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Checking in with… KC Johnson

Me: There is no reference to the behavior of the lacrosse players in the section you quoted.

KC: I am pleased to see that you are no longer denying that Matherly’s post referenced the lacrosse players’ behavior.

[Update below]

There’s the essence of my latest exchange with KC Johnson in the Durham-in-Wonderland comments — as you can see, the man hasn’t lost any of his ponderous, insincere charm. Not much has been going on there for quite a few months, but every now and then Johnson drops in with his rhetorical blunderbuss. The latest this past weekend was about the trial of Crystal Mangum, and near the end I found this:

In a recent post, [Steven Matherly] has taken a break from defending Mangum, and instead has launched into the character attacks on the lacrosse players that were so common from figures like Cathy Davidson and her Group of 88 comrades. Matherly made the mindboggling claim that the role of the lacrosse players in the lacrosse case is comparable to “the racist riots of the 1920s and 30s.”

At the other end of the link, there’s an earnest piece that’s framed as a plea for folks to stop hurling crude racist rhetoric at Mangum — “in your heart of hearts”, Matherly writes, “you know that it is wrong to attack her personally.” In the middle of the post he goes over America’s “long and sordid history of race relations” and concludes that if people had used “the N word” and carried out an actual lynching, the lacrosse case would have been just like “the racist riots of the 1920’s and 30’s” — “[e]verything else is the same.” By “everything” what he really means is everything that’s on his mind at the moment, and that’s really just one thing — the way Mangum has been treated.

There’s plenty to argue with in there — vagueness, narrow perspective, facile history — but there is no claim about “the role of the lacrosse players” and no explicit or veiled attack on their character. And it’s not that Johnson cooked up a questionable interpretation of an obtuse text. What he’s offering is a blatant misreading. It’s just plain wrong, and I couldn’t resist telling him so. I thought it would be fun to see if I’d get the usual discredit-the-messenger reaction even when there was so little at stake, not to mention a much smaller audience. The deeper question is whether, in Johnson’s book, someone like Matherly — an insignificant and wrong-headed but useful Wonderland character — deserves to be read accurately and criticized for claims he’s actually made.

The whole exchange is at the end of this post. I started by suggesting that Matherly wasn’t writing about any “role of the lacrosse players” but about the general public, and that the point of his historical comparison was that Mangum had been lynched in the court of public opinion. He responded:

  • “It’s always nice to see Prof. Zimmerman straining to defend the Duke and Durham status quo.”

    Why, I appreciate the gracious introduction! It’s too much, really, when I’ve just got one lil’ ol’ correction. But Prof. Johnson is always so helpful to his readers, even the ones with the smallest minds.

  • “Matherly’s post, of course, is linked. In the section from which I quoted, Matherly specifically referenced the behavior of the lacrosse players.”

    Well, if it’s linked, everything must be above board.

  • “That followed up on other posts by Matherly in which he bizarrely claimed…”

    But wait, what about this post!? You know, the one with the reference? I guess we can get back to that, because it’s interesting how these guys in the “Durham professional left” can’t seem to tell the difference between the Attorney General and a defense attorney. Kind of funny, but sad. Hey, that reminds me of something. Remember the time Prof. Johnson confused a defense brief with a judge’s ruling? That was kind of funny, too.

Johnson goes on at length to point out the obvious: Matherly will never be able to cite an incident from the South during the 20s or 30s with anything like the peculiar features of the lacrosse case. Actually Johnson isn’t completely sure about that, he’s “unaware” (my emphasis, of course) — “unaware of any racially charged event” from that place and time “in which the local prosecutor had violated myriad ethical guidelines to prop up a case filed by a local African-American woman who made wild criminal allegations against white men;” and he’s also “unaware” of one “in which significant elements of the local white establishment…”
      Bob Ashley’s Herald-Sun!       Grrrrrrrrroup of 88!
“…bent over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt to an African-American woman who made wild criminal allegations against white men.”

So much for history. Anyway, I followed up to contradict the only thing that was on point in all that.

There is no reference to the behavior of the lacrosse players in the section you quoted. If you mean “the N word,” he’s claiming that’s an element that was missing from the lacrosse case. …

There is no attack on the lacrosse players in Matherly’s piece. … You’re saying it’s ok to misrepresent someone as long as you link to the original? Or he’s so contemptible that you can say whatever you want about him?

The answer is short but classic. For background, remember that the lacrosse case “began with one unequivocally racist act: a lacrosse player, as part of a racially charged, post-party argument with Kim Roberts, shouting the n-word” (quoting Johnson’s marginally successful effort to write a thoughtful post about “Race, Racism, and the Case” for Martin Luther King day in 2007).

  • “I am pleased to see that you are no longer denying that Matherly’s post referenced the lacrosse players’ behavior.”

    Ha! What he says about me is blatantly false and yet, the sentence is strangely true. I did mention a behavior that a player engaged in. And if I’m “no longer denying” then the lack of a reference must have been my objection all along. It’s a diabolically clever way to finesse the argument and declare victory. I don’t doubt that he truly is “pleased.”

  • “I don’t recall stating that Matherly is ‘contemptible,’ as you claim.”

    I totally read this into Johnson’s posts, like from his description of Matherly as the “pro-Mangum People’s Alliance activist” whose blog “gives the party line on the trial from Durham’s extreme left,” which involves “spend[ing] most of his time playing the race card, offering conspiratorial rants about the media’s ‘racism’ in its reporting on Mangum.” And the sarcastic parting shot at Matherly’s “mindboggling claim” about the lacrosse players: “Yes, because as any student of U.S. history knows, in the 1920s and 1930s, local prosecutors throughout the South were… willing to violate myriad ethical procedures in order to imprison innocent white people…,” etc.

    My theory is that, when you consistently treat the things a person says and does with contempt, you probably consider that person contemptible (within the context of your analysis or criticism, that is).

  • “I do believe, as the post explains and for reasons my first comment reiterates, that Matherly is historically ignorant. Perhaps you disagree.”

    Yes, I’m sure that if I was a reasonable person I’d want to argue about this instead of the other thing.

I don’t think Johnson has much of an answer, do you? Now he may well be obfuscating to avoid giving me the satisfaction of a straight answer, and I wouldn’t really blame him — the only reason I commented was to put him on the spot. Maybe the conclusion is that an obnoxious “Group apologist” like me deserves to be dismissed. And Johnson might actually be able to justify his claim about Matherly, and I might end up with egg all over my face (good thing he doesn’t read this blog).

It looks to me, though, like Johnson’s presumption here is very much like Glenn Beck’s, when he goes after George Soros or some violent radical socialist vegetarian who once shared a cab with Barack Obama back in ‘92 — some people don’t deserve to be heard accurately. With Beck, mishearing is essential to the project, and to some extent that’s true of Johnson, as well — they make an interesting pair of demagogues, and someday I might even manage to write that up.

~   ~   ~

And now, since I stuck my nose in this, I guess I better say something about Steven Matherly. According to a recent profile in the News & Observer, he’s “served on the City-County Planning Commission, spoken out against the Southpoint SuperTarget and presided over the progressive Durham People’s Alliance.” In 2004 he made an unsuccessful run for the school board. The year after that he got himself arrested by “refus[ing] to stay in his seat in protest of time limits on citizen speakers” at school board meetings. My impression from the article is that even the progressive activists he’s made common cause with see him as a bit of a loose canon.

The profile of Matherly is a sidebar to a fascinating piece about the Friends of Crystal Mangum (“Friends complicate Mangum case”).

They’ve run off one public defender, been chastised by a new defense attorney and faced a threat of jail time by a judge. But the Friends of Crystal Mangum insist they’re on her side, trying to protect her from a corrupt judicial system that they say aims to punish her for accusing three Duke lacrosse players of rape four years ago.

The tension between the Friends and Mangum’s public defenders reminds me of something I wrote a long time ago about bullshit detectors and how it seems to me that attorneys, if they’re any good, can’t afford to “perfect” their clients the way activists do. Unlike protestors in the first phase of the lacrosse case who claimed that they were supporting Mangum, then an unidentified accuser, the Friends are at least in contact with her, so they have a better claim to be acting in her best interests. But taking a case that centers on a domestic dispute and involves three children and putting it in a frame that “screams white power, black oppression” strikes me as misguided at best. And Mangum’s Friends are an offshoot of the Committee on Justice for Mike Nifong — a preposterous cause, as far as I’m concerned.

So, there’s all that, and then there’s the innocuous post I’ve been writing about. Even its broad claim about the root cause of all the ugliness — “if [Mangum] were white she wouldn’t have suffered nearly the abuse that she’s gotten simply because she’s black” — is hardly extreme.

I don’t think there’s enough history in there to say that Matherly is “historically ignorant,” as Johnson claims, or to say that he isn’t. What strikes me is the skewed perspective on history but even more on the present. Matherly writes that he can understand how people would lash out at Mangum if they’re “in some way related to those Lacrosse guys” or they were “harmed in the whole Lacrosse debacle – the Lacrosse coach for example.”

But what I don’t get is the rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth, demonizing of Crystal by nearly the entire white population of Durham, North Carolina, and the entire country.

Hey, why stop with the entire country? There’s a lot of white folks up in Canada, you know.

Rationally, I hope it’s clear that the whole universe of rabid comments about Mangum that Matherly might encounter represents a tiny, biased sample of the white population of Durham and an infinitesimal fraction of the whole country. And some pretty rabid comments have been made about the lacrosse players, too. That’s already a slice out of the population that’s inclined to hurl racial slurs at Mangum (though I suppose there might be a few equal opportunity rhetorical dirtbags out there).

The other day I was sitting in a library thinking about this and as I looked around, I imagined having a little mind reading device that I could point here and there and it would read off the worst thing each person had ever said about Crystal Mangum. Might as well also read out what they said about those Duke lacrosse players, since there once was a time when everyone was badmouthing them. I thought about going to the mall with it, or the airport, or walking around different neighborhoods. I’m sure it’d come back with some shocking stuff, but my guess is that in a lot of places I’d come away with a whole lot of nothing. It’s an interesting thought experiment — give it a try.

But what about that “character attack[]” against the lacrosse players? It’s supposed to be at the end of the section that starts this way:

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument that Crystal is guilty of falsely accusing those Lacrosse guys. Let’s even say that she did it because she has some form of mental illness. Let’s even say she’s manipulating the legal system to some nefarious end and plans to make a fortune off her story.

I submit that the exact same actions by a white woman would not elicit such scorn and attacks as have been visited upon her to date.

What follows is a few paragraphs about the U.S. and its “long and sordid history of race relations.” It’s when he draws his historical conclusion that Matherly brings in the lacrosse case and refers to “the racist riots of the 1920’s and 30’s” — the phrase Johnson quotes — so that’s where we should find the nastiness about the players.

I do not paint with a broad brush. The two things lacking from the whole Duke Lacrosse Case that distinguishes it from the racist riots of the 1920’s and 30’s is the use of the N word (that would have provoked a backlash that would have quickly gotten out of hand) and an actual lynching (folks had to be satisfied with doing it in the press and now in court). Everything else is the same. She’s so ghetto. She’s a whore. She’s a waste of a human soul and much, much worse. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve read what people say about her. Many of you wrote those things yourselves. You’ve said those things to your friends and shook your head as to why the “black community” can’t seem to get itself together.

I suppose that based on a very quick and dirty reading, you might think that when Matherly mentions “the N word,” he’s calling up the one shouted by a lacrosse player at the party. And you might imagine that the uproar following the party was kind of like a riot, and then conclude that Matherly is making “the mindboggling claim that the role of the lacrosse players in the lacrosse case is comparable to ‘the racist riots of the 1920s and 30s.’” If you did, you’d be wrong, because Matherly identifies the epithet as something that was “lacking from” the lacrosse case. It’s kind of a strange thing to say, since that foul-mouthed confrontation at the party is a big moment in most any narrative of the case. But that’s what he wrote.

My sense is that Johnson’s interpretation is driven as much by his assumptions about the author as by the text itself. Let’s say that an ordinary (e.g., not activist) student claims in a paper that a major difference between a recent incident and similar incidents in the past was that this time protestors hadn’t run around screaming that cops are pigs. Johnson happens to know that a guy named John had notoriously called the cop who arrested him a pig, and he’s confident that the student knows it, too. I doubt that Johnson would accuse the student of assaulting John’s character.

Not only did Matherly bring up the epithet as something that was absent from the lacrosse case, he also makes it quite clear that he’s writing about what happened to Mangum after she made the rape accusation. What he doesn’t ever make clear is who he’s holding responsible for all that abuse. The passage quoted above seems to target the general public and the press, but maybe it’s just “folks,” or maybe it’s “the entire white population of Durham,” or “you.” This thoroughgoing vagueness is a major shortcoming. It’s also an excellent reason to doubt that Matherly is singling out the lacrosse players. Matherly isn’t singling anyone out. He’s completely indiscriminate.

With his narrow polemical focus, Johnson doesn’t notice enough of Matherly’s text to come away with any insight. All he gets from it is a flimsy pretext to rhetorically revictimize the figures that keep his project limping resentfully along. Matherly’s writing is far less polemical. What the two share is an impressive devotion to their chosen victim(s).

UPDATE (Dec. 20): I get a paragraph in Johnson’s new post wrapping up the Mangum trial. He still can’t bring himself to articulate what “role of the lacrosse players” Matherly referred to. I suspect that he can’t articulate what, exactly, I did that was Amelia Bedelia-like, either (“Why on earth would those lacrosse players go to Jim Crow to get some rolls?” Amelia shrieked). As for passive-aggressive, he picks that up from a commenter who, like Johnson, likes to think that he sees through me.

Johnson links to the comments I left over there but not to this post — I assume he was unaware of it, since Debrah isn’t around to keep tabs on me. I left a short comment with a link, for anyone interested in my actual opinion. In addition to the usual bullshit about my “long-hinted-at secret evidence,” he came back with this:

I did—and I just doublechecked this—link to his comments in my original post, but just in case, I’m going to link to it again here.

Making a show of doing something that’s completely redundant and nobody asked for, in response to something he imagines to be criticism — that, ladies and gentlemen, is passive-aggressive.

~   ~   ~

Here’s the whole exchange between me and Johnson.

Me, 12/12/10 3:26 AM (jump back ^):

No, Matherly is not writing about the “role of the lacrosse players,” as you claim, he’s writing about the role of the general public, or in his words, “the rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth, demonizing of Crystal by nearly the entire white population of Durham, North Carolina, and the entire country.”

He starts, in fact, by assuming “for the sake of argument that Crystal is guilty of falsely accusing those Lacrosse guys” and proceeds to explain why “the exact same actions by a white woman would not elicit such scorn and attacks as have been visited upon her.” I take the comparison that you single out as suggesting that she was lynched in the court of public opinion.

Did you see the part where he wrote “I know that I will be misquoted and misunderstood for saying all this” and decide it was your job to make an honest man out of him? Or is he just not an easy enough target for you?

KC Johnson, 12/12/10 9:53 AM (jump back ^):

It’s always nice to see Prof. Zimmerman straining to defend the Duke and Durham status quo.

Matherly’s post, of course, is linked. In the section from which I quoted, Matherly specifically referenced the behavior of the lacrosse players. That followed up on other posts by Matherly in which he bizarrely claimed that word of the lacrosse players’ innocence had come only from their defense attorneys (the Durham professional left appears to believe that the state Att’y General is actually a criminal defense attorney).

As to Matherly’s argument being that Ms. Mangum was “lynched” in the court of public opinion rather than—as he said—the situation was comparable to “the racist riots of the 1920s and 1930s”:

As I pointed out in the post, I’m unaware of any racially charged event, anywhere in the South, in the 1920s and 1930s in which the local prosecutor had violated myriad ethical guidelines to prop up a case filed by a local African-American woman who made wild criminal allegations against white men; nor am I aware any racially charged event, anywhere in the South, in the 1920s and 1930s in which significant elements of the local white establishment—such as, in this case, Bob Ashley’s Herald-Sun and many members of the Group of 88—bent over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt to an African-American woman who made wild criminal allegations against white men.

Perhaps in future posts, Matherly will highlight these apparently lost-to-history events from the 1920s and 1930s South as he elaborates on his historical analogy.

Me, 12/12/10 11:11 AM (one typo fixed and one missing word filled in) (jump back ^):

There is no reference to the behavior of the lacrosse players in the section you quoted. If you mean “the N word,” he’s claiming that’s an element that was missing from the lacrosse case. Meaning, I guess, that the word wasn’t thrown around in public and the press.

There is no attack on the lacrosse players in Matherly’s piece. It’s a very simple point and has nothing to do with how good or valid or insightful his argument is. You’re saying it’s ok to misrepresent someone as long as you link to the original? Or he’s so contemptible that you can say whatever you want about him?

KC Johnson, 12/13/10 9:50 AM (jump back ^):

To Prof. Zimmerman:

I am pleased to see that you are no longer denying that Matherly’s post referenced the lacrosse players’ behavior. I don’t recall stating that Matherly is “contemptible,” as you claim. I do believe, as the post explains and for reasons my first comment reiterates, that Matherly is historically ignorant. Perhaps you disagree.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Frances Bacon Bits | December 21, 2010 at 07:44 | Permalink

    “But taking a case that centers on a domestic dispute and involves three children and putting it in a frame that “screams white power, black oppression” strikes me as misguided at best.”

    The race card is the only one that Matherly has, so that’s what he throws down.

    Now that Mangum has received yet another slap on the wrist, one wonders how long it will be before her next explosion.

    ~   ~   ~

    Actually I think it was another of the Friends I was quoting there, from the N&O story. Those folks must have some free time now (except for the one who’s actually doing time). Maybe they should take up child care.