In the middle of my last post I promised a list of some of the bullshit I’ve come across in Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW). It’s only, what? three weeks later? not quite a month? Anyway, here it is, a collection that lends credence to Harry G. Frankfurt’s comment that the “normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost” because of “excessive indulgence in [bullshitting], which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say.” What it suits KC Johnson to say is whatever feeds his Wonderland narrative—the cast, action, and bitter irony that it keeps it churning along. That’s how it seems to work in his coverage of academic issues and of Duke, anyway, and that’s the focus in all my posts about DIW.
This entry is all about problems with DIW. Look at the previous one for a broader and at least somewhat more balanced look at bullshit and the lacrosse case. A lot of what’s on the list below is covered in earlier posts—you can get more detail by following the links.
The most glaring misrepresentation I’ve found is a quote from Mark Anthony Neal that’s presented as his description of a recurring experience at Duke—it comes from an article he wrote a year before he joined the Duke faculty. A blatantly out-of-context quote from Donna Lisker shows Johnson reading like a drug-sniffing dog, hypersensitive to passages that can be made to sound extremist or intolerant or, in this case, biased against the lacrosse players. Then there are samples of the more sustained reduction to type that’s inflicted on Karla Holloway and Wahneema Lubiano. Johnson’s treatment of two events involving President Brodhead shows him using the limitations of his evidence as an opportunity to make stuff up. His story of an angry backlash against Steven Baldwin shows how little evidence it takes to convince him that the PC crowd at Duke is just as predictable as he thought. And when it looks like a Duke-run website is trying to expunge the memory of the three indicted lacrosse players, he mines the historically-charged metaphor of airbrushing for all it’s worth, and then some. First off, though, is something that’s not the usual typecasting but instead a bullshit insinuation that makes the “Group” look as loathsome as possible.
If you can call them the same name, they’re the same thing: The Pressler “protesters.”
[Duke lacrosse coach Mike] Pressler and his family were subjected to death threats. Protesters taped signs to his house with such messages as “DO YOUR DUTY. TURN THEM IN.” Several days later, when the Group of 88 issued their “listening” statement, the professors offered a message for such protesters: Thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard. [“Scapegoating,” DIW, August 4, 2006]
When I highlighted this passage as an egregious example of Johnson capitalizing on ignorance instead of fighting it, he responded that he’d “never claimed that the Group in any way thanked people who attacked Mike Pressler or who demanded his dismissal.” That’s so true. Like any good insinuation, the claim is in the eye of the beholder—it depends on who counts as “such protesters.” The protests that Johnson explicitly ties to the “listening” statement didn’t involve death threats or notes taped furtively to houses while a family was sleeping inside, so the connection isn’t that specific. The spirit of vigilantism behind the harassment of Pressler has clear parallels in the potbanging protest, which included a grotesque call for violence, and also in the “wanted” posters that went up on campus. But Johnson makes no linkage and offers no explanation or analysis, so the passage boils down to open-ended insinuation and literalistic sophistry—the people harassing Pressler are “protesters,” the “listening” statement thanks “protesters,” Q.E.D.
Outrageous stories about outrageous people are probably true and definitely useful: Mark Anthony Neal and the outer limits of credibility.
The myth that Neal lives by informs his claim that whenever he “rolls into the classroom on the first day of class,” there is always somebody “in the house quietly utter[ing] ‘who’s the nigger?’” That a professor heard students whispering the N-word at politically correct Duke approaches the outer limits of credibility. [“The Group’s Intellectual Origins,” DIW, March 10, 2007]
This is supposed to be Neal’s bullshit, but it’s actually Richard Bertrand Spencer’s. Neal wasn’t writing about “whenever,” and he wasn’t writing about anything he heard at Duke, either—the basis for Spencer’s story is an article that came out more than a year before Neal started teaching there.
Spencer’s tall tale, published with no citation, was a test that Johnson’s bullshit detector failed miserably. The DIW commentariat did no better, as far as I can tell. But when Spencer’s article came out, Johnson had already put Neal’s other outrageous utterances to work in an effortless and highly effective character prosecution. What Johnson shows in the end is that, when rhetorical push comes to shove, he has far more of a taste for thuggery than Neal.
If you can put it between quotes, you can pass it off as what they said: Making an example of Donna Lisker.
The only other Duke author on the [university’s “Duke and Men’s Lacrosse” media coverage homepage] is Donna Lisker, head of the Duke women’s center. Lisker’s column appeared in a publication called “Baldwin Scholars Newsletter.” Unlike the 31 other opinion pieces featured on both the media coverage homepage and the section of archived articles, this publication has no website. Duke evidently considered Lisker’s message of sufficient importance to upload the article onto the University website itself. Among other things, Lisker faulted a Rolling Stone article on campus social life for speaking only to students who “believed staunchly in the innocence of the accused men.” [“The Brodhead Files,”, DIW, August 1, 2006]
Johnson’s point, looking at the links to lacrosse-case coverage on Duke’s website, is that the official line was that “it’s OK to be one-sided in speaking solely to campus critics of the lacrosse team.” He sniffed out as “evidence” one phrase in Lisker’s article, and it’s most definitely “among other things.” What she faults the Rolling Stone for is “seeking interview subjects who would declare their opinion in absolutes.” Whether she would have faulted the magazine just as much if all four subjects had believed that the players were guilty instead of innocent, I can’t say, and neither can Johnson. But her focus isn’t the Rolling Stone article (“Sex and Scandal at Duke”), it’s the women who were Baldwin Scholars during the Spring 2006 semester. She is just as respectful of the two lacrosse players who “appeared in an NBC piece about the success of the women’s team and the difficulty they had watching their male counterparts go through this ordeal” as she is of the African American who was on Nightline addressing “the racial aspects of the situation” (One of the two lacrosse players, Rachel Stack, wrote a September 2006 Chronicle op-ed that Johnson turned into useful fodder). Lisker’s main point is about what they represented as a group:
What was remarkable about this diversity of responses is that they all coexisted peacefully. The Baldwin Scholars gave one another the gift of respectful and constructive disagreement. What’s more, they did not let this highly polarizing experience split them by race, by sorority affiliation, or by social class. They recognized that in a situation this complicated, there would be multiple truths, and they tried to see one another’s perspectives. In so doing, they were far ahead of most of the media professionals roaming campus throughout March and April. I spoke often of the Baldwin Scholars to the many reporters who interviewed me this spring; I wanted them to know about these remarkable young women leaders who were asking good questions and refusing to reduce the situation to its lowest common denominator. I thought they might learn something from them.
It sounds like Johnson could have learned a lot from them, as well, and also from Lisker—her piece is a much more genuine critique of one-sided coverage than his post is. Instead, in a remarkable show of bad faith, he took nine of Lisker’s words and turned them into bullshit, then put them in quotation marks so she’d take the blame.
Everyone knows how feminist extremists think, so there’s no need to puzzle out the convoluted nonsense that they write (part 1): Karla Holloway socks it to the jocks.
1.) The courts will not reach the desired outcome to advance her on-campus aims, and so their results must be preemptively dismissed. […]
2.) The culture of male athletics is inherently immoral. […]
3.) Women athletes are effectively traitors to their gender. […]
4.) The “victim” in this affair is… Karla Holloway. [“The Travails of Karla Holloway,” DIW, September 20, 2006]
I don’t know of a DIW entry that’s more full of it than this critique of an article Holloway published in an online academic journal in the summer of 2006. Just about every point he makes is fudged in one way or another, including the four section headings quoted above.
The last three headings say little about Holloway and much more about the one-dimensional stereotype of a shrill race-obsessed feminist that represents her in Wonderland. Johnson seems to think that the real message of the article is whatever a person like that would want to say—what the text provides is hints and incriminating quotes. Her distaste for certain aspects of the culture of men’s sports and her misgivings about the way the women’s lacrosse players expressed their faith in the innocence of the three indicted men are both translated by Johnson into outright condemnation. And though I don’t blame anyone for feeling that Holloway makes too much of the scandal as a personal imposition, she never comes close to setting herself up as the victim. This is a cheap shot that Johnson tends to take whenever it looks like the wrong kind of person is complaining about how the scandal has impacted them—besides Holloway, there’s Robyn Wiegman, Wahneema Lubiano, and Michael Hardt, Cathy Davidson (“and her 87 colleagues”), “the Group” again (and again), and the Durham Police Department, and perhaps others as well.
As far as dismissing the legal outcome, Johnson never explains why Holloway would have to when her “on-campus aims” have to do with “aspects of [the team’s] conduct that extend into the social realms of character and integrity [and] should not be the parameters of adjudicatory processes.” He ignores the straightforward distinction between what can and what can’t be settled by a criminal court again when he turns to her pithy claim that “White innocence means black guilt. Men’s innocence means women’s guilt.” In Holloway’s article it’s a thoroughly debatable opinion about her experience of how the allegations had been understood and discussed. It’s Johnson who turns it into absurd bullshit about what the court should decide.
Everyone knows how feminist extremists think, so there’s no need to puzzle out the convoluted nonsense that they write (part 2): Wahneema Lubiano, perfect offender.
In turn, she has used [her tenured position at Duke] to rally opposition to her own institution’s students, the “perfect offenders” whose conviction she believes will advance her pedagogical and ideological agenda. [“Creating Wahneema’s World,” DIW, December 12, 2006]
Johnson seems to have left no stone unturned in an effort to portray Lubiano as the epitome of the extremist race/class/gender mindset—the kind of person who has compromised the quality of college faculties in general and turned Duke into an academic Wonderland. One item in the fat dossier Johnson compiled on her is a list of almost a dozen statements, positions and associations that’s supposed to represent her ideological extremism. Some of it is activism meant to have a political or institutional impact, such as “demand[ing] that Duke divest from companies doing business in Israel” and supporting a graduate student union at NYU—fair game as part of a critical look at what she stands for as a person and a professor. Some of it is vague pandering, like the conference with both “Black” and “Queer” in its title. He ends the list on a note of creepy McCarthyism, pointing out that in 2001 she spoke to the Triangle Vegetarian Peace Society—apparently the significance of speaking to such a group is obvious, and it doesn’t matter what she talked about. The list is a pretty good representation of his scattershot criticism of Lubiano, heavy on circumstantial evidence and character prosecution.
There’s stuff in her dossier that’s directly related to the lacrosse case, of course. Her central role in drafting the “listening” statement is the big thing, and she made other statements that frame the lacrosse incident as a race/class/gender issue. There’s not a shred of direct evidence showing she had any particular stake in lacrosse players being convicted of rape. But it seems that the mass of circumstantial evidence and a relentlessly simplistic model of the black female ideologue adds up to a window into her mind—and it seems to me that Johnson does treat black women as especially agenda-driven and transparent.
If he’s right about what she believed—I can’t prove he isn’t—then he reads her mind better than he reads her words. He got little out of the article she posted in mid-April 2006 (“Perfect Offenders, Perfect Victim: The Limitations of Spectacularity in the Aftermath of the Lacrosse Team Incident”) other than confirmation that she’s just the kind of extremist he thought she was, and that she hoped to make an example of the “perfect offenders” on the Duke lacrosse team. When I pointed out that she’s analyzing the public debate and not calling anyone anything—something others had already done, including Lubiano herself—he came back with a snide dismissal of her “after-the-fact revisionism” (as opposed to before-the-fact revisionism?):
Many months after penning these words, Lubiano explained that she was merely analyzing the situation—that she didn’t consider the lacrosse players “perfect offenders,” because, evidently, she couldn’t be considered either a strong defender of the “victim” [sic] or among those who “see the alleged offenders as the exemplars of the upper end of the class hierarchy, the politically dominant race and ethnicity, the dominant gender, the dominant sexuality, and the dominant social group on campus.” …
This is, after all, the same Wahneema Lubiano who…
The list that follows is supposed to show that she couldn’t have been “merely analyzing the situation” in her article—that she was revealing her opinion of the lacrosse team by slapping a label on them. Like the list covering her ideological extremism, it’s a scattershot collection that mostly reflects the rhetorical logic announced by “the same Wahneema Lubiano,” which is prosecutorial rehashing of the defendant’s transgressions, with a lot of prosecutorial spin. Unless he feels she should be condemned for thought crimes (and it doesn’t seem like he has any objection to doing that) the question of whether or not “perfect offenders” is a hypothetical position doesn’t at all hinge on what she believes—analyzing one’s own position objectively is a matter of basic intellectual competence. She wrote the article as an activist addressing fellow activists, so there’s no doubt what side she’s on. But in her analysis she gives a credible account of two opposing positions and of the dynamic that results. Despite her reputation (on DIW, anyway) as jargony and incomprehensible, she’s summarized her analysis quite clearly:
I make the argument that supporters of the alleged victim needed to see the players as “perfect offenders” to affirm their support for her and that supporters of the players needed to see a “perfect victim” before they could imagine that a crime had even occurred. I was not arguing for myself, I was trying to describe a dynamic that over-simplified every possible element of the discussion.
What’s funny about this, especially given that Johnson treats Lubiano as a case study in scholarly quality taking a hit for the sake of “diversity,” is that Lubiano gives a perfectly credible performance as a college professor in “Perfect Offenders,” while Johnson, in response, consistently plays the role of a hack. Lubiano’s analysis can stand or fall on its own merits, independent of her sympathies, and her rhetoric is mild and reasonably neutral. On the other hand, after starting with the logic of a kindergartner and tattling on Lubiano for calling the lacrosse players “perfect offenders,” Johnson offers up a lot of disparaging rhetoric and a puffed-up list of circumstantial evidence, with a little agenda-driven analysis mixed in here and there. And Lubiano is the one who represents academia’s declining standards?
A hint is as good as a smoking gun when you’re dealing with utterly predictable people: The persecution of Steven Baldwin.
Baldwin’s missive did arouse the wrath of the righteous. Ignoring any pretense of desiring dialogue and debate with those who dared to challenge their agenda, the Group [of 88] and its sympathizers immediately tried to silence Baldwin. [“Remembering the Good,” DIW, August 9, 2007]
It’s clear that Baldwin’s op-ed angered a lot of people on campus, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the reaction was intolerant and even threatening. Two things put Johnson’s account of the incident in the realm of bullshit and not serious reporting or even informed speculation. One is the discrepancy between the scorn he pours on Robyn Weigman’s comment about “the language of lynching” and the free pass he gives to the heated rhetoric about tarring and feathering that Baldwin directed at some unspecified colleagues. If Baldwin’s goal was to provide fodder for Johnson’s blog and book he hit just the right note, but if he really wanted to improve the atmosphere for the lacrosse team, more carefully chosen words would have served him better.
The other problem is that the supposed onslaught of political correctness is documented by exactly two communications—a public response from Robyn Weigman and a private email from Kerrie Haynie. I suppose that Weigman’s letter might count as an effort to silence Baldwin, though I don’t see why it would be taken seriously as such. Haynie’s email is all about Baldwin’s damning rhetoric and not at all about the “Group’s” agenda. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise—Haynie didn’t sign the “listening” statement but he did sit on the committee chaired by Jim Coleman that’s widely credited with salvaging the lacrosse team’s reputation.
Baldwin must have gotten a lot of angry email—anyone at Duke who made a controversial public statement about the case seems to have gotten a lot of angry email. Much of it might support the narrative about the “wrath of the righteous” that’s so attractive not only to Johnson but to advocates of “intellectual diversity” and unfettered free speech like FIRE. Despite his reputation as a tireless researcher, in this case Johnson’s interest in digging up the facts seems to have faded once he had something in hand that made just the right impression. And what’s enough for him is apparently enough for supposedly “non-partisan” academic reformers at FIRE, as well.
It doesn’t matter how good the evidence is, it matters how good it sounds: Brodhead’s “bad enough.”
Perhaps Brodhead’s single most inexcusable comment during this affair came in an appearance at a Durham Chamber of Commerce meeting on April 20, two days after the indictments of Reade Seligmann and Colin Finnerty. WRAL-TV quoted the president as saying, “If our students did what is alleged, it is appalling to the worst degree. If they didn’t do it, whatever they did is bad enough.” [“Dissembling,” DIW, August 23, 2006]
Bad enough that what? That at least two of those students deserve to rot in jail? That Duke needs to take a hard look not only at how its students relate to each other and also how they relate to the community? That Duke’s neighbors have been wondering just what standards it holds its athletes to? That Duke and Durham will continue to be scrutinized and caricatured on the evening news? The phrase pattern “it’s bad enough…” isn’t self-sufficient—it calls for some sort of reference or consequence. When it’s left hanging, the rest is probably implied by the context. What’s left out can also be a rhetorical gesture, a way of saying “it’s so bad I can’t put it into words,” or “I might get in trouble if I say it, but you know what a mean” (wink, wink), which seems to be the way Brodhead’s critics hear this one. It’s a conclusion that’s almost entirely in the ear of the beholder. (As I’m posting this, I see that Johnson has recently come up with another alternative: “[the] underage drinking was ‘bad enough’ to merit the national assault on his two students’ character.” Of course! It’s so obvious!)
There are three short clips of Brodhead speaking in the WRAL story. They have no particular connection to each other except that he’s apparently “venting” about the lacrosse case in all of them (it seems to have been an unscripted panel discussion, though I can’t tell for sure). The clip with “bad enough” is cut before he’s finished speaking the word “enough.” Probably it’s the end of a sentence, but it might not be—there’s no way to tell without unedited video or a transcript, and Johnson confirmed in an email that he didn’t have access to either. Apparently that’s not a bug, it’s a feature, as the geeks like to say—Johnson uses the missing context as an excuse for a few paragraphs of tendentious speculation (aka bullshit). In the end he packages the remark as Brodhead’s “April 20 condemnation of Seligmann and Finnerty.” My impression is that in the scholarly realm, especially in history, such an opportunistic approach to source material would be frowned on, or else laughed at.
A few weeks ago, attorney Jim Cooney created some buzz by telling a reporter that Brodhead pulled some strings behind the scenes to smooth Reade Seligmann’s way into Brown University. This was hard to swallow for all the folks who were convinced that Brodhead was, at best, utterly indifferent to the indicted lacrosse players. All the more because Cooney used to be one of the guys in white hats. Jason Trumpbour posted his thoughts about all that on the FODU web site. His analysis is cogent and pretty convincing, and on the whole I think he’s come by his cynicism honestly. But this stood out:
I cannot imagine Brodhead writing anyone on Reade’s behalf without a gun to his head. If he did so, it was either as part of the settlement or for his own self interest.
That, to me, is mostly a comment about the limitations of Trumpbour’s imagination. I don’t have any trouble imagining Brodhead speaking and acting one way in his public, institutional role and another way in private. More to the point, it left me wondering if the reason Johnson and others are convinced that Brodhead’s “bad enough” was a condemnation of Seligmann and Finnerty is that they just can’t imagine anything else.
It’s no surprise that both of the lacrosse players’ civil suits against Duke invoke the line. One of them fully embraces the conventional-wisdom bullshit: with the remark, “Brodhead revealed his callous indifference to the truth, suggesting that even if the alleged rape had never occurred, the lacrosse players were getting what they deserved” (Carrington et al v. Duke University et al, p. 142). The other suit is more subtle, calling it “nearly a slogan” (McFadyen et al v. Duke University et al, p. 259), which strikes me as accurate but ironic, since as far as I can see the only people using it like a slogan were the ones attacking Brodhead.
Don’t spoil a picture-perfect impression with fastidious attention to the evidence: The president, the thug, and Duke’s “culture of crassness.”
[I]t’s worth pondering what it says about Brodhead and his administration that the president denounced Duke’s alleged “culture of crassness” while he spoke supportively alongside a professor who describes himself as “thugniggaintellectual” and says he embodies “this figure that comes into intellectual spaces like a thug, who literally is fearful and menacing. [“Intellectual Thuggery,” DIW, August 11, 2006]
That was the end of the post, a Wonderland moment being shrinkwrapped with a rhetorical flourish—Johnson had already made the rank hypocrisy of the supposed “conversation” perfectly clear, and there was no need for any further “pondering.” For all I know the heavy irony hits its mark, but if so it’s not because accuracy was the goal. The sole basis for Johnson’s account of the forum (other than his imagination) is a short article in the Duke Chronicle, and it never places Brodhead “supportively alongside” anyone else and gives no indication that he mentioned, much less denounced, the “culture of crassness.”
According to the Chronicle, that theme belonged to the Dean of Students, Sue Wasiolek, who “cited comments written by students on blogs, including one student’s comment that Duke was leaning towards a ‘culture of crassness,’ which adversely affected the intellectual atmosphere of the University.” But apparently it’s not enough for Johnson that the topic came up and was treated seriously—he wants to be able to pin the juxtaposition of Neal and the “culture of crassness” on Brodhead, and that’s easiest if the theme was planned into the event. So what was worth pondering in August was, in October, “worth remembering”:
that Neal is the professor—of the nearly 500 members of Duke’s arts and sciences faculty—with whom Richard Brodhead chose to share the stage at an event to combat the university’s alleged “culture of crassness” following Nifong’s first two arrests.
In an email to me about a year after that, Johnson said outright that the event was “designed to combat the ‘culture of crassness’ on campus” (emphasis added). That’s hard to square with the public record. There’s nothing about crassness in this announcement for the event, and if there was it would have been quite a surprise to Preeti Aroon, the Duke graduate student who coined the phrase in a column that ran in the Chronicle the day before the “Conversation.” Half a year later, she wrote that she was “intrigued at how quickly a term I created in my little apartment in Durham spread like a virus and made it into a national news magazine (Newsweek) within two weeks.”
For dramatic effect, nothing beats a trip behind the iron curtain: The epic two-day-long struggle of memory against forgetting on GoDuke.com.
But, very much like that photograph of Gottwald from the March 1948 rally, Duke has airbrushed from history those whose existence the institution now considers politically inconvenient. The website features printed versions of both the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 rosters, which list the players on the team, their heights and weights, their hometowns, and their year in school. These rosters are, in effect, historical documents. Yet they do not contain the names of three students—Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann—who played for Duke during both seasons. According to the Duke website’s official version of events, Evans, Finnerty, and Seligmann were never on the Duke men’s lacrosse team. [“Laughter and Forgetting in Durham,” DIW, October 8, 2006]
The parallel is to Milan Kundera’s poignant tale of people who were expunged from Czechoslovakia’s historical record—even airbrushed out of pictures—after an anti-Semitic purge. Johnson couldn’t “imagine why anyone associated with Duke would have chosen to erase the [three] names…. But Brodhead’s Durham is not Gottwald’s Prague. In a society where information is free, I am confident that righteous forces will prevail….” The righteous forces made unusually quick work of it, and when Evans, Finnerty, and Seligmann appear on the site later that day, Johnson registers it self-importantly as a “small victory in ‘the struggle of memory against forgetting.’”
A day or so later the Director of Internet Operations for the Duke University Athletics Association explained in an email that it was a technical issue that came up in the process of restoring rosters that had been deleted at the request of the players’ families. Now that could be the bullshit explanation of craven administrators covering their tracks after they were caught red-handed. But there’s no sign that Johnson even considered mundane technical explanations as he tried to fathom the mystery of the three missing players, and even if he doesn’t have a feel for the intricacies of database-driven web sites, he should have enough experience with computers to know how maddeningly routine technical glitches are. He nevertheless frames it as someone “associated with Duke” having “chosen to erase” (my emphasis), which suggests that his bullshit detector was on the fritz again—what could the Duke administration have hoped to achieve by quietly disappearing the three indicted players? And is it really safe to assume all of them are such bunglers that they’d imagine nobody would notice or care?
I just consulting DIW as I’m getting ready to post, and the “Laughter and Forgetting” entry is gone. So is the incisive comment that someone posted a couple hours after the entry: “The 2003-2004 roster lists one lacrosse player. The 2004-2005 roster lists 24 players. The 2005-2006 roster lists 34 players. Shouldn’t you investigate why all the rosters are grossly incomplete before assuming that there is an attempt to ‘forget’ history?”
It was all there last time I checked, a week or two ago. And I was all set to point out that at least Johnson was keeping DIW’s historical record intact. Ain’t that somethin’?
[The post reappeared a few weeks later—sometime after this little incident. There might or might not be a connection]
Keep any debate or criticism firmly focussed on trivialities: Professor Lubiano’s so-called “scholarship.”
And, a while back, a commenter criticized me for suggesting that the Lubiano Trio’s apologia for the Group of 88 could be considered “scholarship,” since Wahneema Lubiano listed the article not on her CV but only in her “recent publications” section. Well, now the article is on her CV, too. [“July Events in the Case,” DIW, August 2, 2008]
The nine examples above seemed like enough when I pulled this list out of the middle of my first “bullshit” post. But we all like lists of ten, and it so happened that Johnson had just handed me some great material. The comment he’s referring to, about “the Lubiano Trio’s apologia,” is part of an exchange we had about his critique of the lacrosse-case article in Social Text by Robyn Wiegman, Wahneema Lubiano, and Michael Hardt. As I said in my own post soon afterwards, my main point was that his criticism amounted to little more than nitpicking. Our exchange on DIW was interesting and early on it was even illuminating. But I didn’t criticize him for suggesting that the article could be considered scholarship, not in the way he says I did, anyway.
The relevant thread of our exchange is hard to pick out of all the comments. Here’s the gist of it:
Me (4/25/08 4:13 AM): Be as shocked as you like about all the factual errors [in the Social Text article]. Sloppiness of that sort is an indication of something, for sure. The points about 60 Minutes and the NY Times are really nitpicking, though, and the other points you call the authors on are, on the whole, peripheral. I’d expect students writing about the article to do a much better job of distinguishing essentials from incidentals. I don’t see how this context calls for any less, especially when you’re writing about a text that your audience doesn’t have free access to.
KC Johnson (4/25/08 9:42 AM): I suppose we’ll have to disagree on what constitutes a “trivial” error. It seems to me that when three tenured profs at one of the nation’s leading universities publish an article; and when these same three profs claim that “right-wing” blogs imposed a narrative of the case on their university; and when these same three profs describe FODU as having “embodied” this narrative the “most prominently,” it’s a pretty significant error of fact when these same three profs wholly mischaracterize the stated reason for FODU’s origin….
Me (4/25/08 2:42 PM): Prof. Johnson, I guess it’s also a trivial error to say that the Social Text article is listed in Lubiano’s CV when it’s not. It’s listed on her faculty web page under “Recent Publications.” Arguing about whether or not that means it’s “scholarship in her field” is a fine way to trivialize the debate, for sure. But the word “trivial” is yours, not mine. The distinction I’ve been pointing to is between central and peripheral.
KC Johnson (4/26/08 1:28 PM): My apologies, by the way, for saying that Lubiano had listed the article under her CV when instead she had listed it under the “recent publications” section of her website—a section in which she has never previously listed op-eds or non-scholarly articles (such as her N&O op-ed, her blog postings on the case, or the Group if 88 ad, of which she was principal author) and had only listed scholarship.
Perhaps, however, reharmonizer’s insinuation is correct, and Lubiano is suddenly using that section of her website to list non-scholarly items.
Me (never): Concerning Johnson’s last point (1:28 PM), my actual insinuation was that he’s inclined to quibble literalistically about distracting technicalities as a way to short-circuit meaningful debate. He’s played his part perfectly…, but I’ve learned to count on that.
It takes two to tango, and I won’t pretend that I had nothing to do with the combative tone. I was in his face about some points I’d made on my blog that I wanted him to respond to, and I may have been too gleeful about calling him on his “trivial error.” But “a fine way to trivialize the debate” and “the distinction… between central and peripheral” are straightforward points, and it amazes me that he came back with a sarcastic “apology” that repackaged my criticism as a finicky quibble about where Lubiano puts this and that on her website. I thought I’d made it obvious that I didn’t (and don’t) give a fig whether or not the Social Text article counts as scholarship, or whether or not Lubiano lists it as such. Whether or not “scholarship” is a legitimate concern in this case, it’s not a line of criticism that I can take seriously from a professor whose intellectual standards are so completely negotiable.
Johnson continues to pretend that I was trying to do to him exactly what I complained he was doing to Wiegman, Lubiano, and Hardt. I think my last comment makes my position crystal clear, but I don’t know whether he ever read that one—it never appeared on DIW. It’s possible that it was lost to some software fluke or moderating slip-up. Or it may be that the DIW comments policy (“Comments are moderated, but with the lightest of touches, to exclude only off-topic comments or obviously racist or similar remarks”) is, like so much else over there, bullshit.
The last point is second-order bullshitting that neutralizes criticism by misconstruing and trivializing it. In general, Johnson’s responses to my criticism have been heavy on bluster, misrepresentation, and ad hominem—those seem like pretty natural ways to defend bullshit. A few months ago some darts flew back and forth between us about my false claim that “50 percent of DIW’s posts were about the Duke professoriate.” (not that he actually reads my blog, you understand, but he hears things). It was an even fussier version of the exchange about Lubiano’s scholarship, down to the “apology,” this time offered for “assuming that this Group apologist [i.e., me] referenced the faculty with his (incorrect) claim.” I’m not sure if the self-serving insincere apology is one of Johnson’s rhetorical staples, but dismissive pigeonholing is definitely one of them—what value could the opinion of a “Group apologist” possibly have? He slaps the same label on Robert Perkinson in the post that ends with his carping about my 50 percent figure, apparently because Perkinson was not convinced by the case against Duke faculty and said so in his review of Johnson’s book. Since I’m at Duke, tribalist logic dictates that I’m probably an apologist. Perkinson is at the University of Hawai’i and has no obvious ties to Duke. He’s a leftist, though, and I guess that’s enough. The pigeonholing can be a lot more elaborate—my first appearance on DIW is at the end of a ten-paragraph narration of the so-called “Group of 88 rehab tour.” Johnson wraps it up by introducing me as another one of the washed-out bums on the bus—at that point everyone knows where things stand, and he can proceed to demolish my criticism.
On the other hand, I introduced Johnson on my blog as “irrational,” “anti-academic,” and “insidiously polarizing.” They’re charges that have held up well, too. Of course Johnson objected—who wouldn’t? One way he fought back was to try out those descriptions on a list of people I hadn’t criticized as harshly but who surely deserved it more. Eventually he found his way to former Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer. In a passage I cited approvingly from Rojstaczer’s review of Until Proven Innocent, he writes that “[w]ith regard to the ‘Group of 88,’ Taylor and Johnson are engaging in demagoguery. Certainly there are some left-wing crackpots at Duke (and no doubt some right-wing crackpots).” Johnson replied that “[s]ome people might consider calling members of the faculty ‘crackpots’ to be ‘insidiously polarizing,’ ‘irrational,’ and ‘anti-academic’.” The weasel-wording pretty much guarantees that he’s right, and no doubt some people really are that clueless about tone (Johnson may be one of them—it would explain a lot). But Rojstaczer’s casual hyperbole is hard to miss. Add that in and the objection to “crackpots” turns into bullshit, and a fine example of Johnson’s fetish for literalism to boot.