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The latest adventures in Wonderland

Over the past few weeks I’ve been sticking my nose into web forums here and there, trying to generate some feedback for my recent posts about KC Johnson and his blog, Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW). No doubt I’ve been too pushy and opinionated about it—that’s always the temptation on the net. My bottom-line issue at the moment is this: at heart, it seems to me, the criticism of professors and of academic culture in DIW is an extended, strident, self-righteous demand to do as I say, not as I do. Someone must have an interesting word or two to say about that, but reactions to any mention of the Duke lacrosse case or DIW seem to be pretty weary and reflexive at this point. That’s completely understandable, but I can still hope. The only place I’ve gotten more than a blasé reaction is on DIW itself. As far as perspective goes it got me nowhere. But it kicked up some interesting debate as well as some classic evasion from Johnson.

A while back I mentioned an article in the journal Social Text written by Duke professors Robyn Wiegman, Wahneema Lubiano, and Michael Hardt. At the time it seemed strange that several months had gone by since it was published and Johnson hadn’t even mentioned it. This past week he finally posted his ritual demolition, and it bears out my observation that he sometimes reads like a drug-sniffing dog going over a suitcase, oblivious to anything but incriminating evidence. The end product is a list of faults and errors laced with judgmental rhetoric. No effort is made to put the problems into perspective, or for that matter to give more than vague and distorted hints of what the article is about. All he seems to want his audience to know is that—to use the phrase of Lubiano’s that he repeats as a talisman to ward off any flexible or moderate reading of the “listening” statement—it’s about the lacrosse team incident. And it’s wrong about pretty much everything.

No matter how offensive he finds it, it’s no credit to Johnson as an intellectual that he can’t manage more than the shallowest account of the article. The authors’ political slant and their personal stake in shaping perceptions of the controversy are clear enough and well worth scrutinizing. But there’s more to it than that. Broadly speaking, they use the controversy to illuminate the university’s place in the contemporary American political and ideological dynamic, as they see it, in the wake of a shift of activist pressure on the institution from the Left to the Right over the past 50 years or so. I haven’t studied the article that closely, and it’s couched at a level of abstraction that’s too reductive for my taste, but I still find much of it both useful and challenging. What’s especially interesting is their attention to the legalistic spirit of the attacks on left-wing faculty—what they call faux juridicalism. It seems to more or less correspond with what I’ve called vigilantism—a defining feature of the controversy, in my opinion. It’s come from both sides, but the condemnation of college faculty has been especially durable and self-sufficient. As if to prove the point, questions emerged from the DIW commentariat about whether the article might violate last summer’s settlement between the Duke and the three indicted players. “THIS IS A GREAT OPPORTUNITY FOR THE 3 INNOCENT VICTUMS OF THIS FRAUD TO GET TO THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM! It is time to use the legal system to go after the 88….” Johnson’s response—a “technical note” suggesting that the article was probably written before the settlement and so isn’t covered—is, in its deadpan way, almost as loopy.

I left a comment early in the thread that led to some interesting back-and-forth with Johnson. He posted a lengthy reaction to my criticism as a separate entry, though he’s since moved it into the original comment thread. On the whole it’s informative, especially compared to the boilerplate bluster I’ve come to expect. The most telling error he found in the article is a statement about the change of venue motion—Duke professors didn’t, as the authors claim, appear in the motion because they failed to defend the innocence of the lacrosse players. I suggested that Johnson’s criticism has nonetheless highlighted what he sees as a failure of the faculty to speak up in defense of the students. His response was clarifying—something that’s welcome since in general he does a poor job of differentiating his core issues from his criticism du jour—and on some points I stand corrected.

None of the other factual errors strike me as very significant (I should probably call them alleged errors, since I haven’t looked into them and don’t care to play referee). If they were sloppy, it’s fair to call them on it, and fair to wonder if the sloppiness is a sign of more serious problems. I don’t see how correcting them would undermine any of the authors’ key positions or conclusions, though. And I think it’s up to Johnson to give the reader a reason to care about whether 60 Minutes ran three or five segments about the case or whether it’s legitimate to say that the case cropped up in the “editorial pages of every major newspaper in the country” if there was never an editorial in the New York Times. Otherwise it’s just self-righteous nitpicking. Like so much in Wonderland, the errors are treated as self-evidently bad, but they don’t add up to anything. How could they when in Johnson’s account the article itself doesn’t add up to anything?

In my first comment I listed a number of the errors, each one paired with a closely related statement from the article that is, in my opinion, accurate and more germane (my entire comment is quoted in his response). He claims to agree on every point, but still insists that the errors are damning. He doesn’t address the more general issue I was trying to highlight, that as criticism a bunch of miscellaneous faults with no context doesn’t amount to much (I should probably have made the point more directly).

All this raises the question of whether he’d react as skeptically to similar errors in an article he was friendly to. Based on the one test case I have on hand, the answer seems to be no—there’s no sign Johnson had any reservations about the “perceptive commentary” in Richard Bertrand Spencer’s article in The American Conservative, despite several factual errors and fishy implications. It’s in a partisan, non-academic journal, so I suppose it doesn’t have to meet the same standard as Social Text. But getting the department affiliation of two key professors wrong is pretty sloppy (which isn’t to say that I think it makes sense to point to those errors in isolation as meaningful criticism).

What’s most significant about Johnson’s use of Spencer’s article is not the errors he ignores but the whopper he swallows whole, and with relish. I raised the issue in our recent exchange:

As far as Neal goes, you’ve passed on Richard Bertrand Spencer’s ridiculous assertion that Neal claims to hear a racial epithet “whenever he rolls into the classroom on the first day of class” at Duke. The problem is that it’s based on an article Neal wrote more than a year before he taught his first class at Duke…. Your attack on Holloway’s comments about the women’s lacrosse team is groundless, or at best forced, though that’s a relatively minor point compared to the other misrepresentations you make of her article from summer 06. And you support the dubious claim that Haynie “criticized UPI even though he admitted he hadn’t read the book” by cutting nearly five sentences out of his comment.

His response makes a neat little compilation of his tactics of evasion and denial. Here’s the best part:

I see now that the “errors of fact and interpretation” regarding Neal amount to my “passing on” an article by Richard Spencer (which, for the most part, criticizes Neal by quoting his words) and regarding Holloway amount to my allegedly criticizing her in either a “groundless” or “forced” way. (I should point out that if criticism is “groundless,” it can scarcely be “forced.”) Both the timing of Holloway’s article, and her words, speak for themselves.

The easiest way to deal with criticism is to make it go away, and all it takes here is a little sleight of hand. It’s most transparent when he points to “the article” in place of the actual falsehood that’s at issue. It was originally Spencer’s mistake, of course, but I think it’s reasonable to expect at least a few minutes of googling before ridiculing someone on the basis of outrageous gossip. A few days ago one of Johnson’s readers left a comment here saying he’d “seen [Johnson] make mistakes and correct them promptly and publicly, demonstrating his commitment that getting it right is more important than face-saving rhetoric.” I’ve seen him correct mistakes, too, but apparently his commitment has its limits.

When I posted my first criticism of DIW a few months ago, Johnson expressed great concern about what he saw as “harsh attacks without any corroborating evidence.” It’s funny how little interest he has now that I’ve documented the issues in excruciating detail, but it seems that for him “evidence” is always something someone else has done. In any case, instead of following my link, he repackages my complaint about his criticism of Holloway as vague carping, throwing in a distracting quibble over terminology for good measure. His habit of invoking evidence that “speaks for itself” is not only lazy, it’s a furtive way of pandering to the lowest common denominator audience. Reading obvious and incriminating messages into timing smacks of paranoia, anyways. And if the significance of Holloway’s words is so obvious, why does he have to twist or trivialize them in order to criticize her?

Moving on briefly to Haynie, Johnson manipulates Haynie’s comment even more in order to emphasize what was obvious all along—Haynie said outright that he hadn’t read Until Proven Innocent (UPI). He wasn’t complaining about the book, he was complaining about how “KC Johnson has mischaracterized our committee’s report,” and it’s not necessary to read the book in order to get a fair idea of how Johnson characterizes the report (see the comments on an earlier post for more on this).

Not every item on Johnson’s list is a factual error. The self-righteous complaint that the authors don’t declare outright that the rape allegations were fraudulent is a bit of DIW-standard character prosecution. His reaction to the authors’ account of the email, blog, and phone attacks directed at them is also familiar stuff. I fault people on both sides of the debate for not caring enough about the quality of discourse coming from their own side as well as the other. But if the authors are unjustified in giving the impression that the attacks were a one-way flow from right to left, Johnson is just as unjustified in disowning the problem when he’s been such an enabler.

What’s especially odd is the equivalence he makes between attacks directed at him and those invoked in the Social Text article. It seems to me that he ends up making the opposite case rather effectively. He’s been targeted with plenty of venom, for sure, much of it shallow and vindictive, but the worst examples in the collection he presents are roughly equivalent to the routine characterizations of Lubiano, Holloway, and others coming from the DIW commentariat. Frankly, my expectation is that he’d have been attacked in nastier and more ignorant terms, but he’s clear about setting up this particular compilation as “the facts [that] contradict [the authors’] preferred version of events.” Nothing in his collection approaches the crude and threatening diatribes that Piot relays, for instance (another revealing example is in this Duke Chronicle thread—scroll down to Prasad Kasibhatla, 10/12/07 @ 2:57 PM EST). The difference isn’t subtle, and in fact the desire to punish or silence behind the attacks on female and minority faculty strikes me as an excellent example of the spirit of faux juridicalism. Paraphrasing one of Johnson’s punch lines, the fact that he imagines the attacks directed at him to be comparable to the threatening racist venom directed at some Duke faculty gives a sense of just how skewed and self-important his perspective is.

~   ~   ~

The last comment I left on DIW has never appeared—either Johnson didn’t clear it or it was lost somewhere in the pipeline. Here’s the main part of it:

Concerning Johnson’s last point (1:28 PM), my actual insinuation was that he’s inclined to quibble literalisticly about distracting technicalities as a way to short-circuit meaningful debate. He’s played his part perfectly (in the 1:18 PM comment as well), but I’ve learned to count on that.

Here’s a bottom-line point I’ve been making about DIW from the time I joined the “Group of 88 rehab tour” late last year—the quality of a great deal of the analysis and criticism is not only poor but anti-academic, and unworthy of a professor of history with a PhD from Harvard. It’s to back that up that I’ve written about Neal and Holloway. Ultimately the quality of any analysis, including Johnson’s and mine, can’t be established by looking at the thing that’s being analyzed. It can’t even be settled by deciding whether it leads to the right conclusions—faulty or shallow reasoning doesn’t automatically give the wrong answer.

I say all that because it seems like the reasoning and rhetoric in DIW should be offensive to defenders of traditional academic and intellectual values. It doesn’t seem to be, though, and I’m curious about how that works. I’d love to see someone defend DIW as a worthy piece of analysis without using what the other side did and how bad it was as a crutch.

No big loss that it was swallowed up—it’s a long shot that I’d get any kind of serious answer. And I’m seriously mystified by the dissonance between DIW’s image in some quarters, as a standard-bearer of academic reform, and the disregard for basic intellectual values of so much of Johnson’s critique. To pick an example more or less at random, there’s English professor Erin O’Connor writing with great admiration about “KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor’s magisterial Until Proven Innocent.” I haven’t had much success at getting blogging academics to take up my question, though.

I got a brush-off from Jeremy Young at Progressive Historians. It’s no surprise considering his unqualified reference to “88 Duke faculty who signed a statement publicly calling three white students rapists”—it’s hard to bridge the gulf between those who get a single, unambiguous message from the “listening” statement (like Johnson and, apparently, Young) and those who don’t (like me). So the gist of his reaction is that he “disagree[s] with [me] about who was most at fault in this case.” My choice to hammer away at Johnson does imply an opinion about what matters, and I can see how that would bother anyone who sees the professors singled out by the controversy as uniformly atrocious. But I’ve explained at some length what I think is at stake, and it clearly doesn’t boil down to who’s most at fault.

Young closes with a coy parenthetical—”(Did I mention that Zimmerman is a professor at Duke?)”—so apparently he’s comfortable with the basic DIW formula—pigeonhole and then dismiss or condemn. If you want to crank out criticism, it’s wonderfully efficient. Doubly so in this case, since it puts me into the “Duke professor” box (I’m not sure exactly what that signifies, but I don’t think it’s a compliment) and at the same time suggests that whatever first-hand experience I might be drawing on is nothing but bias.

What brought Young to my attention was his post last fall titled “Memo To Kc Johnson: Please Get Better Critics.” If only for the selfish reason that I’d appreciate some more original and challenging critics, I’ll amend the memo—he could use better defenders as well. [but please read Young’s constructive comment below.]

Fortunately, another of Johnson’s long-time defenders, Ralph Luker, rose to a higher standard in the testy exchange I had with him. What it came down to in the end is that he’s had enough of the acrimonious debate about the lacrosse case, DIW, and Johnson. I came to it relatively late, and I certainly don’t fault anyone for being burned out.

What drew my interest was a link Luker posted to a New Yorker article about the controversy that’s swirled around Barnard college professor Nadia Abu El-Haj. There are, for me, striking parallels with the lacrosse controversy (it’s a drama that seems to mesh quite well with the analysis of Weigman, Lubiano, and Hardt, too). The description of the attacks on Abu El-Haj by Alan Segal, a senior professor at Barnard, suggests the same self-serving, reductive, partisan reasoning that DIW thrives on—logic that starts with a simplistic model of a scholar in the grip of ideological and political biases and then looks at their work through whatever lens it takes to confirm the premise. I’m disappointed that no one was willing to comment on that, because there is some fine perspective to be had from the Cliopatria crowd. I did myself no favors by coming on so strong, though—I should have asked more questions and made fewer statements.

What stands out from the exchange is this, from Luker:

[Johnson] is probably the most extensively and prestigiously published historian who contributes [to Cliopatria] regularly. You’re welcome to your attack on Harvey Silverglate and FIRE, but they are respectable voices. FIRE’s done some very valuable work in attacking speech codes on our campuses. Check it out.

None of that was news to me. I have checked FIRE out—their cause is a good one, and I don’t doubt they do valuable work. I can’t figure out why they’ve chosen to waste their credibility on empty-headed culture-war cheerleading. And it would save lots of trouble if I could just dismiss Johnson as a fringe scholar. I’m working on the assumption that his scholarship is solid and he’s a fine teacher as well. But I can’t reconcile the approach to evidence and interpretation in his criticism of fellow academics with the sensibility of a professional historian (based on my outsider’s impression, that is). And I can’t reconcile that approach with the essential principles I’d want to communicate in any class that involved reading and critical analysis (if you’re horrified by the idea, rest assured that there are no plans for me to teach such a class). The real and imagined sins of a few dozen Duke professors are beside the point, unless you accept that they’re so dangerous that in order to expose them the ends justify the means—that’s the logic of the culture war, and I don’t think much of it. Otherwise an analysis that modeled such academic virtues as open-mindedness, accurate representation of evidence, responsible rhetoric, and unadulterated curiosity would have served the purpose, and served it much better. I’d curious to hear the perspective on this of anyone—academics especially—who feels that, despite whatever flaws, Johnson’s critique of Duke is a credit to academia.

{ 7 } Comments

  1. Elleanor | May 1, 2008 at 20:09 | Permalink

    You won’t hear from many that KC has any credibility at all in this matter. Notice that when he wants to build up attention to his now quite repetitive and flailing blog, he goes after the faculty. This is his real issue, and it’s a deep animus that extends from his own experiences with tenure. The lacrosse matter was helpful in allowing him to vent. But now, it’s a pretty pitiful, pretty petty performance on his part.
    You’ve got him exactly right, and he clearly bristles from the recognition that his agenda is motivated by jealousy and his own academic failings.

    ~   ~   ~

    Actually, I seem to mostly hear from people who think KC is credibility incarnate. Mostly they’re not academics, though, and I imagine that’s what you meant. But still, it’s my impression that there’s a contingent of conservatives (like Erin O’Connor) wanting to return to “traditional” academic values who think DIW is the cat’s pajamas.

    As I explained elsewhere, I don’t think it’s such a good idea to reduce DIW to a personal vendetta.

  2. Debrah | May 3, 2008 at 10:22 | Permalink

    The comment Debrah left in response to Elleanor can best be viewed in it’s natural habitat (on DIW, that is). I’m hoping that eventually someone manages to respond to one or two of the points in my post.

  3. Ralph DuBose | May 3, 2008 at 22:05 | Permalink

    [I]t is transparently obvious why you would want to raise the subject of the quality of the discourse: doing so would lay some concealing smoke over the truly horrible behaviour of some of your fellow academicians.

    ~   ~   ~

    Apparently DuBose wants to be the poster boy for the point I made a few weeks ago—Johnson and his devoted readers are convinced that they’re in a righteous struggle against those kind of people. What’s above is an excerpt that gets the essential message across. His entire comment is on the extra comments page, with a brief response. Just above it you’ll find his earlier comment about how much smarter he is than “my sort.”

    He’s probably right that “the only people still following this story are the old veterans,” and they’re not going tire themselves out reconsidering positions that they’ve been smugly harping on for almost 2 years. Johnson in comfortably insulated in the groupthink Wonderland he’s constructed, and he’s little more than an intellectual bully anyways—his typical response to a challenge is formulaic bluster and evasion. But even though I’m not likely to find anyone willing to take on my questions, I’m still going to try to keep this comment thread from filling up with harangues about the stuff I’m not writing about.

  4. Ralph DuBose | May 4, 2008 at 13:09 | Permalink

    He’s trying his best to explain—see how he does in extra comments.

  5. Debrah | May 5, 2008 at 15:02 | Permalink


    It seems to me that you are just a Daydream Believer.

  6. Jeremy Young | May 14, 2008 at 10:59 | Permalink

    I’ve just seen this now, courtesy of my Sitemeter. I don’t think it’s accurate to say I gave you the brush-off. I thought long and hard about how to answer your e-mail; one of the options involved writing a full-length post, another involved just responding to you privately via e-mail. I chose a middle course in part because I didn’t have a lot of time.

    The issue for me is this: the Group of 88 erred shamefully in tying a valid and important argument about racism to a court case pending against their own students. The fact that the case was later proven to be unfounded increases their shame ten times over. But the biggest slam against them is their failure to apologize now that the truth has come out. Signing the statement in the first place was bad; refusing to apologize is unforgivable.

    Against that, we have your criticisms of KC’s conduct on his blog. I’m not denying the validity of many of your arguments, but for me it comes down to…it’s a blog. It’s not reflective of his scholarship in any way. Nobody writes the same way on a blog as they do in their scholarly work. I certainly don’t — I say stupid things and make idiotic mistakes that I’d certainly edit out in the runup to an article publication. It’s a completely different medium with completely different rules and goals. I’m more concerned with what made its way into KC’s book Until Proven Innocent; one of the reasons I’m reluctant to delve further into this argument is that I still haven’t found time to read the book, and probably won’t for a while to come. So what might be the most damning against KC is something I can’t comment on because I haven’t read it.

    Finally, regarding your being a Duke professor: I’m not really questioning your integrity, since it’s pretty clear to me that you’re not close to any of the principals in the case and are responding to what you’re reading online and after the fact, but you’ve got to admit that when a faculty member defends his colleagues’ actions over an issue that threatens to tarnish the reputation of his institution, it simply looks bad. You’d be better served to seek out critics of D-i-W who don’t teach at the institution he’s attacking, and promote their work; the conflict of interest really detracts from your argument in my view. Would you be more likely to listen to a Democrat or a Republican who thinks Obama’s a great guy? One has reason to say that even if he doesn’t think it; the other doesn’t. Simple as that.

    Enough meat on my answer now?

    ~   ~   ~

    A fine answer. I disagree with a number of the points—I think at some point (fall 06, maybe), DIW stopped being just a blog, and you think I’m talking about scholarship when I’m actually talking about basic intellectual integrity. Those are all things worth clarifying, and I’ll undoubtedly do that sometime. But the feedback is greatly appreciated.

  7. Debrah | May 15, 2008 at 10:55 | Permalink

    “I think at some point (fall 06, maybe), DIW stopped being just a blog, and you think I’m talking about scholarship when I’m actually talking about basic intellectual integrity.”

    Give me a break.

    You cannot find more solid and more basic intellectual integrity than the way KC’s operates.

    Why do you think Stuart Taylor—-someone who already had enormous experience reporting and writing about significant legal cases on the national scene—-asked KC to collaborate on the book with him?

    Until Proven Innocent was a project Taylor initially began; however, after having read and followed KC’s blog, he knew that he needed KC’s phenomenal work in order to make the book what it is—-the definitive story on exactly what was allowed to take place at Duke and in Durham back in the Spring of 2006.

    Numerous other bloggers and members of the academy surface on occasion and begin their screaming sessions from the peanut gallery…..simply because they cannot quite accept or understand what a grand piece of work KC has in Wonderland.

    His writing is always a rush!

    Granted, it will be a daunting task; however, some really must try to move past their jealousy.