Skip to content

KC Johnson vs. the commonplace campus radical–One good rush to judgment deserves another

In this post and the one before I’m looking at a couple of recent episodes in KC Johnson’s ongoing crusade against left-wing extremists in academia. Last time I wrote about his attempt to pursue two narrow agendas at once. One, the academic-culture crusade, he pursues with the usual rhetoric and agenda-driven reasoning while the other one is pursued with wishful thinking—that’s the only way the two can be reconciled. In the legal controversy I’m looking at this time, the extremists have taken the side of a young man accused of a crime, and they’re the ones making noises about a heavy-handed prosecution that’s undermining the chances of a fair trial—there’s a lot of overlap with the role Johnson played in the Duke lacrosse scandal. In order to use the controversy against them, he has to approach the justice issues with a different attitude. Among other things, he casually lays out the unproven allegations as if they were proven facts, despite two and a half years of castigating anyone whose statements about the Duke lacrosse team seemed to presume guilt.

Back in August Johnson posted his thoughts about “The Unusual Hashmi Case”. A 2003 graduate of Brooklyn College, where Johnson is on the faculty, Syed Fahad Hashmi is being held on charges of providing material assistance to Al Queda. But the focus of the post isn’t Hashmi’s situation, it’s the efforts of two of his former instructors to protest the conditions of his detention, pursued under the banner Educators for Civil Liberties. It’s too bad that people who organize these fights against injustice are drawn to expansive names like that. The Organization for Truth and Fairness from the lacrosse case is a classic of the genre. Hashmi’s supporters weren’t that grandiose, but one case, no matter how serious, is not a surrogate for the whole realm of civil liberties.

A petition is central to the effort, and I have to admit I cringe at the thought of another statement of concern making the faculty rounds—the Support Bill Ayers petition I mentioned in the last post shows how strong the bandwagon effect can be with those things. The one for Hashmi is quite a bit more focussed and substantive, though. The main issue is the special administrative measures dictating that he’s to be held in solitary confinement and severely restricting his communication with anyone, including his attorney. The petitioners believe these measures are excessive and unnecessary and should be lifted.

Johnson has nothing good to say about the undertaking, but he’s particularly hard on “[the] commentary about the case’s possible effects on free speech and the academy” from Hashmi’s former instructors. I don’t have the background to fully judge the legal issues, but it seems to me that Johnson’s most convincing point is about how constitutionally protected speech and associations are valid evidence of a defendant’s “state of mind.” And in general the petitioners’ claims are more speculative and probably weaker as they turn from Hashmi’s plight to the chilling effects of the case on activists or in the classroom. According to Johnson, this amounts to “cross[ing] over from one-sided to merely bizarre.” That’s overstating the problem quite a bit. In fact, it strikes me as a better characterization of Johnson’s attack on the petitioners.

The first version of Johnson’s post is as one-sided as anything Hashmi’s supporters produced, and it’s no credit to Cliopatria, the high-minded blog for academic historians where it was posted. Like the Ayers/Khalidi piece I wrote about last time, a rewritten and expanded version appeared on Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW), Johnson’s blog about the lacrosse case. In this case the time lag was much longer, the extent of the changes much greater. The result is much more narrow-minded and polemical, so it fits right in on DIW.

It seems like some of the legal issues that Johnson has been so insistent about in his analysis of the lacrosse case would carry over. The two cases are quite different, and I’m not suggesting that he should necessarily have approached the Hashmi case with exactly the same attitude and exactly the same issues as he brought to the lacrosse case. But terrorism, like sexual assault, demands a difficult balancing act from the justice system, one that’s vulnerable to political manipulation and abuse. Something could be made of the parallels, I’m sure. For Johnson, though, the only connections worth making are in the realm of the academic culture crusade. It seems that his approach to the legal issues in the Hashmi case is largely determined by the professors he’s attacking—what they stand for, he opposes. In his view, the fact that the claims of the two organizers have been endorsed by so many other professors, “says more about the rush-to-judgment attitude of the academy than any violations of civil liberties by the government.” That rush-to-judgment attitude is at the heart of Johnson’s case against the Duke faculty, and what really ties Hashmi’s petition to the obsessions that drive DIW is that, among the signatures, Johnson found “no fewer than eleven members of the Group of 88” (as always, the “Group” is where the action is). The table-thumping rhetoric is a DIW staple—if only Johnson could brandish a sheaf of papers the demagogic effect would be complete. [Here’s what Johnson has to say about the differences between the Cliopatria and DIW posts.]

I’ve picked out a few of the highlights (or lowlights)—unless noted, quotes are from the DIW post. Besides Johnson’s own “rush-to-judgment attitude” towards the charges against Hashmi, what’s striking about the critique is how primitive a lot of it is. He’s a remarkable specimen, though—an anti-intellectual intellectual who assumes that the people he’s criticizing are as shallow and monomaniacal as he is.

  • Rushing to judgment is a no-no… except when it gives your argument more rhetorical bite. Berating and denouncing guilt-presuming professors is a major preoccupation on DIW, but apparently the standard that applies to comments about the Duke lacrosse players doesn’t extend to Hashmi:

    In 2006, a former Brooklyn College(!) student named Syed Fahad Hashmi was arrested in Britain on charges of providing material assistance to Al Qaeda. At the time of his arrest, Hashmi sought to travel to Pakistan, carrying with [him] such items as a large amount of cash, night vision goggles, and sundry military apparel. Hashmi is currently awaiting trial in the United States, which is holding him without bail.

    These incriminating details, which weren’t in the Cliopatria post, make the case against Hashmi sound quite strong—it’s hard to imagine why anyone would be taking piles of cash and night vision goggles to Pakistan except to help terrorists. Johnson’s sources don’t inspire much confidence, though. His first link is to an MSNBC article that cites, first, “a terrorism expert and NBC News analyst” and then “Law enforcement sources.” The information about the goggles is “based on a USA TODAY review of public records and reports from Justice, Commerce and the Pentagon.” Wasn’t one of the lessons of the lacrosse case that sources like this should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism, since prosecutors and investigators are known to overstate their case, and “Experts can have agendas, too”?

    Johnson seems to have some reservations about the case against Hashmi:

    Given the Bush administration’s record on civil liberties in terrorism-related cases, it’s possible to believe that Hashmi has suffered improperly. […]

    The Chronicle of Higher Education, a non-partisan, non-ideological journal that covers college and university issues, produced an article that appropriately described the case against Hashmi as “murky.”

    Commenter “One Spook” objects that “the prosecution has said very little about its case,” which “could very well mean that it is quite strong.” In response, Johnson backpedals:

    I agree with you completely. By “appropriately murky,” I only meant to say that the facts known publicly—facts largely, as you point out, framed by the defense—don’t point to any clear case of either civil liberties violations or likely innocence.

    That’s a strange claim to make after presenting the essence of the government’s case as unqualified fact. The Chronicle article by Allie Grasgreen is more detailed and more circumspect (It’s no longer available for free at the magazine’s web site, but here’s a pdf). Though she was only able to interview Hashmi’s attorney (the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment), there’s no imbalance of “facts largely… framed by the defense.” What Grasgreen describes as “murky,” anyway, is the government’s allegations.

    The details in the indictment against Mr. Hashmi are murky. Among the four counts are allegations that he conspired with unnamed persons to provide “material support or resources”—including money and military gear—to co-conspirators who delivered the materials to Al Qaeda members in Pakistan. The materials were to be used by Al Qaeda against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the indictment says.

  • Expect self-serving spin from a defense brief… except when the defense is arguing for your team.

    [P]olitical science professor Jeanne Theoharis, the statement’s author, has said that the signatories take no position on the merits of Hashmi’s guilt or innocence. Yet their petition and the remarks of the petition’s two chief sponsors (Theoharis and political science professor Corey Robin) read as if cribbed from a defense brief.

    That’s from Cliopatria—maybe even Johnson realized that DIW was not the place to scoff at someone else for sounding like a defense brief. As I already pointed out, there’s never been much critical distance between him and the various legal teams that have represented lacrosse players, not even after the action moved from criminal to civil proceedings. My impression is that Until Proven Innocent is the same—just scan the source notes for “Joe Cheshire interview,” “Jim Cooney interview”, and “Brad Bannon interview.”

    In December 2006, the defense’s request to change the trial venue for the three indicted students was, for Johnson, “yet another in a string of extraordinary defense motions.” A few days later he noted that he knew of “no other criminal case in which the statements and behavior of the students’ own professors constituted grounds for a change of venue.” He wrote more or less the same thing eight months later, but framed it more dramatically as “the first time in American history,” and he’s cited the motion on other occasions as damning evidence against the “listening” statement and its endorsers. But it was never considered in court, and it seems like even a sympathetic critic should be able to treat a defense motion as something less than an automatic slam dunk, even if it makes a compelling case (and this one does, on the back of Mike Nifong much more than the Duke faculty, though).

    More recently, with his Obama-partisan hat on, Johnson analyzed a 30-page motion from the defense as if it was the judge’s ruling in their favor, and more importantly, against Sarah Palin’s flunkies in the Alaska state legislature (it was a “Troopergate” thing). Scott Eric Kaufman should know better than to trust what Johnson says about his own sources, but the opportunity to really stick it to Gov. Palin was too good to pass up, and he let himself be fooled into posting “second-class, legally-mandated snark” instead of “first-rate, smack-down snark.”

  • In the mind of the simple-minded extremists at Duke, guilt and due process are mutually exclusive. The name of one of those extremists, it seems, is so full of significance that it can stand as a complete sentence:

    Wahneema Lubiano. Her authorship of the guilt-presuming Group of 88 statement (something “happened” to Crystal Mangum; “thank you” to protesters carrying “castrate” signs; the signatories would hold firm “regardless of what the police say or the court decides”) didn’t exactly identify her as a friend of civil liberties.

    Based on their attitudes and actions since 2006, Lubiano and her Group colleagues would be about the last people expected to stand up for due process or the rights of the accused.

    Whether the “Group of 88 statement” (the “listening” statement, that is) is really “guilt-presuming” is a matter of opinion. But granting that it is for the sake of argument, how does a “guilt-presuming” statement that makes no legal demands and carries no legal authority automatically imply a position on civil liberties? It’s possible to believe someone is guilty of a crime and also entitled to due process. I imagine that in the right circumstances, even Johnson is capable of the mental gymnastics it takes to hold onto both ideas at once—lawyers have to do it all the time, don’t they? (The phrase “regardless of what the police say or the court decides” has nothing to do with the students’ civil liberties unless it was the prevalence of racism and sexism at Duke that the police were investigating.)

    Just as he assumes that Rashid Khalidi’s favoritism towards Arab-American students is categorical, Johnson assumes that Lubiano’s antipathy to the lacrosse players is all-encompassing. And it does seem like an extremist should have simplistic, unbalanced opinions, though assuming that the person under scrutiny is an extremist and therefore one-dimensional is about as superficial as a critic can get. If Johnson is taking such a superficial approach it would explain why he’s so confident that Lubiano’s agenda was tied to guilty verdicts being handed down in the lacrosse case and that Khalidi would have joined the “Group of 88” had he been at Duke. It’s easy to guess what simple people are thinking and what they’ll do, and if they’re black women it seems to be especially easy. Perhaps the assumption is that, unless there’s unambiguous evidence to the contrary, they’re in the grip of mindless identity politics—a principle that could easily be extended to Palestinians, as well.

  • When criticizing extremist ideologues and other wrong-headed types, insist on simple-minded, slavish consistency. To some extent, this is a corollary to the last point—simple-minded extremists should be both predictable and consistent.

    The “attitudes and actions since 2006” of “Lubiano and her Group colleagues,” are in response to one outrageous incident. Why is it that they “would be about the last people expected to stand up for due process or the rights of the accused”? I agree that, on the whole, the professors he’s referring to weren’t concerned about due process when they should have been. But most people pick and choose when to get worked up about such things—just look at Johnson’s reaction to the Hashmi case. Nonetheless he acts as if the commitment of these Duke professors to due process is summed up by their attitude towards the one case he happens to have written 1200 or so posts and a book about. To sign the Hashmi petition, they must have “suddenly discovered civil liberties.” It’s a claim full of forced sarcasm, so it may be giving Johnson too much credit to treat it as something he’s actually thought through. But consider this (and while you’re at it, note the effect of sneer quotes in the abbreviation he uses for Hashmi’s petitioners):

    According to the “Educators,” Hashmi’s civil liberties also have been violated because “under a plea agreement reported in the media, [alleged Hashmi confederate Junaid] Babar will receive a reduced sentence in return for his cooperation.”

    … [I]t’s possible… that Babar is lying. But it’s very strange indeed to claim that all testimony obtained as a result of a plea bargain automatically violates the civil liberties of a suspect. If the “Educators” really believe this point, however, perhaps they should petition the court to overturn convictions of such figures as Martha Stewart, Enron executives, or WorldCom executives. After all, each of those cases (like the Hashmi case) involved testimony obtained from plea bargains.

    The suggestion that the “Educators” really ought to take up the cause of a bunch of white-collar convicts they presumably find odious is as ridiculous as it is obnoxious, but it has no bite. The dull-witted assumption behind it is that there are no meaningful distinctions to be made between the various cases—as far as Johnson is concerned, apparently, a plea bargain is a plea bargain is a plea bargain (and it does seem like he’s letting the label do his thinking for him). Offhand I can think of two reasons why it’s likely to raise more concerns in Hashmi’s case than in the other ones Johnson dredged up. First of all, it’s likely than the government had more leverage over Babar, so he faced a starker choice. Second, the restrictions on Hashmi’s defense may make it hard for him to challenge Babar’s testimony. And I’m confident that the plea bargains in the three white-collar cases were challenged vigorously in court. Here’s a little snippet from CNN’s coverage of the Martha Stewart trial (Douglas Faneuil was the guy who copped a plea):

    The stockbroker’s defense attorney, David Alfel (ph), then began his assault on Faneuil. The 28-year-old admitted to using drugs, including marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy. Faneuil also told the jury about his plea bargain for having lied to government investigators.

    Will Hashmi’s defense be able to level an “assault” on Babar’s credibility? Likely not, it seems to me, though of course I can only speculate.

    Along the same lines, Johnson “assume[s] that each of the signatories is committed to advocating the repeal of all hate crimes laws.” If not, their objection to the government’s use of constitutionally protected speech and association is inconsistent. And he’s incredulous because Tim Shortell, a hot-headed Brooklyn College professor who once called religious people “moral retards,” had signed on to support Hashmi. Apparently a moment of rhetorical excess at the expense of religion disqualifies the man from sincerely caring about either the civil liberties or the suffering of a religious person. The model of human thought and behavior at work here has been liberated from any trace of subtlety. It has very little to do with the real world, but on the plus side the criticism must be incredibly easy to write.

It’s depressing to see this stuff treated as intelligent criticism, and there’s plenty more where it came from. Even smart and educated people seem to approach the culture war with a tribalistic mindset, though, which means that it will always have a receptive audience, inside and outside academia.

~   ~   ~

It’s ironic that Johnson takes the time to describe the Chronicle of Higher Education as a “non-partisan, non-ideological journal” and then ignores the non-partisan and non-ideological message, except for the one detail that he misrepresents. I think the author of the Chronicle article is appropriately skeptical of the various claims from all sides, but in the end she doesn’t leave the impression that the case warrants such a dismissive attitude.

This part sums up the underlying dilemma, as I see it, pretty well:

Chris Zambelis works as a political analyst on Middle East issues for Helios Global, a Washington-based risk-analysis firm. Mr. Zambelis wrote about Mr. Hashmi’s arrest in 2006 for Global Terrorism Analysis, a newsletter published by the Jamestown Foundation, and he says “there’s no doubt” the government’s actions against Mr. Hashmi, including the special administrative measures, are completely warranted if the allegations involving Al Qaeda are true. But, he reiterated, that’s a big “if.”

“If you want to give the government the benefit of the doubt on this, if there is something substantive that they’ve found that they want to pursue, obviously they are right in holding onto him,” Mr. Zambelis said. “At the same time, there are a lot of mistakes and a lot of people get brought in and roped into these plots, and it turns out they had nothing to do with them.”

I think it’s foolish to come to any firm conclusion about a case like this from news reports—the murk is just too thick. Most of us will either go with our gut reaction to the superficial information available to us or take the lead of an expert we find credible (which, I have to admit, sometimes amounts to pretty much the same thing). Zambelis strikes me as credible—he at least seems to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, which is a major asset in my book. The extreme measures being taken against Hashmi while he’s awaiting trial are a separate issue. In that department, Michael Ratner (president of the Center for Constitutional Rights) carries some weight—in the Chronicle article, he describes Hashmi’s treatment as “incredible” and “outrageous.”

Johnson nonetheless finds “no items in the Chronicle article, the few other publications on the case, or any public statements by the signatories point to even one specific violation of Hashmi’s civil liberties.” Given how tightly held the details of the case are, I’m not sure what could be produced that he would find convincing. Johnson grants that “it’s possible to believe that Hashmi has suffered improperly,” and if so he’s suffered far more from it than the lacrosse players did and has much less recourse. Maybe all of this adds up to a coherent, principled stand, but I can’t make it out.

As I wrote this post, I was curious whether there have been any new developments in the case. Apparently not, but I did come up with a couple of heated opinion pieces about the case from Nat Hentoff. Near the end of his DIW post, Johnson makes a sarcastic reference to the “born-again civil libertarians” from Duke who signed Hashmi’s petition. Johnson seems to be a bit of a fair-weather civil libertarian, himself. Hentoff, on the other hand, seems to be the genuine article. It’s instructive to see how he works through some of the issues surrounding Rashid Khalidi, too.

~   ~   ~

CODA

The DIW post that went up right after I wrote this post has a variation on a plea bargain is a plea bargain is a plea bargain. “Crime & Punishment” is about Michael Burch, charged with the Feb. 2007 rape of a Duke student and recently charged with another rape allegedly committed while he’s been out on bail. An ugly situation, and it seems likely that some of the authorities handling the case didn’t do their jobs very well—the judge who set Burch’s bail at $50K, for instance.

But, as Johnson said in response to my previous post, “DIW is a blog about the lacrosse case and its effects,” a place to “focus on the lacrosse case angle.” He does that to the max in response to Burch’s rearrest. In his post, he lists the differences between the way justice officials and Duke faculty and administration reacted to the allegations against Burch and the way they reacted to the allegations against the lacrosse team. That involves rehashing the horrific record of Duke and Durham in some detail, with special attention to the indictments against the faculty. Johnson doesn’t theorize about why the reactions were different, except by implication. The difference that’s obviously significant is that in the Burch incident the accuser is white and the accused is black. No other differences—between the circumstances or the charges or the evidence or whatever—are treated as significant when considering the differences in the way the cases were handled. So, although DIW is all about how Duke and Durham did most everything wrong after the lacrosse incident, they still should have done exactly the same thing in response to this other incident. Divergences aren’t evidence of better (or worse) judgment or of different circumstances, they’re evidence of double standards. Because a rape allegation is a rape allegation is a rape allegation. Or maybe it’s only interracial rape allegations that are like that.

There are, I’m sure, valid and illuminating comparisons between the two rape allegations and their aftermath. Quite likely they highlight, among other things, how badly the lacrosse incident was handled. The grim reappearance of Burch in the news could be a fine chance for reflection on a lacrosse-case blog, but DIW is too mired in mindless but smug tribalism to pull anything of value from it. Another recent entry—“Amazing”—is a showpiece of rampant tribalism. It turns out that Bob Steel, chairman of Duke’s board of trustees, invested in the movie being made from Tim Tyson’s book Blood Done Sign My Name. I think there are quite reasonable criticisms of both men for their behavior during the lacrosse scandal—I’ve expressed my own reservations about some of the things Tyson has said. But true to his word, Johnson looks at the investment through the pinhole of lacrosse-case tunnel vision. The bulk of his entry is parallel instances of one of his classic rhetorical formulas, good for prosecuting, crusading, witch hunting, and other special demagogic occasions—“the same Bob Steel who…” and “the same Tim Tyson who…,” each followed by the sins of the man enumerated. The transaction, on DIW, has nothing to do with a book or the incident it’s based on or a movie-in-progress, and the two men involved are nothing more than the ugly characters revealed by the scandal. It’s a great way to nurse a grudge.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Ralph DuBose | November 30, 2008 at 12:55 | Permalink

    I have not been following the Hashmi case with much close attention so I will not comment on it directly.However, I have followed a number of high profile “celebrity” crminal cases thru the years and with this casual background I feel able to make a comment of a general nature: These things are nearly always “murky.” N. Mailer and W.F. Buckley both, way back in the day, championed the innocence of some inmates who happened to write well themselves and who proceeded to murder new victims soon after their celebrated releases. I am old enough to remember that first hand. Criminals in general are long term members of the sub-culture of criminals; they rarely commit just one crime and then get caught. That is why, I think, even honest cops do not lose much sleep over the conviction of a known criminal for a crime her or she did not actually commit. It really does make the streets safer and that is not a trivial matter. And nothing is murkier than the interface between civil liberties and modern high tech terrorism because if the worst happens - like an atomic explosion in a large American city - no government would go on spending a second worrying about civil liberties. So, from this point of view, perserving civil liberties comes down to preventing a doomsday attack. You may not agree but I suggest that history is on my side in this matter. Sept 11, 2001 really happened and the threat of someting worse is on-going. So there is, imho, something on the other side of the scale from an absolutist view of civil liberties that has some heft and about which serious people can debate in good faith.
    Come we now to the LAX case. In my perseption (one shared by all hooligans, I bet), it was quite the singularity. For once, there was no murk. The medical exam showed no injuries, the specific DNA tests showed no contact, two of the kids could prove they were not even there, and the rest had a pile of time stamped fotos on their side.
    See, the reason this case was a singularity was not that the defendants had such a good set of facts, it is that prosecutors went forward anyway, even with no real evidence of their own. And they did this with all the cameras running. Exactly why the Durham/Duke axis acted in this fashion we may only guess at, unless they tell the truth under oath. But the fact that they did so was obvious in real time to anyone paying attention and created a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fire away without mercy or restraint at pure evil uncluttered by the usual murk and ambiguuity of real life criminal/civil liberty matters.
    This is why comparing KCs -or hooligans in general - methods in the LAX case with his methods in regards to any other case is basically out of focus and misses a crucial distinction.
    Indeed, one could make a fair argument that the core failure at Duke was that so many smart people chose to go on acting as if there was enough of the usual murk and ambiguuity in the LAX case long past the point that there really wasn’t any. They were in the presence of a singularity and they hid from it in their own faux, pretend murkiness.

  2. RedMountain | December 1, 2008 at 09:03 | Permalink

    It is amazing that Tyson’s book is attacked and Steel’s investment in the movie version comes under so much scorn. KC does not offer a critique of either the book or the movie or any reason to shun them other than both people are the essence of evil because of the Duke Lacrosse case. Maybe he is upset that Tyson’s book sold more copies than his and made the big screen rather than as possible future HBO titillation fantasy. Personally, I can’t wait to see how HBO treats his book. I am convinced it will be a serious and important documentary that will garner many awards. You betcha.

  3. Ralph DuBose | December 1, 2008 at 20:39 | Permalink

    Re: Your coda about the Burch case.
    Your latest post shows us that you have achieved total mastery of your grasp-at-anything approach to critiquing KC. You have shown us that you are willing produce a fine long paragraph meant to injure his reputation even though you present not a single fact that is at all useful for that purpose. Having nothing to work with is not, apparently, a problem for you. Maybe it is a state you have, by necessity, gotten comfortable with. You can pretend, if you want, to mis-understand the plain meaning of the stark contrast between Duke Administrations handling of the story of a rape of a black woman by white men - that they knew was false - and the story of a rape of a white woman (a Duke student) by a black man - that they knew had occurred. By all means, tell the world that your brain sees that tableau and interprets it as “Duke learned from the LAX case” - even though they were still at that time persecuting the LAX guys that they knew to be innocent. Go for it. It certainly helps to teach the world how KCs critics process information.

    ~   ~   ~

    My coda is about Johnson’s failure to say anything useful or informative. I don’t think that the way the case was handled shows that “Duke learned from the LAX case.”

  4. Robert Zimmerman | December 20, 2008 at 01:32 | Permalink

    I just shunted a couple of comments onto the extras page, one from TP Squirrel, the other from leftisnotright. Both concern things I’m not going to host a discussion about right now.