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.