and - oh yeah - sexuality. Posters were men and women, leftists, liberals, libertarians, libertarian conservatives, sexual liberationists and those dreaded third-wave feminists. All races, all classes, all shades of gender, all sexual orientations, all levels of education and experience were represented. We had college professors and businessmen and grad students. We had Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists. We got posts from every continent except Antarctica, and I can't swear to that one.
The discussion was far-ranging, mostly well-informed to startlingly erudite, and as long as an iron rule of personal civility was observed (I enforced it on friend and foe alike with an evenly heavy hand) frequently quite heated. Over those dozen or so years, the forum logged over thirty thousand posts from hundreds of individuals on hundreds of topics. I'm thankful that all that good conversation is safely backed up at a secure location, though whether any of it will be seen anywhere else again is not yet clear. There are both practical and philosophical considerations to weigh in terms of reinstating any of it in any form. We know our broad array of political and ideological enemies mined that source for out-of-context material to spice up their presentations. Indeed, Rebecca Whisnant cites nina.com by name as a source for writings and lectures at Wheelock and the other venues where she trashes Nina with the predicability of a stopped clock.
But if we're not sure what the future holds for the open discussion at nina.com, we can say that Nina's voice on the net has been silenced. That's right, the S-word. Not silenced-everywhere-but-on-Fox-News-The-New-York-Times-op-ed-page-amazon.com-AlterNet-focusonthefamily.com-KPFK-and-college-campuses-across-the-land silenced like Gail Dines, Bob Jensen, Melissa Farley, James Dobson, Pamela Paul and Ariel Levy. I mean knocked off the web, which was her principle point of contact with her core audience and accessible source for those wishing to get to know her and understand her ideas. And even worse, when she returns to that venue, it won't be as the facilitator of important discussions on the big issues of the day.
While Nina will still post her personal journal on the front page, pretty much everything else will be behind the firewall of full, paid membership and will therefore be mostly XXX visual content intended primarily for adult entertainment. In other words, it will be much less of a meeting ground for unconventional thinkers and much more of a conventional porn site. In this way, at least for the purposes of the site she helped build with thousands of hours of her personal labor, Nina will be limited to the role our society is prepared to allow her - porn star, full-stop. She can and will continue to write, speak, travel to workshops and carry on her activism within and for the community to which she has devoted the past 25 years, but if you meet her through Google, you won't know much about that, or about the remarkable mind and irreplaceable experience that makes her who she is, rather than the sex work that so narrowly defines her in the eyes of so much of the world.
No matter how I look at it, I see this as a sad loss, for her, for me, for everyone whose lives she's touched or might touch through this medium.
And the manner in which this loss was inflicted teaches us only the darkest of lessons. Nina was silenced by political enemies from across the world for reasons far outside the debate usually carried on at this location and in the other places where she takes her stand in favor of reason and compassion and against ignorance and fanaticism in regard to sexuality.
Nina.com was hacked by a couple of young guys in Turkey who characterize themselves as "Islamic cyber-warriors." They've hacked hundreds of other sites all over the world that they regard as suitable targets for their jihadist fury for whatever reasons and make no secret of their intention to go right on doing so. Indeed, for a couple of days after the fact, they were all over Turkish media trumpeting their great triumph at shutting down the site of the "Jew whore" Nina Hartley. And they got pretty far with that too, even making it onto the TV news back home. This will get them more views for their clumsy gangsta-rap vids on youtube (you can see their collection of laptops in the background as they bust their moves) and presumably sell more of the malware they peddle on their own site. Great heroes of the coming caliphate are these two twenty-nothings. May they be welcomed into paradise by those 72 virgins at the earliest possible date. Given the TNP's impatience with swaggering braggarts who like to stir up trouble, that date may come rather sooner than they expect.
But those of us over here are stuck with some troubling questions whatever fate may hold in store for these pathetic low-lifes. The unpleasant fact remains that the hate they feel for Nina and all she believes is shared in equal measure among right-wing Christian evangelicals, left-wing anti-porn feminists and their fellow Islamic fundamentalist fanatics all around the world. Even though these extremists all despise each other, they agree on something basic about human nature - their deep-seated distrust and dislike for it. Where they find common ground is in their abhorrence of personal freedom and individual liberty.
Without some unchallenged power to tell us all how we must live down to the smallest detail, they believe, human beings will revert to utter savagery and their own noble selves will be the ones to suffer for it. When Gail Dines told me in Vegas that she distrusted arguments based in nature, she spoke for the opponents of reason everywhere. Arguments based in nature may be tested by empirical means and subjected to rational scrutiny and thus may be proven true or false. Blind belief need not be subjected to these rigors. Good thing too, as it wouldn't survive such a test. Better that we should all live by simple, revealed truths as directed by the self-anointed prophets of those truths, than that we should all have to think for ourselves, as all but the elect are incapable of doing so in a responsible fashion.
And that is why these groups, while lining up with every weapon at their disposal to discredit or, if necessary, destroy all who disagree with them, make exceptions for one another. All are quick to deny any affiliation with each other, and to dismiss any association among the three as simply a "straw man," a rhetorical construction of their sinful, evil foes. And yet they do not speak out against each other's excesses with the curious ferocity they spew toward anyone who dares to suggest that their behavior is irrational.
Is it not odd that Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ward Churchill, Jeremiah Wright and Ahmed Ahmadinejad all agree that we got what we deserved on 9/11? Isn't it strange that a nominal leftist feminist like Pamela Paul would have no problem with offering supportive testimony before the "porn addiction" hearings trumped up by failed Christian-right presidential candidate Sen. Sam Brownback? And isn't it strange that will all the gallons of ink shed by the likes of Melissa Farley over the horrors of Nevada brothels and dirty pictures in this country, she has so little to say of recent date about the daily horrors of "honor killings," female genital mutilation and the savage public beatings of women for failure to cover themselves completely in those vast swaths of the world dominated by Islamic fundamentalists?
But of course, these are people who FEEL their beliefs ever so strongly, and what they feel is so much more important than what is merely real in this world. Don't we poor, deluded rationalists understand that this is all about feelings and feelings are what matter? Who needs the facts when you already have the truth, right?
No, these extremists are not allies. Eventually, like Hitler and Stalin, they must necessarily turn on each other, but not before they've done whatever they could to rid the planet of anyone who might offer the more sensible alternatives of pluralism, of living and letting live, of tolerating real differences strongly held, of placing the ability to think above the visceral sense of permanent injustice that lies at the heart of every stripe of extremist lunacy. Wrong has been done by those who are evil and evil-doers must be punished. That's what counts. Things like choice, agency, liberty are of no use to the pure and can only be tools of wickedness in the hands of unrighteous. Thought itself, unless very carefully directed by those possessed of the ultimate wisdom, is a dangerous thing to be discouraged in all but the most limited of circumstances.
And thus it is that the real tests of moral courage, which are all about individual judgments, are failed by true believers again and again. Members of the Christian right, even if they find its conduct deplorable, will not speak out against Operation Rescue. American leftists were silent through a generation of communism's crimes against humanity from the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 right up to the Khmer Rouge auto-genocide of 1975. Today they won't speak out against the human rights abuses of the Taliban for fear of being perceived as racist. Christian evangelicals support the militant settlers on the West Bank, and the Likudniks accept that support without a blink, even though they know full well that these wonderful, new allies of theirs embrace religious teachings that require all Jews to ultimately convert or be damned.
In addition to having their anti-intellectualism and their rejection of reason in common, they all also hate and fear any open expression in favor of sexual autonomy, because the cognitive tolerance of sexual diversity is entirely a product of human reason, and any rational thought on that subject will surely lead to the questioning of unreasoning taboos and restrictions upon which all forms of fanaticism depend. Liberated bodies and liberated minds are two things authoritarian personalities and the belief systems to which they adhere simply cannot endure.
And they won't do so without a bloody fight using every weapon at their disposal, even if the only weapon they have at hand is a laptop.
That is how, and more importantly why, Nina Hartley came to be silenced on the internet. She is a kind, caring, loving person whose great offense lies in her steadfast defense of the rights of adults to consent (a dirty word in itself in so many quarters these days) to the forms of sexual expression that bring satisfaction to their own lives and the lives of their partners.
Such effrontery simply could not be allowed. And now it won't be.
I can think of a long last of people to whom this will be a cause for celebration. But at the end of the day, they and their followers are the real losers in this contest. As Goya observed, the sleep of reason produces monsters. And eventually, always, the monsters will consume the sleepers.