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Demagoguery for (academically-inclined) dummies

KC Johnson has been remarkably successful at capitalizing on the lacrosse scandal to shine a spotlight onto a cohort of Duke professors he believes to be dangerous and irresponsible, that represent the corruption of academic ideals by the far Left. In his blog, Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW), he’s mined pretty much the same vein as David Horowitz, and his rhetoric has been aptly described as “Horowitzian,” but it seems to me that he’s managed to appeal to more of the political mainstream than Horowitz. He’s been able to piggyback on a scandal that was ideal for the purpose, and he got plenty of good material from the professors he’s targeted—I don’t want to give the impression that they’re all hapless and innocent victims. By presenting his exposés of the Nifong debacle and of the Duke faculty in tandem, Johnson has framed the latter as a crusade for justice, with no big reform agenda to distract the righteous—nothing like Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights, for instance. Plus he reminds his readers at every opportunity that he’s an Obama-supporting Democrat, and plays up the impression that he’s a hard-headed, fact-driven analyst with a professional historian’s objectivity.

In practice he’s much more of a prosecutor than an analyst. Like Nifong, but in the court of public opinion, he’s dedicated to making his charges stick, whatever it takes. One thing it takes is an approach to facts and argumentation that’s thoroughly opportunistic and agenda-driven. And he seems to be a more natural demagogue than Nifong—he’s certainly a more successful one, despite or maybe because he goes about it in a bland, insidious, and, as far as I can tell, uncalculating way. Without alienating all of his moderate readers, he’s catered to self-described “blog hooligans,” many of whom are as ignorant, vengeful, and anti-intellectual as the name suggests. The key, I think, is a veneer of scholarly reserve that reinforces his academic credential—what Charles Piot calls “a certain decorum.” The bigots who set the tone of many DIW comment threads have their reasoning validated by a certified intellectual, and readers who recoil at that bigotry can tell themselves that Johnson is simply building a rational case from the evidence—he can’t be expected to hold back the truth because of what ignorant and misguided people do with it. Here, for instance, is an offhand comment I found on a blog that had touched on the scandal with a brief post about DIW:

Love the blog and have from the day it hit my radar. I hate the audience and have from the day I delved into its comments. …[P]eople who would have been hollering loudly for blood had the defendants looked more like the sort who typically appear in superior court… are some of the loudest adherents of Dr. Johnson’s blog.

The commenter bristled, though, when I seemed to imply that “the behavior, on the whole, of the Duke administration and faculty (of those who spoke up) was anything less than atrocious….” He was quite confident that “[o]n those points, Johnson is absolutely correct.”

If nothing else, DIW is repetitive and formulaic, so it’s not hard to extract some cookbook techniques for Johnson’s particular brand of demagoguery. The overdetermined analysis that makes an open-and-shut case for the prosecution works something like this:

  • Construct arguments around foregone conclusions. The basic premise of the critique of Duke faculty in DIW is that the so-called “Group of 88” is a bunch of extremists who see everything through the prism of the “race/gender/class trinity.” It’s not a theory to be tested, it’s a filter. The things that pass through are what registers—what gets written about or counts as evidence. When filtering isn’t enough, misreading and misrepresentation fills in the gaps. It’s no surprise that the professors under scrutiny turn out to do and think just what you’d expect from race/gender/class-obsessed extremists. What looks like analysis or argumentation is largely window dressing, and a platform for judgmental rhetoric.
  • Make full use of labels, both for their reductive power and to make fabrications seem real. The most ubiquitous and useful label is “Group of 88”—it creates a false impression of substance, unity, and, because it’s relentlessly repeated, relevance. Other labels, like “anti-lacrosse extremist,” are tendentious and/or reductive.
  • Make a fetish of literalism and don’t worry about context. This is most obvious when he writes about the “listening” statement, and his interpretation of that ad is the ultimate source for the whole academic-culture crusade. When I claimed that he made too much of a sixteen word passage in the ad (“…to the protestors making collective noise, thank you for not waiting and for making yourself heard”) he replied that the ad’s endorsers “meant what they said, and said what they meant.” For me at least, that sums up the penchant for literalism pretty well. See Brian Leiter’s pointed critique for more along the same lines.

Above and beyond these techniques, there’s plenty of conventional rhetoric. The repetition alone has a rhetorical, mesmerizing effect. But the rhetoric can be revealing, too—Johnson’s reflexive “of course” tends to flag the points where the predetermined narrative hits its marks.

Johnson’s prosecution is relentlessly moralistic—that’s what makes it compelling. He’s upfront with his opinions and makes no pretense of being nonpartisan, but there’s a judgmental aura to DIW that fosters knee-jerk and self-righteous reactions. That too can be summed up in a method:

  • Let incriminating evidence speak for itself. Give your naive, moralistic, and bigoted readers free rein, especially when it comes to the most provocative pieces of evidence—a protest banner that screams “Castrate!”, for example. Don’t stand in their way by trying to put it in context or by trying to understand your opponents’ perspective.
  • Strive for moral polarization. Blanket judgment is easy if you put the action in a parallel reality (“Wonderland”) where all the decent, sensible people are on one side of the fence and the misguided, disingenuous, dangerous people are on the other.
  • Define your position largely by what your opponents did wrong, and avoid constructive criticism. It’s important to draw a hard line on big, hot-button issues like due process—those things separate the good guys from the bad guys. But constructive criticism generally involves moral ambiguity and tradeoffs, and that opens you up to criticism both from the other side and from hard-liners on your side. In general, prescriptive positions have to be defended. If you stick to attacking others for what they did wrong, your would-be critics will tend to defend those folks rather than attack you. That gives you an opportunity to reemphasize your original criticisms, keeping the spotlight firmly on the evildoers.

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What follows are links into my recent posts—case studies of the method in action.

KC Johnson and the extremist factory: A overview of a few of the points above—analysis that assumes and then confirms that Johnson is dealing with a certain type of professor, labels and epithets, and evidence that speaks for itself (but says different things to different people).

The making of an anti-lacrosse extremist: How to misread, misrepresent, and trivialize in order to show that a writer is an extremist who’s dead wrong about most everything. The object of criticism in this case is an article by Karla Holloway about the lacrosse case.

  • Holloway wrote that “[i]n nearly every social context that emerged following the team’s crude conduct, innocence and guilt have been assessed through a metric of race and gender. White innocence means black guilt. Men’s innocence means women’s guilt” (my emphasis). Those last two sentences are pretty outrageous, but it’s a shame to let her restrict them to the social contexts she’s observed in the wake of the lacrosse incident. Better to turn them into a default assumption, so Johnson claims she wrote that “[i]nnocence and guilt… must be ‘assessed through a metric of race and gender’” (my emphasis again).
  • Holloway has spent quite a bit of time as an administrator—three years as a program director and five as Dean of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Especially as dean, responsible for faculty development in a number of departments, she would have participated in and supported decisions that didn’t further Duke’s diversity agenda. It’s best, therefore, not to look too closely at her administrative record, but to reduce it to her role in hiring two controversial professors.
  • An easy way to hit the right notes is to assume that she’s basically Rush Limbaugh’s caricature of a feminist, and can only disagree about a gender-related issue with shrill condemnation. From that perspective her criticism of the women’s lacrosse team can be read as a declaration that the students are “traitors to the gender.”

Rhetorical thuggery: How to tar an opponent (Mark Anthony Neal, in this case) with their own outrageous language—take it out of context, scrupulously avoid the intended message, and let it speak for itself. It’s a good way to energize the bigots who are on your side of the argument.

  • A Duke graduate student named Richard Bertrand Spencer published an article with the claim that “whenever [Neal] ‘rolls into the classroom on the first day of class,’ there is always somebody ‘in the house quietly utter[ing] “who’s the nigger?”’” Neal is obviously the kind of person who would concoct such a wild story about the students at Duke, since he thinks there’s rampant racism there. There’s no need to verify something so true to life, and if you dug up the source of Spencer’s claim you might have to admit that Neal was describing a rare experience, in an article written a year before he started teaching at Duke.
  • Neal has an “alter ego”—“ThugNiggaIntellectual”—whose business is “intellectual thuggery.” It’s hard to tell what he means by that, especially since there are no obvious examples in his writing, but it doesn’t really matter—it’s outrageous and suggests violence so it can be taken at face value. Too much attention to the term’s meaning and readers might wonder if it’s hypocritical for a critic who’s so quick to condemn and stigmatize to get worked up about someone else’s thuggery.

What is The Truth about KC Johnson?: Shows how much easier it is to cover a politically-charged controversy if you assume you’re dealing with people who are completely predictable. In addition there’s a little lesson in character assassination (it works especially well when it’s based on evidence that’s not in the public record).

The latest adventures in Wonderland: If you have a dense and arcane text (for instance, “In the Afterlife of the Duke Case,” an article in the journal Social Text by three notorious Duke professors), don’t waste time trying to follow the argument if all you want to do is ridicule and dismiss it. Find a few things that, without any special context, can be pointed out as just plain wrong. Your readers will thank you for not making them think too hard. There’s also a lesson in how to stonewall awkward revelations.

Gossip and banter from all over: Johnson’s kind of criticism is a lot like gossip, with it’s overlay of outrage and scandal. It can circulate like gossip, too. In this case, Northwestern University law professor Jim Lindgren of the Volokh Conspiracy helps spread the news.

There can be only one story: Criticizing justifications that Duke professor Tim Tyson recently gave for his comments early in the scandal, Johnson shows how to pile it on when your opponent has markedly different concerns than you. There’s a lesson in the power of literalism and another in the advantages of avoiding constructive criticism.

I find all this very hard to reconcile the method with the ethic of a professional academic historian, but I guess there’s no arguing with success.