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Rhetorical thuggery

This post about the Duke lacrosse case is the last of three parts about how KC Johnson produced his cast of extremists—you can go back to the introduction or the part about Karla Holloway.

Most of Mark Anthony Neal’s (disclaimer) appearances in Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW) are pinned to one of three things. The first is his appearance at the April 2006 Conversation on Campus Culture. The second is an article he posted on his blog about the lacrosse case, and the third is an interview that Duke’s alumni magazine ran in the summer of 2006. The two texts each yield one really useful nugget of evidence, and the rest is incidental. In the article it’s the paragraph about how the team was “hoping to consume something that they felt that a black woman uniquely possessed.” In the interview it’s the exchange where Neal talks about the “hard-core intellectual thuggery” of his “alter ego… thugniggerintellectual.” It’s perfectly fair for Johnson to single those two passages out, but it matters what’s left out. Since he reads the “listening” statement as an announcement from Neal and the other 87 who signed it that some lacrosse players were guilty of rape, a little attention needed to be paid to Neal’s forthright statement in the second paragraph of the article that “[t]he results of a DNA analysis taken after the alleged attack suggest that the members of the Duke lacrosse team were not involved in the attack.” Then there’s the rest of the article (the bulk of it doesn’t related directly to the lacrosse team), the less outrageous parts of the interview, and the rest of Neal’s published writings—all potentially relevant since Johnson is prosecuting Neal on the basis of his character and beliefs.

I don’t think any single word has been as useful to Johnson as the one Neal handed to him on a platter. He dismisses out of hand Charles Piot’s claim that the way it’s used to tag Neal in DIW gives it “the aura of a racial epithet.” In an email to me, Johnson clarified his position:

If Neal uses the term freely to describe himself and his approach to scholarship—and Duke Magazine reproduces that description in an interview sent to all Duke alumni—then I (or anyone else) is equally free to apply it to him.

It’s Neal’s own term, for sure, and he had to expect that such outrageous language would be flung back at him if it was published—as his interviewer in Duke Magazine says, “it’s bound to ruffle some feathers.” Johnson is indeed free to apply the term in a way he wouldn’t be free to use a generic racial epithet. But Piot’s objection isn’t just that the term was used but that it was used repeatedly and without reference to its “provenance and meaning.” By my count Johnson brings it up in about half of the 34 entries that mention Neal, usually by referring to “Mark Anthony (‘thugniggaintellectual’) Neal” This is not, as Johnson puts in it his response to Piot, simply “noting Mark Anthony Neal’s description of himself.” And if it looks like an epithet and sounds like an epithet and works like an epithet—a descriptive term that captures some essential quality of the person or thing it’s attached to—it’s an epithet. What matters isn’t whether Johnson can or can’t use the term freely—he’s put the bar awfully low if that’s the standard he’s set for himself. What really matters is what he’s doing with it.

It’s easier to see what he’s not doing with it. Look through every occurance of the tag in DIW and you won’t find a single attempt to explain or understand what Neal means by it either in principle or in practice. Nor is there any effort to pinpoint what’s wrong with the term or what’s wrong with Neal for using it. It’s obvious to Johnson and many of his readers that whatever it says about Neal is revealing and bad and relevant to the matter at hand. The essential message is one that’s familiar to any parent of a four-year-old, especially one like mine with an older sibling—“Ohhhh, he said a bad word.” The more grown-up layer on top of that is the connotations and associations supplied by the reader. Johnson “notes” the term to incriminate, so for those inclined to pass judgment what’s communicated is that Neal is one of those kind of people. In a sense they’re reading it exactly right—Neal’s real-life experience that inspired the term was of people reacting to him not as a writer and a professor but as a big black man. Johnson has gone a long ways towards reproducing the dynamic in cyberspace, with Neal’s help of course (or maybe it was the other way around). The term is good at sorting people out, and it’s tempting to think of it as a litmus test for open minds, but that’s much too facile—it doesn’t take a closed mind to find it offensive (anyone interested in a conservative perspective on the term should check out Cobb—he doesn’t exactly find it offensive but he does question it with insight and style). A better distinction is between those who feel like it tells them all they need to know about Neal and everyone else.

As a parting shot in his efforts to show Neal being true to type Johnson pounced on a far-fetched explanation he gave to a reporter writing about the nooses that were found at a few colleges this past spring. You can get a pretty good feel for the overall impression Johnson has left from the comments.

Neal is a buffoon, clearly. (10/22/07 12:47 PM)

Neal comes across looking like a “hate whitey” bigot… (10/22/07 1:09 PM)

I’m pretty sure that on the first day of class, at least one of Neal’s students is looking at him and thinking… “I wonder if this big fat black doofus is the one who fantasizes that he’s going to intellectually choke the living sh*t out of me?” (10/22/07 1:28 PM)

I would tend to ignore his opinions as being juvenile and would double-check any facts he offered to me. (10/22/07 2:07 PM)

I don’t want my child’s English professor speaking Ebonics or teaching with a malicious and decidedly bigoted and hateful attitude, such as Neal’s. (10/22/07 2:15 PM)

Neal and the other members of the Gang of 88 would be dangerous if their stupidity was not so transparent. (10/22/07 2:22 PM)

When I think of clowns like Neal, images of “Wizard of Oz” pop into my head: this obese arch-buffoon standing in front of a camera making big, bad, threatening noises…. Great Con, professor!! (10/22/07 3:11 PM)

3:11 Good laugh - he is a dope. (10/22/07 4:51 PM)

The nooses are a godsend to the ThugLoozahIntellectual who needs a new cause. (10/22/07 5:13 PM)

“Gangsta” scholarship what an oxymoron! Thugs are thugs. There is no such thing as a black pop culture professor. That’s another oxymoron. Then again, there has been sooooooo much moronic “scholarship” imparted by so-called professors at Duke. (10/22/07 7:42 PM)

I see Prof. Neal as someone who, as a student, would’ve dropped pennies during the exam because he thought some loose change would distract his Jewish classmates. (10/23/07 10:49 AM)

This is a fair representation of the bantering tone of the whole thing, and the majority of those who comment seem to feel they’ve drawn a pretty good bead on Neal. As I said before, it’s like a bunch of drunks who think they’re real clever, though I should add that there are a few at the party who handle themselves better. There’s a low-key response from Neal in the mix as well.

Early on Johnson responds to one of the more careful commenters with a chummy fyi—a bit of evidence that feeds the lowest-common-denominator sentiment while holding it at arms length, since whatever people make of them, facts are facts. Except when they’re not. This one comes by way of an earnest think piece about Duke’s tenured radicals written by a Duke graduate student named Richard Bertrand Spencer and published in The American Conservative in late February 2007 (Johnson wrote at length about the article not long after it was published).

The myth that Neal lives by informs his claim that whenever he “rolls into the classroom on the first day of class,” there is always somebody “in the house quietly utter[ing] ‘who’s the nigger?’” That a professor heard students whispering the N-word at politically correct Duke approaches the outer limits of credibility. What’s more instructive is Neal’s response: “I’m the nigga that gonna intellectually choke the living s—t out of you.”

Spencer gives no source for the quote, something that should have given a diligent citer like Johnson pause, but a little googling pulled up a column in PopMatters entitled “Confessions of a ThugNiggaIntellectual.”

And I’m not gonna pretend that in post-liberal America there haven’t been times when I rolled into the class room on the first day of class and somebody in the house quietly uttered “who’s the nigger?” I’m the nigga that gonna intellectually choke the living shit out of you.

This is dated March 2003, more than a year before Neal signed on at Duke, so he wasn’t writing about walking into a Duke classroom and he wasn’t saying “whenever,” either—not even close. It’s the same stunt Johnson pulls with Holloway’s motto—ballooning a comment that’s made in a limited context into something general and habitual. After all, that’s how people caught up in the race/class/gender mindset think, isn’t it?

It’s not the only place where Spencer fails to keep his imagination in check, and his fact-checking isn’t so great either—Neal is not in the English department, and Steven (not Stephen) Baldwin is not in Economics (I’m guessing Spencer’s mistake is behind the ridiculous comment about Duke English teachers “speaking Ebonics”). It seems Spencer didn’t feel like he had to sweat the details, big or small, and in a way you can’t blame him, since it’d be shame to let niggling details spoil a good story. There’s more of the same when his retroactive clairvoyance gets the best of him and he writes that “students predictably banged pots and pans, raised banners reading ‘castrate,’ and passed out wanted posters….” His crystal ball is murky when it comes to details. Students from “politically correct Duke” did put up “wanted” posters, but they didn’t raise the “castrate” banner and don’t seem to have been responsible for much of the potbanging. Unlike the people holding up that creepy banner, the lacrosse players were actual Duke students (at least it’s been widely and credibly reported that they were), and they don’t come across as very PC. Yet they’ve long had and in spite of the rough patch still have as much claim as anyone else to epitomize the place. Which isn’t to say I think it’s likely Neal’s had the experience he describes at Duke. But it says a lot about the tilt of Spencer’s perspective that a banner screaming “castrate” is “predictable” while a whispered racist slur is virtually unimaginable. “Politically correct Duke” is definitely part of the Wonderland fairy tale, and the combination is a credit to the unchecked imaginations of an actual and an aspiring PhD.

Then there’s Spencer’s idea that “the accusations that white students gang-raped a black stripper reached the Group [of 88] as a kind of fulfillment of a dream. The case was, for them, an affirmation of what they always knew about Duke, Durham, and American society in general.” I understand the feeling. I’ve been tempted to draw nearly the same conclusion about Johnson. And frankly, I think there’s a better case to be made that the “listening” statement was a “kind of fulfillment of a dream” for Johnson. But it’s a cheap and self-aggrandizing kind of cynicism—a way of saying that the other side just cares about their issues, unlike the crowd on your own side that cares about people and things that really matter. One thing I’ve come to understand since I started writing this series is that when Johnson invokes the ideals of his profession, he’s thinking about loyalty to students. He also seems to be an outstanding and dedicated teacher. Denying that layer of sincerity and commitment is ultimately just an excuse not to take anything he says seriously. It’s just as bad to pretend that the people who wrote and signed the “listening” statement were acting without real concern for a community they know well and have a big investment in.

According to Neal the business of “thugniggaintellectual” is “intellectual thuggery,” whatever that might be—in the Duke Magazine interview he doesn’t really elaborate. It’s more than reasonable to wonder what it means and whether it’s something a Duke professor should be doing. The key question, then, is… what is he doing? The only way to get at the meaning of a figurative term like “intellectual thuggery” is by example. If it’s something that Neal has been carrying out in real life or in his work, it shouldn’t be hard to find the traces. I’ve spoken to him briefly a few times and he hasn’t seemed in any way menacing. Based on the evaluations of his teaching that I found online his students don’t seem to feel beaten up (I found some that are available only from within Duke’s network, but the ones on Rate My Professor give the same general impression, though that site calls for a healthy dose of skepticism). The things he’s written that are available on the web (in his personal blog and another on Vibe.com) aren’t marked by a spirit of violence or intimidation. Quite the opposite. Compared to a lot of what you find in DIW, Neal is the soul of gentility.

When it comes down to it I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who’s more ready and willing than Johnson to throw words at an opponent for the damage they’ll do. The hypocrisy is comical, really, since the way Johnson uses “intellectual thuggery” against Neal and the other endorsers is a fine example of his own tendency to score points with a blunt instrument. It’s tempting to throw the term back at him, but it misses the mark—Johnson’s attacks aren’t really intellectual. For criticism to count as intellectual, in my book at least, terms have to be chosen with some care and precision because of what they mean. There’s only one place I can find where he uses this term as if has real meaning beyond the vague but menacing connotations that, in Johnson’s context, reflect poorly on Neal.

‘Intellectual thuggery’ seems a highly appropriate description for the actions of the Group of 88, faculty members who sold out their own students to an unethical prosecutor to forward their own personal, curricular, or ideological agendas.

Is it really such an appropriate description? One that Johnson might have come up with on his own and found perfectly apt? He generally frames the harm done to the lacrosse players by this group of faculty as a matter of betrayal, opportunism, and disregard. A posture of intimidation and willful violence doesn’t seem to me to capture the essence of the critique. On the other hand, the implications and insinuations that collect around the Group are so vague and uncontrolled that almost any term with negative connotations can seem appropriate. So I think there is a spirit not of intellectual thuggery but rhetorical thuggery to some of the criticism on DIW—it’s not the best description but it’s far more appropriate than it should be.

I wasn’t familiar with Neal or his work before his name started popping up in lacrosse-case coverage. Browsing through his blog brought home for me what a narrow and mean-spirited business DIW can be. The cheap shot Johnson takes at Neal’s grammar sums it up nicely. There’s no problem with Neal’s grammar, and he’s a more engaging and generous writer than Johnson (though a little more proofreading on his part would be fine idea). To some extent that’s a matter of taste—no matter how well written, I expect Neal’s writing grates on more conservative sensibilities. But Neal has some virtues as a critic that go beyond style and political orientation and that, by way of comparison, help to highlight the trouble with DIW. In addition to some razor sharp writing and vivid personal history, what stands out in “Confessions of a ThugNiggaIntellectual” is the self-critical irony. I haven’t come across a trace of self-criticism in DIW, and boy could it use some—Johnson’s ability to tune out the shattering panes as he lobs rocks out of his glass house is remarkable. Among Neal’s more recent posts the one about Michael Vick is especially fine. The comparison with Johnson’s post on the same subject is interesting. Johnson is naturally more constrained since he’s looking at the way the lacrosse case has been brought up in relation to Vick’s, and as is often the case when he takes up matters that are relatively peripheral, the post is less polemical and more informative than others I’ve been concentrating on. But fundamentally Johnson is a compiler and Neal is an interpreter—in principle, two equally valuable approaches that complement each other. What stands out is that Neal’s take on the moral lapses of the people he criticizes isn’t driven entirely by the heavy-handed moralism that weighs so heavily on DIW (in addition to the post about Vick, see the one about Isiah Thomas). Furthermore, I get the impression from Neal that I’m reading about people. Johnson usually seems to be processing texts.

The article about the case that Neal put up on his blog in April 2006 does not represent him at his best. One passage in particular stands out for speculation that was unnecessarily graphic and prejudicial and wasn’t borne out by the investigation. Because the mainstream request is for white strippers, Neal suggests that

… in all likelihood, regardless of what happened inside of 610 N. Buchanan Blvd, the young men were hoping to consume something that they felt that a black woman uniquely possessed. If these young men did in fact rape, sodomize, rob, and beat this young women, it wasn’t simply because she was a women, but because she was a black woman.

In fact white dancers were requested. There’s no question that, once they showed up, some of the partyers reacted to the dancers very much as black women, so in that respect the speculation isn’t as wild as Neal’s critics seem to think.

It’s entirely appropriate to take a critical look back at the commentary of those who had the university’s or the media’s ear, including Neal. Some of the statements he made to ESPN reporter Greg Garber a week or two after the case hit the presses highlight the importance of analyzing and commenting with care. For instance: “It’s a case of racialized sexual violence, meaning if it had been a white woman in that room, it would not have gone down the same way.” It’s not hard to imagine what a sinking feeling that would give to a student who had been in the house during the party and was quite certain that the dancer wasn’t physically assaulted, and who already felt the legal heat and felt like a pariah on campus. Neal’s point could have been made just as well by saying “if the allegations are true, it sounds like a case of….” It’s important to note that Neal may have framed his remarks more carefully than it seems—what’s quoted in the article may be a small fraction of what Neal said when Garber interviewed him.

What I’m aware of, though, is the absence of alternatives. I felt the same thing two years ago as the news was breaking—it’s one of the few clear memories I have of the case in real time. Minding what’s “allegedly” is important, but it seems to me that alternatives are a better way to communicate the appropriate open-mindedness. For instance, for Neal to have talked over the hypothetical that there was no physical assault (again, it’s possible he did and Garber didn’t quote it). It seems to me that when someone like Neal dwells exclusively on one scenario in the early stages of an investigation, the person and the issues they represent get tied to the case’s outcome—affirmed or discredited depending on how things turn out. The urgency of class inequity didn’t hinge on whether the lacrosse team’s accuser was telling the truth or not. The same is true of “racialized sexual violence” if it’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed. Failure to keep alternatives in circulation also meant that issues like prosecutorial abuse were ceded to the other side when they could and should have been absorbed into socially conscious narratives. And though I completely understand the reluctance to reinforce the pretrial undermining of a woman bringing rape allegations, the mental discipline of reserving for the accuser the whole range of human behaviors—admirable to ugly—seems to me important for anyone who doesn’t want to turn her into a pawn for their issues (a point I tried to make in the post about the potbanging protest).

In the Duke Magazine interview, Neal says that “… in some ways, black, public intellectuals are able to dictate what kind of conversations are going to happen in our society around race and class and popular culture.” It sounds like a fine thing to me, and when it comes to perspective Neal is well equipped for the role. The trick is to avoid getting stuck in the pundit rut, as the fount in a one-way flow of wisdom (or perhaps “wisdom”), to be set off against founts of other wisdoms on the split screen. A public intellectual concerned with public conversations should be ready to talk through alternatives and put them in dialog in order to foster dialog.

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The opinions here are strictly my own. Prof. Neal is not responsible for my opinions and interpretations and I’m not responsible for his. If anything I say about him or his work bothers you, please complain to me and not to him.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. RRH | September 22, 2008 at 02:44 | Permalink

    This has taken a long time. My critique or Prof. Neal. Prepare yourself for nothing but “stream of consciousness” writing from here on.

    The reason is because I hate to dredge up old memories.

    And, I don’t want my kids to ever learn what a bastard I was when I was young.

    Hmmmmmmmm

    I grew up in South Texas. There were a lot of blacks picking cotton in East Texas, but not South Texas. The meskins didn’t like them. The meskins and whites did the picking in South Texas. I picked cotton, by hand.

    My oldest daughter has a boyfriend. He’s Jewish. She says he’s afraid of me. I don’t think he’s ever been in a fight in his life. I’m glad he’s smart. I hope he’s tough.

    When I was that boy’s age, I was in the Army. I was in an artillery unit in Korea.

    OK, so I’m in this artillery unit, and for the first time I am dealing with blacks. I watch and see some black guy make some grievous insult to a different black. I think, “Ah, someone is fixin to get an ass-whoopin”. But the insulted guy smiles!!! This still to me is crazy. “Why isn’t this guy feeding the other guy his teeth like Chiklets??” I know that no one on Earth, except my father, could use such language against me without blood being spilt.(1) And I spilt a lot of it. To this day, I am incapable of understanding the part of black culture that allows this “playing the dozens”, but I guess that’s just ignorance.

    Prof. Neal complains about white students “challenging” black professors. I think this is a cultural issue.

    Fast-forward 15 years of my life. I’m an intern at the Supreme Court of Texas. It’s the first day and we are all gathered around for a meeting with the Clerk of the Court. While we wait, two of the interns realize that they are clerking for the most liberal and the most conservative Justices on the court. There’s a recent case that is yet to be decided, and so they start arguing their respective positions. Both make good arguments, and so the result is a draw.

    This is what white people do: When confronted by apparent authority – for instance a professor of any color! – they challenge him. So when black professors are challenged by white students, they should realize that the are being COMPLIMENTED, not disrespected.

    When whites don’t challenged you, their treating you as less than white.

    (1) Years later, there was a University of Michigan study which delved into the inability of Southern whites to accept an insult. I know that I can’t. Once I was an accidental “fly on the wall” when some of the black troops in my company were trying to educate a “new blood”. Some of the info was funny – like “never hit a white boy on the head cuz you’ll break your hand” – but one of the interesting parts was how they advised him “don’t fug with the Rebels”. One of the ways of identifying the “Rebels” was, “don’t fug with the Dr Pepper drinkers”. I was a Dr Pepper addict and this was the first hint to me that Dr Pepper was a regional drink – 20$ of the market in Texas, but only 2% nationwide.

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    As stream of consciousness goes, that’s pretty coherent. The connection to any point I thought I made is, um… oblique is a good way to put it. For one thing, I don’t see Neal doing a lot of complaining about being challenged. He clearly sees it as unpleasant and significant for a student to mutter like that at the mere sight of a black professor, but he basically swaggers through the recollection and moves on. It’s up to Spencer to pick it up years after it was written and read the complaining into it.

    It seems like the attitudes and experiences you’re rummaging through are regional and/or generational. I’ve had students that are more or less challenging, but it’s not in any obvious way a matter of black and white. The ones that come across as most thoroughly Southern are scrupulously polite and call me sir. I had a batch of football players like that about five years ago. It was a little unnerving sometimes, but mostly I enjoyed having them around.

    Anyway, you’ve done what you said you’d do, and I appreciate the candor.