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Weasel-wording in Wonderland

The funny thing about the broadside KC Johnson fired in my direction about two months ago (yes, I’m finally getting around to it) is how noncommittal it is. Sometimes his defense is solid, other times not so much. For instance, urging Duke to conduct an “impartial investigation” may not “strike [him] as the response of someone unwilling to engage in ‘critical self-reflection’,” but the usual idea of self-reflection is that it’s done by, you know, the self, not a committee. What’s weakest, though, is his blustering offense. There’s an attack on my blogging ethic that looks strong but turns out to be largely illusory, and at the end of the post there are some strong words about a number of things I’ve written and one thing I failed to do. It has all the makings of a counterattack except for the actual attack. He’s left it up to the reader to figure out exactly what I’ve done wrong, and as a reader myself I’m happy to oblige.

Weasel Words Weasel

After connecting the dots, it looks like the unspoken complaint behind all that vehemence is that I’ve been terribly unfair to KC Johnson. And I thought it was about me! Or, if not, it was about students who were hounded by an unethical prosecutor and betrayed by their professors. But no, when Johnson strikes back at my criticism, the issue that comes up again and again is how harsh and unfair I’ve been to him. It’s an unseemly complaint, especially coming from a man who regularly puts other people down for acting like they’re “the victim.” So he writes around it. In the past he’s played up what he sees as an unreasonable discrepancy between my criticism of him (too strong) and my criticism of other more villainous figures (too mild). This time he invokes the whole lacrosse-case catastrophe in its tried-and-true Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW) packaging — students railroaded by a rogue DA while a rush-to-judgment faculty thanks protestors, etc. In relation to the points of mine he was responding to, it’s like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer. But that tableau has always been a weapon, and he’s used it so many times against his enemies that it really has become little more than a flyswatter. It seems that at this point no purpose is too trivial or self-serving to give it a whack. That makes me feel just fine about criticizing him so harshly.

Before I get into Johnson’s weirdly self-centered way of dealing with criticism here’s a quick and more current example of his habit of flirting suggestively with facts and issues without taking a stand. The bulk of his post about “‘Diversity’ and Duke Admissions” is a table of data collected at Duke, from an academic study relating to affirmative action. Johnson takes no position on the significance of the numbers in his handy table, but he does urge readers to “Recall that under federal law… private universities (such as Duke) that receive federal funds cannot use racial quotas in admissions policies.” Given a study attempting to shed some empirical light on the subtleties of a complex and thorny issue, it’s impressive how Johnson whittles it down to some “quite striking totals” that he leaves uninterpreted and a mealy-mouthed suggestion that Duke is breaking the law. It’s a textbook example of partisan hackery and also a warm-up for the exposé on Duke’s Campus Culture Initiative (CCI) that he recently finished. He has a cache of documents that he apparently picked up on the sly, and he’s been grinding them through the mill of his willful ignorance. Every now and then he packs the result into a little poison pill marked “in other words” or “Translation:” or “i.e.” (1). The CCI warrants close, critical scrutiny and the assumptions about diversity that informed it should absolutely be fair game for debate. Johnson has nothing constructive or intelligent to contribute on either level, though.

What Johnson writes about the CCI might, conceivably, have some real-world impact. What he writes about me, on the other hand, is inconsequential, and Johnson seems to put even less thought into it than he puts into the hatchet jobs he does on the bigwigs of the so-called “Group of 88.” It’s reflexive and so, I think, quite revealing. Since my post goes on way too long, I’ve divided it into sections. Hopefully that will make it easier to scan and to browse. And I’ve moved some of the digressions into notes (2).

If some people jumped off a cliff, would KC Johnson end up with a broken leg?

According to Wiktionary, ad hominem is “a fallacious objection to an argument or factual claim by appealing to a characteristic or belief of the person making the argument or claim,” or, in plain English, “an attempt to argue against an opponent’s idea by discrediting the opponent himself,” and there’s no denying that KC Johnson did exactly that when he ended a comment rebutting an earlier post of mine by pointing out that, back in 2006, bad things happened at Duke and I was silent. Our exchange is embedded in a sprawling controversy that’s relentlessly focussed on people’s characteristics and beliefs, so a little ad hominem is really no big deal. Still, when he gets around to really unloading on me, it’s entertaining to see him reiterate the same point about my silence, not once but twice, in order to show how hypocritical it was of me to accuse him of ad hominem in the first place.

Finally, Prof. Zimmerman’s new material in the post faults me for engaging in ad hominem attacks against him and the Group of 88, by writing that the DA was trying to “railroad three innocent students… [while] Prof. Zimmerman… was silent about their fate….”

I note that Prof. Zimmerman—while labeling my statement “lazy and cowardly,” an approach that “is especially effective with the thoughtless and bigoted,” part of a seeming tendency to write “bullshit” (some people might consider that an ad hominem attack!)—doesn’t in any way challenge the factual accuracy of what I said: [Zimmerman was silent, etc. etc.].

In those two paragraphs of fussing and fuming it seems like Johnson is criticizing me in no uncertain terms, but really he isn’t. It’s a collection of facts and references delivered in a tone of righteous indignation — it puts me in a bad light, for sure — but the closest he comes to actual criticism is the weasel-worded suggestion that “some people might consider that an ad hominem attack!” Is he one of those people? Does he really believe that it’s ad hominem when I describe things he’s written as bullshit? Is he saying that I’m wrong when I “fault[ him] for engaging in ad hominem attacks”? What does it matter that I haven’t “challenge[d] the factual accuracy of what [he] said” about the circumstances three years ago? What does it say about me that I didn’t speak up for those students? And what does my silence back then have to do with anything that I’d put on the table in my post? I doubt that he’d deny making a countercharge of ad hominem, but otherwise those are all open questions, and he’s free to accept or disavow any answer you come up with.

This kind of writing, full of implication and insinuation with few if any explicit statements about the meaning or significance or seriousness of things, is not at all unusual on DIW. The folks who read their prejudice and spite into it get a lot out of it, and I really am convinced that it’s “an approach that ‘is especially effective with the thoughtless and bigoted.’” I’ve explained that opinion at length. Johnson can take it personally if he wants, but to suggest that it’s ad homimen is ridiculous — the point of it is not at all to direct attention away from his writing and onto his person. It’s possible that he’s intentionally sending ill-defined signals that are open to all sorts of interpretations. My assumption, though, is that he has a fairly specific message in mind and he’s beating around the bush. And whatever his intentions are, his failure to be upfront while writing about me is my license to interpret. Same with the ridiculous stories he’s concocted about my criticism to make himself look good.

I am put in my place

In the post that set the stage for our little war of words, I described a story he’d passed on about Karla Holloway as a foolish rumor. She emailed me and called it “an absolute and patent falsehood.” Adding that quote to my post was enough to prompt Johnson to leave his first comment here in about a year and a half. He starts it by urging Holloway to drop by DIW and air her “‘views’” there. No doubt he’d be thrilled if she took him up on the invitation, but mostly he’s grandstanding — the scare quotes give it away. In the rest of the comment he addresses a couple of points I’d made about an interview with him in the Duke Chronicle and then, apropos of nothing in particular, turns back to 2006 and my silence.

Two other points. Prof. Zimmerman claims that I used a “moderator’s veto” regarding his comments. It is not clear to me when I did so; I have regularly posted his comments at DIW. Indeed, I have publicly pointed out that, as the Group of 88 has consistently refused to defend their actions in and positions about the case, his stance as a public apologist for the Group is an important one, in that it allows neutral observers at least some insight into what might be the Group’s thinking.

Second, Prof. Zimmerman asks why I did not engage in “critical self-reflection” after a hostile Chronicle letter from Jim Coleman. While, as I noted at the time, I was curious why Prof. Coleman had chosen not to raise his rather harsh criticisms in any of the 21 personal exchanges (including a lengthy interview) I had with him before fall 2007, he and I had a lengthy email exchange following his letter. To the best of my knowledge, Prof. Coleman has never cited one specific item in either DIW or the book to corroborate his claims; he did not do so in the private email exchange, either. I should also note that he did not endorse my subsequent call for a Coleman Committee-style inquiry into how the faculty responded to the case.

Finally, a general point: this case featured a District Attorney violating myriad procedures in an attempt to railroad three innocent students at Prof. Zimmerman’s own institution. During the time those students were in harm’s way, Prof. Zimmerman, to the best of my knowledge, was silent about their fate, while 88 of his colleagues signed a public statement which (even in the peculiar claim of Charles Piot that it referred only to protesters at a March 27, 2006 campus gathering) thanked protesters who had presumed the students’ guilt. To the best of my knowledge, none of the signatories of this document have ever publicly apologized for its issuance; the two signatories who privately apologized subsequently retracted their apologies.

That final paragraph is what he cites and then rehashes in the first passage I quoted. His remark after that is, “Somehow, Prof. Zimmerman’s disinclination to challenge that assertion doesn’t surprise me.” I have to wonder, first of all, what kind of fool he takes me for, and then more to the point, what’s to challenge? It’s no secret that I was disengaged from what was happening on campus when the lacrosse case broke, since I said so in my first post about the case. I don’t blame anyone for wondering what, exactly, was going on with me when the shit hit the fan, and the main thing is simple enough — a last-ditch push to finish my doctorate. But there’s never been a good reason for me to dwell on personal details that have nothing to do with the case. There’s nothing I need to explain away or be excused for.

Putting people in their place is a constant and ongoing project on DIW, and those three paragraphs are a pretty good sample of the approaches Johnson has taken in my case. Rebuttal is one option, either of my criticism or, more likely, a pale imitation of it. The question he answered in his second point isn’t the one I asked but something more like, “how did you justify it to yourself when you shrugged off Coleman’s criticism?” (3) Another approach is to package me with the “Group,” which at this point is just a matter of applying “Group apologist” as an epithet (or maybe it’s a title). Johnson must think he’s identified one of my key characteristics with respect to the case, and the only purpose that’s served by doggedly sticking the label to my name is to influence the way my criticism is read. Isn’t there’s a Latin term for that?

That load of “factual accuracy” seemed to come out of left field when Johnson dropped it on me, but now I see that it also fits into a pattern that goes back to his earliest responses to my criticism. It’s clever the way he slips it in as a “general point,” though, and also clever to say nothing about why it’s there or what it’s supposed to signify. There must be several plausible ways to interpret it. It looked to me like an invitation to pass judgment that Johnson extended without risking an opinion on what that judgment should be. Furthermore, putting the whole weight of the scandal behind it struck me as both excessive and petty. So my first reaction was to call it lazy and cowardly — not, in retrospect, a very insightful way to put it, but I don’t think it was out of line, either. When he was challenged in his comment thread he finally managed to narrow down the implications. The business about my silence in the face of a railroading DA, it turns out, “does shine some light on [my] priorities.” It’s still up to you to figure out what’s being illuminated, but he’s left some pretty good clues.

Whatever I say, all it means is that I’m mean

In fact, now I can see that he’s been questioning my priorities for a long time, with one thing firmly in mind — my criticism of him. At first the main focus was certain harsh terms I’d used to describe DIW. In his December 2007 post about me and the “Group of 88 rehab tour,” he spends a lot of time wondering how I “reach[ed my] conclusion about the “insidiously polarizing,” “irrational,” and “anti-academic” [nature] of DIW.” He’d already suggested in an email that those descriptions might really apply to me. In the post he tried them out on a few others who, he seemed to think, deserved the harsh treatment much more than he did. First the potbangers — not only did I neglect to apply the same harsh terms, I even looked “benevolently” on their motives (but then I wasn’t criticizing Johnson’s motives, was I?). And I didn’t apply them to Clare Potter, despite her comments about “students from Zimmerman’s own university [that] were demonstrably false and arguably defamatory.” Zeroing in on a passage from a review of his book that I’d quoted with approval, he wrote in a comment on my blog that “Some people might consider calling members of the faculty ‘crackpots’ to be ‘insidiously polarizing,’ ‘irrational,’ and ‘anti-academic’.” So true, and they’d all be hacks! In context the word is completely innocuous, so once again weasel-wording is key. Finally, he asks whether I’d apply the same three terms to the lacrosse players’ defense team. I wouldn’t — unlike Johnson, I know the difference between a defense attorney and a critic.

In all the attention he gives to those noxious terms of mine, his overriding concern is who they’re applied to. There’s no sign in what he writes that I might be using them to mean something — it’s as if I picked them out at random just to make him look bad (I didn’t, by the way, and I think they’ve held up well). If they don’t have any meaning when they’re applied to him, they don’t have to have any meaning when they’re applied to anyone else, either. So, for instance, while I do fault the potbangers for their definitive contribution to all the divisiveness that followed, there was nothing insidious about them — their protest was blatantly provocative, not to mention foolish and self-defeating. Johnson acknowledges my willingness to criticize the potbangers as a welcome development, but beyond that bare fact he notices nothing in all that I wrote about them except the unfairness of it, to him.

At the end of our first email exchange he did some weasel-worded questioning of my “veracity.” I’d left a comment on Claire Potter’s blog agreeing that he deserved the turkey award she’d given him (it was Thanksgiving). He found the comment hard to reconcile with the rash claim I’d made in one email that I wasn’t describing him in unflattering terms, I was describing his blog that way. A couple of weeks later I put up a long post that portrays him as the “other prosecutor” in the lacrosse case. “Most people,” he points out, without pinning himself down one way or another, would say that “suggesting that someone [is]… scarcely more principled than Nifong is describing that person in unflattering terms.” So they would — I found the irony irresistible, and maybe I got carried away. But my main point was that, writing about the situation at Duke, Johnson was acting much more like a prosecutor than an analyst, so his blog was long on incrimination and very short on insight. He chose not to notice the analogy but instead to dwell on the unflattering nature of the criticism, not directly but by way of an apparent conflict with one prickly line in a prickly email exchange. That, I think, says a lot about his priorities, namely that creating the impression he’s suffered abuse ranks very high — well above explaining or defending his criticism.

It’s more of the same when he takes up ad hominem in his post a couple months ago — he sets aside the primary meaning of the term and instead plays up the connotation of an unfair personal attack. He seems to imply that there are three things I wrote that are “ad hominem attacks” but only one has any traction. It’s true that there’s some irony to the way I describe his “pure ad hominem” as “a lazy and cowardly response.” What I was calling attention to, though, is the “general point” at the end of his comment, which willfully shifts the focus away from my criticism and onto my actions and character. Ad hominem is exactly the right term to describe that move. The characterization I threw back may have been petty, but it wasn’t taking the place of a more substantive response, since his point didn’t warrant such a response in the first place.

I’ll give full credit to Johnson for one thing — he’s found the greatest way ever to duck criticism. It’s especially suited to narcissists with a persecution complex. All you have to do is notice nothing except how inappropriately harsh your critic has been to you. If that’s the only issue, the counterattack is dead easy. You skim off the tone and a few unflattering implications and leave the rest alone — in this case, he doesn’t even have to read all this verbose stuff. The only trick is that you can’t be upfront about what you’re doing or you’ll look like a whiny lightweight.

Anyway, the most recent message about my priorities is not how dare Prof. Zimmerman not speak up for those students being railroaded, it’s how dare Prof. Zimmerman criticize me, KC Johnson (another excellent reason for me to keep it up). This message isn’t reserved for me, of course. When he and Stuart Taylor responded to the Coleman-Kasibhatla letter with their own letter to the Chronicle, their general reaction was that the criticism coming from Coleman is puzzling. You can still see the puzzlement in the quotes above. Why had Coleman “chosen not to raise his rather harsh criticisms in any of the 21 personal exchanges,” etc. etc.? Why me? Why now? (4) That’s a natural reaction — if I was in their shoes I would probably have felt the same way — but as the basis for a reply it’s pretty feeble, especially when the critic you’re answering is one of your primary sources of credibility.

A most peculiar form of weasel-speak

There are a few vague, euphemistic adjectives that Johnson habitually uses when more precise ones are called for. It’s another way he has of not saying what he means, and sometimes he’ll even make a show of it. For instance, he obviously thinks I did something pretty manipulative to the text of my earlier post. But when it comes down to it, the best he can do, or the best he wants to do, is to show how very difficult it is to find the right word.

Prof. Zimmerman responded to those comments by eliminating his allegation against me from his post, without indicating that he has altered his post—an … unusual … approach to blogging.

The gesture with the ellipsis only makes sense if the word in the middle is suggestive — it wouldn’t work to write that I’d taken a … dishonest … approach to blogging. With “unusual” it’s like a line from a B-movie. We have … unusual … ways of making you tahhhhlk, Mr. Bond!. When Johnson starts a more recent post by alluding to the “two … intriguing … items” he’s going to critique, the impression is more of hands rubbing together in anticipation. Her Majesty’s forthcoming visit to my charming little island offers such … intriguing … possibilities, Mr. Bond! Unless it’s tongue-in-cheek, and I don’t see any sign that it is, this is an awfully flaky affectation to be dropping into a supposedly no-nonsense analysis. If insinuation wasn’t so constant on DIW it would stick out like a sore thumb.

The words “unusual” and “peculiar” are vastly overused on DIW. Like my approach to blogging, my decision to criticize Johnson after being silent is also unusual. The last post I wrote is about an “unusual take on the legacy of the lacrosse case.” (5) Look back at Johnson’s “general point” and you’ll see that a certain claim made by Charles Piot isn’t far-fetched or questionable, it’s peculiar. Search DIW for “peculiar” and you’ll find a post about “The Times’ Peculiar Corrections Policy,” three posts about Peculiar Motions by Duke and Nifong, and a couple more about the Herald Sun’s Peculiar Policies.

It’s not that precise characterization is beyond his grasp. Much of his writing about Mike Nifong is fairly direct — the reference to “a rogue DA [who] railroaded three innocent students” is a description that takes a stand — and so is his latest harangue about Selena Roberts. Perhaps that kind of writing is as common on DIW as the vague and insinuating kind. (6) I really don’t know, but for the record, I’m not claiming that Johnson is never forthright. When he’s not, though, it seems to be a matter of choice — there’s nothing I can see about all those unusual and peculiar things that kept him from finding more precise and descriptive terms.

There’s a schoolmarmish quality to the way Johnson lapses into euphemism and also to his apparent aversion to strong language. (7) When he was carping about Stuart Rojstaczer’s crackpot crack, Johnson remarked that he “never used such a term to describe any faculty member at Duke.” It’s a good thing, too, if he’s really as clueless as he seems about the word’s connotations. When Debrah called attention to one of my posts late last year, he commented that I “often employ[] expletives in [my] posts” — a prim allusion to “bullshit,” though the word isn’t actually an expletive (it’s not ad hominem, either). Expletives are meaningless exclamations. It’s true that the word bullshit can be used that way, but most of the time it means something. I’ve spelled out what I mean by it, anyway (not that mere explanation will stop Johnson from acting as if I’m just flinging a dirty word in his direction). After a few years worth of hints and allegations about the moral degeneracy and dangerality of a certain contingent of professors, Johnson has shown that its quite easy to telegraph crude judgments without using any crude language. So while I assume that his sense of propriety is genuine, in practice it comes across as a way to avoid taking any responsibility for his messages he’s sending.

If he doesn’t say what he means, does he mean what he says?

Because the real problem with all that vagueness and indirection is clearest if there’s more at stake, I’m going to set aside the little squabble between Johnson and me and look at one of the most inflammatory elements of his “Group of 88” crusade — the connection he draws between those professors and the potbangers’ “Castrate” banner. It’s couched in an artfully indirect formula that goes something like this: “The 88 “said ‘thank you’ to protesters who, among other things, had carried ‘CASTRATE’ banners….” (there was only one such banner, so that time he slipped in some exaggeration). It looks to me like that slogan was not widely reported at the time of the protests, so the only legitimate connections that can be drawn to people who weren’t on hand to see it are oblique ones — naiveté or failure to investigate, for instance.

If Johnson wants the linkage to be part of his case against the 88, he should be able to translate it into more specific claims relating the professors to that particularly foolish and revolting banner. With that in mind, in my “other prosecutor” post I raised some questions about what he thought those professors knew about the banner and at what level they approved of it. The questions were rhetorical but Johnson ostentatiously took them up anyway. “My answer to these questions is a straightforward one,” he says, and then proceeds to answer none of them: “I believe… that the 88 signatories to the statement… meant what they said, and said what they meant.” Their “thank you” was unqualified, so it applied to anyone labelled “protestor.” Johnson, unlike those foolish signatories, carefully avoids saying what he means. In this case he may not have much choice, because when he recites the lines about how those professors thanked protestors who displayed a “Castrate” banner, it seems that all he means is that they can be criticized for thanking protestors who displayed a “Castrate” banner. They’re extreme left-wing race/class/gender zealots, after all — what more do you need to know?

When pictures of that banner surfaced months after the protest, Johnson put the image to work straightaway as a blunt instrument, handy for rhetorical thuggery. For it to be evidence and not just an ignorant tool there would have to be some effort to put it into context, ideally an effort that grew out of genuine curiosity about how it fit into the protest and why it emerged into the lacrosse-case discussion only after such a long delay. But the culture-war polemic is an agenda-driven enterprise that has little if any use for curiosity. Without any interest in things that don’t serve the narrowly-defined case at hand, we should at least be able to expect a self-appointed prosecutor to be forthright about the charges, and that includes making specific and meaningful connections between the accused and the evidence of their wrongdoing. I can’t point to any authority to back me up on this, but it seems like a minimal standard to meet if you’re going to hold people who aren’t public figures up to public scorn.

Moderator’s veto?! Of course not! That apologist leaves such valuable comments!

The diatribe blasting me that Johnson posted on DIW is basically an expansion of the three paragraphs I quoted near the beginning of this post, with extra emphasis on my “serious allegation” that he once cut me off at the end of an exchange of comments. One thing — maybe the main thing — that provoked him to move the complaint from my comment thread to his blog was his mistaken impression that I’d just modified my post in order to misrepresent his position and cover my tracks (that’s my “… unusual … approach to blogging.”). He has a point about misrepresentation — it was cavalier of me to read his claim that “It is not clear to me when I did so” as “he doesn’t know,” and I should have changed the characterization when his position became, “To the best of my knowledge, I have cleared every comment.” But the update he objects to was added to the post on April 22, when I cleared his first comment. He left a couple more before he noticed the update on May 2. And my line about a moderator’s veto was never part of the post — it’s always been in the first comment.

I’ve written twice before about that exchange back in April 2008. Both times I made it clear that there’s no way for me to know for sure why my last comment didn’t appear — I have no argument with Johnson’s list of five conceivable explanations. But my experience fits a pattern. Two recent exchanges on DIW ended with Johnson posting what he had decided was the last word and then cutting off the commenter. In the second one, his parting shot was basically “thank you for making my point.” The subsequent comment — the one that wasn’t cleared — politely disagrees about having made Johnson’s point and then it highlights a factual error, debunking the revisionist theory Johnson had been building on it. Whatever reason Johnson had for not clearing that comment — there aren’t any good ones — the effect is to insure that his heavy-handed reinterpretation stands as the last word. That was my experience, as well, so I think that whether or not Johnson actually rejected my comment, I drew the right conclusion — Johnson is as manipulative in his moderating as he is in his reporting (I think that, rather than the lack of “college-level comprehension skills,” is what’s behind the confusion that Johnson addressed a few days ago with this bit of world-class condescension.) That’s not, as he seems to think, a claim that he has “a disinclination to debate [me],” it’s a claim that he’s disinclined to engage in what I would consider a worthwhile debate (I never claimed that my “viewpoint was excluded at DIW,” either — that’s just a straw man).

It’s funny how he reacted to the charge that he’d offed one of my comments — he started arguing that the things I’d written about the lacrosse case had value. Not in a complementary way, of course, but still, “[Zimmerman’s] stance as a public apologist for the Group is an important one, in that it allows neutral observers at least some insight into what might be the Group’s thinking” (he claimed that he’d made the point before — if so, I can’t find it). It’s hard to reconcile that line of reasoning with the extremely sparse attention he’s paid to my blog since I finished the first batch of posts about the case back in late 2007. (8) I’ve written about “Group members” Tim Tyson, Cathy Davidson, and William Chafe without, it seems, providing any insight worth taking note of. The same goes for my long pieces about Karla Holloway and Mark Anthony Neal, which would surely qualify as “apologia” in Johnson’s book. Maybe it’s only the half-dozen comments I left on DIW that provide insight. (9) The first one I left was useful to him, for sure, and in fact it’s the only thing I’ve written that elicited an informative response from him. Or it could be that he doesn’t direct his readers to my blog for insight because he knows that there are no longer any “neutral observers” reading his.

Fighting groupthink with bullshit

He found it useful to bring me and my comments up again, a few weeks later, when a commenter asked about whether groupthink was a problem on blogs. Johnson’s answer cites the value of my perspective in a somewhat more plausible way, though the answer still doesn’t reflect very well on him.

[Bauerlein’s law of group polarization] would apply, in theory, to any entity in which alternative views are excluded or silenced (one reason I am very careful not to discriminate on the basis of content in clearing comments, even if that means clearing comments very critical of me, such as those of the Group apologist, Prof. Zimmerman).

To see what’s going on in Johnson’s comments about my comments it helps to break them down into what’s said, what’s implied, and what’s left out entirely.

  • Explicit. He clears my comments, and furthermore they’re “very critical” of him. In his post he gets a little more specific the insight my comments afford — I “play[] an important role in communicating the basic mindset of Group members.” I assume this is the essence of being what I most explicitly am, a “Group apologist,” though Johnson doesn’t exactly say so.
  • Implied. What I’ve written has some value, since it provides “at least some insight.” But this isn’t on the strength of my arguments, because I’m nothing but an apologist, and for a group that deserves nothing but scorn. So I’m basically a specimen of a wrongheaded mindset who happens to be more communicative than others who share it (I have always treated Johnson as a specimen, too, so in that respect we’re even). (10)
  • Left out. There’s no example of an insight that was gleaned from something I wrote. There’s no description of the kinds of insight that can or have been gleaned. There is no reference to any comment or argument I’ve made. There is, in short, absolutely nothing concrete to back up his claims. And he’s never explained how it is that I’m an apologist and not a critic.

What that tells me is that Johnson’s remarks about my important role are largely bullshit. The effort and attention goes, first of all, into the explicit message (he clears my comments) then into the implicit message (those comments have value). Add the two together and you have a handy little refutation of that odious charge I leveled at him: of course I clear Prof. Zimmerman’s comments, I wouldn’t deprive my readers of valuable insight, would I? Like a senile uncle or a man who’s protesting too much, he repeats the point about my (unintentional) public service in three successive comments and a post. While it’s worth repeating, it’s not worth substantiating, not even a little teeny-weeny bit. So what really matters here is making the right impression. Establishing that there’s some truth behind it isn’t worth the bother. If Harry G. Frankfurt is right that bullshit represents a “lack of connection to a concern with truth” while “making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say,” then Johnson’s priorities here are exactly what you’d expect from a bullshitter.

Johnson’s remark about groupthink and blogs is tangential to the topic he was supposedly addressing in a funny and revealing way. If he wanted to distance his blog from groupthink, presumably he’d point to critics who challenged his arguments in a way that sharpened them or broadened his perspective.(11) But no, he dredges up a mere apologist who has apparently never laid a glove on his analysis. I am, in fact, just another piece of evidence that Johnson has been dead right since the moment in April 2006 when he found a smoking gun covered with the fingerprints of 88 perfect offenders. That’s some priceless irony, and a fine illustration of the role alternative views play in DIW, which is to be ignored unless they’re fodder to be dismissed and attacked. So, if the message isn’t really about groupthink, what is it about? What he says outright is (a) he always clears my comments and (b) they are oh so critical of KC Johnson (and not, or instance, good or bad or sharp or dull or right or wrong). Those seven comments must have been quite a burden. The same goes for the three or so email queries I’ve sent him. (12) I would never have guessed that being a responsible demagogue was such a strain.

The victim game

One of the prefab criticisms that Johnson trots out most frequently is that so-and-so claims s/he is the victim in the case (in two recent posts, so-and-so has been first the Trinity Heights Action Committee and then Selena Roberts, in the past its been various “Group members” — Karla Holloway, for instance). With respect to my claim that he didn’t clear a comment of mine, he points out that it’s possible that “[Zimmerman] never wrote the comment, and is now presenting himself as the victim.” As a hypothetical I have no problem with that, but it’s still an indication of how ready he is to think in terms of “the victim.”

I don’t think it’s hard to understand how aggravating lacrosse-case-related complaints can be when they come from people who publicly prejudged the team’s guilt or who piled on with social and political agendas at the team’s expense. It’s fair to expect some awareness of the difference between being vilified in blogs and being charged with a felony and then thrown under the bus by the legal system and your own college. In a series of comments he recently left here, Michael Gustafson wrote about a group that undercut its credibility by “trying to use a narrow-focused presentation of the case to their advantage” without confronting its “big deals,” namely “rushes to judgment coupled with severely unethical behavior on the part of appointed and elected officials, fanned by a media unable to restrain itself from exploiting a story that was, in fact, too ‘good’ to be true.” The specifics don’t apply here, but Gus framed the general issue quite well. Johnson, on the other hand, doesn’t frame anything when he writes about how someone is claiming to be the victim. It’s just a cheap shot, reflexive if not envious.

Nobody writing about the lacrosse case has gotten more mileage out of victimization than Johnson. He’s made the lacrosse players into poster boys for a crusade — their victimization is not so much acknowledged or analyzed as it is enshrined. Johnson’s sensitivity to the injustice done to him is, in some contexts, dominant to the point of blotting out everything else. (13) The sense of victimization, which is generally an undercurrent and rarely forthright, is a great way to nurture grievance but it has nothing to contribute to rational criticism or debate — yet another indication of Johnson’s dismal priorities.

Afterthought: the May pile-on

Not long after Johnson said his piece about my criticism he took a fair amount of heat from both John in Carolina and Joan Foster — two people who are usually far friendlier to DIW than I am. I can’t resist commenting on a few things that came up in the pile-on.

The standout from John in Carolina is that he chose to call Johnson to the mat for “sliming” Wahneema Lubiano. Johnson had described an innocent passage in an interview as “[i]nformation about Lubiano’s drinking habits.” That’s typical of the way he reads anything written by a “Group of 88 stalwart” — like a drug-sniffing dog, he’s fixated on the search for incriminating evidence. John’s reaction is direct and cogent — “You took an innocent remark by Lubiano and used it to slime her at the outset of your post. A thoughtful person wouldn’t do such a thing.”

And yet, out of all the things Johnson has written about Lubiano, it’s odd to see this one singled out for such strong condemnation. It’s trivial compared to his casual suggestion that “she has used [her] position to rally opposition to her own institution’s students, the ‘perfect offenders’ whose conviction she believes will advance her pedagogical and ideological agenda” (my emphasis). That looks to me not so much like sliming as outright defamation. But we all have our sensitivities — I’m sure there are plenty of things that I’ve gotten irate about that seem silly to others (in this post, even, I bet).

Johnson also tangled with the indefatigable Joan Foster — in fact the two disputes bled into each other. Joan posted their correspondence to LieStoppers. Somewhere in the middle (would it be too much to ask for a little formatting?), he lumps her in with a collection of nefarious figures, including yours truly:

…at various points in the case, figures such as Bob Ashley, Duke administrators or Group of 88 members, and even Group apologists such as Charlie Piot and Robert Zimmerman have suggested that the opinions expressed in stray, vile, anonymous emails should be considered those of the authors of the blog on the case. I have consistently stated that this line of attack is patently unfair.

I agree with him — it’s a facile argument, and it’s unfair. Maybe that’s why he hears that particular argument whenever a critic turns their attention to his comment threads — he’s well practiced at construing things as unfair to him. Some of his critics might have claimed that his commenters’ opinions are simply echoes of his own, but I haven’t, and neither has Joan. Her complaint is about personal attacks against her that he’s cleared, despite his comment policy. Her point (as I see it, anyway) is not that Debrah’s caustic ravings represent Johnson’s opinion.

My angle on the DIW comments is that they are a window into his message, not his opinion. Knee-jerk ridicule is staple in his comment threads, and it often lapses into caricature and various shades of bigotry. The majority of these commenters are registering strong agreement with Johnson. Whether or not they share Johnson’s opinion is irrelevant. He’s had years to separate his message from their opinion and he’s made no effort to do so. Quite the opposite — at times he’s egged them on. But the real problem is more fundamental. Wonderland is a construction in black and white, so by design it caters to a knee-jerk mindset.


  1. Johnson may well be right that “the CCI already had the answers to their questions, before even going through the motions of compiling the data,” or at least what they’d answered the fundamental questions without the data and all it added was some fine tuning. He’s approached his project in much the same way. That makes for a pretty good head-to-head comparison that shows in a nutshell why I’ve been so much more critical of Johnson than of the so-called “Group of 88.” On one hand, there’s an agenda-driven initiative that, based my experience of the school, connects to real people and real issues on a real campus, even if the connections are selective and self-serving and sloppy. On the other hand, there’s someone a few states away taking small-minded, vindictive potshots at the Wonderland he’s created just for that purpose, continuing a three-year-long record of treated the few people at Duke that he notices as either heroes or pawns. Fair or not, to me Johnson’s agenda-driven analysis is the more offensive of the two — it’s really no contest. (back)

  2. Like this one. (back)

  3. This is exactly why I wish the student interviewer in the Chronicle had raised the question. I already knew that the only answer I’d get would be a legalistic brick wall. (back)

  4. The three paragraphs of Taylor and Johnson’s response (it’s mostly Johnson’s, I think) to the Coleman-Kasibhatla letter boil down to this (my paraphrases in italics take a great deal of interpretive license, so make sure you read the real thing before you draw any conclusions):

    1. Why me? (but… but… I just said something nice about President Brodhead!)
    2. Why now? Also what seems like the most substantive response in the letter, that Taylor and Johnson had quoted the sections of the committee report that detailed the lacrosse team’s alcohol-ralated problems.
    3. The counterattack. First a mealy-mouthed line that lumps the surprise attackers from Duke with “defenders of the academic status quo.” Then a demogogic exercise in turning the tables by “invit[ing Coleman and Kasibhatla] to join us in calling for a comprehensive review… of the faculty’s response to the lacrosse case.” It’s a sincerity test that Coleman and I have both failed, and Johnson even feels that it gives him points for “critical self-reflection.” (back)
  5. The response from Taylor and Johnson points out a couple of unusual/peculiar things about the criticism Coleman and Kasibhatla dished out (the peculiar word choice is one sign that Johnson did the writing). It was, first of all, “peculiar” of Coleman to criticize them for misrepresenting his committee’s report when they quoted the relevant part in their book. Also, “it seems unusual to portray a book with more than 1,000 sourcenotes as based on a ‘tragic rush to judgment’ regarding faculty activists’ behavior.” Johnson got the wrong culprit, but his word choice isn’t so bad — the judgment in question was rendered in April 2006, before a book was in the works, so Johnson’s diligent effort to sourcenote his rush may be genuinely unusual. (back)

  6. Johnson’s sense that he’s nailed the extremist mindset of the “Group” means that he is sometimes much more forthright when he’s putting words in their mouth than when he’s speaking for himself. For instance, writing about the Campus Culture Initiative, he can distill the words of extremists down to forthright nuggets of bullshit (“Translation: Most male students at Duke are sexists”). The misplaced clarity is ironic but it shouldn’t be a surprise. One of Johnson’s most effective polemical techniques is to reduce “extremist” views to clear-cut caricatures. Another is to avoid taking stands that have to be defended. Together they keep the extremists in the hot seat and Johnson out of it. (back)

  7. Charles Piot put it well when he wrote that, compared to the DIW commentariat, Johnson “maintains a certain decorum.” (back)

  8. It’s my impression that Johnson leaves the actual reading of my blog up to Debrah, and that turns out to be a pretty good arrangement for all of us. From Johnson’s perspective the stuff I write is, I expect, either impenetrable or just annoying. It gives Debrah a way to feel useful. And it’s fine for me, too — if Johnson leaves comments I usually feel compelled to write some kind of response, but Debrah’s I can usually toss. (back)

  9. At the time Johnson wrote about the comments of mine that he’s “regularly posted” on his blog, he was referring to a grand total of 6 of them. The first 4 were in one thread. The fifth and last one I wrote for that thread is the one that never showed up. That experience, as I said, cured me of writing comments for DIW, aside from a couple of short tweaky ones nearly a year apart. So, of the 7 comments I’d written, 6 appeared online — 86%. More recently I posted a correction about those “unusual” blogging techniques Johnson accused me of. He felt compelled to note at the time that it “was cleared by me—as has been, to my knowledge, every comment Prof. Zimmerman has made at DIW.” Did I ever suggest that he systematically rejected my comments, or in fact that he rejected more than one of them? No. But some of those comments are very critical of him, so let’s give the man credit — he’s done the right thing with 7 of them, and it’s a good thing he didn’t have to OK that other one because it was really mean. (back)

  10. Another way to say this (that Johnson and I treat each other as speciments) is that we treat each other as part of the problem, not part of a debate — as “Group apologist,” what I write is symptomatic of the mindset behind the group, while to me, Johnson is a fine specimen of an especially adept culture-war hack. That makes it very unlikely that anything resembling a worthwhile debate will happen between the two of us. And it makes me think that, in general, ad hominem isn’t an issue we should get too wrapped up with. The lacrosse case is a scandal, not a debate — the focus of it is not a proposition but the behavior of the people involved. (back)

  11. He might have brought up Timothy Burke or Scott Eric Kaufman or Claire Potter, but there’s barely a peep about their criticism of DIW in DIW. Potter figures in DIW, for sure, but like me she’s a specimen. And of course there’s a couple of paragraphs from Coleman and Kasibhatla that weren’t specific enough to be taken seriously. (back)

  12. At the beginning of an email to Joan Foster, Johnson noted that “I even have been willing to respond to all email requests for information from me from figures such as the Group of 88 apologist, Duke professor Robert Zimmerman.” It’s a little odd that he puts it that way after writing about how John in Carolina might have “done me the courtesy of emailing me with his recent list of questions about my posts.” In the same spirit, before he answered my questions about the “Castrate” banner he pointed out that “[Zimmerman] did not e-mail for a response to these questions before posting them.” Looks to me like he’s having some cake and eating it too.

    Anyway, I’ve sent him two requests of information. One of them, about Kerry Haynie, generated a brief exchange. (back)

  13. I’m getting very close, here, to an argument that I’ve tried to resist. Here it is in the words of the anonymous author of The Truth about KC Johnson, for instance:

    Johnson was initially denied tenure at Brooklyn College, and blamed this in part on the forces of political correctness and the supposed left-wing domination of American universities. The Duke lacrosse case gave him his chance for revenge.

    My question is, why does his motivation matter? With enough intellectual integrity even someone motivated by revenge can write an incisive critique. And what seems to have happened in practice is that people have dismissed not only the critic but some of the very legitimate issues that he’s taken up. It’s the product that matters, not the motivation. And the excessive attention to victimization is right there in the product. It’s entirely plausible that revenge is the motivation, but it really doesn’t matter. (back)

{ 5 } Comments

  1. King of the Furrows | July 30, 2009 at 12:56 | Permalink

    I think you missed your true calling Prof. Z . Your music is great and all, but the personality analysis of Debrah is so right on target that perhaps you should be in the Psychology Dept at Duke.

    ~   ~   ~

    Oddly, it does sometimes feel like I’m dabbling in family therapy.

  2. CloakOfAnon | July 31, 2009 at 07:44 | Permalink

    The various social dynamics taking place recently are curious indeed. At VFW you have One Spook teaming up with the Alpha Bat, while on the same site it seems the Attack Dog and Attack Poet are facing off. Then you have the Historian doing battle with a History Buff basically over what is historically correct about certain aspects of the case. And you have the example of two members of the BatCave exchanging insults over what amounts to the definition of a falsehood compared to an exaggeration. Here you have a blogger making much fun over the lack of harmony within the “same team” and at VFW you have a blogger who has decided to go to their room and lock the door.

    The only consistent thing taking place is change. Some changes may be good and some could turn out badly.

    ~   ~   ~

    Are we looking at signs of the apocalypse?

  3. Michael Gustafson | July 31, 2009 at 21:33 | Permalink

    Regardless of opinions on anything else above, CloakOfAnon’s piece is fantastic :)

    ~ ~ ~

    Yeah, you’d think a person would want to claim authorship of a think like that.

  4. wayne fontes | July 31, 2009 at 23:05 | Permalink

    I think you missed your true calling Prof. Z . Your music is great and all, but the personality analysis of Debrah is so right on target that perhaps you should be in the Psychology Dept at Duke.

    This comment misses the mark. I would say Robert is more like a summer camp councilor who prevents his campers from inflicting more than minor rhetorical flesh wounds on each other.

    You see the difference don’t you?

    ~   ~   ~

    Hmmmm. My daughter’s getting to summer camp age and I’m not sure that I want to be thinking about this crowd when she’s taking off for her big week away from home.

  5. inmyhumbleopinion | July 31, 2009 at 23:33 | Permalink

    CloakOfAnon wrote:

    And you have the example of two members of the BatCave exchanging insults over what amounts to the definition of a falsehood compared to an exaggeration.

    For the record, Red Mountain and I were having a good laugh in PMs as we gave each other a heads-up on what we had just submitted to Chris. The edited versions don’t capture the conspiratorial spirit of our exchange. Chris had us delete references to Joan’s bad poetry tattooed across my backside and Red’s use of Debrah’s breasts as his screen saver.

    The events of the past few weeks have definitely acquainted strange bedfellows. At DIW, Debrah just posted a link to the BatCave. She enjoyed a joke about Joan so much she steered KC’s readers to our cavern of obscenity.

    ~   ~   ~

    That comment indeed a strange-bedfellow moment.