Skip to content

There can be only one story

It’s interesting to see how bits of news reverberate through the blogosphere. Thanks to some saved searches in my Google reader, I’ve seen a number of lacrosse-case stories make the rounds. The bigger ones have generated some lasting buzz—the motion from Duke’s side to shut down the Duke Lawsuit website, the surreal news the accuser, Crystal Mangum, graduated this spring with a degree in Police Psychology, and the Duke lacrosse team in the playoffs, which was a nice run that’s just ended prematurely (I hope the right kind of attention was therapeutic for the team and the school, though). Smaller developments have some briefer in-group echos—I wrote about the ones that followed the belated blast at an article about the controversy that KC Johnson posted on Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW) last month. Late last week I had a feeling that I’d soon be seeing something along the same lines when an interview with Duke professor Tim Tyson about his role in the scandal popped up. And Johnson was indeed quick to give it the treatment. I’m too damn slow and verbose to get in early in the cycle, but I’m trying to do my part.

The News and Observer ran a profile of Tyson about a week ago, highlighting his efforts to “build community across the lines of race and ethnicity.” Readers wrote in to suggest that the paper should have brought up his role in the lacrosse case, so J. Peder Zane emailed Tyson some questions and put the answers on his blog. Tyson alludes to inaccuracies in the early press coverage and suggests that if he’d had a better picture he might have spoken a little differently. But on reflection, he says he “would not go back and change what [he] said very much.” And to some extent I can see why—some of the things he said were, in my opinion, very much on target. Others not so much.

In a short editorial that ran in the N & O on April 2, 2006, Tyson pinpoints the willingness to treat people as things as the real problem with the lacrosse team’s ill-fated party, and as the central issue raised by the case. Probably I’d be able to agree with him wholeheartedly if cooler heads had prevailed at the outset and Nifong hadn’t turned the investigation and prosecution into a fiasco. As it happened, insult was piled on injury. But as a way for people with cash to deal with people who need it, the transaction that night was grotesque, starting with the call to an “escort” (i.e., prostitution) service in which the caller lied about how large the party would be. It would, in my opinion, have been a much different thing if an effort had been made to find performers with the talent and experience to really put on an erotic show—women they cared to know something about and could treat as professional entertainers. They would have saved themselves and the rest of us a whole lot of trouble. Duke, according to its mission statement, is committed to its students’ “development as adults committed to high ethical standards and full participation as leaders in their communities.” I don’t see any way to reconcile that with furtive dips into the sex industry’s trade of dollars for desperation. (I lifted the last few sentences from a comment I made some months ago on another site, and I’m not claiming they represent Tyson’s opinion).

Even though it seems that I see the party in much the same way as Tyson, I’m mystified by his comment, in the same editorial, that “[t]he spirit of the lynch mob lived in that house on Buchanan Boulevard, regardless of the truth of the most serious charges.” To me, at least, the aura of servitude doesn’t resonate with lynching, which is punitive and vindictive, not to mention criminal. The abuse at the party was directed most clearly down the lines of gender and class inequality, which again doesn’t sound like lynching—race certainly added some spark to a volatile mix, but as I see it the setup wouldn’t have been less objectionable if the dancers had been white. By describing the behavior of the partyers in terms of an exceptional and violent act, Tyson made it harder to believe that his objection was unrelated to the assault charges.

The metaphor of a lynch mob has gotten a workout from both sides of the controversy—it seems to be irresistible as rhetoric, but it hasn’t been particularly apt when I’ve come across it.
What comes closest to justifying the comparison is the spirit of vigilantism that’s compromised both sides in the debate. The pretext for the worst that was directed at the team was the impression spread by the authorities that the players weren’t cooperating. Tyson was one of many who accepted the story—in a radio interview early in the investigation, quoted by Johnson, he said, “One of the really terrible things about this is that these young men are banding together and refusing to cooperate with the police investigation.”

Some people took the next step, which was to put pressure on the team not just to cooperate but to confess. The potbangers did it most emphatically and explicitly, but they weren’t the only ones to go proactive. Tyson doesn’t seem to have been involved with the worst of it—I don’t believe that attending a candlelight vigil is nearly as intimidating and offensive as holding a banner that says “castrate” or hectoring the players with emails or classroom lectures—but it seems clear that he didn’t stand in the way, either. And as I said when I wrote about the potbanging protest, it seems likely that Tyson and others who accepted that players were stonewalling would have been much more skeptical about the authorities’ good intentions if the suspects hadn’t seemed so privileged. It doesn’t seem like it should have been so hard at the time, even stirred up by the shocking and outrageous news, to see how naive and wrong it was to think that the players should respond to the authorities with unguarded openness (I can’t claim that if I had been more involved I would necessarily have done better).

Johnson and I seem to be in general agreement that Tyson doesn’t come through with the reconsideration called for by the lynch mob comment and by his support for the story of the team’s non-cooperation. And I think it’s safe to say that both of us think he should be able to find significance in the case beyond his favored cause:

A Duke faculty member, asked to reflect on the “lasting lessons of the Duke lacrosse incident,” doesn’t even mention the dangers of prosecutorial misconduct. He doesn’t even mention the dangers of popular, media, or faculty rush to judgment. He doesn’t even mention the poisonous nature of racialized political appeals, such as that offered by Mike Nifong in the November 2006 election.

There’s room for the case to highlight more than one pressing issue. The ones Johnson lists are all worth attention. Tyson’s is too, especially for Duke, because Duke’s undergraduates do in fact show up with a lot of money to spend, which means they have a significant impact on the surrounding community. And I’d add to the list the willingness of universities to make themselves into what Clair Potter calls a “‘rights free’ zone.” Ultimately the voices dedicated to the one and only thing that really matters—and I don’t see how Tyson could possibly be more dedicated to that than Johnson—reinforce each other and turn the debate into a bitter tug-of-war over false choices. Wackiness thrives on the noise, and pretty soon we’re hearing all sorts of nonsense—white students are under siege from the extremists in “oppression studies,” for instance.

Johnson has an impressive dedication to perfecting his offenders, to borrow Wahneema Lubiano’s terminology. Actually, purify might be more accurate—like a good demagogue, Johnson plays up anything that helps to typecast his targets as dangerous ideologues. But the driving impulse isn’t to make them into perfect bad guys, it’s to make them purely wrong. With some offenders he can tolerate a little ambiguity, but with the likes of Lubiano and Karla Holloway his efforts to portray them as dead wrong on every point are positively obsessive. An easy way to do the trick is to be selective and superficial, as he shows in his recent criticism of the Social Text article by Robyn Wiegman, Wahneema Lubiano, and Michael Hardt. But sometimes it’s a more interpretive endeavor, like the way he counters Tyson’s mental image of “a room full of drunken Duke students, all of them white, [emphasis added [by Johnson]] using an African American woman as live pornography.” Johnson points out that the sole black lacrosse player was at the party, and then chides Tyson for not letting this fact “interfere with his racialized metanarrative.” My feeling is that Tyson does indeed overplay the “racialized metanarrative,” but the fact that Devon Sherwood walked through the door sometime that evening doesn’t automatically drain the incident of racial significance. It’s threadbare reasoning that shows what an absurd fetish Johnson makes of literalism (I guess there’s no way to be more purely wrong than to be literally wrong).

Near the end, Johnson rummages through his rhetorical grab bag to add a few more offenses to the pile and gets a little wild. He shows how Tyson hasn’t changed his conclusions even though he’s apparently absorbed the developments in the case that have corrected the exaggerated impressions left by initial media reports. Fair enough, but then comes the officious remark that “[i]n theory, of course, professors are supposed to be open-minded, and reconsider flawed theses as new facts come to light; Tyson appears unwilling to engage in such self-reflection.” High ideals! If only Johnson would take them to heart. The difference I see between the two professors is not that Johnson is more open-minded or more prone to self-reflection than Tyson—I’m hard pressed to think of a less self-reflective writer than Johnson—but that Johnson is better at protecting himself from any facts that might interfere with his story line.

Finally, Johnson suggests that Tyson’s fixation on the “nature of the party” represents the same kind of “hard-line moral outlook” you’d hear from fundamentalists at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty College or at BYU. That’s a little hard to take from a man who’s spent more than two years judging a carefully selected cast of sinners according to an inflexible, narrow, legalistic moral code. I’ve read post after post on DIW castigating members of the Duke faculty, and it seems that in Johnson’s opinion there was no reasonable way to object to the partyers behavior as anything more serious than routine drunken foolishness. Many of the people who tried to articulate the issues raised by the party didn’t do a very good job—I imagine some did a downright bad job. It’s long past time for Tyson and others who contributed to the controversy to subject that record to some useful self-criticism.

One practical lesson I’d like to learn from the scandal is how to handle myself if sometime int he future offensive student misbehavior brings in law enforcement and the media. Johnson is absolutely right that any public statements should be guided by respect for due process and for my obligations as a member of the faculty. I don’t believe that precludes me from speaking out about what I see as violations of academic and community standards that aren’t in the legal realm. Perhaps Johnson believes that it does. Sometimes he seems to believe that there’s no way to disentangle from the legal realm any judgment about misbehavior on the part of the lacrosse team. If so, I’d love to see the argument. I can’t say I find his endless thumping of chapter 6 of the Duke Faculty Handbook to be very informative. His unwavering dedication to condemnation squeezes out most any kind of constructive criticism, and when it comes to hard-line moral outlooks, Johnson takes the cake.

{ 6 } Comments

  1. Recovering Academic | May 29, 2008 at 17:41 | Permalink

    starting with the call to an “escort” (i.e., prostitution) service in which the caller lied about how large the party would be. It would, in my opinion, have been a much different thing if an effort had been made to find performers with the talent and experience to really put on an erotic show-women they cared to know something about and could treat as professional entertainers.

    Several things.

    1) The lacrosse team was interested in seeing naked women dance (horrors!) but it’s real clear no one was interested in having sex. So while Crystal Mangum is a prostitute she was not hired in that role. Which fact she misunderstood by continuing to try to get back in the house because she thought “there was more money to be made”. I agree that the lacrosse team were naive about what they were getting into and should have shopped around for actual dancers. But I seriously doubt that had the party gone off without a hitch but later become public it would have made any difference to Tyson’s point of view.

    2) The “size of the party” is one of many stories Mangum told. It may or not be true but given her reliability on other matters a little skepticism is in order before it can be repeated as a fact.

    3) If we’re going to complain about false representations, those (not you) who want to emphasize the racial angle always seem to forget to mention that the lacrosse players asked for white or Hispanic dancers. When two black women (actually Kim is half Asian and was trying to pass for Hispanic) showed up, the lacrosse team almost called the whole thing off. Aside from a basic disinterest in black women, I think they understood the inherently unstable dynamics that would accompany such a performance. This calls into question much of what has been made of the “race angle”.

    4) The team is not “all white” and yes that error by Tyson is important.

    In the time this was happening the only sure thing was that it was an ongoing tragedy. If she was telling the truth then Duke had monsters in its midst. But she she was lying, and we got the slightly lesser tragedy we ended up with which could have been put to an end at any time by any number of people in authority behaving in the way they were sworn to do.

    What pissed off so many of us was that some of the faculty seized on this tragedy and the lives of the people involved and tried to use it for any purpose what-so-ever. Particularly bad were those who were simply seeking public attention for their work or area of expertise. I put Tyson in this category. To borrow a phrase, it’s “the willingness to treat people as things as the real problem”.

    It’s almost as if Virginia Tech faculty had seized on the shootings and said they wanted to start a debate about “America’s gun culture” before the bodies were in the ground. It was not the time and it was not the place and while VT’s faculty were not so clueless about the ramifications of their public behavior, many of Duke’s faculty were completely clueless.

    One practical lesson I’d like to learn from the scandal is how to handle myself if sometime in the future offensive student misbehavior brings in law enforcement and the media. Johnson is absolutely right that any public statements should be guided by respect for due process and for my obligations as a member of the faculty. I don’t believe that precludes me from speaking out about what I see as violations of academic and community standards that aren’t in the legal realm.

    Good for you. It’s real simple. While three people are on trial for their liberty in the middle of a media feeding frenzy you should refrain from making public statements especially if you have no reason to. Anything you say, one way or the other and no matter how phrased, is guaranteed to be inflammatory. The time to have the academic debate is after it’s over.

    ~   ~   ~

    1) If I understand Tyson correctly, whether or not the dancers were treated as things doesn’t depend at all on whether the party went without a hitch or not—it depends on the attitudes and assumptions the partyers brought to the transaction, not the outcome. It seems to me that the key question is whether Tyson or I would be as offended if things had gone down just as they did during the party but no rape allegation was made. There’s no way to know for sure, but it seems to me that many people who claimed (and probably believed) that they were judging the party independent of the rape charge weren’t really able to divorce the two. I think Tyson is in that group, and I may be, too.

    2) From the Attorney General’s report: “The host did not provide his real name nor did he tell the service that 40 people would be at the party. He asked for two white dancers… to entertain for a small bachelor party….”

    3) I like your point about the “inherently unstable dynamics.” Given how they reaction when the dancers showed up, it seems likely that the students had some sense of how charged an encounter it would be to have black women show up and strip.

    4) It’s a little game of telephone. Tyson comments about “a room full of drunken Duke students,” Johnson reads that as “all the students at the party”—a small distortion—and you turn it into “the team.” You’re out johnsoning Prof. Johnson in this case, but he does that kind of thing all the time. It’s a way to make Tyson dead wrong—a liar—and not, for instance, simply biased or carried away by his imagination or, as I see it, fudging a detail that doesn’t detract for the point he’s trying to make. This happens so much that I’ve had to conclude that people like you and Johnson feel compelled to turn their opponents into extremists.

    Your suggestion that Tyson has hypocritically used the lacrosse players as things to further his agenda is plausible. Certainly that’s a danger—I’ve made a similar criticism of the potbangers. And to the extent that people were raising big, abstract, hot-button issues on the back of the lacrosse incident, your analogy with Va Tech is pretty good. On the other hand, the Duke incident raised pointed questions about the appropriate behavior of students on and around campus, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect all comment and debate about those things to be on hold until there’s a verdict. It’s definitely not realistic to expect that.

  2. Ralph DuBose | May 31, 2008 at 03:57 | Permalink

    Re: Point No. 4. The nature of the party. The fact is, there were an abundance of video/pictorial recordings made of that brief and un-eventful week-day party. And no doubt KC Johnson has become familiar with them. Even remotely involved people like myself know that the strippers were a bust, that some Lax guys were surfing the Net or playing video games in that room and at that time because this was not a frenzied, out-of-control situation. For one thing, both the women were painfully unattractive and Mangum was helplessly, stupidly drunk. The frenzied behaviour came only later and it was not from the Lax team. In other words, KC has a right to ignore Tysons cherished meta-narative regarding the party because he has seen the video of the thing itself.

    ~   ~   ~

    Yep, the scene that evening seems to have gone back and forth between pathetic and grotesque. The people involved pretty much stumbled into it and then stumbled through it—another way the lynch mob metaphor doesn’t fit.

  3. Sydney Carton | June 17, 2008 at 16:37 | Permalink

    The motion picture of the party shows the 28 year old Mangum pursuing the fleeing teenagers yelling “I’m a cop, I’m a cop.” The boys were the only ones(as history has shown) who were in any danger that night.
    And so far as the alleged racial exchange is concerned,the statements later given to the police still refer to Kim as the Spanish dancer. Kim simply(surprise!) lied when she called up the police complaining about being the victim of a race crime.
    More to the point,according to the final(so far) statement of Brian Taylor Kim spent most of half an hour on the phone with Crystal shortly before Brian and Crystal arrived at the party.Most of half an hour’s strategical conversation between the women followed by an under four minute “dance” before they terminated,all of ,eight hundred dollars richer than before they came in. Plus whatever Crystalstolefrom David Evans(and others)on the way out. Three habitual (but far from accomplished) criminals descended on some extremely naive greenhorns and ended up unleashing a rather larger international storm than Hurricane Katrina.

    ~   ~   ~

    Oh those poor teenagers. First bored, then terrified, then ripped off. Sounds like Duke needs to invest in some nannies.

    [A little more followup on this comment is below.]

  4. Ken Duke | June 17, 2008 at 19:00 | Permalink

    Re: “It’s long past time for Tyson and others who contributed to the controversy to subject that record to some useful self-criticism.”

    I suspect you’re going to have to wait a lot longer. For them to admit that they did anything inappropriate by, for example, piling on while the three young men were literally fighting for their lives, is to admit that those unnuanced folks over at D-I-W and Liestoppers actually might have been right about something.

    ~   ~   ~

    Don’t worry, I’m not holding my breath.

  5. Robert Zimmerman | June 19, 2008 at 04:14 | Permalink

    Sydney Carton went onto the Liestopper’s forum to complain about my flippant response (above):

    I pasted an extremely short rebuttal with some generally under utilized facts over at Reharmonize.His reply speaks for itself.Like the original 88ers he never retracts just does another softshoe act and moves by.The fact that this whole thing is a hoax fromthe word go doesn’t bother him at all.

    So Sydney, guess what? Before you write a rebuttal, you’re supposed to read and understand the text you’re rebutting. What you wrote is not a rebuttal, it’s a pathetic attempt to explain away the bad behavior of one group of people by dwelling on the bad behavior of another group.

    Besides the point I made in the post about the difference between hiring a person and buying a thing, here are a few ways that we seem to disagree: (1) I think Duke students are adults—it seems that you don’t; (2) I think it’s reasonable to expect more self-control and responsibility from Duke students than we’d expect from a substance-abusing stripper/prostitute—apparently you’re happy to square them off in a race for the bottom; (3) Though they’re naive greenhorns to you, I think it’s also reasonable to expect Duke students to know what they’re doing when they call a sleazy service to send a woman they’ve never met over to their house to take off her clothes.

    If it makes you feel better and more secure to infantilize the lacrosse team and snort piously about the strippers who victimized them, go right ahead. For that matter, humor yourself into thinking you’re rebutting something, just don’t expect me to go along with the charade.

  6. Sydney Carton | June 26, 2008 at 16:20 | Permalink

    Sidney Carton’s illegible comment is here for anyone who wants to try to decipher it.