Past Present Podcast: Harambe the Gorilla, Baylor Football, and Peter Thiel’s Gawker Vendetta

harambe the gorilla

On this week’s Past Present podcast, Niki, Neil, and Natalia discuss Harambe, Ken Starr at Baylor, and Peter Thiel’s attack on Gawker.

Harambe the Gorilla

Cincinnati Zoo officials recently killed Harambe, a silverback gorilla, when a four-year-old boy slipped into the gorilla exhibit, drawing outrage from many Americans. Natalia explained the boy was able to enter the gorilla exhibit because of significant changes in zoo designs in the twentieth century that allowed for more open enclosures. Niki reminded that zoos once displayed people too, exhibiting non-white humans as objects to be examined, such as shown in Pamela Newkirk’s recent book Spectacle, the story of Ota Benga. Natalia noted the writer Shaun King had argued racism was partly responsible for those who were blaming the four-year-old’s mother, a black woman, for Harambe’s shooting. Many of these people have demanded child protective services intervene, a striking development for Neil as he noted nineteenth century child protective laws grew out of animal welfare legislation.

Ken Starr at Baylor

Baylor University removed Ken Starr as its president after it was determined the university failed to properly investigate sexual assault complaints against the school’s football players. Neil explained Baylor’s conservative campus culture is guided by a strict student conduct code that bans drinking and premarital sex. Niki argued conduct codes at conservative universities often depend on older ideas about gender roles, drinking, and sexuality that complicate how rape is understood and handled on these campuses, such as in the recent controversy over sexual assaults at Brigham Young University. Neil noted, however, that several Baylor women who had been victims of rape had created blogs that urged the university to reform itself as an expression of its Christian mission rather than a feminist cause. Neil connected the Baylor football scandal to those at other universities including the University of North Carolina and the University of Louisville, while Niki noted the question of whether NCAA athletes should be paid loomed over all these incidents as one means of reform. Natalia cited Jonathan Zimmerman’s Los Angeles Times editorial, “Blame Football, Not Title IX,” that argued the largest inequality on college campuses today was not between men’s and women’s athletic programs but between football and all other sports.

Peter Thiel vs Gawker

Internet billionaire Peter Thiel revealed last week that he has been secretly funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit and other suits against Gawker Media. Thiel’s vendetta against Gawker stems from the website publicly outing him as gay in a 2007 story. Neil noted a 2011 New Yorker profile of Thiel suggested Thiel’s own discomfort with his sexuality as a public matter, but he raised the question of whether “outing” should still be considered a thing in 2016. Niki noted American laws that protected media companies against libel suits made the US an exception especially compared to Britain where Natalia noted courts had recently ruled a British newspaper could not publish news about a celebrity’s affair, deeming it “unacceptable speech.” Niki shared the open letter from Nick Denton, Gawker’s publisher, which argued Thiel’s use of his billions to take down a media company was an attack on press freedoms. And Natalia noted Thiel’s desire to roll back the 1964 Supreme Court ruling in Sullivan v. New York Times which established the malice standard that has to be met before press stories about public officials can be considered defamation or libel.

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