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Some bad satire, some good sense

About a week ago, Google dug up an odd little bit of satire in an Onion knock-off called Carbolic Smoke Ball. [The text is gone now—all that’s left is a picture of a goofy quarter.]

North Carolina’s Commemorative Quarter to Honor Duke Lacrosse False Rape Case

DURHAM - North Carolina officials proudly unveiled the state’s new commemorative quarter, which will pay homage to the Duke Lacrosse false rape case that wrongly charged three innocent college men with raping a stripper.

Duke University President Richard Brodhead, who heads the state’s commemorative quarter committee, told reporters that “although the facts said that the three accused young men were innocent, the larger truth said they should have been imprisoned. After all, they are privileged white males. But one can’t have everything, can one?”

The next couple of paragraphs have the fictional Brodhead rejecting other designs because—here’s a surprise—they’re not politically correct. Mayberry’s out because of Andy Griffith’s “‘appalling record in fighting for women’s rights’ on the show.” And no Wright Brothers—they’re “not sufficiently diverse to warrant this honor.”


It works for some guy at the Misandry Review: “Wow! Incredibly biting satire, skewering gender political correctness and feminist sensibilities.” Biting, sure, but funny? Maybe so—there’s no accounting for taste.

My theory at the moment, though, is that satire has to be in the realm of plausible to be funny—believable except for the twist, or something like that. This one is not in the realm. It’s clueless playing around with an imaginary world of boundless and dogmatic “political correctness.” It’s not that there’s no such thing—the ideal of equality has produced its share of perspective-free zealots—but flashing the PC card has become a reflexive defense for the insecure and narrow-minded, and a perspective that’s gone whiney doesn’t make for good satire.

Hoping for something better, I searched the archives of The Onion. They ran two Duke lacrosse stories. The more recent one (“Report: Almost Nobody Raped During Duke’s First Lacrosse Match”) isn’t one of their best efforts. The other one (“Duke University Equestrian Team Hoping To Avoid Investigation Into Their Sex Scandal”) is from April 6, 2006, only a few weeks into the scandal. I particularly like the last paragraph.

“These guys were brought up to believe that they can have any horse or woman they want, and that’s unconscionable—but a formal investigation would tear this campus apart,” history professor Woodrow Peterson said. “After all, the Duke University community barely tolerated the systematic sexual abuse of two black women at the hands of its students. If word got out that valuable horses had been treated that way, this place would explode.”

Now that’s a punch line. It’s sly, but it nails the overwrought and distorted liberal moralism that flowed so freely during the first few weeks of the scandal.

~   ~   ~

As an antidote to all that nonsense—and whatever nonsense I’m adding to it—let me point you to the latest from Michael Gustafson. He’s an intermittent blogger in the first place, and he’s not writing about the lacrosse case much anymore, so it’s worth making a note of it when he does. While I’m at it, I’ll highlight a long comment he left on my blog a couple months ago. For those of us inclined to make strong statements about the scandal, there’s an enigmatic sentence near the end that deserves careful consideration.

Part of why I’ve stopped blogging (much) on the original case or any of the cases that follow is there’s much more work to be done and certain aspects of public participation, I’ve found, have had a negative effect on the possibility of making real change.

{ 11 } Comments

  1. Chad Hermann | September 27, 2008 at 17:28 | Permalink

    Interesting theory on the plausibility of satire.

    A national government sanctioning the selling and eating of babies? Implausible. So much for “A Modest Proposal.”

    Giants? 6-inch humans? Horse-humans? Implausible indeed. There goes “Gulliver’s Travels,” too. (Swift clearly had no knack for this stuff at all.)

    Animals that walk and talk and overthrow a farm? Preposterous. Orwell obviously didn’t know what he was doing either.

    Twentieth-century New Jersey at the start of the Ice Age? Dinosaurs and grocery stores co-existing? Not bloody likely. Scratch Thornton Wilder from the list too.

    I could go on. And on. And on. But what’s the point? Your ” theory” wildly (and arbitrarily) departs from accepted historical definitions of the form and so, in the process, disqualifies roughly half of all the great satire in the history of the world. This will, of course, be news to lovers and professors of literature everywhere. But, hey, why bow to the tyrannies of fact and reason when you can just entertain your own random re-imaginings?

    We’ll wait with toes-a-tingle for your next theory. (A redefinition of tragedy, perhaps? For them to be truly resonant, I think they ought to have swords in them.) And then for your realization, however slow in coming, that fake news outlets existed long before the growth of The Onion.

    ~   ~   ~

    I set myself up for this by foolishly talking about a “theory of satire.” And “plausible” was a poor choice of words, since what I was thinking about was the degree of connection to the real world. It seems like the context of my little blog post makes it pretty clear that I’m not laying out a grand theory that would stretch from the pieces I was actually writing about to the timeless classics. Swift, Orwell, and Wilder are red herrings—an easy way to put me in my place but ignore all but one sentence of what I wrote. What do the fantastical elements in the large-scale works of brilliant satirists have to do with the steady stream of little newspaperish pieces in the Onion or CSB?

    The point of the post isn’t the theory but two attempts at humor with roughly the same target. One satirizes an aspect that’s made up, the other satirizes an aspect that’s real. The first one falls flat, the second one is funny. All of that is largely subjective if not completely so, and I’m clearly not in CSB’s target audience, so it should be easy enough to shrug off.

  2. Archivist | September 28, 2008 at 10:01 | Permalink

    “One satirizes an aspect that’s made up, the other satirizes an aspect that’s real.”

    I’m sorry, did Duke have an Equestrian team scandal as The Onion suggests? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

    ~   ~   ~

    Really? No idea? I didn’t think it was that obscure, but maybe it is.

  3. RedMountain | September 28, 2008 at 12:14 | Permalink

    I would have to agree with much of what Gustafson says, overall he makes an effort to be fair and reasonable. That comment is interesting and I think it may have something to do with the way people are vilified even if they have not spoken out about the case, but are somehow connected to wrong side on the basis of flimsy and hypothetical evidence. I believe he referred to the treatment pamshouseblend had received at LieStoppers as an example of excess energy going over the top.

    The comment he makes about his writings/comments being reviewed by outside counsel in his latest post is also interesting and I have no idea if it had anything to do with this exchange in the Chronicle, and I don’t know how many interviews he gave to them but it seems that he is referring to just one. One of the authors of this article is Thomas Bartlett, Gustafson does say “thanks Tom” in his latest post.

    Still, some on the campus wonder why the ad wasn’t more carefully considered, given the feverish atmosphere surrounding the case. “It’s hard to believe that none of them would have said, ‘You know, we need to be clearer about this aspect,’” says Michael Gustafson, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “The ‘until proven guilty’ was cast as a fait accompli.”


    For this article, The Chronicle contacted dozens of Duke professors to ask about the fallout from the lacrosse scandal. Many said the campus was split into factions. One professor mentioned that he no longer speaks to a colleague because of disagreements over the issue. Several said better communication was needed.

    Mr. Gustafson, a critic of the Group of 88,
    certainly thinks so.

    The engineering professor recently noticed a description of a cultural-anthropology course, “The Hook-Up Culture at Duke,” that reads in part: “What does the lacrosse scandal tell us about power, difference, and raced, classed, gendered, and sexed normativity in the U.S.?”

    Mr. Gustafson was bothered by a course description citing such a sensitive topic. So he sent a message to Mr. Lange, the provost. Mr. Lange suggested that he contact the professor teaching the course.

    He did. At first Anne Allison, who is chair of cultural anthropology, was annoyed.

    “The very query seemed hostile,” she says. “I mean, I’m not asking him about his class.” She wondered whether she had been singled out because she had signed the Group of 88 ad.

    Ms. Allison is teaching the course with Margot Weiss, a visiting lecturer in cultural anthropology. The two met with Mr. Gustafson for about an hour.

    “If this discussion had happened the way discussions have been happening, I would have written a letter to the newspaper, and she would have written a letter, and there would have been an escalation,” says Mr. Gustafson. “It was better to actually communicate with each other.”

    I am not certain the phrase “critic of the Group of 88” is entirely fair to Gustafson. He has been critical of ad’s seeming assumptions of the Lacrosse players as being guilty, but has also spoken out about some of the unfair accusations and treatment the Group of 88 has received from others. I don’t know in what context Gustafson giving an honest opinion has anything to do with any of the lawsuits, then again some of them appear to be far reaching in the extreme.

    ~   ~   ~

    I believe it’s not Gus or Gus’s opinions but his communications that are of interest in relation to the lawsuits, for what they might reveal about who knew what when, or said what when, or whatever. That’s only a guess on my part.

    It may be that in the context of that article, from Feb. 2007, it was fair to call Gus a “critic of the Group of 88” (though it was careless of the writers to use the term “Group of 88” as if it’s neutral). Over time he’s been much more than that, for sure. It’s also not quite accurate to call him an “assistant professor.” He’s an Assistant Professor of the Practice, which is primarily a teaching position, not a tenure-track research position. He’s an alum, too—all his degrees are from Duke. More than most professors, his focus is on the undergraduates, and his interest and involvement with them extends well beyond the engineering he teaches. I want to be very careful not to put words into his mouth, but I think it’s fair to say that part of his role on campus, as he sees it, is to look out for the more conservative students, or at least to be available for them. But the stands he’s taken in the lacrosse case have grown out of a broad and practical concern for Duke students and for Duke as an academic community. He’s consistently put a high value on honest, constructive debate, and as I said months ago, he’s a bridge builder.

  4. Archivist | September 28, 2008 at 15:09 | Permalink

    Oh, I get it. How clever. Equestrian — Lacrosse. Ha ha ha. So funny.

    And I see what you mean, it’s “real.”

    Only it’s not.

    And it’s not funny.

    Stick with music, buddy. You have no taste in humor. Hope you’re better at it, for your sake.

  5. Ralph DuBose | September 28, 2008 at 18:31 | Permalink

    I would never dream of making any kind of joke about this tragic episode. It really happened to real people and I am confident that they found no humor in it.
    Redemption is still a possibility, however. I am thinking of the evil doers being put under oath and being invited to commit naked perjury or admitting to compound felonies.
    They should take heart. Lots of good literature has been written in jail.

  6. Ralph DuBose | October 1, 2008 at 01:08 | Permalink

    See, in a civil suit, there is no such thing as 5th Amendment protection against self incrimination. That fact of the law is what gored OJ Simpson in the civil action against him.
    When Brodhead et al are asked under oath, as they certainly will be, about their deliberate efforts to effectively end the lives of some their own students they will have no hiding place. They will be compelled to speak on the record and the results will go into the history books as uber-examples of the corruptions of absolute (academic) power.
    After the dust has settled and the blood has dried, there will only be one surviving truth here; that some innocent kids were attacked by aggressively evil, politically correct, reptilian life-forms. For reasons that escape me, you appear to want to stay associated with them . Like, as if, they would not throw you overboard if they felt like it.
    I have the greatest respect for the importance of language & right word choices. But words will not stop a train. And it is easier to stop a train than to stop what is unfolding here.

  7. RRH | October 1, 2008 at 02:19 | Permalink

    I have received substantial criticism for my defenses of reharmonizer. But I stand my ground.

    Most leftists … you can’t even talk to them. They just scream “racist! sexist! homophobe! imperialist! capitalist! heteronormatist!” as if they are saying something intelligent.

    reharmonizer listens. And not only does he listen, he understands. Does he agree? No, but how can that be demanded?

    ~   ~   ~

    Uh oh. You keep that up and the PC police will be dropping by in the middle of the night to strip me of my leftist credential.

  8. RRH | October 1, 2008 at 17:01 | Permalink

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that you catch some flack from your side for posting comments from people like “that racist/sexist/homophobe RRH”. :-)

    I know my comments at some other “leftwing intellectual” blogs are routinely deleted.

    ~   ~   ~

    It’s funny, when I started writing about the lacrosse case I expected to be criticized from the left, but it hasn’t happened yet. One major reason, I think, is that it’s mostly conservatives who are still following the case and want to read about it.

  9. a reader | October 2, 2008 at 06:53 | Permalink

    What kept this from being a “liberal” cause? Can a rogue prosecution of white young men from affluent backgrounds never be a “liberal” cause? Can inflammatory, erroneous reporting targeting white young men from affluent backgrounds never be a “liberal cause?” Do liberal “values” then extend only to “certain” people?

    Are liberal advocates only morally inclined to speak up for certain people’s rights and my rights and my son’s rights are disqualified by our skin hue or the content of my checkbook? Is it fair to extrapolate then that liberal values are not meant to be inclusive of all peoples only some peoples? Some of us, in the liberal view, are unworthy or are just… on our own?

    Is this the answer why, except for two or three exceptions, Duke faculty was silent on the judicial and media abuse directed at their own students? Liberal professors are not moved by those abuses when they target white, affluent students?

    Why did only those who were LOUDLY advocating for Mangum …in the Listening ad, the op-eds, the letters to the Editor,make themselves heard? In a profession, where writing and speaking and advocating are the essential skill set, why were there only loud voices from Duke heard for her rights?

    If not “campus culture”, if not “Liberals Don’t Care About Abuse of White Kids”…then…what?


    I wish you would write on this topic. Like RRH, I respect the effort and good faith you put into your posts. I appreciate your attempts to answer hard questions not just dismiss uncomfortable ones. Many of us, liberal or conservative, are still on an honest quest to understand what happened here in an attempt to understand more than this case.

    ~   ~   ~

    I’ve been sitting on this question for a long time, and unfortunately the more I think about it the less I feel like I know. I don’t have a direct line into the minds of other professors, and I have no confidence that I can mentally rewind two years back, filtering out all of the accumulated revelations and realizations, in order to realistically assess the way people reacted in the thick of the controversy. All I can do is throw out a few ideas, and since the questions are far too general, I have to argue with the framing as much as anything else.

    I do wonder about the people at Duke who took a public stand in support of the accuser and/or casting the lacrosse team as representatives of the forces of oppression and inequity. Why didn’t they make some noise as it became more and more clear that the prosecution was abusive and baldly cynical? I don’t have a good answer. It seems like it was the right thing to do for all sorts of reasons, and a straightforward statement wouldn’t have taken much effort, especially after Jim Coleman set a precedent. There’s no fundamental conflict involved—there was certainly no need to renounce any social concerns in order to insist that the case against the accused students be handled legally and ethically.

    But then I have these problems with the sweep of the questions.

    • Like any political category, “liberal” is a complicated label, but its most commonplace usage in the US is to refer to mainstream Democrats—the near left as opposed to the far left. Understood that way, it’s not the category for many of the controversial statements and positions that have come up in the lacrosse case. The philosophy of Ubuntu, for instance, isn’t “liberal.”
    • Some of the most important early support for the lacrosse team came from the center-left. KC Johnson is conservative on academic issues but otherwise seems to be some variety of liberal. Looking at Duke, Jim Coleman is the standout. Steven Baldwin describes himself as liberal, too. There must be a fair number of conservative professors at Duke, in some departments of Arts & Sciences, in engineeering and the law school and the business school, but few of them were motivated to speak out. We heard from Michael Gustafson and to a lesser extent Michael Munger, then more than 9 months into the scandal the Economics dept. weighed in—a relatively conservative group by campus standards, though I imagine that relative to the general public some (many?) of them would be tagged liberal. So in the failed-to-speak-up department, the issue doesn’t seem to be specifically with “liberals.”
    • Folks from every part of the political spectrum react most strongly to threats to “certain people’s rights.” The people who do make a point of standing up for everyone’s rights catch flak from all sides—how many election cycles ago was it that a Democratic presidential canditate was denounced by the Republicans as a “card-carrying member of the ACLU”? And the decision to speak up or not or to take up a particular case as a cause isn’t necessarily a stand on who’s worthy or unworthy of the rights. Typically it reflects some combination of personal and political sympathy, a sense of who’s more vulnerable, and an opinion about what cases will highlight the big issues.
    • In thinking about who spoke up and who didn’t, what’s the baseline? How is “reasonable” defined? What are the comparable cases that show some other community reacting more sensibly or ethically or whatever? Surely there are some, though what counts as comparable might be hugely debatable.
    • Nobody’s reaction is purely “liberal” or “conservative,” though clearly that’s a big component of the typical reactions. But people also reacted as alums, as fans, as neighbors, as students, as employees, as attorneys (RRH, that is), etc. The more distant and abstract Duke is to you, the more purely political your reaction is likely to be. The closer and more integral the institution is to your life and work, the more complex and opaque to outsiders your reaction is likely to be.

    Thinking about the “listening” statement and various articles and op-eds and quotes from Duke faculty, it’s clear the profs cared more about the social inequity, framed in the usual left-wing fashion, than they did about the rights of the lacrosse players. Or any rights at all—whatever you may think is implied, the only explicit statements (that I can think of) about rights or legal outcomes are utterly conventional (wait till all the facts are in, etc. etc.). There’s plenty of sympathy towards the accuser, but that’s of a piece with the focus on social inequity.

    A consistent and central concern in most of the professorial verbiage you allude to—the “listening” statement in particular—is conditions within the Duke community. In that context, the lacrosse team wasn’t a generic group of young affluent white males, but a well-known part of the campus social dynamic. For me, there are clear connections between the lacrosse team’s party and some of the more disappointing and alienating aspects of my experience teaching at Duke. If those connections lead me to draw liberal-sounding conclusions about the party, that’s no basis for concluding that I’ve passed a reflexive and purely political judgment. Or at least such a conclusion would be baldly hypocritical. I think the same consideration applies to some of the professors who made controversial public statements about campus culture and the lacrosse case—to assume that there’s nothing there besides knee-jerk ideology, despite years of experience as a teacher/mentor/adminstrator/observer, is shallow, politically-driven reasoning.

    That’s not to excuse anything but just to suggest some alternatives to “that’s what liberals do” as a way of understanding some of the things that have upset you.

  10. dgs | October 3, 2008 at 17:12 | Permalink

    “The very query seemed hostile…”

    This unselfconscious statement seems to sum up the problem with some teachers in the humanities departments today. It speaks for itself.

  11. TP Squirrel | October 5, 2008 at 12:10 | Permalink

    Why does the Duke Lacrosse
    Rape Scandal attract so many Liars?