I wonder how many people at Duke read KC Johnson’s editorial about campus reactions to the allegations against the lacrosse team, posted on Inside Higher Ed on May 1, 2006 (probably at least one—in the comments there’s a brief clarification signed “Mark Anthony Neal”). It’s an editorial that deserved more attention than I suspect it got. It voiced concerns that needed to be heard and held an unflattering mirror up to the contingent of Duke faculty who approached the lacrosse case as a platform for big institutional and ideological issues, ignoring or perhaps even supporting the shoddy investigation and the thoughtless, shrill protests. The editorial is clear and to the point, and it’s relatively free of the tiresome, judgmental rhetoric that clutters Johnson’s blog, Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW). The sympathetic observations about athletics and athletes are especially good. All in all it does exactly what an editorial should do—it articulates a point of view in a way that encourages reconsideration and debate. This one, it seems to me, presented an opportunity for the people targeted by Johnson to think about what they really wanted to stand for.
Focussing on that editorial makes a great deal of Johnson’s subsequent blogging seem redundant. Probably that has more to do with 20-20 hindsight and my poor opinion of DIW than anything else. The blog went on and on, though, accumulating a lot of detail but very little depth. I might feel differently if the editorial had been about the criminal investigation. In the three posts Johnson wrote for Cliopatria in April 2006—the start of what would become Durham-in-Wonderland—he touched on Reade Seligmann’s convincing alibi, the flawed line-ups, and Nifong’s political opportunism and the pandering that went with it. Those turned out to be good indicators of how the prosecution would go (how it would crash and burn, that is), and Johnson read the signs more accurately than many of the rest of us. The stakes were high, and there was every reason to keep a close eye on what Nifong was doing. But as the title says, the editorial is about “Duke’s Poisoned Campus Culture,” and the problems with the investigation are only mentioned to show how clouded and agenda-driven the judgment of many professors at Duke had been. Based on DIW, Johnson seems to have been as prescient about those professors as he was about Nifong. But within the frame of such a sprawling narrative, prescience and tunnel vision can be hard to tell apart, and when it comes to Duke’s campus culture, it’s tunnel vision that dominates in DIW.
Johnson was already blogging and editorializing about academic culture issues when the charges against the lacrosse team hit the news. The ideological skew of Duke’s faculty figured in a piece he wrote for Inside Higher Ed the previous summer. From it he recycles a bad joke about stupid conservatives told by the chairman of Duke’s philosophy department, giving it vastly overblown significance as stage-setting for the lacrosse case. His glaring evidence of poison, though—the foundation of his ongoing critique of Duke faculty—is the “listening” statement, which he’d written about for the first time about a week earlier. Along with the statement came the so-called “Group of 88” (his term, I believe) who endorsed it, professors he found so transparent that he casually extrapolates their collective thinking to its “logical, if absurd, extreme”—some lacrosse players should be convicted for rape just because of who they are, no matter what they did or didn’t do.
After the editorial, the only significant change I see in Johnson’s picture of Duke’s campus culture is his assessment of Brodhead and of the lacrosse players, which quickly becomes morally simplistic. In fact a key passage is different in the version of the editorial posted on DIW (overstruck words are on Inside Higher Ed and the italicized word is in the blog):
Few would deny that several players on Duke’s lacrosse team have behaved
repulsivelybadlly [sic]. Two team captains hired exotic dancers, supplied alcohol to underage team members, and concluded a public argument with one of the dancers with racial epithets. Brodhead appropriatelycancelled the team’s season and demanded the coach’s resignation.
As far as his trumped-up “Group” goes, things remain the same without even changing much. In the editorial, Johnson writes, “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, for [Houston] Baker and many others who signed the faculty statement, the race, class, and gender of the men’s lacrosse team produced a guilty-until-proven-innocent mentality.” It was hard for him to escape the conclusion, that’s for sure. Fast-forward to “Legacies,” his final post before putting DIW on hiatus in December 2007, and he highlights the “race/class/gender extremists” who jerked the administration’s chain and were “only too willing to advance their personal, pedagogical, or ideological agendas on the backs of their own students.” Another major legacy he chooses to reinforce is “the pernicious effects of academic groupthink,” a theme that he first brought up in DIW in late May 2006 (the legacy he doesn’t mention is DIW’s remarkable success at fostering its own little groupthink community, part of a gossiping network of like-minded sites).
On the face of it, it’s hard for me to see how a historian could spend a year and a half analyzing an ongoing controversy and find nothing that poses a significant challenge to his earliest firm impressions of it. It’s a record that suggests that the project isn’t really analysis, and in fact it turns out to be more like prosecution. There’s no denying that the most prominent and vocal of the faculty he criticizes did nothing overt to break the mold—they stuck close to their issues or were silent, so Johnson is fully justified in sticking to his guns as well. Still, there’s a lot of filtering out of things he apparently doesn’t want the ladies and gentlemen of the jury to be thinking about. And filtering alone isn’t enough to support the one-sided case he seems determined to make. It also requires quite a bit of what I’ve described as misrepresentation, manipulation, distortion, etc. Now I realize there’s a better word for all that, one that really captures the spirit of Johnson’s anti-academic crusade—bullshit.
It was a reader’s comment that got me thinking about how useful the word is (I’ll get back to the comment later), and then I remembered a little book I bought a few years ago called On Bullshit, written by Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. One of my favorite lines from it—part of a discussion of whether bullshit is analogous to “carelessly made, shoddy goods”—brings out the book’s quietly surreal juxtaposition of subject and style.
Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.
The “essence of bullshit,” according to Frankfurt, is a “lack of connection to a concern with truth—[an] indifference to how things really are.” That sets it apart not only from truth-telling but also from lying, because you have to consider the truth before you can tell a lie. In a helpful review of the book in Slate, Timothy Noah gives as an example the claim the famously surfaced in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, about Saddam Hussein’s efforts to buy nuclear material from Niger. The possible basis for that claim is murky enough that it might not be the best example, but assuming for the sake of argument that it was as bogus as Bush’s critics believe, it does seem more like indifference to the truth than like a conscious decision to peddle outright falsehood.
Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost.
Noah’s example brings out a limitation of Frankfurt’s schematic analysis, though. In many real-world situations even the most honest person can’t be sure about “the way things are.” What I think stands for “the truth” in those situations is honest, dispassionate analysis, even though it might lead different people to different truths. With respect to national security matters like the yellowcake from Niger, the uncertainty and inaccessibility of the evidence seems to be a standing invitation to bullshit—one that’s frequently accepted by politicians of all stripes. The Bush administration seems to find it especially irresistible, and even compared to other political machines they’re way out of the “normal habit of attending to the way things are.”
It isn’t just a matter of “what it suits one to say,” though. First of all, bullshit isn’t likely to work if it isn’t plausible and/or appealing to the intended audience. And it usually serves some purpose or furthers some agenda—justifying a war, for instance. Johnson treats the lacrosse case as a battlefront in the culture war, so even though he approaches the fight more like a prosecutor than a general his purpose isn’t so different from Bush’s. His analysis is thoroughly agenda-driven—scratch the surface, and you’re likely to find some bullshit. And it can be pretty easy to identify. He’s covered the scandal from a distance, drawing on essays, interviews, news reports, and the like. Often in DIW all you have to do is follow the helpful link to the original text. There’s a fair chance that it’s been manipulated to show that the person who said or wrote it has exactly the values and beliefs that you’d expect from a race/class/gender extremist, or else it’s been fudged to bring out the topsy-turvy irrationality of Wonderland, where the crazies and cowards are running the show. Some of Johnson’s bullshit is generated in other ways, but the end it serves is pretty consistent.
I made a list of some of the more obvious bullshit I’ve come across in DIW, but it’s gotten so long enough that I’ll post it separately, within a day or two. [Here it is.] Much of it comes from earlier entries, though: What Mark Anthony Neal supposedly hears students mutter at the beginning of the new semester, the persecution of Steven Baldwin, and just about everything Johnson wrote about Karla Holloway’s article “Coda: Body of Evidence.”
It’s one thing for a self-appointed pundit to churn out bullshit—it’s practically the job description. Even a moderate amount of bullshit from someone backed by the power of law enforcement is a much more serious thing. Nifong seems to have been a copious, shameless bullshitter, and the consequences were disastrous for the people who ended up under his thumb. The silver lining is that in the end it all came back to haunt him. In the first flush of news coverage he spent hours and hours feeding the beast what it wanted to hear. Speaking to N&O reporter Joe Neff, James Coleman starts off sounding a bit like Frankfurt:
“Either he knew what the facts were and misstated them, or he was making them up,” said James Coleman, a Duke law professor who has publicly requested that Nifong remove himself from the case. “Whether he acted knowing they were false, or if he was reckless, it doesn’t matter in the long run. This is the kind of stuff that causes the public to lose confidence in the justice system.”
A line of bullshit that was all too effective in rallying the Duke community and neighbors against the lacrosse team was the bit about how they were stonewalling. It seems to have been largely the work of Durham Police Cpl. David Addison. Among his deceptive statements was this one, to the Durham Herald-Sun: “Addison said police approached the lacrosse team with the five-page search warrant on March 16, but that all of the members refused to cooperate with the investigation.” In fact after the search warrant was executed co-captains David Evans, Dan Flannery and Matt Zash volunteered to be interviewed by the police at length and without counsel present.
In late April 2006, a headline in USA Today announced “A perfect storm: Explosive convergence helps lacrosse scandal resonate.” Behind the storm, according to the article, was the “national flash points of race, class, gender, violence, money and privilege.” (James Coleman’s pithy reply a year later: sure it was a perfect storm, “but we know now it was based on this false notion a crime had been committed…. That generated everything.”). Duke is a sprawling institution that tries to be a great many things to a great many people, and it’s my sense that the lacrosse team became a vessel not only for the reflexive shock and disgust tied to those “national flash points” but also for various smoldering frustrations with the university. From where I sit now the collective reaction of much of the community looks like a body ejecting diseased cells that had been circulating undetected. It wasn’t pretty, that’s for sure.
It was not only irresponsible but a remarkable lapse of common sense if, as alleged in one of the ongoing civil suits, the message from the Duke administration to the players was “you don’t need a lawyer,” and “don’t tell anyone this is happening, not even your parents” (McFayden et al v. Duke University et al, p. 129). And it’s true, as Tim Tyson recently noted, that folks around campus were reacting to information that came from people who were in a unique position to know—the police and the prosecutor. In different circumstances, though, if the accused had looked more like the people who are typical charged with violent crimes, the word of the authorities would likely have been taken with healthy skepticism if not disdain. It seems like that skepticism should cut both ways. All in all it was fertile ground for Addison’s misinformation. Some people, including a number of professors who really should have known better, took it as an excuse to indulge in a little high-handed vigilantism, for example by singling the players out in class or in private communications and exhorting them to fess up.
No one took up the invitation to vigilantism and ran further with it than the potbangers. It took some bullshitting to fit real-life events and people to their metanarrative—another dimension to the mirror-image parallelism between the potbangers and KC Johnson that I pointed out in my first post about the case. For both, “perfecting” and bullshitting seem to go hand in hand (that’s using—maybe abusing—a term that I continue to find very apt, introduced into the debate by Wahneema Lubiano). For the potbangers, the need to embroider went beyond just “perfecting” the offenders and the “survivor.” What stands out to me is the bizarre reasoning that took a form of protest from tight-knit but underpoliced third-world communities and dropped it into the middle of a first-world media feeding frenzy.
This is a good place to bring up the comment that got me thinking about bullshit in the first place, since it puts the potbangers into sharp relief. It’s from RRH, an attorney and also a mainstay of the DIW commentariat, part of an interesting exchange we had about how and why our perspectives on the case are so profoundly different.
Attorneys have heard—or heard from other attorneys—nearly every cockamamie story there is. Thus, we have developed internal “bullshit-detectors” that are so finely tuned that they are probably exceeded by only those of cops. Thus, when I heard the first reports about lacrosse case in 2006 (on ESPN), I was skeptical to the point just short of disbelief. The story is that several Alpha-male college students were going to risk reputations, diseases, paternity lawsuits, future careers, and family shame to put their most precious body parts into a party stripper? As we say in the legal business, that story already “strained credulity”.
And that’s even without the added allegation that the sex was involuntary. A party stripper with such fastidious morals and high standards of sex partners that she was going to turn down a chance for mating with such Alpha-males? Again, the bullshit-detector is sounding like an air raid siren.
I don’t understand how the “allegation that the sex was involuntary” could be in addition to the first reports, and the pop sociobiology doesn’t do much for me. But I don’t at all dismiss the bullshit detector he’s talking about, and it seems to me that there’s more behind it than just stories. “Perfecting” clients would surely be a great way to be a lousy lawyer. To be effective in the nitty-gritty of a criminal proceeding, it seems to me you’d have to be firmly in touch with the unvarnished and sometimes unpalatable humanity of everyone involved. That realization has helped me to clarify the nature and ethics of the choice that was made by protesters who felt they needed to shout slogans as if there was no question a rape occurred. Their perspective on the accuser—at the time not really “Crystal Mangum” but the heavily filtered impressions of her from the media and police—may be more palatable than RRH’s, but those protesters could and in my opinion did get things wildly wrong without experiencing any significant consequences.
It doesn’t take RRH’s crude realism to rein in the bullshit. It seems to me, anyway, that enough mental discipline to keep the accuser in the realm of everyday, imperfect human beings should be sufficient. I understand and respect the desire to resist dismissive and demeaning efforts to put rape accusers on trial in the court of public opinion and undercut them in the court of law. There is a big temptation to put a positive spin on the accuser, but it seems to be hard to do without getting into some euphemistic bullshit, even when it’s not nearly as idealizing as the potbanger’s rhetoric. For instance, Cathy Davidson, a professor of English at Duke, asks, “Who is that exotic dancer? A single mother who takes off her clothes for hire partly to pay for tuition at a distinguished historically black college.” Her main point is socioeconomic—in different circumstances she could have replaced “takes off her clothes” with “cleans toilets seven nights a week” or “serves as a guinea pig for grueling pharmaceutical trials”—so it may not be entirely fair to single her out. But I feel like I’ve seen a number of variations on the theme of student mom reduced to stripping to get an education, and they have a sanitized feel that calls to mind noxious Hollywood fairy tales like “Pretty Woman.” The rhetoric kicked up by recent news that Mangum graduated from North Carolina Central showed that she’s still little more than a rhetorical football for both sides. It was a starkly symbolic and ironic event that could have provoked some sharp analysis but didn’t.
My feeling is that one purpose of the critical analysis and writing we assign to our undergraduates is building up their resistance to bullshit. Whether or not that’s a common opinion, it seems like professors, of all people, should be bullshit detectors and not bullshit producers. And not just detectors pointed at the other side—as I’ve shown by example many times, that’s the easy part. I can think of only two at Duke who’ve stood out for their non-partisan bullshit detecting—James Coleman and Michael Gustafson. It’s a discredit to the professors on the Left—especially but not only at Duke—that they had nothing to say about the poor judgment and poor reasoning of the potbangers and like-minded protesters. (The one exception I’m aware of is Wahneema Lubiano, of all people. I wish her reservations about “perfecting” had been less equivocal and more forthright, but those aren’t the main reasons her critics were so insistent about misconstruing her.)
The main problem on the Duke side of the lacrosse case wasn’t bullshit, it was a callous and opportunistic attitude towards the students who were facing drastic legal consequences. But the Duke faculty definitely contributed some bullshit, too. Houston Baker’s histrionic letter is probably the standout. Parts of it—“And when will the others assaulted by racist epithets while passing 610 Buchanan ever forget that dark moment brought on them by a group of drunken Duke boys?,” etc.—are not only bullshit, they’re pretentious bullshit. It’s my impression that many liestoppers would put Cathy Davidson’s January 2007 editorial high on the bullshit scale. Taken as a whole I don’t see why it’s so offensive—a lot of it strikes me as honest and conciliatory—but she does start out with a whopper, claiming that in the rhetorical climate that motivated the “listening” statement, “defending David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann necessitated reverting to pernicious stereotypes about African-Americans, especially poor black women.” Not only had those three not been indicted when the “listening” statement was published, they hadn’t even been singled out from the rest of the team as likely suspects. For someone writing an editorial that purports to explain key events of the first few intense weeks of the scandal, this suggests great indifference to “the way things are” and a serious failure to “pay attention to anything except what it suits one to say.”
I imagine that the line that serves as Karla Holloway’s motto on DIW—“White innocence means black guilt. Men’s innocence means women’s guilt”—would also be ranked as prime bullshit by her critics. Understood in context, I think that’s debatable. It seems to me that it’s not with any particular statement that she most clearly lapses into bullshit, it’s her general failure to own up to her role in stirring up the bitter discourse that she found so onerous, and her tendency to place herself outside and on the receiving end of the university’s power structure. And then there’s the “listening” statement. For me it’s the first line—“We are listening to our students”—that stands out as obvious bullshit. They were listening to some of their students. It’s too much like the vacuous cliché about listening to the “will of the American people” that’s endlessly falling out of the mouths of politicians.
It’s a pretty good measure of the real purpose and integrity of DIW that, leaving aside Baker’s letter, which is pretty much a sitting duck, Johnson responds to most of this stuff from the Duke side with bullshit of his own. The DIW impression of Holloway’s infamous line is largely an artifact of Johnson’s bullshit. And after pointing out the factual silliness of Davidson’s mention of the three indicted players, he turns to the statement she surely meant to make, about rhetoric in defense of the lacrosse players generally.
In late March, when the idea for the Group of 88’s statement originated, who—either on Duke’s campus or in the media—was elevating the lacrosse players “to the status of martyrs, innocent victims of reverse racism”? Certainly not the protesters to whom Davidson and the other Group members said “thank you”…. Between March 29 and the issuance of the Group’s statement on April 6, were members of the media or cable news network talking heads elevating the lacrosse players “to the status of martyrs, innocent victims of reverse racism”?
He starts by asking exactly the right question, then gives a non-answer that’s really just an excuse to slip in one of his boilerplate formulas for denouncing the “Group,” and finally comes to rest on “media or cable news network talking heads.” It may be bullshit to claim that there was backlash against black students, and “[t]he insults, at that time, were rampant.” I can’t say for sure either way. But I’m confident that a great deal was said and felt by students walking across campus at night, say, or down a dorm hallway, that wasn’t picked up by any “talking heads” or even in the campus paper. No doubt it suits Johnson to believe that he was getting a complete and accurate impression of events at Duke as he was following the news from several states away. It’s self-serving bullshit, though, especially coming from a historian dabbling in journalism—people in both fields are supposed to have some sophistication about the way their evidence is mediated. He could have gleaned at least a hint of what black students experienced at the time from the comments quoted in the “listening” statement. But he never treats those students as if they’re worth listening to (he does suggest in an obnoxious reference to them as “alleged students [who] can testify as to what they said” that they’d be good subjects for an inquisition).
At least two Duke professors picked up echos in the lacrosse incident of institutionalized, open, and often violent racism of the old South. For both there’s a close connection to their scholarly work. Both allude to the unproven nature of the rape allegations and claim to be setting them aside while they consider other aspects of the students’ behavior that evening, but it seems to me that the impression of the brutality of the alleged crime still filters into their judgment (see James Coleman’s comment above about the perfect storm). Tim Tyson saw the “spirit of the lynch mob” in the crowd of young men at the party. William Chafe saw a continuation of the “poisonous linkage of race and sex as instruments of power and control” that’s integral to southern history. I know that for me and many others, the impression of a gang of young white men clustered drunkenly around a couple of half-naked black women had some very ugly resonances. But that’s a gut response, and it seems like neither Chase or Tyson gave it the critical consideration they should have before they said their piece. I’ve already described my reservations with Tyson’s lynch mob analogy. Turning to Chafe, how much context, really, does Emmett Till—brutally beaten and then shot, eye gouged out, barbed wire strung around his neck—provide for that party? In both cases, there is a bullshit gap, I guess you could call it. In fact the gap seems so obvious, especially in Chafe’s case, that I have to believe that, for better or worse, the point is sincere.
Mark Anthony Neal’s comments about “racialized sexual violence” pull the same general issues into a more contemporary context—relating the lacrosse incident not to old-fashioned lynching and brutality but to the present-day media-driven discourse that holds that “black women and their bodies have little value, little protection and are accessible to anyone who feels entitled to them.” It seems to me that this makes some contact with the spirit of the party. There was, for instance, the infamous parting shot: “Hey bitch, thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt.” (According to KC Johnson it’s “a tasteless rip-off of a Chris Rock joke”—a widely held opinion that I find entirely plausible, but it’s typical of the mountain of self-perpetuating verbiage that’s been left by this scandal that I can’t find a source pinning the joke to any particular Chris Rock show. I did find a thread on the TalkLeft forums initiated by someone wanting to know the same thing—after 200+ comments there’s no definitive conclusion.) Being more plugged into the here and now turns out to have its dangers—it leads Neal into some speculation about how the lacrosse team may have been “hoping to consume something that they felt that a black woman uniquely possessed.” That would be blatant bullshit if it wasn’t framed as speculation—perhaps it still counts, but it’s most problematic for other reasons.
Neal is capable of writing with style and insight about the “fo’ real,” as he calls it, but in this case the elision he makes between rhetorical violence and brutal physical assault lands him in bullshit territory. RRH’s caustic perspective is again an antidote, a reminder of how animalistic the alleged acts would have been, and the deeply ingrained barriers that would have had to be overcome. It seems to me that a more incisive point of reference is the typical scenarios for alcohol- and entitlement-fueled assaults involving college students, which usually involve some mutual socializing and perhaps mixed signals as well. It’s not hard to see how the inhibition is overcome in those circumstances, and it’s not far-fetched that there could be some acting out of the kind of rhetoric Neal highlighted.
The final step in RRH’s bullshit detecting is statistical—“Single-offender white on black rapes are so infrequent that they show up usually as asterisks in crime statistics, and white multiple offender rapes of black women are barely more frequent than carjackings by Amish farmers.” It’s grounds for skepticism, for sure, but it’s just a mindless number that could be hiding who knows what biases or artifacts. There’s little if any insight in it.