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August 16, 2004

Interns Gone Wild

Like Byron, I was intrigued by (free registration required) the recent Washington Post article about Jessica Cutler, the Washingtonienne. Cutler, as most blog junkies will know, became famous when her blog, in which she narrated stories of her sexual affairs with several Washington insiders, was mentioned in the gossip blog, Wonkette. After he blog was discovered, Cutler was fired from her job but managed to secure a six-figure book contract and a gig posing for Playboy.

In his discussion of the article, Byron comments

I noted on my initial blog post that she seemed really naïve about blogs but this article makes it clear that she is really naïve about *everything*.
And I'd agree that, for the most part, Cutler comes off as being rather naïve, particularly about blogs, though I wonder how much of that lack of sophistication is performed. It seems clear to me that Cutler is being pretty careful in crafting her narrative for specific purposes, whether to sell her upcoming book or to restore her reputation. She mentions her parents' divorce, watching too much cable TV as a kid, being coddled in a negligent gifted-and-talented program, all things that are designed to set off certain alarms in today's "culture wars" regarding education, gender politics, and family values. By saying this, I don't want to suggest that Cutler is entirely in control of her narrative, but she (or one of her friends) acknowledges at one point that the blog served as a kind of device for taking control over her story.

What I find more troubling about the article is that it seems to buy into the popular narrative of a world in which morals are declining. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the article is the implicit comparison between Cutler's actions and the actions of the soldiers in Abu Ghraib. In commenting on the Cutler controversy, Daniel Yankelovich, who "has been studying American values for fifty years," states that Cutler is a sign of declining values in the US. As the Post reports:

He means a sign of our times, as is Jessica's frumpy 21-year-old contemporary, Pfc. Lynndie England, whose gleeful mugging for the cameras as she mocked naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib unsettled the national conscience. Both women have left many people questioning: How did we get here?

Jessica's "behavior is not mainstream majority behavior in the same way that most soldiers in Iraq are not abusing people," Yankelovich says. "She's an extreme, but she's a sign. These kinds of signs are breaking out often enough that you know they are signaling something much larger and more important."

This implicit equation between the torture of prisoners and consensual sex seems rather unfair. I'm also troubled by the fact that Cutler is singled out as the scapegoat, when it's pretty clear that several men were also involved, many of whom voluntarily gave her hundreds of dollars in cash. There seems to be an implicit message that when women are having sex like men, that's a sign that our values are in decline. [Side note: the emphasis on ("frumpy? what is this emphasis on fashion/appearance?") Lynndie England's participation in torture of Iraqi prisoners completely ignores the fact that several other (male and female) soldiers were involved.]

The article also frames Naomi Wolf's comments on Cutler's story in a fairly misleading way, suggesting that she "agrees with" Yankelovich, when her position seems a bit more complicated, especially in terms of her broader critique of a "pornographized culture" in which "sex has been commodified and drained of its deeper meaning." I don't really see her argument as signifying a complete decline in values, and there's nothing in Wolf's comments that would even come close to comparing Cutler's actions with those of the people in Abu Ghraib and others who might have endorsed their actions.

I'm tempted to fisk the whole article, but I'll identify just one other point for now. Yankelovich goes on to implicitly blame the social revolutions of the 1960s for the contemporary situation that produces a situation, or story, like Cutler's (sorry: this entry ran longer than expected).

According to the Post,

Sexual mores are only the crest of a tidal wave of change. In a span of about 15 years during the 1960s and 1970s, Americans underwent the kind of dramatic transformation of social values that usually occurs over generations, Yankelovich says. First college students, and then an overwhelming majority of Americans, rejected much of the social rigidity of the 1950s. Deeply held American values such as conformity, respectability, sacrifice and duty to others were elbowed aside by newer values: personal satisfaction, individual choice and a pluralism that tolerates vast differences in race, religion and lifestyle.

Yankelovich has coined the term "expressive individualism" to describe the new ethic of personal freedom that, among other things, opened the way for women, gays and minorities to make extraordinary gains. "It was a sweeping revolution, and we are still figuring out its consequences," Yankelovich says.

One unintended consequence of the revolution, he says, is that social morality has now become so relative it has begun to make Americans on both the left and right very anxious, although they disagree sharply on what to do about that. Yankelovich sees that nervousness in Americans' responses to events as diverse as Enron's accounting fictions, the Roman Catholic Church's protection of pedophiles, the Iraqi prison abuse scandal and Jessica's blog.

"The country is taken aback by moral relativism in all of its forms," Yankelovich says. "To me, the best way of thinking about it is that people are now free to say: 'I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't break the law.' An earlier generation, my own generation growing up in the United States, would say, 'What has the law got to do with it?' The usual model for societies is that they have a very thin layer of law and a very thick layer of social morality. What this expressive individualism has done, as an unintended consequence, is weaken that layer of social morality to the point where it's almost disappeared."

Again, the comparisons between Abu Ghraib, the Catholic Church, Enron, and Cutler seem rather imprecise, but to translate the social transformations of the 1960s, which fought for equal rights for blacks, women, and gays, into what Yankelovich calls "expressive individualism" completely micharacterizes these changes, and the Post author should not have allowed such a claim to go unquestioned, even if Yankelovich acknowledges some positive consequences from the 1960s. It's an incredibly reductive reading of contemporary social and sexual mores.

I'm not sure that Yankelovich is entirely wrong in identifying what he calls "expressive individualism," but I don't see it as having been caused by the 1960s. Instead, this hyper-individualism is the product of advertising discourse that reinforces these concepts ("Just do it!" "It's my wireless plan," etc).

Posted by chuck at August 16, 2004 11:00 AM

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Yes morals were so much better in the good old days when you could own slaves, lynch blacks, and beat women.

Seriously, every time one of these news articles comes up, it seems as though people are just parroting things they heard their parents said about their generation being so much more moral. Their parents in turn heard that from their grandparents and so forth.

Posted by: Chris Martin at August 16, 2004 12:53 PM

Thanks for backing me up on this one. I didn't even think about the real probelms with the "good old days." I find these articles frustrating, too, as my extended rant suggests.

Posted by: chuck at August 16, 2004 3:56 PM

Yes!! I have a draft of a blog entry about that article sitting waiting for me to get to it this evening myself. Such a crappy article. Made me want to smack someone (and not Jessica Cutler, who is after all only a kid and who, I think, actually doesn't owe much of an apology to anyone).

Posted by: bitchphd at August 16, 2004 4:29 PM

My friend JenC sent me an email after I posted on this asking if I'd had any coffee before I wrote that post because it seemed grumpier than usual. I hadn't had any coffee, but I don't think that had anything to do with my displeasure. Like you all, I just really hate those kind of articles. All this talk about her being part of this new culture in decline. What crap. Ya know, I grew up in the 80s of Reagan, greed is good, and yuppie scum and that didn't make me one of them! The culture isn't why Cutler is the way she is. To me she is naive and shallow. I don't buy the argment, mentioned in the article, that she manipulated the whole thing to get a book deal. In my initial blogs about the incident, I'm pretty non-judgmental. I don't really care what she does or doesn't do with her body. But when she gets a book deal for basically being naive and shallow and then the article tries to make it a morality play of culture in decline I get grumpy. I'm sure it's all sour grapes because *I* don't have a six figure book deal :) but I'm just not buying the "gifted" argument either.

Posted by: B at August 16, 2004 10:13 PM

I don't think I had enough coffee when I wrote that particular entry! You know, I was a *little* jealous that she got a six-figure book deal and I didn't. Professors just aren't glamorous enough, I guess.

I don't quite know how tp read the "gifted" stuff. The term is obviously loaded with all kinds of cultural baggage. IQ tests are a bogus measure (no sour grapes here, I actually score well on such tests). I think her reference to "giftedness" is intended to fit within a certain kind of narrative about her life.

Posted by: chuck at August 16, 2004 11:48 PM

Why do you think IQ is tests are bogus?

Posted by: Chris Martin at August 17, 2004 2:25 PM

I guess what I'm not buying is the whole narrative of her life that she (or the author of the article) is trying to spin. She seems like all the shallow, self-interested yuppie wannabes I loved to hate in the 80s. I know I should get over it but hey I gotta blog about something ;)

Posted by: B at August 17, 2004 2:32 PM

Online forum at WaPo.

Posted by: George at August 17, 2004 3:16 PM

"Bogus" is probably a slightly stronger term than I intended (my fault), but I'm suspicious of standradized tests that measure certain kinds of skills in an ostensibly context-free environment. Some people are far more effective test-takers than others, and that doesn't always reflect "intelligence." That being said, I have the suspicion that Cutler was downplaying her verbal skills in some of the Post interviews (all the "it's, like, you know's").

I'm probably less suspicous of Cutler than I am of the narrative that is being constructed around her, a narrative in which she is no doubt complicit to some extent. Like B, however, I don't think she's teribly concerned with how her actions affect other people, and that's something I may have downplayed in previous blog entries.

Thanks for the link to the forum, George.

Posted by: chuck at August 17, 2004 4:12 PM

Interesting that in the forum, the author says that she wanted to direct more of the blame towards the men who were involved in the scandal. I really didn't get that impression from the article much at all.

Wish I'd known about the forum in advance. I might have participated....

Posted by: chuck at August 17, 2004 4:18 PM

Regarding this statement: 'Instead, this hyper-individualism is the product of advertising discourse that reinforces these concepts ("Just do it!" "It's my wireless plan," etc).'

How about the product of excessive blogging -- the literary Wal-Marting of America actually. (And if you steal my line, I'll sue the crap outta ya... yet another example of a more expensive (thus desireable?) "hyper-individualism."

Posted by: Gracie D at August 24, 2004 3:57 AM

Don't worry,...I won't steal your line. I don't really see how blogging represents a process of "literary Wal-Marting," but I did think about blogging when I wrote that comment.

My response would be that I see my blog as part of a network, not an isolated ("hyper-individualized") entity that could be produced independently of the people who read my blog and the blogs and articles I've linked.

To be honest that was kind of a throwaway comment, but I'm still critical of Yankelovich's assertion that the sixties are the root of all these "problems."

Posted by: chuck at August 24, 2004 11:42 AM

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