YouTube and context

By Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Ed

July 7, 2010

The headline on the YouTube video clip of Karl Walling’s lecture in May says simply: US Naval War College Professor Advocates Rape.

As a result of some of the comments in the clip, the Naval War College placed Walling, a professor of strategy and policy, on paid administrative leave. He was told to apologise to the college, which he did. But in an interview, Walling said that he never advocated rape, and that the 3 minute, 40 second video of one part of a serious academic lecture – by leaving out the context before and after what was shown – distorted his views. To understand what he was saying, he said, requires someone to understand his pedagogy, to have heard the entire talk and to understand a little bit about Machiavelli. (If you want to read the text of the entire lecture, you can find it here.)

Walling said he is considering legal action against the person who posted the truncated version of his lecture to YouTube.

The lecture topic, part of a conference on ethics, was “Joseph Conrad and Niccolò Machiavelli on the Ethics and Strategies of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency”. In the portion of the talk that was posted to YouTube, he is talking about Machiavelli’s views on the goddess Fortuna, as a symbol of the luck or opportunity that can either help or hinder a leader’s agenda. Walling is discussing Machiavalli’s view that a strong leader does not surrender to Fortuna, but seeks to assert control. And he notes that to Machiavelli, it was not incidental that Fortuna was a female figure and the leader was a man, depending on a woman to back him.

Then Walling uses the language for which he was criticised, describing the dilemma facing the leader seeking to move forward, and waiting for good fortune from Fortuna. “What does a leader do when the bitch won’t put out? I do not mean to be vulgar, but rather to get to the heart of the matter from Machiavelli. If Fortuna will not cooperate, then make her do so. Real men, real leaders, do not take no for an answer. Fortuna, said Machiavelli, is a woman, and when it is necessary if one wants to hold her down, to beat her down, moreover, she will like it.” Walling is then explicit in saying that what Machiavelli is talking about is the rape of Fortuna.

The language by Walling is obviously explicit – in particular the use of the word bitch. But viewing this portion of Machiavelli’s thinking in the context of a powerful male violently asserting control over a woman is a fairly typical reading. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for example, describes the material this way:

“Machiavelli reinforces the association of Fortuna with the blind strength of nature by explaining that political success depends upon appreciation of the operational principles of Fortuna. His own experience has taught him that ‘it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortuna is a woman and it is necessary, in order to keep her under, to beat and maul her.’ In other words, Fortuna demands a violent response of those who would control her. ‘She more often lets herself be overcome by men using such methods than by those who proceed coldly,’ Machiavelli continues, ‘therefore always, like a woman, she is the friend of young men, because they are less cautious, more spirited, and with more boldness master her.’ The wanton behavior of Fortuna demands an aggressive, even violent response, lest she take advantage of those men who are too retiring or ‘effeminate’ to dominate her.”

Of course there is also the question of whether Walling was presenting Machiavelli’s ideas as a positive model, but the concluding portions of his talk (not included in the video clip) make it clear that he rejects Machiavelli.

“Machiavelli’s political logic was the logic of gangsters, the logic of Don Corleone,” says the text of the talk, which closes by saying that “you can learn how to win from Machiavelli, but to deserve to win, that is a very different matter”.

A spokeswoman for the Naval War College said that the lecture was for students at the college and was broadcast internally, and that some language was problematic.

“The president of the college determined that portions of the lecture, which included degrading language about women, were inappropriate and entirely unacceptable,” said a statement from the college. “The college has policies in place prohibiting the use of inappropriate language, viewed this as a serious matter and took appropriate corrective action. The professor apologized to the college community, was placed on administrative leave, and removed from the lecture schedule for the remainder of the academic year. He also received a letter of caution, which he has publicly made known. College leadership met with students and faculty to reiterate that the language was inappropriate. The Naval War College, like the Navy, values the contributions of its diverse community and expects all members of our organization to adhere to the highest standards of professionalism.”

The spokeswoman said that the paid administrative leave was “for a limited period of time, which has since expired”.

Walling is a civilian employee. He said that while the college doesn’t have tenure, it does have renewable contracts and that he has been there for 10 years.

In a brief phone interview, Walling stressed that he did not want to criticise the college and that he was frustrated not with the college, but with the person who posted the video clip to YouTube. He added, however, that “I cannot say that I agree with the requirement that I apologise and I explained in the apology that I was playing a character.”

Walling said that speaking in a way that reflects what a philosopher or public figure thought is something that he has done regularly over the years. “I create dialogues and it’s been effective until now.”

The person who posted the video to YouTube has an account under the name Oompaloompa50702 and did not respond to an email query via YouTube about how he or she made the video and why it was posted as it was. (Walling, citing advice from a lawyer, declined to discuss what legal action he might take against this person.)

Comments posted on YouTube suggest a mix of views on the video. One post said: “I am a feminist, and I think Walling’s choice of words was more than poor; it was offensive. As earlier commenters have said, given the rate of sexual assault in the military, using words like ‘the bitch should put out’ is unacceptable. What did his female students and colleagues think? What, after all, can all the other women watching this video think? In future he must try to express himself with more restraint and mindfulness about his position of power.”

Others, however, said it was clear that Walling was not expressing his own views, but rather those of Machiavelli. One commenter not only defended the vulgarity, but used some: “And seriously, to the people against a person using the words ‘rape’ and ‘bitches’, this is a WAR COLLEGE! An institute of higher learning for military leaders. You are goddamned right those are the words used by those under their command. Take the stick out of your ancient asses and get over it. It was a mature speech to a mature audience over a mature subject matter. It was vulgar. Yes. As is combat. As is a war where people are raped. I should fucking hope it is discussed at the War College.”

And one other, saying he had studied with Walling, wrote, “When I first read Machiavelli, I got a bit carried away by my love of The Prince, by how clever and insightful Machiavelli was. It was Professor Walling who sat me down and reminded me that Machiavelli is fundamentally evil.”

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