The word of the day is “tribalism.” I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Kenya, where there’s no way to avoid the word—certainly not after the post-election violence at the beginning of this year. In a New York Times op-ed a few months ago, Roger Cohen takes the idea of tribalism on a whirlwind tour that starts and ends in Kenya but zips through internet chat rooms and American politics. It verges on platitude at times but he’s still effective at relating Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage to his anti-tribalist instincts, which I’ve always found appealing and genuine—all the more since I’ve been reading his clear-eyed impressions of Kenya in Dreams from My Father.
Google turned up a blog entry by David Friedman that sums up the facile political tribalism of internet debates. I think he’s right that human beings are wired to make that kind of in-group/out-group distinction. But it also seems self-evident that a genuine intellectual would reject tribalistic reasoning as a matter of course. Apparently that’s not the case, unless you make it part of the definition of “intellectual.” Judging from his blog, Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more committed tribalist than KC Johnson—in fact I feel like I’ve finally found the word that captures the relentless polarization of Johnson’s Wonderland. In an article I recently criticized, historian Alan Kors starts by idealizing academia as a place that’s utterly hostile to ideological tribalism but then turns to a political pitch that smacks of tribalism, or so it seems to me. It makes sense, I guess, that Erin O’Connor’s reacted to my criticism by confusing me with a whole tribe of “critics.” But before I get to that, a look at the dark side of team spirit…
One of the starkest incidents of tribalism stirred up by rape allegations against the Duke lacrosse team was literally about turf. A couple of weeks into the saga, a couple of Duke students at the Cook Out (a drive-through restaurant) were surrounded and physically assaulted by young men shouting that it was “Central Territory,” referring to historically black North Carolina Central University, where Crystal Mangum, the team’s accuser, was a student. Mangum’s graduation last month provoked a strident op-ed in the Duke Chronicle by Kristin Butler, and the rhetoric of tribal antagonism has flared up again.
You don’t have to go far to see what a hot button Butler pressed—the 500-plus comments that follow her column make it pretty clear. She told Eric Ferreri of the News & Observer that “she’s surprised by the level of reaction she has received, but regrets only that her writing didn’t spark a more constructive dialogue.” Writing that she’d “never again take an NCCU degree seriously, and neither should any other self-respecting Dukie” because “NCCU’s ‘seal of approval’ no longer guarantees good character” wasn’t an invitation to constructive dialog (and since when have colleges been handing out diplomas that guarantee the good character of their graduates?). As she frames it, the problem is that NCCU has done things that are hostile and insulting to upstanding Dukies such as herself. She makes a number of good points that transcend that frame, but her interest in them, and in NCCU in general, pretty much starts and ends with whatever happens to impinge on Duke.
Butler’s chauvinism is most obvious when she writes about Solomon Burnette, a notorious enemy of Duke who graduated from Central last year.
Burnette, you may recall, robbed two Duke students at gunpoint in 1997. After finishing a 13-month prison sentence, he had the audacity not only to enroll in Arabic classes on our campus in April 2007; Burnette also penned a column I and many others interpreted as inciting physical violence against white Dukies in his student newspaper.
Burnette’s column is a nasty piece of work, for sure. The paper’s editors must have some discretion in choosing editorials, and it’s mind-boggling to me that they rationalized this one. NCCU chancellor James Ammons made it clear that, unlike Burnette, he believed that “the facts do matter in this case and every legal case and violence is not the answer.” My understanding of the first-amendment advocacy of groups like FIRE is that toleration for outrageous, irresponsible, and ignorant self-expression like Burnette’s is the real test of our commitment to freedom of speech. Perhaps his suggestion that violence is, in fact, the answer puts him over the line—it’s something that Butler could have argued, anyway, instead of dwelling on just how scandalized she is.
Rev. Carl Kenney, a Duke divinity school graduate and freelance writer, stepped in as Butler’s opposite number, more or less. But Kenney’s reaction also reflects his ambiguous history as an African American who attended Duke. It seems that the choice didn’t sit well with some black Durhamites who weren’t shy about letting him know just how they felt. After working to moderate that reflexive distaste for Duke, Butler’s column left him “feel[ing] like stuffing [his] head in the sand.”
Kenney’s sense of betrayal has a counterpart in the racially-charged animosity that bubbled over into violence early in the scandal. The Cook Out incident and other threats directed at Duke students led to a heightened security consciousness around campus, and according to Charles Piot, Duke’s black male students came under suspicion and scrutiny. Tribal logic is especially hard on the folks with divided or ambiguous loyalties, who don’t obviously fit in one place or the other.
But it seems to me that Kenney gives in to tribal logic, too. He makes little if any effort to separate what I think are natural and appropriate questions about Mangum’s status at NCCU from Butler’s way of raising them. Knowingly making a false felony accusation is a felony for a good reason—it’s terribly destructive. It’s easy to get fixated on the drama of poor black woman vs. rich white men (adding adjectives to taste) but the damage spreads to women who have been raped and those who will be in the future, and it spreads to communities and institutions—the scandal ground its way through Durham as tabloid news and, as NCCU alum W. Russell Robinson says in his response to Butler, “everyone lost” (with that point and several others Robinson seems, to my ear, to be saying that it’s time to set the tribalism aside). Mangum wasn’t held legally responsible for the damage, and as Butler points out it seems that she wasn’t accountable to NCCU’s honor code, either. Instead she’s been awarded a degree in “police psychology.” It’s not clear what sort of major that is—I can’t find any mention of it on NCCU’s web site, which is odd. It’s drawn plenty of bitter sarcasm (“Police psychology? If it includes conning cops, she’s at the top of her class.”). Peel away the sarcasm, though, and there are reasonable questions that a degree in, say, Visual Communications wouldn’t raise.
Kenney believes that Mangum is just “a person getting a second chance after a mistake is made.” As far as I’m concerned she deserves a second chance as much as anyone else. But a second chance implies a fresh start, and with the dust still settling on the scandal and no sign that she’s faced up to her responsibility for it, it’s hard for me to believe that she’s reached that point. It’s not something I can settle one way or the other. What is clear to me is that it’s a situation that should be open to discussion, that calls for some reflection—more than a shrug (“she earned the credits, so here’s the diploma”) or tribal defensiveness (“she’s one of us so leave her alone”). I don’t know exactly how they should go about it—Ferreri mentions privacy laws that restrict the information NCCU can make public about Mangum or any other student, so they can’t and shouldn’t just open her files to the public—but surely there are ways for the school and its community to show that they’re grappling with the issues raised by her conduct. Maybe that would even dampen a little of the free-floating indignation.
I see that while I’ve been puttering away, KC Johnson has put up a post of his own about three reactions to Butler’s column—Kenney’s and two that I haven’t read. One must be in print but not on the web, since there’s no link, and according to the little note Johnson appended to his post, the other one was taken down soon after his went up. Someone posted it in the comments, though, so it’s not gone. Thank goodness.
Johnson’s latest is a by-the-books DIW post of a particular type, running down a list of critics. Tribalism is the main order of business—letting you know who’s wrong and cataloging their failings so you know just how wrong they are. Four numbered items this time—bang, bang, bang, bang. For people keeping score, it seems like a convenient format, though the score must be so lopsided by now that it’s hard to imagine anyone would still care. It seems to be less important to dwell on who’s right—it’s not like there’s any doubt. In this case Johnson just reminds his readers that Butler is an award-winning student journalist and leaves it at that.
He shows once again that he’s never more insistent about the value of facts than when he’s found one he can use to discredit an opponent. Only a certain kind of person would use a “damn-the-facts” argument. And only a true Wonderlander like Rev. Kenney would “fantastically assert” (or claim, demand, wonder, etc.) anything. Johnson and I seem to more or less agree on one thing, at least—some soul-searching on the part of NCCU would be a good thing.
Last week, Erin O’Connor responded to criticism of Alan Kors’ article, “On the Sadness of Higher Education” (originally in the New Criterion, but the full text is available from the Wall Street Journal). She’s
shocked by the amount of vitriol that was slung in Kors’ direction, not least because the academic establishment, if it does nothing else, readily grants authority to analyses based on personal experience and is so friendly to reflective memoirs that it even tolerates a few that have been exposed as fabrications. But Kors is no Rigoberta Menchu, and critics accord him no such authority.
Where did all this “contemptuous dismissal” come from? She gives two links. One is to a post of mine. The other is to the comments on a post in Timothy Burke’s blog, where there are lots of unflattering generalizations about conservatives but I’m the only person with anything to say about Kors’ article—possibly the only one who read it. O’Connor also points to comments on her original post about the article, where Mike cogently suggests that Kors “go[es] off the deep end” on one specific point, and Luther Blisset briefly outlines a more sympathetic perspective on the developments that Kors decries. The most far-reaching criticism is again from yours truly. I did quick Google and Google blog searches and found a number of people who clearly admired the article and only one mild objection—incidentally, part of a thoughtful post that takes on more urgent issues in higher education than the one I’m going on about.
So it seems I’ve become “the academic establishment,” or at least the bulk of it. As Wayne would say, I am not worthy! For one thing, I’ve never accorded a shred of authority to Rigoberta Menchu, haven’t given her any thought at all beyond reading the name here and there. And I’ve never ranked higher than Visiting Instructor—I hope the new title comes with a raise.
It’s disconcerting enough that O’Connor seems to be responding mostly to me but refers instead to “critics” without mentioning my name. What’s even stranger is how little she has to say about what I actually wrote. It’s true that I was sarcastic at times, and no doubt it annoyed her that I wondered out loud if a followup comment I left on her blog didn’t appear because she wanted to “duck the challenge.” But “contemptuous dismissal”? “Vitriol”? I don’t see it. I thought I made it clear that I admire the resonant case Kors makes that a wide-ranging, open-minded dialog of perspectives is the essence of academic intellectualism, even though I don’t understand why he sets the ideal aside when he turns to his political agenda. I quote examples of perspectives on the “therapeutic university” that, in counterpoint with his, suggest a more rounded understanding of the situation. I hoped that part might drum up some more constructive responses, but none of it seems to have registered with O’Connor, nor did the substantive points made by Mike or Luther or any other elusive “critics” floating around in cyberspace.
It’s clear that O’Connor has a great deal of respect and admiration for Kors, and that she’s moved by the “hopeless and defeated” tone of his essay. No problem there—that sort of personal reaction is good blogging material, and people should speak up for their friends. And I suppose looked at that way, it’s fine to point out that he’s “winding down a long, genuinely important career” during which he’s been “one of the most important and influential crusaders for free inquiry that we have.” But to O’Connor these points are not just personal appreciation, they’re somehow an answer to the “critics.” Kors’ fine qualities go hand in hand with the qualities of others who contribute to the “good fight—the fight that organizations such as FIRE, ACTA, the NAS, and individuals such as Mark Bauerlein and KC Johnson fight.” FIRE gets a rhapsodic paragraph, in which she remarks that in the time since it was founded by Kors and Harvey Silverglate, it has “definitively shaped the fair-minded defense of individual rights and free expression on campus… [and] given hope to those who want to believe that higher ed can be saved from itself, and who think it’s possible for the academic world to be usefully and substantively reformed for the good of all.” She’s standing with her tribe, in the firm belief that virtue is on their side.
And then there’s my tribe—the “academic establishment,” “critics” who adore Menchu but dismiss Kors, who deal in “vitriol” and “contemptuous dismissal.” “[H]ard core, uninformed cranks [who] continue to insist that FIRE is a right-wing organization devoted to advancing a right-wing agenda.” No doubt there are critics and cranks like that, but as far as I can see they aren’t involved in this little discussion. Based on my limited experience, supporters of FIRE seem to think that any and all criticism is outright dismissal or condemnation. All I’ve done is to question the highly partisan treatment of the lacrosse case on FIRE’s web site and poke a little fun at the rhetorical excesses of its cofounders. I have to wonder what sort of disclaimer it would take to keep from being lumped with the “hard core, uninformed cranks.”
I’m used to the tribalistic lumping, though no one has found a stranger or more furtive way to do it than O’Connor. It’s usually much more overt. The post KC Johnson wrote to introduce me to his readers started with a ten-paragraph narration of the “long, and torturous, path” of the “Group of 88 rehab tour”—a list of about a year’s worth of seemingly inexcusable and muddleheaded efforts to “rehabilitate the Group from its rush to judgment.” Finally, “[t]he latest stop in the Rehab Tour, a series of posts by Duke Music professor Robert Zimmerman.” I had no personal involvement with anything he lists and no contact with the other professors. But his readers are primed and ready for yet another of those kind of people. It’s easy enough for them to line up much of what I say with their reflexive beliefs about the tribe and whatever doesn’t line up can be ignored. Not that I’m complaining—it’s good for laughs and usually validates my analysis. And there are always a few people who are more curious and open-minded.
Johnson cultivates the tribalistic atmosphere but leaves its coarser aspects to his readers, many of whom happily answer to a title—“blog hooligan”—that sums up the violence and intolerance of tribalism remarkably well. And when it comes to conspiracy theories, the us-against-them mindset is just the ticket. Of the things that have been said about me, this is a personal favorite, from a couple of weeks ago:
If I were an attorney representing any of the plaintiffs in the lax civil suits, Zimmerman would be on my deposition list. He has been poking into what the Klan of 88 did and corresponding with at least some of them (or their enablers).
I can’t really explain how off the wall that is, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. What’s funny is that she (I’m guessing) starts with a reasonably astute analysis of my “modus operandi” in leaving comments here and there. Maybe it’s someone from the bowels of the poststructuralist humanities—someone who’s sophisticated at parsing texts—gone undercover to plant blatant evidence of the “faux juridicalism” that Robyn Wiegman, Wahneema Lubiano, and Michael Hardt wrote about.
It’s not just blog hooligans who are inclined to imagine the “Group of 88” and it’s “enablers” and “sympathizers” as a nefarious tribe. Apparently it’s possible to deplore the hooligans and still insist that Duke’s atrocious reaction to the lacrosse incident has an undeniable tribal “vibe”, or discount my analysis of people and things from Duke on the assumption that I’m acting out of tribal loyalty, or something very close to it. It’s only good sense to be skeptical about my loyalties and my objectivity, but skepticism can also turn into just another excuse to be dismissive.