I’ve already written twice about this episode of the Duke lacrosse scandal. Check the first of those posts for details. I touched on it again to make some points about people jumping to conclusions in a heated controversy that’s bound to have some nastiness on both sides. But there was an important piece of the puzzle that I didn’t see until after I posted, and now I’m feeling like I went a little overboard with the fair and balanced routine. I should have learned by now not to underestimate KC Johnson’s willingness to cook up the “facts” he needs for his Durham-in-Wonderland crusade.
Here’s the tale. It’s late October 2006. The indicted lacrosse players have recently been on 60 Minutes, and the election that will decide if Nifong will continue as DA is a couple of weeks away. Duke Chemistry professor Steven Baldwin writes an editorial in the Duke Chronicle calling the administration and a portion of the faculty to account for their abysmal record during the scandal. He’s defiant and forthright in the face of the rush-to-judgment crowd’s choke-hold on campus, declaring that some of his colleagues “should be tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail and removed from the academy.” He was simply insisting that professors do their duty and treat their students decently, but
[his] missive did arouse the wrath of the righteous. Ignoring any pretense of desiring dialogue and debate with those who dared to challenge their agenda, the Group [of 88] and its sympathizers immediately tried to silence Baldwin. “Clarifying” faculty Robyn Wiegman wrote a letter to the Chronicle bizarrely suggesting that Baldwin’s op-ed used the “language of lynching,” only to receive a history lesson from Johnsville News. Baldwin, undeterred, continued speaking up for all Duke students throughout the spring.
Weigman and others “proceeded to torment the professor who showed the moral courage” to demand accountability from his colleagues. One colleague even emailed Baldwin with “an implicit call for violence.” And the torment had its “unbearably sad” effect.
Professor Baldwin, having used a perfectly apt metaphor for how the unapologetic faculty members should be treated, then saw fit to kneel down at the altar of political correctness and issue the ritual apology.
That’s the operatic version of reality you’ll get from KC Johnson and Harvey Silverglate, co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Silverglate, in particular, can really lay it on with a trowel. Here, though, is the email from political science professor Kerry Haynie that, as Johnson and/or Baldwin see it, includes an “implicit call for violence.”
I read with amusement your opinion column in today’s Chronicle. Frankly, I found it to be insulting and out of the normal bounds of both civil and academic discourse. I hope the students that you say you love so much don’t take this lesson in hypocrisy from you. They deserve a better model than this. On the one hand you criticize some unnamed faculty for characterizing students in a pejorative manner, and then you speak of tarring and feathering and running folk out of town on a rail. You ask the faculty to speak their minds and to do what they think is right, but what you seem to really want is for us to do these things only if and when we agree with you. It is this attitude that has no place in the academy, where the free expression of ideas, thoughts and beliefs should be cherished and protected. And you even had the nerve to include a thinly veiled threat of legal action in response to some alleged slander. Steven, it is you who should be ashamed.
Are you the one with the tar and feathers? I can be found at the address below and I am usually on campus everyday. And you should know that if I ever leave Duke it will be on my terms and not because you or anybody else wants to see me go on a rail.
So, is there even a hint of political correctness in Haynie’s note? No. Does Haynie accuse Baldwin of being a racist? No. Does he slap Baldwin with a how-dare-you for defending the villainous lacrosse players? No. Does he tell Baldwin to just shut up, or threaten to sick the authorities on him and get him fired? Sure doesn’t. Does Haynie make any kind of threat at all? Nope. He does raise a rhetorical question about whether Baldwin means to get real about his wild and crazy language. It’s not a suggestion to step outside and settle things man to man. But Johnson seems to agree with Silverglate that no reasonable person could object to Baldwin’s “perfectly apt metaphor,” and there wasn’t much chance that he could get a clear impression of Haynie’s email through that thick a cloud.
Absolutely nothing about the message supports the Johnson-Silverglate myth, and it was already a stretch when it rested on Weigman’s public letter alone. How did that letter, or anything else Weigman could have done, force Baldwin to “kneel down at the altar of political correctness”?
The episode is a pretty good microcosm of the shouting match that was kicked up by the lacrosse team’s miserable party, and through it you can get the truth about KC Johnson in a nutshell—he’s done whatever it takes to turn the people at Duke he’s written about into pawns of a threadbare culture-war mythology.
How lazy can you get in the face of your own ideological fairy tales? When Johnson is criticized he’s plenty prickly about evidence, but his own interest in uncovering evidence, or even in seeing what’s already in plain sight, is about as narrowly agenda-driven as it could possibly be. There are no signs that Johnson (or, for that matter, Silverglate or the reporter for FIRE) did a speck of actual research on this episode before pontificating on its significance. Johnson must have been in contact with Baldwin, either to get Haynie’s email or Baldwin’s impression of it (and you have to wonder if Johnson even read the message before making his claim). How many other emails and calls did Baldwin get? Who were they from? In what way were they attempts to silence him? Without any of that information, Johnson is just making up stories.
Johnson’s selective attention to evidence is just as clear in his attacks on Mark Anthony Neal. His interest in anything Neal has written or said, like his interest in the responses to Baldwin’s editorial, dried up after he collected a couple of usefully incriminating items (his ears perk up late in the game when something new comes up that he can ridicule). But sometimes being selective isn’t enough. What he does to Haynie is the most blatant and slanderous misrepresentation I’ve come across. Unlike others I’ve found, it’s based on source material that wasn’t public when the claim was made, and it’s hard to imagine that’s a coincidence. But he’s not much more subtle in misrepresenting nearly every aspect of Karla Holloway’s published article about the case. He misrepresents Lubiano’s comments about “perfect offenders,” as well, and then calls her insistent corrections “revisionism”—another misrepresentation. And he passes on as fact Richard Bertrand Spencer’s fantasy that Neal has said he hears a racial slur whenever he walks into a new class at Duke—kind of a stretch, since Spencer’s claim is based on an article published more than a year before Neal started teaching there.
Johnson is all too ready to excuse himself and his readers from facing inconvenient challenges. When I emailed to ask for confirmation or comment on Haynie’s account of the exchange with Baldwin, Johnson answered that he doesn’t respond to items posted on anonymous blogs, and besides that Haynie once answered Johnson’s email with a rude and dismissive one-liner (“Get a freaking life! Quote me.”). I’d grant Johnson his objection to anonymous criticism, except that the page in question is signed by Haynie—it’s easy enough to do what I did and contact him for confirmation. And I suppose that Haynie’s angry email might be a sign that he’s so unreasonable and aggressive that it’s best to just ignore him, but I doubt it. In practice Haynie’s line turns out to be a useful addition to the collection of incriminating quotes, including Holloway’s motto and Neal’s epithet, that Johnson uses to pigeonhole and dismiss his opponents. Once he has it in the bag he trots it out, by my count, four of the five times he mentions Haynie in DIW. One of those posts is a vindictive little exposé about the books Haynie lists as “forthcoming,” an example of another standard practice on DIW—gratuitous character prosecution.
[I emailed Johnson again after this post went up and he sent back the same excuses, then followed up with a longer evasion that I’ve posted as a comment. Haynie’s page is not anonymous and neither is this one. The site Haynie’s page is on shouldn’t be anonymous, either—more on that below.]
It’s odd because Haynie was part of one of the only groups of Duke faculty that Johnson consistently credits with being sensible and honorable—the committee chaired by James Coleman that looked into lacrosse team behavior. Even though Haynie contributed to a report that was widely seen as both fair and favorable to the team and though he made no public comments I can find about team members, it seems that he felt not only angry but potentially singled out by Baldwin’s jab at “faculty who publicly savaged the character and reputations of specific men’s lacrosse players.” What that tells me is that Johnson’s simplistic version of events is far from the whole story. But Haynie’s apparent integrity in one context is small potatoes compared to the power of the myth, and in Wonderland black professors who react angrily to Baldwin’s or Johnson’s righteousness are practically by definition dangerous drones of identity politics. Given that Johnson managed to dismiss the criticism directed at him by a man he practically enshrined as the conscience of Duke—James Coleman—writing Haynie off must have been child’s play.
The root of Johnson’s analysis-in-Wonderland is the myth of a cohesive mob of irrational ideologues whose reaction to the lacrosse team and most anything else can be explained by their race/class/gender mindset. As far as he’s concerned a hint is the same as a smoking gun with these sort of people, and he seems to be convinced he knows them well. There was a time, months ago, when I thought that at least some of Johnson’s criticism of Duke faculty had value as an abrasive antidote to the more dogmatic reflexes of the academic left. But whenever I scratch the surface all I find is intellectually vacuous attacks—little more than faith-based efforts to reduce his opponents to type. Sometimes, like when he harps on Neal’s supposed “intellectual thuggery,” it’s amazing how hypocritically lost Johnson gets in his little agenda. It’s him, not Neal, who’s inclined to do violence with and to words, and to set up those he chooses to attack as targets for the self-righteous and the ignorant.
Johnson doesn’t use the language of bigots, but in the cases I’ve studied his criticism is based on the airtight reasoning of bigotry. Responding to Charles Piot’s claim that his attacks on black women have been especially virulent, Johnson claims to be color- and gender-blind.
The blog criticized black female professors (Wahneema Lubiano, Karla Holloway). It criticized white male professors (Bill Chafe, Peter Wood, Alex Rosenberg). It criticized white female professors (Anne Allison, Cathy Davidson, Diane Nelson). It criticized black male professors (Mark Anthony Neal, Houston Baker, Maurice Wallace). It criticized Hispanic professors (Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Antonio Viego). It criticized mixed-race professors (Grant Farred). The common element in the critique was the professor’s position on issues relating to the lacrosse case and the race/class/gender trinity upon which the Group’s approach was based.
It’s true that he hammers away at all those professors with criticism that’s uniformly harsh. But his attacks on Lubiano and Holloway are especially intense and sustained—they stand apart as determined efforts to portray dangerous, muddle-headed ideologues who offer nothing of value. It’s hard to find any meaningful difference between his take on Holloway and the reflexive opinions of a misogynist. He accentuates the supposedly violent side of two black men, Haynie and Neal. The only justification he gives for cultivating the impression of Neal as a dangerous black man is that the quotes he uses to do so are fair game. There’s virtually no insight in any of these portraits, but there’s a great deal of incitement—implications and insinuations that cater to his readers’ anger and prejudice. All signs are that Johnson is completely unreflective when it comes to his own presumptions and biases, so it’s my guess that he’s treating gender and race as pieces of evidence that, when combined with a pernicious left-wing mindset, imply an extra dose of both bias and threat (a while back Tenured Radical wrote eloquently about being on the receiving end of this kind of thinking).
The Truth about KC Johnson is also the title of the website with Haynie’s account of his email to Baldwin. The site popped up sometime last December as an effort to counteract the picture Johnson has painted of the case. The main page is an unsigned essay that’s highly critical of Johnson. Three of the other five pages are material that isn’t available elsewhere—besides Haynie’s page, there’s Lubiano’s point-by-point response to her portrayal in Until Proven Innocent and a collection of hateful email that various Duke professors have received. Early on the summary essay veers towards a cynical stance that can, I think, be counterproductive, but as a whole it points out many of DIW’s flaws both efficiently and cogently. Along with the supporting material posted on the site there are links to other blogs that have been critical of Johnson, including mine. If it’s authentic, everything posted on the site besides the summary came from a tenured professor at Duke (and I see no reason to doubt the authenticity of anything there), so I don’t understand why the site as a whole isn’t signed by an individual or group. Anonymity is sometimes justified when it allows vulnerable people to express themselves, but I don’t see how these particular circumstances qualify. If they do, I’d be interested in having that explained.