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CENSORSHIP IN CYBERSPACE

by Mark Ethan Smith

About fifteen years ago I was paying for the privilege of self-publishing on a commercial electronic communications system called The Well when a vicious and unconscionable act of censorship took place. My account was abruptly terminated by The Well management and before I could save it, everything I had written, literally thousands of words a day over the course of more than a year, was erased and irretrievably lost to me, to the Harvard University library where my remaining papers now reside, and to history. This year a revisionist history of The Well has been published (“The Well: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Community;” Katie Hafner, Carroll & Graf, 2001) which attempts to deny that any deliberate censorship took place, and contends that the termination of my account was my own fault.

One might expect a book written by a New York Times reporter and highly touted by such literary luminaries as Amitai Etzioni, Jon Katz, Sherry Turkle, Steven Levy and Bruce Sterling, to be, at a minimum, logical and coherent. But since Hafner wasn't there and relied solely on hearsay for information, there are numerous inconsistencies in the book, such as the fact that Hafner describes The Well as a community that favors free speech and strongly opposes censorship, while recounting instances of censorship that were tolerated and instances of philosophical expression that were not. I was the first person to be kicked off The Well, and Hafner uses loaded words, innuendo, and ad hominem attacks on my character in lieu of any rational justification for this abrogation of my freedom of speech. But even Hafner admits that the behavior of some other users was much worse than anything I had done, and appears to have searched diligently, if futilely, for any specific incident that might have caused the termination of my account. Hafner quotes an unnamed user as saying that, “A society is judged by how it treats its dissidents, and The Well treated its dissidents very well." I’m listed in the index to Hafner’s book as, “Smith, Mark Ethan: Well dissident,” and I don’t think that having my account permanently terminated, and my writings erased without me even being given the opportunity to download and save them, the ultimate form of censorship, is very good treatment, and I would deem it poetic justice if the people who ran The Well in its early days were to be judged by their treatment of me. The Well’s motto, “You own your own words,” was simply untrue. No matter that I paid both a monthly plus an hourly fee to publish on The Well, the establishment that owned The Well owned my words, and they chose to censor them and banish me.

The Well is a computer conferencing system that is now part of salon.com. It was started in 1985 by two successful businessmen, Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, and Larry Brilliant, a physician and owner of a computer conferencing business. Although the book tries to portray The Well as a community rather than a hierarchy, Hafner strains for words like “clan” to describe The Well’s inner circle. But you can’t have a dissident without having an establishment, and in the case of the early days of The Well, the establishment, like most establishments in this country, consisted of the white male owners, Brand and Brilliant, their white male paid employees, their white male business associates, and their white male friends. Most of these people had free accounts and a double standard was applied so that anything they did was tolerated, while lesser offenses by anyone who wasn’t part of the establishment were not.

Hafner, a writer and a reporter characterized by Bruce Sterling as, “ the world’s best Internet historian,” is a competent writer, a bit too gullible for a reporter, and much as it pains me to disagree with an author I admire as much as Bruce Sterling, by no stretch of the imagination a historian. A historian would try to get more than one side of a story, and certainly wouldn’t base the characterization of someone solely on people known to be hostile towards them. Although Hafner and The Well establishment paint me as the villain of The Well, here is a quote from someone who was part of The Well from the beginning and disagrees with Hafner’s views totally, attorney Donna Hall:

“It always seems history gets distorted, and the author's views of Mark Smith are no different than many historical distortions. As a person who started hosting on the Well on the very first day it previewed at a computer fair, before the official opening, I'm as conversant with what went on on the Well as anyone, and, with due respect, I suppose the author just didn't ask the right people. Had I been asked, I would have said that Mark Smith is one of the very few original thinkers I met on the Well (and I met everyone on the Well, and was responsible for many of the Well fixtures finding their way there).”

“When Mark and I were sharing virtual space on the Well, I did not see any acrimony on Mark's part, although I did see the usual witchburning mob making the same sort of fuss about Mark's original thoughts as were made about such theories as the one proposing the roundness of the Earth, or that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Today, we view the people who were alarmed and punitive towards the proponents of these truths as pitiable and ignorant. Tomorrow, we may well view the people who were alarmed and punitive towards Mark's thoughts in much the same light. Needless to say, when I saw my fellow Well denizens boiling the virtual tar, and gathering the virtual feathers, I felt pity for their narrowness. Novel ideas may be hard to grasp, or accept. But to me, that's what I was there for.”

“Throughout the mob's churlish behavior, Mark always acted with class, intelligence, and wit. Perhaps the author's 'history' will not reflect that, but it's a view from a distorted glass, and one which I, as a participant, see as false.”

Obviously there is more than one side to the story, and Hafner should have attempted to find a wider perspective. Hafner accuses me of exploiting, "the identity-shifting, role-playing possibilities" of computer conferencing on The Well, by preferring to be, "known as a man," while being, "open with others online," about being a woman. This is patently absurd. No one who wishes to be known as a man would be open about being a woman for the simple reason that such openness eliminates any chance to shift identity or role-play. Had Hafner contacted me, or had access to unexpurgated Well archives, it would have been clear that far from role-playing, I am, and was at the time I was on The Well, exactly the same in real life as in cyberspace. Although my sex is female, something I have never denied, I stopped being a woman in 1981, several years before I discovered The Well, and I never became a man, nor do I wish to be known as a man, or, for that matter, as a woman. In the 5,000-year history of patriarchy, I may be the very first individual to exist as a person, without regard to sex. Whether or not I am the first person, I am quite definitely singular. Like George Sand, I am a prolific writer, have a nontraditional name and wear traditionally masculine clothes. Unlike George Sand, although I missed the article in "Wired" magazine this book grew out of, which may have led some of Hafner's informants to believe otherwise, I am still alive. But as a feminist writer, what I find most egregious is that Hafner either was not told about, or simply failed to understand my preference for traditionally-inclusive pronouns, and uses feminine pronouns to refer to me throughout the book, the same way that Hafner's informants did in taunting me on The Well. It is quite likely that Hafner mistook my insistance on equal terms and treatment, and my preference for being referred to as, "he," which happens to be the traditionally inclusive pronoun, for gender-shifting, or wanting to be known as a man. The result, in my opinion, is no different than if an African-American who resisted being referred to as, "boy," was not only referred to as, "boy" repeatedly, but also vilified for "wanting to be white," and for threatening the cohesiveness of a community where such usage was common.

Hafner, of course, cannot be blamed for assuming, as most people do, as I did myself for my first 40 years, and as former President Ronald Reagan is said to have believed, that there is no such thing as a person, only men and women, and that every adult human is one or the other. The irony here is that my liberation from gender roles came about in large part due to the policies of the Reagan administration.

I was born female, and it had never occurred to me to want to be anything other than a woman when Ronald Reagan became President and his administration terminated the Social Security benefits of a quarter of a million disabled people, including me. I knew enough history to remember that Hitler's first genocidal act was to kill the disabled, and I was frightened. I was forty-one years old, had only recently managed to get a furnished room after being homeless for the better part 20 years, and with the economy in decline, I doubted if I could survive on the street any more. Social Security sent me a notice in November, 1981, claiming to be my mandatory 2-month advance notice that my checks would stop in October, the previous month. It would be 5 or 6 years before the Supreme Court, in a class action suit led by attorney Elena Ackel of Los Angeles Legal Aid, who was also an aide to Congresswoman Maxine Waters, would restore the benefits of those of us who survived, with the proviso that we could not seek damages for any harm done. In response, Republicans defunded Legal Aid, limited their right to bring class action suits, and stepped up the campaign to stack the courts with conservatives.

In the meantime I needed a way to survive. I'd been receiving disability benefits since the late '60s, when I was arrested for possession of marijuana in California. The friend whose stash it was bailed me out and I set about trying to find a way to demonstrate to a judge that I would try, in the future, to be a law-abiding citizen. Unable to find work, I applied to the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. They subjected me to three solid days of psychological tests, and then announced that I was totally, permanently and hopelessly emotionally disabled, and therefore eligible for Social Security disability benefits. I protested. I fought. As usual, I lost. But with the help of Voc. Rehab. I did manage to get a job and enroll at a junior college. According to my case worker the tests indicated that I had the aptitude to qualify for the top two jobs in their occupational index: librarian and doctor. Unfortunately, their budget precluded such things.

There were no equal opportunity laws, and brains were not considered desirable for a woman in the totally sex-segregated job market I first entered as a teenager in 1958. I had been an unloved and emotionally abused child who was never touched except roughly, never spoken to except harshly, and I had very low self-esteem. When I was 16 my parents had me institutionalized. After spending two years locked up without having committed a crime, I was released when I was 18, and found myself on my own with no assistance and little preparation for life. I tried to find work, but just as my parents had mocked me for being, "too damned smart," potential employers frequently rejected me as, "overqualified." Youth and luck turned out to be the keys to my survival. The fact that I was young made me attractive to men, and the sexually transmissible diseases of the time weren't fatal. I wanted to avoid incarceration, so I didn't take money from the men I slept with. Sometimes they fed me, sometimes they'd let me sleep for a few hours, occasionally they'd give me their old clothes, but I was happy. I enjoyed sex, I was starved for affection, nobody was hitting me or screaming at me, and I was in Greenwich Village where, for the first time in my life, I began to have fun. I wrote poetry and recited it in coffee shops, played the guitar and sang folk songs in Washington Square, and danced in after-hours joints. I took drugs, listened to jazz, and met artists, folk-singers, musicians and poets. I remember an early issue of "Playboy" magazine in which almost all the outstanding males of the beatnik era who were featured in, or had written that month's articles, had been my lovers, despite the fact that I was flat-chested, wore thick glasses, and in no way resembled the featured females. If the years from '58 to '78 were mostly a blur, some things stand out. I hitchhiked around the country and to Mexico a few times, got strung out on heroin a few times, hung out with some notorious bikers, was one of the original founders of a hippy commune which I named the Hog Farm, took a lot of mescaline, LSD, and DMT, smoked a lot of dope, got married and divorced a few times, and had two kids. The most painful part was not being able to keep my kids, but I couldn't support them and neither could the sort of man that would marry a homeless woman.

Throughout it all I never stopped trying to get a job and an education, despite the fact that my terminally hip acquaintances ridiculed my bourgeois aspirations, although most of them, like The Well establishment, had the benefit of doting parents and the best educations money could buy. It isn’t easy to get a job without having an address, a phone, a car, a steady work history, and recent references, or to hold on to a job without having a place to sleep, food, a change of clothes, and other bourgeois amenities. My Social Security record shows that although there was rarely a quarter in which I didn’t work, my earnings for my first ten years in the job market amounted in total to less than one year’s poverty level income.

The junior college Voc. Rehab. chose for me in 1968, did have a premedical program, but since I couldn’t afford a medical education, I was barred from taking, or even auditing those classes. The job I found, however, was as a part time medical transcriptionist to Dr. Peter E. Veger, a semi-retired neurologist in Santa Monica. After a few months he fired me because his neighbors complained about my scruffy appearance. Two weeks later he came looking for me and hired me back. In the interim, he’d hired a young man who always wore a suit and tie and was a certified medical secretary. But the doctor soon grew tired of having to repeatedly spell out technical terms, and decided that unless his neighbors wanted to do his insurance billing themselves, they had better mind their own business. Education is a commodity in this country, and is more often an indicator of wealthy parentage than it is of superior intellect and ability.

Having been told by Voc. Rehab. and reassured by my employer that I had the aptitude to be a doctor, an early childhood ambition, I decided to go to medical school. After eight court appearances, the drug charges against me were dropped, by which time Social Security had started sending me $55.00 a month, along with a lump sum for the previous year’s benefits. Knowing that with only a high school diploma and not much money, I couldn’t gain admittance to med school in the United States, Canada, or Europe, I decided to try Asia, Africa, and South America. With nothing to lose, my philosophy in my younger days was that it wouldn’t hurt to try. As it happens, I actually did locate and get admitted to a medical school, the Nangarhar Taip Pohantoon, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, which I attended with passing grades for almost two years, while I also had the opportunity to learn Pushto, open and run a free clinic, work in the local hospital emergency room, and even assist in surgery. Then the Russians came in and I thought it prudent to leave.

Although this episode, like everything else in my life, ended in failure, it was when I first reached Afghanistan that an omen of the future occurred. I’d run out of money in Herat, wired my bank for more, and went to the local bank to pick it up. They refused to give it to me. Nobody had told me that Afghanistan had never progressed beyond the early phases of patriarchy, where women are considered to be property and therefore forbidden to own property, and that it was therefore illegal for a bank to give money to a woman. I had learned enough Farsi to understand that they were telling me to send my husband in, and I did have a male companion, but we weren’t married yet, he was down with the flu back at the hotel, and anyway the money was in my name, not his, so I kept insisting they give me my money. After a lengthy impasse, I was ushered into a room where about twenty Afghan men were sitting around a large table, discussing my case. Finally the man at the head of the table slammed his fist down and announced, “That’s not a woman! That’s an American!” Needless to say I got my money, but the significance of this event wouldn’t dawn on me for many years.

After Afghanistan, I wandered around Asia for a while hoping to find another medical school, returned to the States, and then somebody gave me an old 80cc Suzuki motorcycle, which I named, “Little Suzie,” and decided to ride to Central America. It was in Barrio Dolores in Tegucigalpa, Honduras that I came across a copy of “Playgirl” magazine at an outdoor newsrack. The pictures had been torn out, but the stories were intact and I just wanted something in English to read, so I bought it. That was how I learned about the University of the State of New York (now Excelsior College), which was offering affordable external degrees with no attendance requirement. I enrolled by mail, bought some textbooks to study, and started taking standardized tests for college credit, including Graduate Record Exams in biology (where I scored in the 99th percentile in the ecology subsection), psychology, sociology, education and political science. In 1979, I was awarded an accredited Bachelor of Science degree. Never mind that I couldn’t afford to attend my own graduation, or even buy a class ring, I now believed I had a formal education. Degree in hand, I went back to the States to look for work. I was no longer young, I had lost a few teeth and others were broken, and I was fully aware that if I wanted another husband, I’d have to be able to support him, or at least make a financial contribution to our union, as the sort of men willing to marry me couldn’t or wouldn’t support me. I also knew that if I ever wanted to see my kids again, I’d have to have a place to live that they could phone or visit. But even a college degree didn’t guarantee entry into the job market for an older woman without a stable work history and recent references. Once again I turned to Voc. Rehab. and they helped me get a furnished room and enroll in an electronics course at a vocational Skills Center. I did well, but as I was completing the course the sky fell in and I got the notice that my disability benefits were to be terminated. Once my Social Security checks stopped, I would no longer be eligible for Voc. Rehab. assistance. That meant I only had a little over a month in which to find work, so I intensified my efforts, sending out hundreds of resumes and going to as many job interviews as I could manage.

One evening, after a morning interview where I’d passed all the tests with flying colors, only to be told that the company required that I have a car, despite the fact that the job did not require driving and was within walking distance, and an afternoon interview where the people kept making juvenile toilet jokes, as if expecting me to contribute one of my own to show that I’d fit in with their team, I returned to my residence hotel to find a film being shown in the recreation room. It was a documentary called, “Rosie the Riveter” about women who had worked during WWII, and I quickly became engrossed with a topic so near my heart. At one point in the film, a matronly woman explained that after losing a husband and being left with 5 kids, a job became imperative. Leaving the kids with their grandparents, this farm woman hitched up a team and went looking for work. An offer to plow a farmer’s field was accepted, and the woman was told to show up for work first thing in the morning. In the morning the farmer said, “Wait a minute—are you a man or a woman?” Now this was a buxom woman with a feminine voice, who had obviously never been mistaken for a man before. But the farmer had never seen a woman in overalls and cap looking for work. As the woman on the screen recalled having said, “Why I’m a woman—what did you think I was,” to which the farmer had replied, “I thought you were a big old country boy—I can’t let a woman plow my field,” I could barely refrain from yelling out loud, “You’ve got five kids to feed! If he can’t tell that you’re a woman, don’t tell him!”

Then I sat there in shock, hyperventilating, my heart beating rapidly, as I realized that maybe the reason I couldn’t get a job was that I had been doing the very thing I wanted to warn against. Potential employers had never been shy about telling me that they didn’t want a woman for their position, or that they preferred to hire a man. So why was I telling them that I was a woman? If the woman on the screen could be mistaken for a man, why couldn’t I?

After the film I went back to my room in a daze. Was it possible? Could I conceal my sex? Even if I could, would I be able to get a job? The end of the month was near, my rent was running out, and people with few options will grasp at straws. I determined that I at least had to try. If I failed, I could always kill myself to avoid being homeless again, but if I got a job I’d be able to survive. I told a friend what I was thinking of, and he asked, “Have you decided what your new name will be?” Name? Why would I change my name? But, of course, my traditionally feminine name with its diminutive ending would be a dead giveaway on application forms. I got the NOLO self-help book from the library and set about legally changing my name. I got a short haircut, some clothes and shoes to match, and, with some trepidation, I donned my new garb and went outside to see what would happen. In my years on the street I’d been called all sorts of things, like beatnik, hippy, existentialist, and worse, and people often made fun of my ragged clothes, while males usually assumed that any unaccompanied female was up for grabs, and made lewd comments and suggestions. But this time nobody seemed to notice me. The clerk in the store across the street where I usually shopped, simply handed me my change without looking up and said, “Thank you, Sir.” The same thing happened on the bus and at the bank. The next day I went to see my case worker at Voc. Rehab., a young woman who took one look at me and gasped, “You look ten years younger! This is going to help your job chances immensely!” I was then scheduled for training in how to interview, “as a man,” which mainly consisted of instructions to leave any questions of sex or gender on employment applications blank, as employers aren’t supposed to ask such questions, and this would avoid lying, and not to cross my legs in a feminine way. My reception with prospective employers did seem to improve with my new personna, but I still hadn’t received a single job offer and time was running out.

A year earlier I’d taken a Civil Service test and been notified that I’d failed the math portion of the exam. I remember the test very well. Out of about 200 applicants, only 6 of us volunteered to take the math test that day. Having just completed several much more difficult math tests for college credit, I found the test laughably easy, finished early, and spent most of the allotted time checking to be sure that I hadn’t accidentally made a silly mistake or filled in the wrong circle on the scoring sheet. I knew I’d gotten a perfect score on the test, so I wrote back to the Department of the Navy, which was hiring apprentices, telling them bluntly that they were the ones who had made a mistake, and that I definitely had not failed their math test. I got a response almost by return mail, with an apology, an admission that they had indeed made a mistake (later I was to see the page they’d used to score me, and from the number of things blacked out, they had made a lot of mistakes, not just one), and a statement that although they had already done their hiring for the year, they would put me back on the list of eligible applicants for the following year. Of course when I changed my name I had to notify everyone I knew or had any dealings with, including the Navy, so I never expected to hear back from them. But I did, in the form of a notice to report for an interview at a nearby Naval Air Station. Having already figured out exactly how I intended to commit suicide if I didn’t get a job before my rent ran out, I wasn’t about to refuse an interview for any job, no matter how unlikely the prospect of employment. I went to the library to read anything they had about preparing for Civil Service interviews, and learned only that candidates were summoned three at a time, and that for some reason the interviewers were supposed to call upon each individual without knowing who they were.

When I reported to the Naval Air Station it was awesome. I’d never been on a military base before, and the sight of neatly manicured lawns, uniformed Marines, and a large American flag inspired a feeling of pride. I am, after all, an American, and I was going to be interviewed for a real job, something I’d never had in my life: a job with a living wage, training, promotional opportunities, benefits, and genuine usefulness. If I doubted that I’d be hired, at least I was being given an opportunity to apply. I arrived early, located the building, and set my attaché case down outside the door to the interview room. Soon the other 2 candidates arrived, both male. One looked like a typical San Francisco gay, and the other was plump with a baby face. After a while the door opened and an older white male in a suit came out, looked us over carefully for several minutes, and then went back inside and closed the door without saying anything. A few minutes later another white male in a suit came out and did the exact same thing. This was repeated seven or eight times, with a different man appearing, studying us closely, and then going back in silently each time. Finally the first guy reappeared, asked each of us our names, and then went back inside. I knew that the interviewers were not supposed to ask our names. It was clear to me that they were aware, perhaps from when I’d notified the Navy of my name change, that one of us was female, but that they hadn’t been able to ascertain which one by looking, so they’d decided to violate the regulations governing Civil Service interviews. Had I not been desperate for a job, I would have walked away right then, but I was, and I stayed.

I was the last candidate called. In the room were a dozen or so white males in suits, and one female secretary in a dress. Most of the questions seemed routine, but at the end of the interview I was asked if I’d accept a different job if it was at the same pay. I politely pointed out that my training was in electronics, I had a certificate in electronics, I’d passed their test for electronics, and I was hoping to be offered an apprenticeship in electronics. The same question was repeated, and I admitted that I would accept any job they gave me.

A few days later I was told to report for a medical exam. I sat in the outer office all day. Just before closing time, when I was the only one left, I was sent in to see the doctor, an elderly white male with a German accent. He told me to take off my shirt and do some simple exercises, which I did. Then he told me to take off the rest of my clothes. I knew that was an unreasonable, if not illegal request, but I needed a job, so I complied. He took a pencil, poked my clitoris with it, pushed it into my vagina, and explained that he was looking for “hernias.” Finally he told me to get dressed and go home. It was humiliating, but at least I knew I wouldn’t die without knowing I’d done everything I could to get a job. A few days later I got a notice to report for work as an apprentice aircraft electrician. My joy was so great that I grinned for three days until my jaws ached, and I got a terrible headache that recurred for years afterwards, but which I never told anyone about for fear of losing my job.

What I didn’t know was that the Navy had a problem with employment discrimination laws. The aircraft electrican apprenticeship job they gave me was a “dumping program” they had created to make it appear as if they were hiring females equally. They had also told the female electricians’ helpers who worked there and had taken the apprenticeship test, that they had all failed the math test. None of these women had had a promotion in fifteen years, while all the males who had been hired fifteen years earlier had become journeymen, foremen, or better. I’ve always wondered if these women’s score sheets looked like mine, and if all of them could really have failed the math test, but my later efforts to join my discrimination lawsuit to theirs, since we had the same employer and were suing for the same reasons, were rejected. I also didn’t know that the Navy had previously hired a female-to-male transsexual, whom they had hounded into suicide, and that they had hired me with the assumption that I was another transsexual that they could have some fun with. Suffice it to say that my time with the Navy was a most unpleasant experience. My group was the only one that was 88% female at a 93% male workplace. We alone had no textbooks and one of our instructors was a functional illiterate who bragged of failing an entire previous class because, “women weren’t cut out to be electricians.” Whole classroom sessions were devoted to harassing me, and I wasn’t permitted to leave the room. When I failed to make sexual overtures towards females, they came on to me. The more I tried to ignore such advances, the more hostile my classmates became. I knew from hard experience that sex with coworkers could lead to trouble, so I refused to get involved. I wasn’t sexually attracted to women, and I no longer trusted men enough to become romantically involved before I had a secure source of income. I tried my best to keep a low profile, do my job, and go along to get along. Only when the Navy violated the confidentiality of my personnel and medical files, and the men in the shops started calling me by my previous name, information they couldn’t have gotten anywhere else, and asking if I had a vagina, did I break down and file a sexual harassment and discrimination complaint.

The job had been offered, according to law, “without regard to sex.” The Navy admitted that they had known I was female when they hired me, but testified that they had permitted me to, “work as a man.” That alone should have won my case, had the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Merit Systems Protection Board, and the courts not decided to ignore it. I wasn’t hired to work as a man or a woman, but as an aircraft electrician apprentice without regard to sex. There were a myriad of laws and regulations that were supposed to protect me, all of which were ignored. For example, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person who is known to be disabled when hired, as I was, cannot be fired from a job unless there is something wrong with their work. Even then, according to Civil Service regulations, if there is another job that they can do, they must be offered a transfer. The contract between the Navy and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which governed my employment, stipulated that in order to be kicked out of the apprenticeship program, you had to have at least two unsatisfactory evaluations in a single quarter. I worked for the Navy for almost two years, and was evaluated every month in more than 20 areas, not just with regard to the technical aspects of my work, but also on such things as having a neat, clean, and appropriate appearance, and getting along well with fellow workers. I never once received a single unsatisfactory evaluation in any area. In fact, the Navy admitted under oath that my work had been, “flawless and excellent,” which was a major cause of my later severe depression. Maybe others can do better, but “flawless and excellent” happens to be my personal best, and if that isn’t good enough I don’t know what would be.

The Navy fired me three times, as the first two times their legal staff advised them that they didn’t have legal justification for terminating my employment. In seeking cause to fire me, they sent me to several doctors, purportedly for “fitness for duty” exams to “facilitate a return to work,” but two of the doctors turned out to be sex and gender specialists. I asked one of them why I was sent there and was told, “Oh, I have a friend who works for the 9th Circuit Federal District Court. They were having a conference about your case and my friend suggested that they send you to me.” Naturally, when the Navy got the reports back from both specialists, and learned that I was not lesbian, gay, transsexual, transvestite, or anything other than an aging heterosexual female, they were disconcerted. While I did not wear traditionally female clothing, the medical definition of a transvestite was that the person wore clothing of the opposite sex for sensuous or sexual reasons, while my clothes were strictly functional, so even the assumption the Navy was most certain of, turned out to be false. The only thing they had accused me of on paper was transsexualism, a charge they then withdrew, but I realized later on that they may have assumed that I was homosexual and been trying to find some evidence to support their thesis. Why else would I, a lowly apprentice with no access to classified areas or information, have been required to have a background check for a security clearance that I didn’t need? This was at a military base where a high-level employee was later found to be part of the Johnny Walker spy ring. Of course the Navy was never interested in catching spies, just in catching homosexuals. The security clearance polygraphs given at the time were deliberately designed so as not to ask whether people had sold classified information to a foreign country, but only to discover if they were gay. Many white male spies managed to avoid detection for years, renewing their security clearances simply by expressing their true sexist, racist, homophobic and otherwise bigoted opinions during polygraph tests. Since I am not now, and have never been a person with a homosexual orientation, it would be several years before I began to understand this aspect of my harassment. What I knew at the time was that I was being harassed and discriminated against, and I believed that it was because the Navy knew that I was female and was trying to force me to conform to feminine stereotypes.

The Navy finally convinced one of the psychiatrists to say that I was totally, permanently and hopelessly disabled and unfit for any job in this society, so that they could fire me for a third and final time. The way they accomplished this was that a foreman and a supervisor went to talk to the doctor before I was sent back there, and somehow, perhaps with a promise of future government referrals for cooperating, along with a subtle threat of government harassment otherwise, convinced the doctor to see things their way. This doctor's previous report, like those of all the other doctors, had said that I was fit for work if they would simply stop harassing me. At this point one branch of government, the Department of Defense, was telling the federal courts that I was totally disabled, while another branch, Health and Human Services, was telling the federal courts that I could work and that there was therefore no reason to restore my disability benefits. If I hadn’t become clinically depressed to the point where I was once more contemplating suicide, I might have found it funny.

With no job and no disability checks, I filed for unemployment, looked for work, and tried to reapply with Voc. Rehab. When Voc. Rehab. turned me down, I appealed, but they were now insisting that I couldn’t work, one administrative law judge going so far as to claim that I was only trying to find a job in order to embarrass my former employer, as if survival had nothing to do with it. At the end of the appeals process, which I lost, the head of Voc. Rehab. for that area told me, in front of a witness who documented this astounding revelation, that while it was true that they were barred by law from telling a prospective employer an applicant’s sex, just as the employers were barred from asking such questions, this was, “the real world,” and employers were going to ask and Voc. Rehab. was going to tell them. So there.

After exhausting all administrative remedies, my case against the Navy had reached the 9th Circuit Federal Court where cases are supposedly assigned at random, but most of the sensitive sexual harassment and discrimination cases seemed to land in the courtroom of a female judge, Marilyn Hall Patel. Judge Patel had a reputation as a feminist, but most of Patel’s cases seemed to be decided in favor of the employer, dismissed, or settled by means of a consent decree in which the employer admitted no guilt but promised not to repeat whatever it was they were guilty of. These consent decrees were rarely enforced, so the same cases usually ended up back in court a few years later. My case dragged on for about three years. I usually represented myself, while the Navy had at least 4 legal teams on their side. I learned that Assistant U.S. Attorneys were not above suborning perjury, withholding evidence, tampering with transcripts, and using every other dirty trick in the book. When they were caught, they’d get a promotion and a new person would take their place. Not counting their staff, or the Navy legal teams from the base where I’d worked, the state of California, and Washington, D.C., there were at least 17 Assistant U.S. Attorneys assigned to my case over the years. Watching conservative law-and-order types advocate harsher penalties for everyone else, while thumbing their noses at the law themselves, did nothing to diminish my mistrust of authority.

There were some memorable moments. The first time I entered Judge Patel’s courtroom, the Judge asked me, “Are you the attorney for the plaintiff?” When I replied, “I am the plaintiff, your honor,” Judge Patel did not look as if my answer had particularly pleased the court. But later on when a Navy attorney made an appearance to argue that a person simply couldn’t come to work wearing, “funny clothes,” Judge Patel looked at him, looked at me, and said, “But plaintiff appears to be wearing the same sort of clothes as Counsel—are those funny clothes?” The Navy lawyer’s face turned purple and he clutched his lapels as everyone in the courtroom laughed out loud. Another amusing incident, before a different 9th Circuit Judge, was when an Assistant U.S. Attorney responded to my petition to have a transcript corrected, by calling me a liar. The transcript had been tampered with in several places, but the judge only agreed to a single correction, and that only after I pointed out that the attorney had himself referring to papers that I hadn’t filed until after that particular hearing was over, and that he couldn’t possibly have known about during the hearing unless he had surreptitiously searched my room or my briefcase. Wishing to avoid making a separate trip to the courthouse, I had prepared two sets of papers in advance so that depending on the outcome of the hearing, I would be able to file the appropriate set on my way out. In the process of improving upon the remarks he’d actually made in court, the Justice Department attorney had apparently looked at the date of the papers I’d filed, without thinking to check the time stamp.

When I was so worn down that I asked that the case be dismissed, Judge Patel did so with an absurd ruling that stated that I was biologically female but “socially male,” when in fact I had almost no social life at all, and the few people I did socialize with were perfectly aware that I was female. Patel also said that there was a question of whether someone whose sex is not evident should be allowed to work. The phrase, “without regard to sex,” turned out to be a joke, the job itself had been a cruel joke, the judicial system was a joke, and the whole dirty joke was on me. Or, as I imagine in my more paranoid moments, if the whole thing had been part of a Reagan administration scheme to, as Reagan economist George Gilder (see “Sexual Suicide,” Quadrangle, 1973, and other writings) put it, “affirm male identity,” by making women “available for marriage,” or at least for sex, by depriving them of all means of support outside of marriage and prostitution, “such as jobs and social programs,” and since I estimate that the government spent approximately two million dollars of your tax money unsuccessfully trying to get into my pants, maybe the joke is also on you.

The only thing I won in court was the right to traditionally inclusive pronouns. Although I had been referred to as “he” when I worked for the Navy, I knew that, having succeeded in exposing my sex at work, when we got to court the Navy would want to refer to me as “she,” so I created a document which I entitled, “Notice of Rules,” had it properly served on the Navy and the U.S. Attorney, and filed it with the court. In this document I pointed out that I had become accustomed to and preferred traditionally inclusive terms, that my contract with the Navy stated that, “the words he, him, his, journeyman, foreman, etc., are asexual and apply to males and females equally,” and that the Local Rules for the 9th Circuit stated that, “the word he includes she.” I said that I would consider any departure from inclusive terms to be an incident of harassment and discrimination, and a violation of my right to equal terms and treatment without regard to sex. And it worked. They had made the rules, and all I did was insist that they follow them. Both the Navy and the Justice Department, despite their need to frequently expose and discuss my genital status, which by law should have been irrelevant, were careful to do so using only traditionally inclusive terms, resulting in statements like, “He is a female.” Grammatically, I also have a right to traditionally inclusive pronouns. When I was in grade school we were taught that the pronoun follows the noun, so to refer to me differently than you would refer to any other person named Mark, based solely on my sex, is not just sex-based discrimination, but also grammatically incorrect.

Although some languages have only one pronoun to refer to both males and females, other languages use gendered pronouns to refer even to inanimate objects. I had such difficulty with this concept that I recall asking my Spanish-speaking landlady in Honduras why a small delicate jelly glass was, “el vaso,” masculine, while a large, chunky coffee mug was, “la taza,” feminine. My landlady shrugged and answered in one word: “tradition.” In the few years that I had been referred to as “he,” I came to recognize that most males considered the word “she” an insult, and had, at an early age, decided that females were inferior because they not only didn’t object to being insulted, they didn’t seem to notice the insult. If you consider a word to be derogatory, and will not permit me to refer to you that way, why should I permit you to use such a word to refer to me? Females are inured to exclusive pronouns from birth, and, having no choice in the matter, we think we prefer them. What sort of preference can it be if there was never a choice in the first place? Through habituation, we begin to think of what used to be called “diminutive” terms as an essential part of our basic identity, rather than a relic of patriarchal oppression. Douglas R. Hofstadter, (Metamagical Themas, Basic Books, 1985) wrote extensively on the subject of pronouns in his 1982 essay, “Changes in Default Words and Images, Engendered by Rising Consciousness,” and in his brilliant l983 satire, “A Person Paper on Purity in Language,” where he shows how demeaning and superfluous gendered pronouns are, by substituting pronouns based on race for pronouns based on sex.

The words man and woman, by the way, are not actually synonymous with the scientific terms male and female. In a dimorphic species like our own, biological males produce sperm and biological females produce eggs, while the terms man and woman refer to sociocultural gender roles which are usually, but not necessarily, imposed on the basis of sex. That’s why kids have to be taught how to “act” like a man, or “act” like a woman. In order to act out a role, one has to wear the proper costume and take on the appropriate mannerisms. But acting is only necessary when we are trying to be something that we are not. I don’t need to act female, if I happen to be female, but just because I am female doesn’t mean that I am born knowing how to act like a woman.

An example of the sociocultural gender role of women being imposed on males, rather than on females, was described by Moses Diamini (“Hell-Hole Robben Island,” African World Press, 1984), and recounted by Kate Millett (“The Politics of Cruelty,” W.W.Norton, 1994). On the infamous South African prison island where Nelson Mandela spent so many years, there was a fight between two rival prison gangs. The winners killed the losers, except for those who were willing to become women in order to survive. These women, and no quotation marks are necessary, for women is what they were, became household and sex slaves, wore traditionally feminine clothes, took traditionally feminine names, and were referred to with traditionally feminine pronouns. Although they were women, they did not undergo genital surgery or apply for legal status as female, so they were indisputably male. The violence that forced these males to become women is no different from the violence that forced our female ancestors to beome women. There’s even a Greek word for the phenomenon of male armies swooping down on peaceful towns and villages, killing the adult males and taking the females and children as wives and slaves, and at least one such event is described in the Old Testament. There was little difference between wives and slaves in those days, in that the man who owned them could demand absolute obedience from, and had the same power of life and death over both. Both wives and slaves were considered to be property and forbidden to own property, and were also denied literacy for fear that their descendants might learn of their origin and rebel. The sociocultural role of women is no more natural to females than to males, was originally imposed through violence, and the statistics showing that 5,000 years later, one out of four females in this country is a victim of domestic violence, prove, I believe, that despite acculturation, ultimately patriarchal gender roles can be established and maintained no other way.

Nowadays the role of women isn't necessarily inferior, and there are many females who I admire and respect for the manner in which they have succeeded despite having to cope with the complexities of the sociocultural role of women which they adhere to, but it simply isn't possible for everyone, and in my case it didn't allow me a means of survival. Had I been able to find a husband who was intelligent, nonviolent, and willing to support me, or had I been able to find a job that would have enabled me, like my mother before me, to support a husband, or at least contribute my fair share to a family income, I'd still be a woman today. I never thought I was a man, wanted to be a man, and I have never claimed to be a man, but the human survival instinct turned out to be stronger than my gender role socialization, so I simply stopped acting like a woman when the role became untenable. I not only wouldn't advocate this for other females, but I would hope that they not encounter similar circumstances in their own lives, however if they do, I would hope that this option would be open to them. It isn't much of a life, being a person in a society where everyone else is acting out the traditional gender roles of men and women, but I find it preferable to the alternative of ceasing to exist at all.

By the time the Supreme Court restored my disability benefits, I had become so depressed that I rarely left my room. My youth was gone, my luck had run out, and although Michael Robinson, whom I was to meet on The Well, later joked that I still had more left than most people had to begin with, my brains were fried. Drugs, emotional traumas, and the aging process itself had reduced my memory and intellect drastically. With severe depression came loss of appetite and libido. I hardly noticed the former, and I welcomed the latter as a saving grace now that AIDS had become a fact of life. As a homeless person I had been vulnerable to sudden, unprovoked physical attacks from strangers, so I was grateful to have a place to live and I seldom went out. I lived a block from the public library and I bought a Commodore-64 computer with a modem to pass the time when I wasn’t reading. It was then that I discovered The Well. Although it charged both a monthly and an hourly fee, and my phone bills would become astronomical, The Well seemed ideal to me, as it provided a means for communicating with others without exposing myself to physical harm. The Well became my life and I spent most of my waking hours online.

Hafner’s book is aptly titled, as The Well was indeed a seminal community, in the, uh, fluid sense of the word. Since I produced no semen, I was not welcome no matter what I did. What I did was put forth new and controversial ideas, stimulate discussion, and attract online readers. As this was apparently what The Well was designed for, I expected to be encouraged rather than penalized. But by doing what the male hosts wanted to do, and doing it better than they could, all I was accomplishing was making myself a lot of enemies. I had the readership, and the attention that they wanted, so hosts like Howard Rheingold and the late Tom Mandel constantly disrupted my conference with ad hominem attacks. I spent many hours on the phone to The Well office, asking why the male hosts couldn’t simply run their own conferences and leave me and my conference alone, but as they were part of what Hafner calls the community, or clan (and feminists would call the old boys’ club) that ran The Well, their inexcusable behavior was stoutly defended, and my attempts to defend myself were deemed inappropriate.

I explained my situation at length, and everyone who read my postings on The Well was aware that I was female and that I preferred traditionally inclusive pronouns. This didn’t seem to be a problem for most of the females and a few of the males, but people like Mandel and Rheingold found it intolerable. I had grammar, law and logic on my side of the argument, but they were not about to cede their patriarchal right to the exclusive use of traditionally inclusive pronouns. When they persisted beyond all reason, I would resort to referring back to them as they referred to me, as “she.” This caused the excruciating pain that the physician Flash Gordon describes as my “gift for sticking a fingernail under a scab and twisting,” and may be why he alone, in Hafner’s book, refers to me as, “he,” using the same pronoun that he, himself prefers. Since he is the only one in the book to do so, and must have put up one hell of a fight in order to ensure that his choice of pronoun wasn’t edited, I wonder why Hafner didn’t pursue the subject. Words can and do cause pain. Not only is emotional abuse a known phenomenon, but professional military torturers and psychological warfare experts know that it is sometimes possible for words to cause more pain than physical abuse. In cases where a person subjected to physical torture does not break, experts advise that the torturers verbally threaten to harm the victim’s loved ones. At any rate, while I may, by responding in kind, have caused my attackers the same sort of pain they inflicted on me, we are still in the realm of words. Freedom of speech, anyone?

Hafner says I had Mandel pegged, “as a classic oppressor.” The descriptions in Hafner’s book of Mandel’s behavior after I was kicked out, constantly attacking people, and even stalking one woman, show clearly that my judgment was correct. Mandel, whom Hafner describes as an “armor-clad gladiator,” was permitted to, in Hafner’s words, “pound opponents to a virtual pulp.” In fact The Well was more like a professional wrestling ring than a forum for discussion. In real life, sexist males would have resorted to physical violence to force me to conform to their stereotypes of how a woman should act, but in cyberspace the only weapons available were words, and in that realm I was able to defend myself. The people Hafner describes as strong advocates of free speech and opponents of censorship, permanently removed my account and censored my words because it was the only substitute for physical violence they had. But Hafner does try to list some possible reasons I was kicked out, such as my “unsettling,” and “over the top” ideas, and that I attacked people. Hafner cites numerous examples of Mandel attacking people, but not a single example of an attack by me. If I was so prolific, and Hafner says I could, “generate 10,000 words a day with no apparent effort,” how is it that not a single example of me attacking anyone exists? Rheingold came up with something I’d posted on usenet after being kicked off The Well, an angry response to the sexism and censorship I’d encountered, and Hafner seems to have accepted this, in lieu of any other evidence, as proof that I’d attacked people on The Well. The truth is that I not only didn’t attack people, but my response when others attacked me was never more than to simply respond in kind. As for my seemingly effortless writing, it might be because, unlike Hafner, I tend to write about what I know from personal experience, which is a lot easier than trying to reconcile illogical assumptions based on false or imcomplete information.

Hafner says I had it in for Mandel, and that when Mandel would taunt me, new users would come to my defense and I would then attack the new users. What actually happened was that Mandel or Rheingold would enter my conference, lurk until they found me deep in discussion with a male new user, and then post a comment that would be hostile towards me and also refer to me as, “she.” It enraged them to see people taking part in serious discussions with a female, as they appeared to believe that all females should be condescended to and never taken seriously, so they felt compelled to interrupt any such discussions and direct attention away from the topic at hand and focus it on my genital status, by referring to me in the third person, as if I wasn’t there, with the use of the feminine or diminutive pronoun, which they knew I resented. Had they wished to, they could have avoided the whole problem simply by addressing me directly or by referring to me by name. But they were obsessed with using the feminine pronoun to sexualize me and disrupt my conference. They had done this hundreds of times, but the new user had not, so, in supposedly coming to my defense, the new user would respond to Mandel or Rheingold, but would copy their pronoun usage and refer to me as “she.” To save time and attempt to keep the discussion from being sidetracked, I would then reply in a single post, referring to the provocateurs with the same pronoun they used for me, as “she,” with a quick explanation of the pronoun situation for the benefit of the newcomer. Since The Well establishment apparently censored any and all references to my stance on pronouns after they terminated my account, Hafner had no way to understand the situation and took the word of those who attacked and censored me that I was the one at fault. I’m not particularly surprised that they found a female they could use to continue their attacks on me. Females have often been the ones to impose the strictures of patriarchal gender roles on other females. Females bound the feet of other females in China, females mutilate the genitals of other females in Africa today, and the argument is always that since we are female, and we do this, we have the right to force you do to the same whether you choose to or not, simply because you are female. I do not attempt to force my personal choices on other females, and I would hope that someday they stop trying to force their choices on me, particularly, as in the case of pronouns, when they themselves have had no real choices in the first place.

Rights can be rather ephemeral. You might only have them by accident of birth, good fortune, or if you can assert and defend them. Even so, as with the right to life, which can be taken away in an instant by a drunk driver or a terrorist, rights should never be taken for granted. This is even more the case when rights are not guaranteed by the Constitution, but must be fought for and won on an individual case by case basis, the way North American feminists had to fight for the right to wear pants, study and practice law and medicine, vote, or use birth control. Often those who were ahead of their time were ridiculed and penalized for doing things we take for granted today, and in each and every case they were accused to trying to be like men. In a patriarchal society, males own the default, so whatever is natural, normal, and unmodified, is considered to be male. A female who doesn’t use cosmetics to disguise normal and natural facial features, can be accused of being lesbian or trying to be male, rather than simply being granted the right to have an undisguised and unmodified face. My fight for the right to equal terms without regard to sex is still not widely understood and Hafner was only given part of the story. When Rheingold, a male who was completely familiar with my situation and my stance on pronouns, refers to me as, “she,” as she did on The Well and does in the book, I believe it must indicate that she herself prefers feminine terms and believes that they are equal, or else that she wishes to abrogate my rights, cause me pain, and humiliate me publicly, in which case she is welcome to sue me for returning the favor, just as I did on The Well. Of course it is also possible that, while Rheingold knows that it causes her pain when I refer to her as, “she,” she may not have the intellectual capacity to understand that, despite the fact that my sex is female, it causes me the exact same pain when she does it to me. By responding in kind, I am not attacking her, but simply demonstrating that by refusing to respect my rights, she has forfeited any expectation that I respect hers.

Does Hafner really believe that Rheingold invited me home “to help,” rather than out of curiosity to learn what I looked like, even after Rheingold gave an unflattering physical description of me that she has apparently been dining out on ever since? In fact, what Rheingold describes, “a little old Jewish grandmother in male drag,” is only what I look like to people who already know that I am female. The rest of the world sees a nerdy little older guy who doesn’t rate a second glance. While I am fairly open about, and have never denied that my sex is female, I believe that if there is anything at all the right to privacy should cover, it would be one’s private parts, and that no female should be obliged to flaunt or advertise anything they aren't selling or giving away, or be compelled to dress in a way that would advertise their genital status to any passing rapist or serial killer on the street. In fact, in order to avoid discrimination, in a patriarchal society where everything is either pink or blue, I have been using public men’s rooms for twenty years. For those who think this might cause problems, I’ll tell you the methodology involved: I mind my own business, and everyone else minds theirs. If you think this is rather simplistic—definitely not Nobel Prize material—I challenge you to think of another principle (apart from the Golden Rule, of which I believe MYOB to be a corollary), which, if universally applied, would be more likely to bring about world peace.

My position with regard to pronouns was supported by many females on The Well, and by a few of the males, including Michael Robinson. As a new user, he had started out by joining Mandel and Rheingold in using sex-based rather than inclusive terms to refer to me, but after lengthy discussions, Robinson, a computer systems operator at the University of California, Berkeley, went to their library, located their most authoritative grammatical tomes, and posted the results of his research on The Well, proving that I had the right to inclusive terms. It is possible that nobody explained this to Hafner, and it is also likely that Robinson’s postings, along with my own and those of many other people, were censored by the establishment that ran The Well. Hafner blames Well censorship exclusively on Tom Mandel, who is dead, but although Mandel's privileges were more than those of an ordinary host, Mandel supposedly did not have the superuser system privileges necessary to delete conferences hosted by others. Robinson became a friend, visiting me at least once a week for lunch, and even succeeded in enticing me out of my room on a few occasions, once to a restaurant across the street for my birthday, and twice to his parents’ home in Santa Cruz. I made other friends on The Well, some who visited me when they were in the area, and one who is still my friend today. Apart from Rheingold, the white male clan that ran The Well never met me, as I was never invited to meetings or parties, and their hostility towards my ideas made it impossible for them to judge me as a person.

As for my ideas, which Hafner characterizes as “unsettling,” and “a little over the top,” I think that my notion that patriarchal values (not “the male sex,” as Hafner claims) are at the root of civilization’s woes, is pretty standard feminist fare, and my opposition to “deadbeat dads, bigamists, exploitive bosses, pimps, and rapists,” is the stance of the majority of Americans of both sexes, as most of the list involves criminal activity that is punishable by law. I also devoted quite a bit of time to opposing child molesting, and I wonder why Hafner doesn't include that on the list. Hafner says I "thrummed" on these themes, but this is like accusing the host of a conference on botany of spending too much time on flora. Nobody had to read my conference if they didn't wish to, and none of my readers, of which there were many, ever accused me of being too repetitive. As for what Hafner describes as my advocacy of, “a women’s ‘free’ state, not unlike pre-Civil War ‘free’ states of the North when slavery was common,” given the statistics on domestic violence in this country, I still think it isn’t such a bad idea. If The Well establishment disagreed with my opinions, they could have done so without censoring me, although I'm not sure how they could have openly defended pimps, rapists and pedophiles without alienating the majority of readers.

As for what Hafner calls my “obsession” with Lise Meitner, two scholarly books on the subject have since been published, one in l996 (“Lise Meitner, A Life In Physics,” by Ruth Lewin Syme, University of California Press), and one in l999 (“Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age,” by Patricia Rife, Birkhauser). My “obsession,” due to an exchange with a Nobel Laureate in the letters section of the “New York Review of Books,” actually earned me a footnote in the Syme book. A review of Rife’s book by Gary R. Goldstein of the Department of Physics at Tufts University, was published in “Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research,” this year, and is available online. My postings on The Well were back in l987, when I came across a book about Albert Einstein in the library, (“Einstein: The Life and Times,” Ronald Clark, Vintage, 1978). When people had called him the father of the bomb, Einstein demurred, saying that there was no father of the bomb; there was a mother of the bomb, Lise Meitner. Having been taught in grade school that there were no female geniuses and no female had ever done anything great, I wanted to know who Meitner was. I found an autobiography of Otto Hahn, (“Otto Hahn: My Life,” Ernst Kaiser & Eithne Wilkins, translators, Herder and Herder, 1970), the man who received the Nobel Prize for nuclear fission, in which he wrote that he wasn’t much good at math, but that his teacher had reassured him that as a chemist he wouldn’t need to study math. This was true at the time, as the theory of the atom was not yet accepted. Meitner, on the other hand, had doctorates in both math and physics and, unlike Hahn, was one of the mere handful of people in the world at the time who had studied with Einstein and understood his theories. Although Hahn performed the experiment which exhibited nuclear fission, an experiment which was probably suggested and designed by Meitner, many other scientists had done the same experiment, and, like Hahn, were incapable of interpreting their results. It was Meitner who produced the correct interpretation, and it was the explanation of fission which constituted its discovery, not the unexplained experiment. Of course Hahn, who was a white male and had worked with poison gas in WWI, and for the Nazis in WWII, was considered valuable by the Allies, while Meitner, who was female and of Jewish descent, was not. Perhaps now that scholars have proven that it was Meitner, not Hahn, who deserved the Nobel Prize for nuclear fission, I may be forgiven my much earlier “obsession.” In fact, since respected scholars have subsequently obtained grants and devoted many years of their academic careers to the same thing, I question Hafner’s characterization of my thinking as obsessive.

Although Hafner describes The Well establishment as “left-leaning intellectuals,” it seems to be a common mistake these days for the politically naïve to confuse libertarians, who oppose government interference with discriminatory practices, with leftists who support civil and human rights. Although The Well establishment strongly defended free speech when it came to obscenity, pornography, and pedophilia, they recognized no such right when it came to feminism and egalitarian thought. As for my resentment of “exploitation by rich male hippies,” Hafner may not be aware that during the entire time that Mandel and Rheingold, who had free accounts, were attacking me, I had to pay for the online time to post my replies. Mandel, in fact, who often logged in from work, was actually being paid to harass, attack, and stalk people online.

Hafner notes that there seemed to be a conflict between The Well as community and The Well as a business. I’m not sure why anyone would assume that The Well was originally meant to be a business. At the time it started, Larry Brilliant’s company had just gone public for $6.3 million, and Stewart Brand, despite having a charitable foundation, was also successful enough to have capital gains problems. America Online, which started at the same time as The Well, quickly grew to over a million users, following the simple principle of creating a place where people were welcome. The Well, on the other hand, not only tolerated but encouraged hosts who attacked new users and tried to hound them off The Well. Hafner quotes Mandel to the effect that The Well community first formed as a coalition opposed to me. But the decision to terminate my account and erase my work was made by The Well establishment in private conferences and meetings, and The Well community as a whole, which included many people who were my friends, supporters, and readers, was never consulted.

Matthew McClure, the white male who was The Well’s first paid employee, said that she and Stewart Brand had chosen, “the French literary salons as an intellectual model for The Well,” with each conference having, “a host, someone who could act as a latter-day George Sand in guiding, shaping, and monitoring discussions.” Did Brand and McClure realize that Sand was female? Did they think that a latter-day Sand would merely repeat what Sand had done without going even a single step further? If they were looking for a latter-day George Sand, I doubt if they could have come much closer than me without the original George Sand being reincarnated. From Hafner’s description, The Well wanted a George Sand who didn’t try to compete with males, didn’t have unsettling feminist ideas, and conformed to the role of a traditional woman—sort of an anti-George Sand. And just how was I supposed to guide and shape discussions when people like Mandel and Rheingold were permitted to disrupt them at will? Doesn’t it seem strange that even though Hafner’s informants admit that I was “articulate” and “thoughtful,” and my postings had, “an edge, and dry wit,” and that, despite the constant attacks from people like Rheingold and Mandel, I attracted more readers and participants than anyone else, and was, “good for business,” they kicked me off? Cliff Figallo, another white male who worked there after McClure left, gave no specific justification for her decision to terminate my account, although Hafner says I couldn’t be “appeased or contained.” What did they think I was, the Soviet Union?

The Well was never intended to emulate the French literary salons, and even under new ownership, it does not do so today. The salons had only one simple rule, which was that personal or ad hominem attacks were not permitted. The Well had and still has people like Mandel, whom they call trolls, who are treasured despite contributing nothing of value, because they constantly disrupt conversations and attack people. Anyone who objects is advised to retire to a private conference or leave The Well. The reason the salons did not permit personal attacks is because they are not examples of free speech at all, but the arch-enemy of free speech. They impede, deter, and inhibit the free exchange of information and ideas necessary to intellectual discussion. Even Hafner wrote of being too intimidated to post on The Well.

It never occurs to Hafner that The Well might not have originally been meant to be anything other than a tax write-off and what Rheingold calls a “private playground.” Even though The Well was supposedly a community as much as it was a business, why would anyone who was actually seeking to make a profit, chase customers away or tolerate subordinates who did so? Hafner found no evidence that the owners ever participated in anything other than private business conferences on The Well, but since anyone could create an anonymous account, as Hafner says Mandel may have done, we may never know. George Sand had the good fortune to be among genuine intellectuals rather than rich, spoiled, sexist, hippy males who, as Hafner’s book describes, cared more for stalkers and gladiators than for literary salons. While Hafner is guilty of little more than shoddy research, fuzzy thinking, and hasty assumptions, it is clear even from Hafner’s biased book that the early Well establishment was guilty of sexism, censorship, and what appear to be poor business practices or negligence, but may actually have been a very clever tax avoidance strategy. Had The Well informed me that my account could be terminated at any time, I would have saved my work. Had they really been opposed to censorship, they could have afforded me the opportunity to download my work in read-only mode, so that I wouldn't be able to post, even after they terminated my account, or they could have saved it to any form of back-up when they needed more system space. They did not.

These days I'm still rather reclusive and, like many impoverished older Americans, I live a quiet life reading library books, solving cryptic crosswords, playing bingo and waiting to die. For many years I didn't own a computer, and my online access was limited to a few hours a week at the local library, which I usually devoted to playing word whomp on pogo.com, or other games that might help ward off Alzheimer's. It was in my local library that I came across Hafner's book and was astonished to find The Well establishment still attacking me after all these years, though I have no doubt that they will try to characterize my response to their attack on me, as an unprovoked attack by me on them. Although The Well's new policy is to permit people they banish sufficient time to first download and save their work, my suspicion is that this many not have come from any change of heart or feelings of guilt, but more likely from someone with more money and energy than I had, bringing them to court.

I have come to believe that feminists may have made a mistake after discovering that traditionally inclusive terms weren't being used in a truly inclusive manner. I remember that Rheingold had once bragged on The Well of having created a non-sexist Haggadah, where the words "men and women" were substituted for the word "men," the words, "fathers and mothers" were substituted for the word, "fathers," and the words, "sons and daughters" were substituted for the word "sons." I pointed out that this was not a nonsexist solution, but merely a bi-sexist solution, and that a nonsexist writer would simply refer to people, parents, and children, without regard to sex. I believe that if something which is supposed to include you, is discovered not to be doing so, the correct response is to insist upon being included, however strange and uncomfortable it may seem at first. I hope that someday a clever feminist will devise a laboratory experiment to show that even while females consciously prefer feminine pronouns, there are measurable physiological effects due to the fact that, despite the denial necessary to function in a patriarchal society, it is not a positive experience to be referred to hundreds of times a day by males in a way which the males themselves tend to find insulting. In fact if females weren't inured to this pain from birth, it would be immediately obvious and intolerable.

A few years back I donated my papers to the Arthur & Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, then at Radcliffe College, now part of Harvard University, so that they would be available to researchers. I hope that feminists of the future will be more open to my ideas than the patriarchal society I live in that The Well mirrored so precisely. I don't know how Hafner or Rheingold would feel if a year's worth of their work was destroyed, and I certainly wouldn't wish it on them, but if they want to claim that no deliberate censorship by management took place on The Well, all they have to do is produce the hundreds of thousands of words I wrote, so that I can place them with my other papers in the Schlesinger Library. I agree totally with feminist legal scholar Catharine A. MacKinnon, (Only Words, Harvard University Press, 1993), who says that freedom of speech was not meant as a tool that the powerful could use to silence the powerless, but as a means by which the powerless could speak the truth, however unsettling it may be. So here, in a nutshell, are some of the things I believe, several of which I put forward for discussion on The Well (I called my conference via, which means by way of, but in this case was also short for viability):

Ecologists define a viable species as one that can control its population growth in accordance with available resources. Patriarchy has a tendency to divide people into teams and pit them against each other, rather than helping us recognize our common humanity and common goals. The subjugation of females, who then have less knowledge and power with which to make reproductive choices, threatens our survival and that of our planet by keeping us an ecologically nonviable species, subject to cyclical, mathematically predictable overpopulation peaks, followed by massive die-offs (a phase we appear to be entering at the present time). Only if females have true and total equality would we be able, as a species, to control our population growth in accordance with available resources and eliminate the periodic cheapening of life, with accompanying wars and genocides, that overpopulation always brings. Gerda Lerner (The Creation of Patriarchy,” Oxford University Press, 1986) points out that you cannot subjugate an entire group unless they happen to be readily identifiable, or you render them so. Pronouns may seem trivial, but they serve to identify females at all times, even when there is no possible purpose for such identification other than discrimination. If we are to survive as a species, we may have to first exist as a species, instead of continuing to act out our artificial and divisive roles as men and women. Einstein said that with the discovery of nuclear fission, everything had changed but our thinking, and that our thinking would have to change if we are to survive. It would be a pity if we perished before we were ready to change, but Gurdjieff said that if one thing could be different, everything could be different. It wouldn’t surprise me if that one different thing that could change everything turns out to be a pronoun. Like atomic particles, pronouns are so small as to seem insignificant, but they have proven themselves to be more powerful than any other words we know, since they alone can drive self-proclaimed free-speech advocates, defenders of the vilest porn and the crudest hate speech, to resort to censorship.

Of what use is a new medium of communication that is limited to defending the status quo and determined to silence original thought? In the old Soviet Union the government determined what could be published. In the U.S. today, freedom of the press belongs to those who own the presses. Having been banished and censored simply for insisting on traditionally-inclusive terms, I know that the issue is not tradition at all, but oppression. However, since the first African-Americans in the south to demand equal terms were simply lynched, I have to be grateful for the advent of electronic communications, not for freedom of speech, which I haven’t experienced, but for the fact that I was merely censored rather than murdered for aspiring to equality. Perhaps even that must be considered progress.

Email: mymark@gmail.com