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KC Johnson and the extremist factory

After a very long break, I’m picking up where I left off in my analysis of the Duke lacrosse case, still concentrating on the role Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW) played in framing and setting the tone of the debate about academic culture at Duke. This time I’m turning from KC Johnson’s criticism of the Duke faculty who endorsed the “listening” statement, taken as a whole (the so-called “Group of 88”), to his criticism of two professors from the group—Mark Anthony Neal and Karla Holloway. Turning from group to individual, the reflexes I’ve already pointed out of a cutthroat prosecutor dead set on securing the conviction are even clearer. My little project has snowballed as I’ve added bits and pieces over the past few months, gotten fed up and set it aside, pulled it out and added a little more, etc. What’s made it interesting enough to finally pull together into something more or less readable is the view it gives of the inner workings of a parallel reality—a product of language that’s quite convincing on its own terms but deeply deceptive. Johnson hit the nail on the head when he set it in Wonderland.

Before I get into the gory details, I need to acknowledge some feedback that I’ve been sitting on for months. After my posts about the lacrosse case way back in December, I got email from faculty at Duke as well as a few other institutions. All of it was was civil, and most appreciated. One senior professor at Duke took me politely to task for telling only one side of the story when I wrote about the hateful email that faculty members critical of the lacrosse team have received.

Please don’t continue to write about evil outsiders silencing thoughtful Duke faculty without also noting that some of us on that faculty have been both castigated and shunned by fellow faculty members who believe we have no right to disagree, in public, with their view of the world.

In confidence he briefly outlined some of his experiences in the thick of the controversy. They are like a faculty-level counterpart to the comments left by my former student Nick. I can see how it would touch a nerve if I seemed to be painting a picture of campus that had all of the intolerance flowing in one directions, towards the faction that’s been attacked for betraying the lacrosse team. That’s certainly not what I had in mind, and I’m happy for the opportunity to reemphasize that. It’s a chance to reinforce another point as well. I don’t know “what really happened” at Duke as the controversy played out (I put it in quotes because I don’t see how so many perspectives could be boiled down to one definitive thing). Even when I was on campus I was in a bubble at the time. I try to be mindful of how much I don’t know, no doubt with mixed success, and I appreciate the first-hand accounts that help to keep me on track. I’m constantly amazed, though, at how much other people writing about the case feel they know based on highly filtered and biased impressions.

I’m not sure whether or not the professor I just quoted would put himself in the same boat as Steven Baldwin. Either way, his language reflects the view of Johnson and like-minded critics that Baldwin is a prime example of a professor “castigated and shunned” for public statements—a thoughtful Duke faculty member silenced by evil insiders. I didn’t write about the controversy over Baldwin’s editorial because I wanted to turn that picture on its head—as far as I’m concerned the episode lends credence to my correspondent’s claims. What bothered me was FIRE’s belief that they knew exactly what happened when in fact they took the two controversial published letters and slotted them into a prefabricated narrative—the shrill, narrow-minded feminist forcing the brave critic who stood up to the mob to “kneel down at the altar of political correctness.” For all I know that’s not be far from the truth, but despite its supposed non-partisanship there are no signs that anyone at FIRE did the investigation it would take to put the reflexive impression to a test. There’s nothing about Weigman’s letter that strong-armed Baldwin, a tenured professor who came out with rhetorical guns blazing, into apologizing and then shutting up. If the “faculty allied with Professor Wiegman” really “proceeded to torment” Baldwin in order to silence him, as FIRE’s Harvey Silverglate thinks they did, it was unwarranted and inexcusable. It would have been better for all concerned if the exchange between Baldwin and Weigman had gotten past denunciation and disappointment and the two had attempted to speak to each other’s concerns about the treatment of the lacrosse players and campus culture. A letter sent to President Broadhead demanding that Baldwin be fired sure sounds like a fit of intolerance. I have no reason to doubt there was such a letter but I can’t find any details about it in FIRE’s article or on DIW or in the Duke Chronicle—like so much of the “evidence” of misbehavior by Duke faculty, its vagueness invites you to slap it down on the usual suspects. The interview with Baldwin that prompted FIRE’s article sheds no light on that letter or the other undercurrents of the controversy. Like the anonymous correspondent I quoted, he might not want to publicly air the details of his personal interactions, and for good reason. But he’s not shy about airing well-worn generalizations about Duke’s incoherent “militant hyper PC faculty.”

I wish when I said my piece about Baldwin I’d been aware of Michael Gustafson’s comments about the incident. They didn’t change my general impression of the exchange but they provide an excellent balancing perspective. Perhaps it’s his training as an engineer, but Gustafson stands out as a bridge builder in landscape full of people digging moats. Based on his experience with Wahneema Lubiano and Karla Holloway (here as well) it seems that it was possible to publicly disagree with vocal critics of the lacrosse team without being castigated and shunned. His example may be an implicit rebuke to the correspondent I quoted, but not necessarily—academic interactions are inevitably effected by things like seniority, reputation, department affiliation, and administrative history as much as they are by personality. What he does show is that it was possible to approach the controversy with strong opinions and still hear and respect and even learn from those who saw things differently. I can only hope that those who spoke across their differences with Gustafson learned something as well.

In my first post about the case I floated a two-sides-of-the-coin view of lacrosse-case discourse. I then proceeded to disappoint a number of readers for not delivering the balanced analysis they felt I had promised. What was on my mind wasn’t balance but symmetry, between two stances that in the extreme insisted that only one thing about the case really mattered, and got their point across by stigmatizing a group representing a large class of undesirables. It’s numbingly familiar culture-war stuff, especially the controversy about Duke faculty—the legal drama involved concrete details that saved it from being so nebulous.

What disappoints me about both sides of the campus-culture debate is a lack of interest in the quality of the thinking and criticism in general, not just the stuff coming from the other side. We can’t help but be more sensitive to the generalizations that opponents try to slap on us and those we identify with, but no matter what angle it comes from, academics should be bothered when typecasting passes for thought. A few professors at Duke who saw the incident as a symptom of social ills had trouble telling the difference between individuals living in the community and cardboard cutouts. Many more don’t seem to have noticed or responded to the reflexive judgment and condemnation that was circulating in the name of one progressive cause or another. There was in-class sermonizing about the case, faculty venting their opinion in interactions with the players, an allegation of grade retaliation that was dealt with but not publicly resolved. And as the letter-writer attests, some reacted to alternate perspectives on the team and the case with intolerance. What I find especially troubling is how it veers towards vigilantism. This was especially obvious off campus at the potbanging protest, but the same spirit was behind various kinds of pressure and persuasion directed at the lacrosse team to step forward and spill their guts that came from people at all levels of Duke, including faculty.

I see the demanding, hateful, and threatening attacks on faculty as the symmetrical counterpart to the vigilantism directed at the lacrosse players—as attempts based on incomplete and self-serving impressions to impose some measure of the punishment that wasn’t forthcoming from, say, the Duke administration. Whether the parallel is valid is irrelevant when it comes to judging the rhetoric, nor are the messages more or less excusable because they had more or less of an effect on the people who were targeted. I don’t know what effect they had. It seems to me pretty facile to expect the people on the receiving end to be completely unaffected, but they’re certainly not a blanket excuse for anything. For my purposes they’re a measure of how dysfunctional the debate has been. And with respect to the climate of debate, the very best that can be said about Johnson is that he did nothing significant to resist the haters whose rhetoric was informed to some extent by his blog. After working through the details of his criticism of Holloway and Neal it looks quite a bit worse than that to me. Virtually all of Johnson’s criticism of both of them is, in one way or another, a matter of reducing them to type.

For Johnson, the “listening” statement seems to have unmasked its endorsers as prisoners of race/class/gender groupthink. There’s no denying that the ad reflects a perspective that makes a great deal of race, gender, and class, and it seems to have offered a fine opportunity to shine a spotlight on the academic-left mindset—a valuable thing to do, in principle. But Johnson leaves no room for anything but a narrow-minded parody of the mindset. Once he pegged the ad’s endorsers as those kind of people, he got to work finding evidence to underscore the impression while avoiding most anything likely to challenge it. When he rummages through their papers, syllabi, lecture titles, comments to reporters, attendance at meetings and conferences, etc., it’s to show that they’re doing and saying just what’s expected. Comments about the lacrosse incident serve the same purpose and in addition show the professors’ ill-will or prejudice towards the lacrosse team. At his most selective he reads their texts with the fine-tuned sensitivity of a drug-sniffing dog reading a suitcase, and like the dog makes a lot of noise if he finds something and if not quietly moves on. Some texts, on the other hand, need to be reworked to suit his purposes. He must at least occasionally make points at the expense of another professor without doing violence to their words, but not in the cases I’ve studied.

[Many of the points I’m making here, or something close to then, have been kicked around by Timothy Burke and Scott Eric Kaufman of Acephalous, who posted on KC Johnson, posted some more, then made a final statement, and then said his absolute, positive last words on the subject (there are extensive and sometimes astute comments on all those posts, as well).]

The raw material can be boiled down in ways other than being selective. Johnson isn’t averse to the pigeonholing effect of labels as a labor-saving form of prosecution—if he can get a tag like “anti-lacrosse extremist” to stick he’s made his case. A variation of the same reductive impulse is his habit of isolating a quote for the person who said it to wear around Wonderland like a badge. He does it most effectively with Neal, who’s reduced to an epithet—“ThugNiggaIntellectual.” The pretense is that it’s Neal’s own term, something that justifies bringing it up but doesn’t justify producing an empty-headed caricature—Johnson spares himself and his readers a challenge by covering it with mud.

Neal handed Johnson some perfect material, so disposing of him is just a matter of repetition and rhetoric. Holloway takes more effort. Johnson picks an article of hers apart from beginning to end and misinterprets or misrepresents most of it. Both professors are misrepresented by the huge disparity between Johnson’s narrow and opportunistic attention to evidence and the sweeping implications that rest on it. There are no clear bounds to his criticism—it extends as far as time, material, interest, and themes like “Academic McCarthyism” and the “race/class/gender trinity” take him. It gives an overwhelmingly negative impression of those he’s targeted—of their quality as people, scholars and teachers and their value and influence at Duke. But he devotes his attention to a miniscule part of what they’ve done or said, and with little thought to what’s normal and what’s exceptional.

A disturbing symptom of the free-floating, unbounded criticism is self-evident evidence. The most dramatic example is Neal’s epithet—a term that’s so obviously outrageous that as far as Johnson is concerned it calls for no analysis at all—it is what it is and says what it says. But low-key versions of the same kind of thing crop up periodically, often in the form of reminders of how ludicrous or offensive the “loopy left” Duke faculty can sound to mainstream ears. For example, Holloway making too much of a fuss about her “bi-dialectal” blackness, a list of Wahneema Lubiano’s idealogically-suspect opinions, or titles of talks or entries in syllabi with the words “queer” or “queering” in them.
Either completely unprocessed or spiced up with a little light fear-mongering (“This is the sort of class that the Campus Culture Initiative wants to require for all Duke students”), what’s being cultivated is a superficial response to material that’s suspicious or offensive in some obvious way—a reaction that usually falls in the range between dismissal, disgust, and derision. If Johnson shows no sign of having thought about it, why should the reader?

He does much the same thing with the “Castrate” banner. Its connection to those who endorsed the “listening” statement is purely literalistic, and the significance of the connection is apparently obvious. Johnson shows no interest in either refining the impression or exploring the implications—any careful consideration of the real-world aspects of dozens of professors consciously endorsing a threat of castration (one that went virtually unreported for six months) would only weaken the incriminating effect of invoking the banner without comment. And then there’s Neal’s fantastically provocative term. Johnson is right—these pieces of undigested evidence do indeed speak for themselves. The problem is that they say one sort of thing to curious, skeptical readers, another thing to angry, superficial readers, and something else to guys like “Bill White,” who commented in a voice mail for Neal (quoted by Charles Piot) that “[l]istening to your voice, it sounds like you’re one of those smarty-art niggers, as opposed to the actual thug nigger intellectual and dangerous nigger that you claim to be,” and signed off with a “hope that one day you end up swinging from a tree.”

In criticizing Holloway and Neal, Johnson reproduces the self-serving circular reasoning of bigots. It’s reasoning that’s driven in most every respect by the judgments being rendered, and what counts as evidence is carefully selected and tailored for that purpose. Whatever supports the simplistic, moralistic narrative is highlighted, most everything else is kept offstage. It’s no surprise that at the conclusion both professors turn out to be irrational extremists—that was the premise as well. On top of the reductive analysis is a free-floating layer of provocation with an impact proportional to the prejudice the reader brings to it. To pitch this package as the rational analysis of a dedicated intellectual takes a whole lot of chutzpa, or a genius for self-deception. It’s a miserable way to defend academic values, though.

I don’t for a minute think Johnson is a hard-core racist like the one who called Neal. For that matter, I don’t think he’s a garden-variety bigot, and I can’t say whether bigotry drives his attacks on people like Holloway and Neal or it’s some other complex that makes him pathologically judgmental. Casual remarks notwithstanding, I’m not interested in judging him as a person. I don’t know that much about him, and I’m wary of the easy, cynical explanations for his crusade, e.g., getting back at the kind of people who tried to drum him out of Brooklyn College. My sense is that somewhere behind all the rhetoric is sincere concern for students and justice and academia.

But it’s not fortuitous that the “commentariat” on DIW has a full helping of careless, biased, and judgmental readers. And while I don’t think Johnson wants to make common cause with the “Bill Whites” of the world, he seems to be more than content to be surrounded by a contingent of “blog hooligans”—even the name, worn with pride as far as I can tell, reflects the spirit of vigilantism that’s dogged the controversy. There may be fundamental differences between Johnson and readers who state their judgments in more derogatory terms, but the only difference that’s clear and consistent in DIW is a superficial one—Johnson “maintains a certain decorum,” as Piot puts it. That’s not to say that everyone who comments on DIW or follows it with interest is a thoughtless voice in a vengeful mob. I’m sure it’s possible to approach DIW critically and get something worthwhile out of it. One of its draws seems to be the impression that Johnson is a hard-nosed critic dealing in factual evidence. That may be true some of the time—Johnson definitely has a head for detail—but the parts I’ve been studying are virtually fact-free. Beyond raising some issues and linking to sources, I don’t see how his concentrated criticism of either Holloway or Neal could possibly count as informative. He’s capable of doing better. There’s an constructive discussion of the difficult issue of diversity hiring in his “group profile” of Bill Chafe, for instance, but it’s atypical even within a series of posts that’s mostly a catalog of ideologically and/or intellectually suspect scholarship. I’m afraid that Johnson’s attacks on Holloway and Neal are much more representative samples of his academic-culture criticism. His case against Lubiano is the only other one where I’ve studied his sources in detail, and he seems to have done the same thing to her as he did to Holloway.

I’m not writing about DIW as a whole. I think (and hope) that what I’m writing about here is the worst part of it. For reasons that I can’t fathom, there are people who must be at least as smart and critical as me who find the case against 88-plus Duke faculty to be compelling, including some reviewers of Until Proven Innocent, the book Johnson cowrote. But a recent review in The Nation that rings true for me puts the anti-faculty crusade down firmly as a side show (former Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer says much the same in his review). In the Nation Robert Perkinson does a fine job of putting some perspective around the part of the lacrosse story that really matters—the legal issues that can quite literally be a life-or-death matter, as Perkinson shows with admirable directness. My sense is that his assessment of what’s valuable in the book and what’s a self-serving distraction fits DIW fairly well too.

Whatever’s wrong with DIW doesn’t automatically translate into something that’s right on the other side, where plenty is still unresolved. The Duke faculty who Johnson opposed have yet to address the issues of tone and tolerance around campus. The lack of attention to those problems is symptomatic of something that got quite a bit of play on DIW—the tendency of this contingent of academics to stick to their own conversations about their own concerns and in their own often explicitly politicized terms. Much of the complaining about faculty behavior had to do not with what was said but with what wasn’t said—a valid but awkward kind of criticism since in principle it applies to a lot of people evenly but in practice it seems to reflect mostly on the people who call attention to themselves in some other way. Keeping that caveat in mind, I’m bothered by two papers about the lacrosse controversy that Duke faculty have published in academic journals in the past six months or so. Both are responses to the attacks by Johnson and others from within the Duke faculty contingent that was attacked. The first one to come out, by Charles Piot, published in Transforming Anthropology, is a critique and rebuttal of DIW. The more recent one, by Robyn Wiegman, Wahneema Lubiano, and Michael Hardt, published in the Winter 2007 issue of Social Text, looks more broadly at the ideological dimension of the controversy. The papers themselves are fine as far as I’m concerned—they dovetail pretty well with the things I’ve written (there has been some pointed criticism of Piot’s article, though). But sad to say it’s just what you’d predict from reading DIW that this group of professors would retreat to the safety of their room and theorize the right-wing assault that just rattled their office doors. That kind of sour grapes is poor motivation for anything, but even out of self-interest it seems like some stock-taking is called for. In Social Text the authors list the issues that informed their side of the tug-of-war on campus: “faculty… wanted [university officials] to address alcohol abuse, sexual assault, sports privilege, and race and gender supremacies….” How well did those faculty do with respect to those issues? How about the broader community with the same general political orientation? There must be things that, in retrospect, could have been handled better, things worth remembering so that those issues fare better in future culture-war flare-ups. It would be nice, though, if some of the people who lived through the intense cycle of events on campus were able to reflect on it in a way that’s not so completely structured and judged around the ideological fault lines. I imagine one thing that gets fried when you’ve been a lightning rod is any interest you might have had in public candor. But when I look over all that’s been said and written about the lacrosse controversy, I feel like stances and assumptions that set the tone early on have been left hanging, calling out for a follow-up.

Read on, if you really want to, about Holloway or Neal.