This is the fourth in a series of posts looking at the crusades mounted on both sides of the Duke lacrosse case. The first has an introduction and overview. The second and third are about the potbanging protest and its connection to and impact on the controversy surrounding the “listening” statement. This one turns to the other side of the coin—KC Johnson and his blog Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW).
DIW has its virtues. Johnson has a remarkable ability to synthesize information coming in from all sides and quickly turn it into cogent text. And what he writes about is well documented and well linked, so the blog is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in tracking down a document, an event, or a quote from this or that phase of the scandal. Gathering and organizing all the detail and technicality of a legal proceeding is something he seems well suited for, and as far as I can tell his coverage of Nifong and the judicial and law enforcement aspects of the case is thorough and accurate. He’s thanked personally in the statements Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty made when they were exonerated—something he can justly be proud of.
Roughly half of the blog [correction: roughly a quarter] is devoted to the way the case played out at Duke, and there is, in my opinion, much less to be proud of on that side. Under his blog title, Johnson promises “comments and analysis about the Duke/Nifong case.” No matter what aspect of the case he’s writing about, though, he approaches it more as a prosecutor than an analyst (at times inquisitor is probably more apt). An analyst explains and explores and maybe even illuminates, if you’re lucky. Prosecution is by comparison much more focussed, selective, and agenda-driven. While the job of a criminal prosecutor is to build a case against the defendant(s), as I understand it his ultimate goal is not supposed to be conviction but the correct verdict. The big villain of the lacrosse case was a prosecutor who cared about nothing but the conviction. Johnson has prosecuted the so-called “Group of 88” Duke faculty in the court of public opinion with a similarly narrow and self-serving commitment to doing what it takes to get that guilty verdict, and he’s proven to be much better at it than Nifong. Given all the scorn he heaped on the now-disgraced criminal prosecutor, with good reason—for ignoring exculpatory evidence, manipulating public opinion and various other shoddy maneuvers—you’d think Johnson would be more principled in taking on his own chosen wrongdoers. If he is, it’s not by much.
That’s not to say that there’s any ethical equivalence—Nifong betrayed the trust he held as a public servant, and if he had been successful the consequences would have been catastrophic for the people effected. Even his failed prosecution turned lives upside down. The worst Johnson can do to any individual is trivial by comparison, but he still has enough influence on opinion and discussion of the case to do widespread damage. The charge leveled at him most often is that his attacks and misrepresentations have fueled virulent, hateful communications of the kind Provost Peter Lange lamented in his January email to the Duke faculty (Lange himself refers to blogs generically as one source of the attacks that trouble him but doesn’t single out DIW or any others by name). I have very little inside information about the personal costs of these attacks and don’t want to imaginatively overstate them—however bad things were when the controversy was most heated, I think it’s safe to say that most of the faculty who came under attack will be able to shrug it off, if they haven’t already. I doubt that it’s so easy for those who’ve gotten the most virulent and threatening messages, though. Three that are particularly vile are included in Duke Professor Charles Piot’s recent critique of DIW. Regarding the effects of such attacks I don’t have anything to add to what Lange and Piot have to say, best considered along with Johnson’s rebuttal of Piot and his response to “The Group of 88’s E-Mail Canard” of Lange and others. Later I’ll have plenty to say about the relationship of DIW to the more strident and bigoted rhetoric about the case.
In early October, Duke professors James Coleman and Prasad Kasibhatla sent a letter to the Duke Chronicle in order to correct what they felt was a broad misconception left by the lacrosse controversy about the relationship of Duke faculty to their students. Coleman, who teaches law, is widely admired both for his early, pointed criticism of Nifong and for the clarity and evenhandedness of the report on lacrosse team behavior issued by a committee he chaired. In a “Cast of Characters” post, Johnson justly puts him first of the list of heros. Coleman and Kasibhatla single out Johnson (along with Stuart Taylor, coauthor with Johnson of the book Until Proven Innocent) for contributing to “the continued drumbeat of destructive criticism” that’s spread the notion that
the faculty at Duke and at other universities are increasingly a bunch of ideologues who care less about the their students and more about promoting their own extremist agendas. Nothing could be further from the truth. Faculty at Duke… care deeply about students and are passionately committed to their personal and intellectual growth. Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of the daily life of a faculty member will quickly appreciate the time, effort and energy that faculty put into teaching, advising and mentoring students. To suggest otherwise, on the basis of isolated and selective incidents that occur over the course of complex events and are taken out of context, is nothing more than a tragic rush to judgment.
A glance through the signatures on the internet petition circulated by Friends of Duke University gives a pretty good idea of the problem. The petition was originally a statement by the Duke Economics Department, and in one of its two clauses they affirmed that they welcome to their classes and other activities all students, including members of the lacrosse team. Posted as a petition for the public at large, signatures by non-faculty (the vast bulk of the 900 or so) are, in effect, admonishment to Duke faculty to be tolerant, and many who signed—I hope the majority—did so in the spirit of affirming broad tolerance and urging the administration to be more vocal in supporting the indicted students. But the signature pages are peppered with hectoring, intolerant jabs at the 88. What Coleman and Kasibhatla make plain is how shallow these judgments are, and how disconnected they are from the day-to-day reality of the university as they see it. It’s by no means debilitating harm, but still a shame that a professor, of all people, would foster such a narrow-minded judgment of a university.
I got a taste of Johnson’s prosecutorial tendencies in our email exchange, in which he kept wondering when I’d produce my “evidence.” I fully understand his insistence that I back up my harsh characterization of DIW, and it may have been poor judgment on my part to lay my bottom-line opinion out so baldly when I knew it would be days before I’d be prepared to explain it in detail (and as usual it’s been many more days than I expected). But “anti-academic,” “irrational,” and “insidiously divisive” are clearly matters of (more or less well-informed) opinion, so I found it odd and a little ridiculous that he kept wondering what evidence I thought I had unearthed about the “Group.” I’m sure he had every confidence that there could be no such thing.
Something that comes out both in Johnson’s email and the response to me he posted on DIW is his conviction that if I was attacking him I must be defending the “Group.” I’m certainly not defending the “Group of 88,” for reasons I’ll explain in a bit, and I’m in no position to defend any individual’s statements or actions with reference to case. I don’t doubt that some Duke faculty, including some who signed the “listening” statement, prejudged the guilt of the lacrosse players and acted rashly and irresponsibly on that basis. Like the potbangers, a fair number of people around campus let their outrage and moral certainty get the better of them. People who cared about broad issues of social and racial justice should have been more concerned and vocal about due process and fair play in the investigation and prosecution of the rape allegation. I think Duke as an institution has everything to gain from looking all those problems squarely in the eye, though when I say that I’m thinking of a broad-minded and inclusive oral and documentary history and not the inquisitional “full public accounting of the faculty’s conduct in spring 2006” that Johnson mentioned in one of his last emails to me. If there was ever anything to gain from dwelling obsessively on the most outrageous and indefensible aspects of the “rush to judgment,” that time is long past. And if the behavior of a faction of Duke’s faculty was so abominable, it didn’t require Johnson’s heavy-handed, narrow-minded, scornful, divisive polemic to bring it to light.
Writing to welcome new readers to the blog after the publication of his book, Johnson describes the event at Duke that galvanized his interest.
I first turned my attention to the Duke case after an April 2006 ad signed by 88 members of the Duke arts and sciences faculty. The ad stated unequivocally that something “happened” to Crystal Mangum; and said “thank you” to protesters who, among other things, had carried “CASTRATE” banners and blanketed the campus with “wanted” posters of the lacrosse team. The professors’ decision to sign the ad betrayed the ideals of their—and my—profession.
Johnson’s writing his own blog, so he’s entitled to go after the folks who offend him in whatever way he wants. On the other hand, not only is he deriving credibility as a critic of academics and academic culture from the fact that he’s a professor, he’s positioning himself as a defender of academic ideals. I think it’s fair, then, to expect him to analyze or criticize or, if he must, prosecute in a way that’s consistent with those ideals, and in my opinion he doesn’t come close to meeting that standard.
His worst failure—one I consider positively anti-academic—is that he is a friend to ignorance, often in subtle ways but sometimes they’re not so subtle. He’s willing to pass judgment without drawing clear lines between what he knows for sure, what’s probable, and what’s unknown, and he avoids shining a light into the grey areas if they make for useful innuendo. He offers little resistance to readers inclined to render superficial and harsh judgment of the figures he attacks—regularly boiling his attacks down to a dismissive or derisive phrase that’s repeated as a tag line or epithet, for instance. Another thing that flies in the face of academic or journalistic standards is that he often makes no attempt to interpret and convey the main point and purpose of the texts he criticizes, approaching them instead like a prosecutor digging for evidence, free to pull out a passage or just a phrase and give it a literalistic, context-free reading if that furthers his case. Combine that with the habit of dwelling with self-righteous and unwavering certainty on an interpretation of the evidence that puts his opponents in the worst possible light, and there’s little chance of constructive debate—another core academic value.
For me the foundation of the scholarly enterprise, and what I most value in a student, is free-ranging curiosity. A prime academic virtue that gives curiosity some space to do its work is the placement of understanding before judgment (it’s something I’ve thought about when I’ve taught music classes like Intro to Jazz because they’re a great opportunity to give students some practice at suspending judgment). Whether it’s a scholarly ideal or the pie-in-the-sky idealism of a marginal academic, I don’t know—the success of Johnson’s “Group of 88” campaign suggests the latter. But on a personal level I find it disturbing that DIW—a sprawling text that purports to analyze an intricate human drama—is relentlessly and schematically judgmental. With the interest in people and things almost entirely channeled into prosecuting rather than understanding, Duke-in-Wonderland—the version of reality in which Johnson has an open-and-shut case—is a dismal and intellectually impoverished place.
The second sentence of the welcome message quoted above (“The ad stated unequivocally…”) puts in a nutshell Johnson’s principal complaints about the “listening” statement (an earlier post has a few more links to articles about this statement, which was published as an ad in the Duke Chronicle). I’ll call it the standard indictment formula, because variations of it crop up dozens of times in DIW. Its two clauses highlight the most objectionable lines in the “listening” statement. Johnson raised the issue for the first time in his April 23, 2006 post titled “The Group of 88,” which points out that
[t]he statement spoke of “what happened to this young woman” (which at that point consisted of nothing more than uncorroborated allegations) and gave a message to campus protesters: “Thank you for not waiting” until the police completed their investigation. Activities of these campus protesters, as we now all know, included such items as the “wanted” poster and branding the team “rapists.”
I can accept this first blast, before the charges have been reduced to a formula for incrimination, as justified indignation—the parts of the ad that he singles out bother me, too. And I don’t discount the bitter frustration behind his refrain, in subsequent entries, that nobody on the faculty or administration at Duke is calling Nifong to account or speaking up for the students under investigation. But right out of the gate, Johnson is making sweeping claims that say much more about his sensitivities and prejudices than about the ad. In the very next paragraph he has the ad’s endorsers thinking in unison about holding the lacrosse players broadly responsible for prejudice and oppression and even wanting them prosecuted solely on that basis:
In today’s Newsweek, a student at predominantly African-American North Carolina Central carried the Duke 88’s thinking to its logical, if absurd, extreme. The student said that he wanted to see the Duke students prosecuted “whether it happened or not. It would be justice for things that happened in the past.”
The apparent confidence that he can read 88 minds at once reflects his certainty that the text of the ad coming from the people who endorsed it can only mean one thing—a cornerstone of the “Group of 88” crusade and an article of faith that Johnson has never questioned or analyzed in any serious way. The two lines in the ad that really matter are the two that strike a nerve and serve as the basis for the standard indictment. The other thing that registers is that the ad talks about perceived incidents of racism or sexism, which to Johnson translates into a charge that racism and sexism is rampant at Duke. His willingness to let a text be defined by a selective and sensitized reading of it is entirely characteristic.
Here is my best effort to summarize Johnson’s principles of Groupthink—the assumptions and habits that have allowed him to create a monster called the “Group of 88” out of the 88 people who chose for one reason or another, and with no thought of forming an ongoing collective, to endorse a text that was emailed to them (as a gesture of resistance to the idea of a “Group of 88”—and I’m know it’s futile—I’ve chosen to refer to those who signed the ad as “endorsers,” which is less of a mouthful than “signatories”):
- Johnson knows what message the 88 endorsers sent when they signed the ad. Any claim by an endorser to have read the ad differently or intended a different message is either disingenuous or delusional. In particular, there is no denying that the ad signals a firm belief that a rape occurred at the lacrosse team party. So, for example, Johnson has no trouble dismissing out of hand Alice Kaplan’s claim that “the statement was about the climate on campus…. There’s nothing in the statement that says anyone is guilty or innocent.” What she said, and should retract and apologize for, is what Johnson says she said, not what she thinks she said (here’s another post along the same lines).
- The ad-hoc collection of 88 people who endorsed the ad is a cohesive, capitol-G “Group.” The absolutist interpretation of the ad is one basis for this myth of unity, I think—they all signed the same statement, so they all said the same thing, so they all must think the same. There’s also the hypnotic power of language to create the impression of substance. The “Group of 88” is the title of first post about the “listening” statement—a convenient way to refer to the collection of people he’d just become aware of. A facile and uncritical writer, Johnson settles comfortably into the habit of calling people who endorsed the ad “members of the Group of 88,” as if the “Group” was an organization with members like the Academic Council or the YMCA. Naturally, the “listening” statement becomes the “Group of 88 statement.” From the perspective of a prosecutor a useful feature of the “Group” is that, no matter how much like an organization he treats it, it has no spokesperson and so will never answer back.
- The “Group of 88” is a meaningful reference point for any discussion of Duke faculty or campus culture. In fact, it’s practically mandatory. When Johnson writes about ad endorsers they’re always tagged as “Group members,” several times if possible. “Group sympathizers” and “Clarifiers” (those who didn’t endorse the “listening” statement but signed the “concerned faculty” statement in January) are also habitually tagged. Put a few endorsers together in a room, with or without others, and you have a “Group of 88” event. A post about a few endorsers is, more often than not, a “Group of 88” post (“The Group of 88’s Latest Defense,” “The Group of 88’s Imagined Reality”, “The Group of 88 Rehab Tour”, which I somehow joined in “The Group of 88 Rehab Tour Continues”). In fact the phrase “Group of 88” or some variation is sprinkled so liberally and gratuitously throughout the text of DIW that it is made to seem relevant to just about everything.
- With an occasional exception, “Group members” are only newsworthy when they do or say something that serves the prosecution—the only reason to mention any of them is to attack, criticize, disparage, or dismiss them. This means that, on DIW, they are almost entirely defined by the statements and actions Johnson feels are prejudicial or hostile to the lacrosse team, that show them to be unreasonable, thoughtless, or conspiratorial, or that in some other way put them in a bad light. My guess is that’s what Coleman and Kasibhatla had in mind when they complained that Johnson and Taylor portrayed faculty members “on the basis of isolated and selective incidents that occur over the course of complex events and are taken out of context.” In his series of “Group profiles”—entries in which he describes the scholarship of select endorsers—the only ones he profiled who had not already been roundly condemned for other reasons were those he could portray as radically left-wing, overly PC, engaged in marginal scholarship, or in some other way ideologically suspect. There is a short post about his selective profiling followed by a long discussion of it on the blog Acephalous. More than half of those who endorsed the “listening” statement have done nothing else that warranted a mention on DIW, and the bulk of “Group of 88” criticism is directed at less than a quarter of the group.
- Because their behavior is always placed in the context of the “Group,” most anything bad that’s said about one endorser reflects badly on all of them.
The “Group of 88” a miserable excuse for intelligent analysis, but as a rhetorical tool it’s worked brilliantly. It’s a sticky gob of condemnation and scorn, and anyone who tries to defend it is swallowing a poison pill—something I’d prefer not to do. Drawing on 15 years experience on the Duke faculty, much closer to the action than I’ve ever been, Stuart Rojstaczer sums it up this way in his review of Until Proven Innocent:
With regard to the ‘Group of 88,’ Taylor and Johnson are engaging in demagoguery. Certainly there are some left-wing crackpots at Duke (and no doubt some right-wing crackpots). But there are nowhere near eighty-eight of them. These eighty-eight faculty members are not an organized group that thinks in lock step…. The drama created by Taylor and Johnson related to this ad and the “Group of 88” may be believable to some; but it is fiction.
The review as a whole is a well-informed, no-nonsense look at both the strengths and weaknesses of the book—I highly recommend it.
A prime example of Johnson’s willingness to use ignorance to his advantage is his treatment of the “Castrate” banner from the potbanging protest. As I wrote a couple of entries ago, the existence of the banner first registers on DIW in early January 2007, when it’s mentioned in Johnson’s dismissive response to an editorial by Cathy Davidson. A separate post on the same day—“Cathy Davidson: In Her Own Words”—uses a picture of the banner as a bludgeon by framing it with a quote from her editorial on top (she’s “adamant about the necessity for fair and impartial legal proceedings for David, Collin and Reade”) and on the bottom the line from the “listening” statement thanking protestors (the image no longer displays, but from the name of the image file—“castrate2pb3.jpg”—there’s no question what it was). The Liestoppers page makes the same insinuation graphically:
POTBANGERS NOT WAITING
“Thank You!” - Duke’s Group of 88
Throwing the “Castrate” banner at Cathy Davidson was, as far as I can tell, pure and simple opportunism. If there was any reason to single her out for the treatment, I can’t find it and Johnson doesn’t mention it. The picture was available, it was useful reinforcement to Johnson’s message that Davidson’s editorial could be written off as sheer disingenuous hypocrisy, so up it went. It seems like the revelation of such a vile threat would warrant some discussion, but careful, rational consideration would distance the banner from the people Johnson most wants to associate it with—not the potbangers but the ad endorsers. In the same vein, but even more groundless and opportunistic, is Johnson’s exploitation of the revelation months after the events that
[Duke lacrosse coach Mike] Pressler and his family were subjected to death threats. Protesters taped signs to his house with such messages as “DO YOUR DUTY. TURN THEM IN.” Several days later, when the Group of 88 issued their “listening” statement, the professors offered a message for such protesters: “Thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard.”
This insinuation hangs on the bare thread of Johnson’s choice of the word “protesters” for a few vicious, small-minded people who took it on themselves to harass Pressler and his family—taping threats to someone’s house in the middle of the night is not “collective noise.” And though Johnson doesn’t suggest that it was “protesters” who made the death threats, putting the harassment that was supposedly covered by the ad’s “thank you” in that context gives the insinuation extra bite. It’s not clear what Johnson’s basis for mentioning death threats is in the first place, since the Sports Illustrated article that Johnson cites doesn’t mention them (it’s an article that’s worth reading, by the way).
So, does Johnson believe that the endorsers were actually thanking the people who were taping signs to Pressler’s house at night? Does he believe that they knew that was happening, or that they didn’t know but would surely have approved if they did? Does he believe that all or even some of them knew about the “Castrate” banner and were approving it with the ad’s “thank you”? Or that they didn’t know about the banner but some or all of them considered the threat or even the act of castration appropriate in the circumstances? Johnson considers all of these to be irrelevant questions, as far as I can tell. Like the readers of DIW who have left comments for me, he seems to think that the only reason to raise them is to absolve the endorsers of all sin.
What I’m actually suggesting is something quite different and very simple—that Johnson ought to act like a professor. A smart man arguing a strong case doesn’t need to make wild insinuations, and I consider the insinuations about the “castrate” banner and about Pressler’s harassment both to be wild. In an environment where, for instance, “Mr. X” can write me off as “just another Klan of 88 enabler” in the TalkLeft thread about my posts, they make for fine demagoguery (there are a fair number of references to a “Klan of 88” in the comments on DIW, as well). Johnson’s insinuations are congenial to the knee-jerk fantasy that there’s a moral equivalence between the 88 people who signed the “listening” statement and the Ku Klux Klan, and to any number of other fantasies based on blanket, facile judgment of liberals, left-wing academics, “angry studies,” and the like. The only stance consistent with the academic ideals that Johnson claims to defend is to actively resist that kind of ignorance and bigotry. Thinking more like a prosecutor than an academic, he gives them free rein.
The general reaction to my focus on the “castrate” banner has been that it was just one of many outrages, that the professors who signed the ad would have or should have known about enough of them not to say “thank you,” that I’m making too much out of it. Of these, the one I take most seriously is from Nick, a recent alum who was a student in one of my classes (the link is to his second of three comments—the first is on that same post, and the last one puts the lacrosse experience in the context of his Duke experience as a whole). He grants that professors may or may not have been at the potbanging protest or known about the details, but
it is not as if the other protests were much better. Sure some talked in more abstract terms about racial and sexual issues at Duke and abroad, but most speakers just assumed or even declared the lacrosse team rapists. I was shocked that such intelligent people could react in such a way…. My problem isn’t that radical professors (and some are pretty radical) responded in this way…. My problem is that such views were accepted (or even respected) by other professors.
Based on that experience, I understand his indignation. I hope that I would have been offended too, if I had walked across campus and found people on soapboxes pretending that denouncing the lacrosse team as rapists was somehow striking a blow for justice or fighting the good fight against sexual assault, and had then heard colleagues describing it with approval. I wish some of the people who were in the thick of that, including some who signed the “listening” statement, would step up to the plate and speak candidly about the atmosphere Nick describes. At the same time I’m confident that there are students—some of the ones quoted in the “listening” statement, for instance—who had vastly different experiences, and a range that are in between. None of them make Nick’s any less valid or worthy of attention.
When I raised the issue of his insinuating treatment of the “castrate” banner in email, Johnson’s response was to allude to all of the coverage of the potbanging protest and to several other outrageous protests—his boilerplate response to the suggestion that the protestors thanked in the “listening” statement are not the ones who attacked and prejudged the lacrosse team. Criticizing my posts in DIW he imagines—and I warn anyone short on sleep or prone to migraines not to think too hard about this sentence—that I “suggested that [his] chief fault was suggesting that the Group’s ad could be interpreted as suggesting that the sole message of the potbangers’ March 26 rally was the ‘castrate’ banner.” This is wildly off the mark, but gives him a chance to repeat yet again a few of the other protest banners and slogans that have been grist for the DIW mill since it started grinding a year and a half ago. Then he wonders if I’m imagining that press coverage might have “fooled the Group” with a benign impression of the potbangers, or if I’m thinking that “Group members were so reckless that they thanked protesters… even though they had no idea what the protesters were doing or saying.” Whatever it is, it must be about the “Group”… PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN.