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Gossip and banter from all over

The criticism KC Johnson posts to Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW) can be a lot like gossip—a sanctimonious account of foolishness, outrage, and scandal. I guess it’s appropriate for it to circulate like gossip, too. Lately the hatchet job he did on the Social Text paper by Duke professors Robyn Wiegman, Wahneema Lubiano, and Michael Hardt (“In the Afterlife of the Duke Case”—discussed in my previous post) has been making the rounds. Northwestern University law professor Jim Lindgren posted at least half of the DIW entry on The Volokh Conspiracy, and John in Carolina milked it for two posts, and then picked up Lindgren’s for a third. Little value was added in any of these transactions. John in Carolina at least frames his quotes from Johnson with some storytelling. Lindgren just tacks a few redundant quibbles to the end of a long undigested chunk of Johnson’s text. He seems to have consulted not only Johnson’s critique but also the Social Text article, but there’s no sign he paid any more attention to it than it took to extract a quote. It wouldn’t have been so hard to come up with an original thought or two—I’m confident that the article is grounds for plenty of pointed and illuminating criticism—but it seems Lindgren is content to be KC Johnson’s dittohead. As of yesterday, Johnson completed the cycle with a little pat on the back for Lindgren.

In his few paragraphs of commentary Lindgren reinforces Johnson’s complaint about “unsourced ramblings”—claims made by Wiegman, Lubiano, and Hardt without a citation, especially the ones about vile messages they received. Lindgren is a little more upfront that Johnson about drawing the conclusion that these claims are misleading at best. Johnson, who has a bad habit of falling back on insinuation in place of direct statements he might have to defend, says that “it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out why” there are no citations for “any of these outlandish claims.” I agree that the article alludes to a body of discourse—blogs and other web pages, email, phone messages, and perhaps other mass media—that should at least be described and enumerated more precisely. But scroll down into the comment thread from most any “Group of 88” post on DIW and there’s a generous dose of knee-jerk bile. The urge to denounce, demean, and vilify comes through loud and clear, and also the urge to punish, which is the essence of what the Duke authors call “faux juridicalism.” What difference does it make for that overall picture whether they’ve actually been accused of tax evasion or “typically” been told to get back to the slave quarters?

Lindgren also wonders “whether their complaints about blogs aren’t mostly about commenters to the blogs, rather than the posts of actual bloggers.” The Social Text article is about “the ways in which the contemporary U.S. university has become a target of conservative agendas.” The authors look to “blogs” for a sample of sentiments that are widely shared and so should come through in both posts and comments. A law professor is surely able to wrap his head around the overall line of reasoning and come up with something meaningful to say about, for instance, the authors’ concept of juridical attacks. If that’s too much to expect he should at least be able to find some more significant points to nitpick.

I can see why Lindgren would want to insist on a sharp distinction between blogger and commenter after reading the comments on his post. Some are innocuous enough, and a few are clever and insightful, but for the most part it’s a collection of rhetorical snorts and guffaws—a chummy little festival of ignorance. Nobody’s as self-righteously sure of themselves as the person who has no idea what they don’t know and no interest in finding out. But what self-respecting group of law professors of any political stripe would want to feed and house such a small-minded, anti-intellectual moblet?

The prime example comes from one “Javert”:

Unless one has lived under censorship, it is hard to grasp the chill factor that the G88 created among the students and few faculty who disagreed with them.

I’ll go out on a limb and guess that he wasn’t on campus to experience this chill, or anything else. Could be he’s lived under censorship—you never know. Compare Javert’s fantasy to the comment from Asher.

I go to Duke and was around during the whole flap, and I have to say that, while the signatories of this ad acted in a horribly unprofessional manner…, their sentiments weren’t so far from the student body’s. I never thought the story made much sense, but very few people I knew agreed with me.

It doesn’t sound like he was caught in the grip of a Stalinesque chill. Of course I can’t verify that Asher is actually a Duke student or, for that matter, that Javert isn’t. But I do know that the women’s lacrosse players were students and Nick was a student, that Michael Gustafson is on the faculty and so is the unnamed senior professor I corresponded a little with. All of them disagreed with the “G88” and managed to express their opinion without any serious repercussions.

It’s a pattern I’ve noted before and will likely note again, since I think it’s important. There’s a sense of proportion to the comments and criticisms that come from people who were on campus as the case unfolded, even those who are angry, disappointed, or disgusted that so much of the community turned on the lacrosse team. It seems to me that that sense of proportion is woefully lacking in the average blog hooligan.

[I’ve just noticed a post by Brian Leiter that points to a debate between law professors Eugene Volokh and Cass Sunstein about who’s responsible for the comments on a blog. Leiter also links to an older post about Volokh inciting a kind of comment-thread proxy war on him.]

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Anti-intellectualism seems to have a pretty secure home in the American university these days. Washington University in St. Louis has decided to welcome it in broad daylight by handing an honorary degree to hateful paranoid reactionary Phyllis Schlafly. Brian Leiter’s theory is that Washington University is deeply beholden to right-wing donors. Over at Crooked Timber, Kathy G suspects that

[although] at least a few of the board and committee members who voted to honor her are conservatives, I’m willing to bet that the overwhelming majority are not exactly McCain supporters. I’d guess that most of them are liberals of one sort or another, and I suspect the decision to honor Schlafly came out of a misguided attempt to be “fair.” It’s a distressing fact that many liberals, anxious not to be seen as “biased” or as condescending to conservatives, in fact bend over backwards to be “fair and balanced” towards them. Such behavior then allows them to congratulate themselves on their “tolerance” and “open-mindedness.” Though, to be “fair,” so to speak—such behavior does come out of a genuinely decent liberal instinct to be evenhanded.

But this way madness lies. Because, as much as conservatives may whine and scream to the contrary, liberalism and conservatism are not moral equivalents. Because, on the one side you have the thinkers and activists who have advanced freedom, social justice, and human rights, and on the other, you have those who have attempted to thwart all those things. King George III is not the moral equivalent of George Washington. Jefferson Davis is not the moral equivalent of Abraham Lincoln. Joe McCarthy is not the moral equivalent of Walter Reuther. George Wallace is not the moral equivalent of Martin Luther King. And Phyllis Schlafly is not the moral equivalent of Betty Friedan.

So if you’re going to be handing out honorary degrees to political activists, conservatives are always going to come up short. And that is how it should be.

Them’s fightin’ words, and the stage was set for a comment war, liberal v. conservative. I like a good argument as much as anyone else, and this kind can be fun if you’re involved. It’s more of a contact sport than a search for truth, though, and often not so illuminating for the bystanders.

The lacrosse case surfaced as a toss-off from Michael Bérubé:

71. Dan Simon @ 8:

So can we finally end this charade about conservatives being treated as full equals in academia, and being massively underrepresented simply because they’re less interested in intellectual pursuits, or perhaps less intellectually capable than those on the left?

Yes we can. Phyllis Schlafly’s degree should finally bring a definitive end to this charade. Also, Larry Summers and Duke lacrosse team Ward Churchill.

The sarcasm and the reference to conservative hot-buttons was clear enough, but I’m not sure I’d have quite cracked the code on my own. Fortunately Bérubé explained. He was pointing up the way these cases get pulled out of context, blown out of proportion, and treated as representative and generic. For instance, Kathy’s strongly-worded opinion about what sort of political activists should get honorary degrees is transformed by Savage into a revelation about a massive “charade” perpetrated by liberals against all conservative academics.

It seems to me that, especially with her list of diametrical political figures—Jefferson Davis vs. Lincoln, George Wallace vs. MLK, etc.—Kathy invited that kind of escalation. But the Duke case does work well as a shorthand for an incident or controversy that’s hyped to death, its significance inflated by reducing the actors to ideological mannequins (or perfect victims and perfect offenders). Eventually Bérubé takes a jab at the bubble and at the chief academic purveyor of hot air to fill it.

I can’t believe someone would suggest that I am unaware of these players’ innocence. Good lord! The Duke Lacrosse Case is the single most important civil-liberties issue of our time! Is there man, woman, or child alive who does not know of the ordeal these young men have suffered, the inconceivable torture they endured? These people were voiceless, invisible, convicted with no possibility of appeal, not even granted the right to legal representation—until KC Johnson came along, heroically, to suggest that a suspiciously high number of the Gang of 88 had published books with the Duke University Press. And then, at last, justice was done in America.

That works for me as satire, and it’s about as much as you can expect when a fading scandal is being kicked around peripherally in a blog comment thread. Plus it’s nice to see the expression “Gang of 88” pop up in a context that makes it clear what empty-headed scaremongering it is. But until I see more discussion from the Left of the definitive contributions to the fiasco that came from people on their side of the political spectrum, I’ll wince a little at purely partisan impressions of the case.

I’m also wary of staking out the moral high ground for leftists, liberals, progressives or any other political denomination, even in the limited way Kathy does. When it comes to basic human attributes—things like intelligence, fairness, empathy, mental flexibility, generosity, vindictiveness and tolerance for dissent—I think people all across the political spectrum are pretty much the same. With respect to the lacrosse case, there’s a great deal of symmetry between the opposing camps, and unfortunately it’s most obvious with the negatives—irrationality, vindictiveness, and intolerance, not empathy and generosity. I have a feeling that non-ideological traits like those, as much or more than political conviction, determine the moral quality of political debates and acts.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. RRH | May 19, 2008 at 00:01 | Permalink

    You say: “It’s a pattern I’ve noted before and will likely note again, since I think it’s important. There’s a sense of proportion to the comments and criticisms that come from people who were on campus as the case unfolded, even those who are angry, disappointed, or disgusted that so much of the community turned on the lacrosse team. It seems to me that that sense of proportion is woefully lacking in the average blog hooligan.

    I hope I can help you understand the source of the divide between modern campus-dwellers and those of us who finished our undergraduate degrees 25-plus years ago.

    I am told that if you drop a frog in a pan of boiling water it will immediately leap out, but if you put the frog in a pan of tepid water and gradually raise the temperature, the frog will stay in the pan until it is boiled to death.

    As you are aware, people like those in the Group of 88 (which, btw, is a term they, not we, created), have stated publicly their goals of “transforming the educational experience” through a Gramscian “long march through through the institutions”. (We will re-visit this when we discuss your favored TNI in a few days.)

    Basically, they have been “turning up the heat” on the sex/class/race pan for many years now. When we “blog hooligans” were in college, the temperature was a balmy 80-degrees. At Duke, 2006, it was 200. The G88’s ad raised the temperature to “only” 220, but that created two different reactions. To the campus-dwellers accustomed to 200, the ad was, as you yourself put it, only “a blip” — something hardly to be noticed, and certainly not unexpected. To those of us who remember a different campus clime, it was the equivalent of being a frog dropped into a pan of boiling water.

    (The educational system starts turning up the temperature early, as I am learning with my children. Last year, both my 5th grader and my 9th grader were required to read “To Kill A Mockingbird” — apparently my 5th grader will be reading it again in three years, just to be sure she hasn’t forgotten the lesson. And the lesson is…? I had to argue with them before persuading them (perhaps) that the book was fiction. They each said their teachers were insisting it was non-fiction!)

    Anyway, think of the book burnings at German universities in 1934. How many university professors objected to that? But to those Germans who had been university students 30 years earlier and had had little contact with academia since, what a shock it was.

    Likewise, just as book burnings would be impossible for a college-educated German to imagine on his 1904 campus, so would the actions of the G88 be for a college-educated American to imagine on his 1976 campus.

    We outside frogs (“frog hooligans”?) see the pan is boiling and are shouting warnings to our brethren to get out.


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    Nothing like the good ‘ol frog-obliviously-cooked-in-slowly-heated-water metaphor. I wonder how many people have actually tried that.

    It seems that what you’re telling me is that you’ve interpreted the sensational soundbites kicked up by the controversy as if they’re typical—as if they sum up the professors who have come under scrutiny, and tell you a great deal about what students experience on campus. Despite your efforts and good intentions, I’m going to continue to believe my eyes and ears.

    If you have the inside scoop about where the term “Group of 88” came from I’d be curious to hear it.

  2. Ralph DuBose | May 22, 2008 at 18:54 | Permalink

    I cannot help concluding that you produce postings of considerable length and mind-numbing density for a reason—to obscure rather than to elucidate. A reasonable conclusion is that your goal is to confuse your readers rather than to instruct them in the wisdom you claim to possess.
    An honest, short, somewhat brutal telling of this story would leave the leadership at Duke exposed as either criminals or enablers of serious crimes. One can easily imagine why that needs hiding.

    I know you will never do this; but you could—Read the lawsuits. They are un-answerable. Seriously. Take the chance. All you might lose is your ability to defend the indefensible.
    KC Johnson never caused his readers to start wondering what the f..k was the point of a posting. But then, he never had a need to hide from real-world facts.

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    It couldn’t just be that I’m obscure and longwinded, could it? No, that’s too dull. Plus it doesn’t fit with the all-important metanarrative. And it wouldn’t be about Ralph. Yeah, that’s it—I’m trying to confuse Ralph.

    It’s absolutely true that Johnson’s readers never had to wonder what he was writing about. His posts are all business—a combination of bland, predictable “analysis” and boilerplate rhetoric—and he was careful never to challenge his readers to think too hard.

    I may read the lawsuits. But I’m hoping that the plaintiff’s counsel picks up this clever DIW reader’s suggestion that I should be deposed. That would be a lot more entertaining.