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Chutzpah and the honeypot

I’ve come to think of the Duke lacrosse case as kind of like a honeypot for would-be critics. In the world of network security and spam detection, a honeypot is a resource that invites abuse — an open mail relay or an unprotected comment box begging to be spammed, for instance. The idea is that the bad guys will use it and reveal themselves. Then they can, for instance, be put on a blacklist (and that’s just scratching the surface).

The analogy isn’t by any means perfect, but it captures my feeling that the lacrosse case invites opinionated people to unleash their irrational, tribalistic reflexes in a self-incriminating way. I’m sure that countless other culture-war touchstones have the same effect and this just happens to be the one I’ve paid the most attention to. The honeypot reaction is purely rhetorical. The primary source of it is the conviction that the situation is all very simple and perfectly one-sided, which means it usually comes from people who are free to reconstruct the setting and the cast of characters solely on the basis of things they’ve read and heard. Some reactions from up close are so reflexive and self-involved that they manage to fit the pattern. Houson Baker’s infamous open letter, for instance, has that tell-tale gush.

Since knee-jerk criticism isn’t exactly hard to come by, it’s especially interesting when people who are clearly capable of doing better fall into the trap. The most sobering example from the Left, for me, is the Tenured Radical, history professor Claire Potter, that is, who, over a year after the incident and in the course of writing about a completely different scandal, took some careless shots at the lacrosse team. Potter is one of the most fair-minded and thoughtful bloggers I know of, so I have to assume that in different circumstances I could easily do the same kind of thing. Looking to the Right, some of the staff at FIRE have outed themselves with overwrought commentary on the case that shows they’re not quite as nonpartisan and dedicated to principle as they claim to be. *

I have a neat little example that I saved up from last spring (a recent post sort of explains why I’m dredging this old stuff up). I probably disagree with this person on most any political question, but when he’s writing on his own blog, at least, he can be thoughtful and generous (compare his reaction to this miscarriage-of-justice story to what follows, for instance). But when he came across a Duke professor writing unapologetically about the lacrosse case, his knee commenced to jerkin’ and he cranked out a remarkably small-minded and uninformed rant. More to the point, a rant that revels in being uninformed and small-minded.

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Back in April, a few days after the Attorney General decided to toss out the case against Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, Duke Law professor James Coleman wrote a piece for the Huffington Post. His point was that the justice system stumbled but didn’t ultimately fail in Stevens’ case, and in the lacrosse case as well. Parts of the system failed, but ultimately the failures were corrected. Coleman argues that the true failures are the cases, typically involving indigent or minority defendants, in which the misconduct of prosecutors is met with indifference (disclaimer).

Duke’s Office of News and Communications reposted Coleman’s op-ed a few days after it ran on HuffPost. Over at Protein Wisdom, “The Sanity Inspector” found it too much to bear, so he fired off an irate memo to the “Department of Chutzpah Studies”:

I don’t know that Duke law professor Dr. James E. Coleman Jr. had anything to do with the attempted railroading of the Duke lacrosse players. But anything on the subject of that case that appears under Duke University’s masthead ought to take the form of abject apology for years to come, if common shame were operative. …

… But most defendants don’t have a whole education institution presuming their guilt and baying for their punishment, primarily on the basis of their identity. Most defendants do not become the targets of radical, post-modern, identity politics mongering, class warfare waging inmates of a left-wing loony bin. …

Is Dr. Coleman sorry for what Duke’s faculty did to those players? A quick search of Durham In Wonderland seems to indicate that he was one of the good guys in this case. But he surely could find a better way of publicizing the no doubt good work of the Duke Innocence Project than venturing to claim that the lacrosse players had it easy.

Apparently that quick search of Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW) didn’t turn up this (“Coleman Tears Down the Wall”), or this (“one figure is of towering significance: Jim Coleman”), or this, defense attorney Jim Cooney’s statement at the time his client, Reade Seligmann, was exonerated. First on Cooney’s list of “heroes and cowards” is “the magnificent professor Jim Coleman at Duke University, one of the few professors who was willing to stand up and say, this is not right. We have procedures for a reason. We have presumptions for a reason. What is going on is wrong.” (I’m actually quoting the CNN transcript, which fills in things that KC Johnson, quite understandably, wasn’t able to catch when he was live-blogging.) Why do a lot of searching, anyway, when all you’ll learn is how Coleman handled himself in this case. Who knows, really, how many other cases there are just like it. (Kudos to Wayne for dropping in with a more informed perspective, though).

The Inspector has a good reason to be skeptical, actually. A towering figure is awfully useful if you want to create a landscape of moral midgets, and all of Johnson’s building up of Coleman is of a piece with his knocking down of the so-called “Group of 88.” It’s hard to tell, just skimming the blog, where the analysis leaves off and the self-serving parable begins. Coleman really does stand out in the narrative of the case, though. As Cooney points out, he stuck to the most pressing issues and the core principles behind them. Whether he was addressing the legal situation or campus culture, his efforts were focussed, constructive, and informative, and they made a difference.

The thing is, cranking out opinions online is a pretty self-indulgent occupation — these virtual soapboxes that we’re all climbing on come with very little moral authority, and here’s a fine way to shred it: post a half-baked rant that presumes to judge, on the basis of “common shame,” a man who put his profession reputation on the line in order to help the people whose mistreatment supposedly justifies the rant in the first place. It’s an object lesson in doing vs. spewing:

  • Dr. Coleman seems to believe in indiscriminate justice for all, and even if he thought that in the end the justice system wasn’t likely to fail the lacrosse players, he still spoke out forcefully against their prosecutor.

    The Sanity Inspector believes in applying indiscriminate common shame to anyone affiliated with a certain large, politically suspect institution, and he doesn’t mind saying so.

  • Dr. Coleman spent hours chairing a committee that, according to KC Johnson, was scrupulously fair and “should have shamed those who blindly accepted the caricatures of the team offered in late March and April 2006.”

    The Sanity Inspector managed to skim DIW for a while before he launched into his rant.

  • Dr. Coleman used quotes from the lacrosse players and their families to underscore his point that they were relatively well equipped to deal with the faults of the justice system.

    The Sanity Inspector misrepresents Coleman’s essay as callous in order to give his own parting shot some resentful bite.

  • Dr. Coleman may well feel that, whatever other faculty at Duke did or said, he’s entitled to speak freely about the lacrosse case because of the public stands he took when the case were being prosecuted as well has his considerable experience with the legal system.

    The Sanity Inspector seems to feel that the offense he endured while hearing and reading about the lacrosse case entitles him to cast aspersions, under cover of glib ignorance, on someone who gave a significant boost to the players when they really needed it.

If common shame was operative on Protein Wisdom, the Sanity Inspector would have been stripped of his neckerchief and drummed off the staff (have no fear, though — PW is a truly and awesomely shameless place). Oh, and by the way, anyone know if the Inspector is still beating his wife? **

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One really annoying thing that’s happened in the last few months is that both the News and Observer and the Duke Chronicle have changed their URLs. None of the old links work any more. My blog is now full of broken links (I hesitate to think about how many there are in DIW). Since I was going through the N&O archive anyway to remind myself what Jim Coleman said about the case, I thought I might as well post the new links, and while I was doing that, why not pull out some representative quotes? And now that I’ve rounded all that stuff up, I’m feeling the need to pontificate a bit.

What the collection shows is how consistent, forthright, and pointed Coleman’s commentary was. Naturally it reflects his perspective on the legal system and his experience with it — the same things he brings to his work with the Duke Innocence Project. But while the lacrosse players were in legal jeopardy, he didn’t use the case to plug the Innocence Project and he didn’t rank the lacrosse players as more or less deserving of concern and help. The thing I found most interesting is his somewhat more expansive comments after the three indicted students were exonerated. In them he talks about the public reaction as well as the legal one. Again he doesn’t downplay what happened or try to refocus the discussion on some other, more deserving victims. Instead, he points out where and why people went wrong in their rush to judgment. He also comments that he hopes the case disabused people of the notion that the legal system only screws the poor and minorities (he doesn’t put it quite that way, of course).

The contrast between Coleman and KC Johnson is every bit as striking as the contrast between Coleman and any of Duke’s tenured radicals. If they were “only too willing to advance their personal, pedagogical, or ideological agendas on the backs of their own students,” Johnson has been only too willing to use their students as rhetorical pawns in response. Not that the lacrosse players minded. On the contrary, during the April 2007 press conference he was thanked by all three of the exonerated students. He was friendly and supportive both in person and in writing, and he helped fill a vacuum left by an academic community that couldn’t manage to work through its collective horror to a more complex and humane response, something I don’t think anyone at Duke should be allowed to forget. If Johnson was to some extent frying his own fish, that just meant that he poured more effort and intensity into his blog. My problem with all that is that he worked relentlessly to fan the flames and in the process churned out reams of thoroughly nasty and uninsightful criticism.

Last summer Johnson pointed out, apropos of nothing in particular except that I’d criticized him, that I was silent while “a District Attorney violating myriad procedures in an attempt to railroad three innocent students at Prof. Zimmerman’s own institution.” It’s a fine example of what it means to use “three innocent students” as rhetorical pawns, in this case just to shrug off some annoying criticism. It also sets up an implicit standard for what we should have been doing on campus back in 2006. And by that measure, Coleman’s performance was exemplary. When he commented about the legal situation, his overriding concern seems to have been the decent administration of justice, his immediate priority was derailing Nifong and he didn’t bother with anything else. It should be pretty obvious that Johnson was doing something quite different and yet I don’t think that the Sanity Inspector is the only person to overlook it. Johnson took to writing about the lacrosse case as part of an ongoing critique of academic culture. From the beginning his attention to the railroading in Wonderland was at least as much a way to energize his own agenda as it was an effort to stop the train.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s a meaningful head-to-head comparison here. Coleman was approached both for his legal expertise and his Duke affiliation, and what made it into the news reflects not just what he said but also the choices of the reporters who interviewed him and their editors. The comments I’ve assembled are to some extent a product of the role he was playing, and that wasn’t a role that was open to Johnson. But the comparison sheds some light on what I think is an interesting question — was all the noise Johnson was making really serving the players’ interests? And the same general question applies to partisans all around. A couple of years ago I laid out my doubts that the potbanging protesters were offering any meaningful support to the lacrosse team’s accuser, who they idealized in a self-serving way. It looks to me like they were just co-opting a stranger’s misery for the cause. On the other side, “blog hooligans” turned the lacrosse team into poster boys and ran around trash-talking the enemies of their friends and demanding apologies on their behalf. A lot of it strikes me as little more than online potbanging. I suspect that by jettisoning all the self-indulgent crap, Coleman offered a lot more of a boost.

Anyway, here are some highlights from Coleman’s interviews in the News & Observer during the criminal phase of the lacrosse case (and a little past it).

  • Duke prof: Rape case needs new prosecutor (Jun 13, 2006). This is what caused KC Johnson to write about Coleman tearing down the wall — the “Duke prof’s” opinion that Nifong should be replaced was the whole point of the story.

    Coleman said he’s followed the case closely in the newspapers but hasn’t spoken with any of the lawyers involved. He said he was disturbed by the transcript of the identification procedures, where a police officer told the accuser that she was about to look at photos of everyone who attended the party.

    “The officer was telling the witness that all are suspects, and say, in effect, ‘Pick three,’ ” Coleman said. “It’s so wrong; it had to be done for a reason other than identification.”

  • DA’s statements, record at odds (Jun 15, 2006):

    “Either he knew what the facts were and misstated them, or he was making them up,” said James Coleman, a Duke law professor who has publicly requested that Nifong remove himself from the case. “Whether he acted knowing they were false, or if he was reckless, it doesn’t matter in the long run. This is the kind of stuff that causes the public to lose confidence in the justice system.”

  • Suspects, dancer contradict accuser (Oct 16, 2006), about the lacrosse-case exposé on 60 Minutes:

    During the segment, James Coleman, a Duke University law professor, said he thought Nifong had committed prosecutorial misconduct by speaking out before charges were filed.

    “If this case resulted in a conviction, I think there would be a basis to have the conviction thrown out based on misconduct,” Coleman said.

  • Duke attack story shifts (Jan 12, 2007):

    Critics, such as Duke law professor James Coleman, said the new document was a blatant attempt to fix a flawed case and called for a criminal investigation of Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong and his staff.

    “Who would believe that a witness, nine months later, suddenly recalls facts that coincidentally negate evidence produced by the defense?” said Coleman, who led a Duke committee that investigated the lacrosse team’s culture and has criticized Nifong’s handling of the case for months.

    “These people are almost criminal. It’s making a mockery of the system. It’s like Nifong is mooning the system. It’s contemptuous.”

  • Durham DA may face another entanglement (Jun 7, 2007):

    James Coleman, a Nifong critic and a Duke University law professor who has followed the lacrosse case closely, lauded Smith for leaving the disciplinary possibility open.

    “Judges should not tolerate this crap,” Coleman said. “They see it all the time. If they don’t do anything about it, that’s how it keeps going on. [Nifong’s] behavior was a total affront to the court.”

    “Prosecutors can ruin lives very easily, they do it and clap their hands and say never mind and move on,” Coleman added. “Courts have basically ignored it. I’ve seen misconduct by prosecutors in a capital case where everyone recognizes the misconduct, but the judge declares it a harmless error. Then the prosecutors show up at the execution.”

Now a couple of quotes from the Duke Chronicle:

  • Campus tunes in to ‘60 Minutes’ (Oct 16, 2006):

    Bradley also interviewed Duke law professor James Coleman, who decried the line-up used to bring charges against the three players.

    Coleman, who chaired a University committee last Spring that investigated the lacrosse program, has been involved in establishing the North Carolina standards for line-up procedures.

    “[Nifong] pandered to the community by saying, ‘I’m going to go out there and defend your interests in seeing that these hooligans who committed the crimes are going to be prosecuted,’” he said. “I think in this case, it appears that this prosecutor has set out to develop whatever evidence he could to convict people he already concluded were guilty.”

  • Experts: DA’s case nearing ‘implosion’ (Jan 12, 2007):

    Under North Carolina law, a man can only be convicted of rape if there is sufficient evidence that his penis penetrated the victim’s vagina, law professor James Coleman said. In her most recent testimony, the alleged victim in the lacrosse case could not confirm that the object that entered her was a penis, forcing the prosecution to drop the rape charges.

    Coleman said the increasingly contradictory testimonies given by the alleged victim provides the defense with a valuable asset in getting the remaining charges dismissed.

    “The more significant effect is that it undermines the witness’s credibility on all the charges she has made,” Coleman said. “It’s extraordinary that a witness testimony changed so drastically nine months after the incident. A jury would find it hard to believe her. That’s just not credible. It’s like the end of a bad mystery novel where all the ends are tied up.”

Finally a few pieces from here and there in which Coleman commenting on things other than Nifong’s mismanagement and procedural misconduct.

  • First, a letter he wrote to the Durham Herald-Sun in Oct. 2006, as quoted in DIW.

    Your editorial about the recent “60 Minutes” report mischaracterizes both what the district attorney’s role has been in the Duke lacrosse rape case and why some of us have criticized him. Like much of the media hype that has surrounded the case, your editorial turns the case into an ugly caricature by suggesting that the decision to prosecute the Duke students was made by a valiant prosecutor on a white horse who is defending a helpless black woman who “ranks near the bottom of society.” That is what the prosecutor also suggested when he told a largely African-American audience that he personally would protect “this black girl” from the hooligans at Duke. I find that characterization of the case offensive and patronizing. Why do you say the accuser is “near the bottom of society?” She is an apparently talented student and mother who dances to support herself and her child. She is a woman, not a “black girl.” Trying to make this case about race and class has done a great disservice to Durham. From the start, it should have been handled as just an alleged rape that had to be investigated and prosecuted if the evidence warranted it. As someone who has criticized Nifong’s handling of the case, I have not called for him to dismiss it; rather, I have suggested only that a special prosecutor be appointed who can make the kind of disinterested decisions about the case that Nifong has shown himself incapable of making. If the case goes to trial, it should be based on the strength of the evidence against the defendants, rather than as a convenient way to shift responsibility for ending what now appears to be a highly questionable prosecution to a judge or jury.

  • This is from a a post-exoneration interview with CBS news, Apr. 12, 2007. This was an opportunity to talk about how the lacrosse players had it easy, but that’s not at all the route he took.

    Coleman … said that the circumstances surrounding the case ended up being “something of a perfect storm.”

    “It had all kind of elements, but we know now it was based on this false notion a crime had been committed,” he said. “That generated everything. That gave energy to everything.”

    The story, as it was portrayed in the media, was about class and race in a community surrounding an elite university…. The three accused represented — at least in the eyes of their critics — the privileged white students many felt were running wild on campus. But in the end, none of it was true, Coleman said.

    “It got reported that way over and over, and then it became fact,” he said. “You know, it took a year for the truth to catch up.”

    District Attorney Mike Nifong, Coleman said, was initially motivated by the belief that a crime had occurred but also saw it as an opportunity for him to gain fame and notoriety.

    “He was in a political race,” Coleman said. “You know, he rushed to judgment….”

    During the past year, there have been several stories about race and sports, including the recent debacle with radio host Don Imus and comments he made about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Coleman says they are all related.

    “I think what’s happening is that athletes are treated like disposable items,” he said. “We forget they are human beings, students and have feelings, and we just ignore that. They are treated like commodities.”

  • Here, finally, is what he told Robert Bliwise for the story “One Year Later”, which ran in the May-June 2007 issue of Duke Magazine.

    Lacrosse-committee chair Coleman—who also serves as faculty adviser for the Innocence Project, which investigates cases believed to have resulted in wrongful convictions—says he and his colleagues talked about the case constantly. But he acknowledges that faculty members (and civil-rights organizations) have been reticent to speak out against this particular prosecutorial transgression. That reticence, he says, in part may reflect “the strange role that race was playing in the case, which is that the prosecutor said that this was a predatory crime and one that was racially motivated.”

    Just as race-consciousness constrained discussion around the case, so too, he adds, did “the notion that rich people have all the help they need,” in legal proceedings and otherwise. He says he hopes that those who saw the lacrosse case in terms of such broad categories now realize the problems with their preconceptions. “People thought that whatever happens is happening to poor people and black people; it’s not a threat to me. This case says, the system isn’t functioning and it’s a threat to all of us.”


Disclaimer: I don’t know James Coleman, haven’t ever communicated with him, and have no inside information on him. He’s not responsible for anything I’ve written here.

* The TR post that stirred up the hornets nest was about Don Imus’s crack about the “nappy headed hos” playing basketball for Rutgers. Potter has since taken it down, but you can get a sense of the post and the controversy in her follow-up (go to the first comment for quotes from the problematic post).

** This is a loaded question, not a serious or factual claim. How could it be? I don’t even know who the guy is, much less how he treats his wife.

{ 5 } Comments

  1. RedMountain | March 27, 2010 at 07:41 | Permalink

    Robert,
    I find myself buzzing around the top of this thing and finding it curiously devoid of honey. Perhaps it is the lack of the sweetness that has drawn me in to the pot this time.

    A particular point of contrastation seems to be missing. I thought the disagreement over KC’s characterization of the Coleman report as a “stunning vindication” of the Lacrosse players would be a point of focus. As well as Coleman’s obvious dislike of the trashing of the Duke faculty by KC regarding the care and concern (or lack of) the faculty has over the students to be something at least worth a mention. Perhaps I am either missing the point or your post has gone completely over my head (that has happened on occasion in the past).

    While you were out I have come to a change of heart regarding some things and some posters (Debra for example). Am I detecting a similar change in your posts regarding KC here?

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    Yeah, it could be that the point here is obscure. Anyway, I decided to give the exchange between Johnson and Coleman a rest, it has no direct bearing here. No particular change of heart, though.

  2. wayne fontes | March 27, 2010 at 12:16 | Permalink

    One minor criticism Robert. I don’t think you should have posted the link to TR’s self serving day after follow up post. If TR couldn’t leave the original post up she shouldn’t get the benefit of putting her own spin to the post that kicked things off.

    The original can be found on the Wayback Machine

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    Hi Wayne. What I had in mind was more the comments than the post. I revised my little footnote to make that clear. Your link for the Wayback Machine doesn’t point anywhere… [it does now].

  3. wayne fontes | March 27, 2010 at 13:12 | Permalink

    I posted the link to make others aware the resource exists. I felt that if you had wanted this post to devolve into another rehash of TR you would have referenced the original.

    I’m just a kind person who is always thinking about others.

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    Sure, that makes sense. I fixed the link so it’ll at least get folks to the site. And yes, thoughtful is practically your middle name.

  4. The Sanity Inspector | March 29, 2010 at 18:02 | Permalink

    I thank your for linking to my pokey little blog, and will try to give you a proper response once I have time to curl up with this post and read it carefully. At first run-through I’m not sure I’ll be able to hold up my end of the conversation. In the meantime, by way of thanks for the linkage, enjoy some of these photos, from one of my other blogs. http://www.is-3.blogspot.com/

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    Well, this is a pretty pokey blog, too, especially after being dormant for 9 months, so I’m afraid the linkage ain’t worth a whole lot. Anything you want to say by way of response is welcome, though.

  5. The Sanity Inspector | April 7, 2010 at 13:27 | Permalink

    After careful consideration, I don’t believe I have anything to add or retract. You’ve gone into much more detail of Dr. Coleman’s good works than I did, or would have. However, given my fury at the miscarriage of justice that Duke University and Mr. Nifong almost got away with, I still think that both of my screeds are Fair Enough.

    As for Durham In Wonderland, I remain impressed and grateful that he spent thousands of his own dollars, doing citizen journalism legwork on this story. That counts for a lot, credibility-wise.

    Thanks again for the notice.

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    What I fundamentally disagree with here is that fury is justification for a thoughtless screed. In particular, it’s no excuse for a line like this: “I don’t know that Duke law professor Dr. James E. Coleman Jr. had anything to do with the attempted railroading of the Duke lacrosse players.” Either find out or don’t write the sentence. And it’s no excuse for a line like this, either: “Is Dr. Coleman sorry for what Duke’s faculty did to those players?”

    When the three players were exonerated, I can imagine some infuriated person writing, with exactly the same justification: “I don’t know that Duke lacrosse player ____ ______ had anything to do with the racial epithets or the broomstick offered up as a ‘sex toy.’” And they’d be just as justified asking angrily: “Is ____ ____ sorry for the way those women were treated?” And they’d be making veiled, ignorant accusations. It’s an underhanded kind of criticism.