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Me and my big mouth

A couple of months ago, 76 entries into the longest comment thread I’ve ever hosted, we were debating the “other Duke rape,” the one that happened at a frat party on Gattis St. on Feb. 11, 2007. Joan Foster mentioned that the father of the victim wanted to talk to President Brodhead but was rebuffed by Larry Moneta, who said that the president was “a very busy man.” The source, when I asked, turned out to be Bill Anderson, who was both a participant and a topic because of the many questionable facts and inferences he’s injected into the lacrosse debate. I wrote something clever about how he had a way of finding people at Duke who talked like they were characters in a bad movie.

Silly me! Last Wednesday I was getting ready to go to the coast and who should I hear from but the victim’s father. We ended up having a pleasant (given what we were talking about) phone conversation, and I learned a lot. The main thing he wanted to clear up was that he really has been in touch with Bill Anderson and Larry Moneta really did brush him off with that “very busy man” cliché. There’s plenty more I’d like to say about the situation but it will take me a while to put it together — I need to go over some things with Mr. Rouse again and see what else I can find out. But those are the essentials.

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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).

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The ongoing and most peculiar inadequacy of the English language

A quick note about one of the “… intriguing … items” that KC Johnson recently scrutinized, a “‘report’ produced by an entity called ‘Trinity Heights Action Committee’” and then faxed by Durham mayor Bill Bell to Duke president Richard Brodhead. I’ll admit it, I would have accepted that the document is an actual report written by representatives of a neighborhood association, as Bill Bell (I mean, seriously, Bill Bell!) refers to them. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was taken in by the moderate language, the focus on concrete problems and solutions, and the appearance of constructive dialog with interested parties on all sides. Fortunately, Prof. Johnson can see right through that pretense. What we’re actually looking at here is an “entity” that’s produced a most-appealing “report,” currently circulating from desk to desk in Durham, titled “Report and Recommendations on Party House Problems in Durham’s Central City Neighborhoods.” It’s got this little gem tucked away in the fourth paragraph:

The 2006 Lacrosse incident thrust the disruptive and abusive behaviors caused by Duke party houses into a harsh national media spotlight. Although this incident had enormous negative consequences — legal and financial — for both Duke and Durham, it is by no means clear that Duke has yet enacted any major changes of policy for off-campus student life in response. Fraternity-sponsored parties remain a chronic disruption in neighborhoods adjacent to Duke’s East Campus.

As KC points out, the first sentence “provides what could charitably be described as an unusual take on the legacy of the lacrosse case” (my emphasis), while the second sentence implies there’s some kind of connection between Duke’s policy for off-campus life and the negative consequences of what they delicately refer to as the “2006 Lacrosse incident.” You know what they were thinking — let’s make Duke think that the lacrosse case was just some off-campus party that went bad and then they’ll clamp down on these kids. After all, “we have young children to raise, jobs to do and classes to teach.” Gimme Gimme Gimme!

It’s something that can only be described as an “unusual linkage” — KC hits the nail on the head, once again. And as usual the syllabus-deviating Trinity Park wannabes responsible for this so-called report haven’t answered his email. The real lessons of the lacrosse case are, as he points out, “no apparent concern of the Trinity Heights Action Committee.” They just want their little “party problem” taken care of, pronto.

It’s clear that KC’s job won’t be done until, at the mere mention of the lacrosse case (or at any invitation to “swagger like us” from an African American student organization), the entire Duke faculty stops, drops, and rolls, chanting in unison, “I will not be taken in by the culture of groupthink or violate the handbook, I will not be taken in by the culture of groupthink or violate the handbook, I will not be taken in by the culture of groupthink or violate the handbook…” There’s just nothing too … peculiar … for these folks. So keep up the good work!

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Durham in Wonderland as a rumor mill

As I’ve watched things appear on Durham-in-Wonderland lately I’ve been thinking that KC Johnson must finally be running out of material. Tonight’s post seemed to be more of the same, another episode in his recent fixation with Wahneema Lubiano, apropos of nothing. But then he totally outdoes himself by tacking on an impressive bit of third-hand scurrilous gossip.

It comes by way of Bill Anderson, based on “a conversation with a prominent Duke faculty member the other day.” According to Anderson this source heard Karla Holloway express a continued belief in the guilt of the three indicted lacrosse players, and she supposedly followed the claim up with some nonsense about “guilt as a social construct.” A long time ago I wrote that criticism flowed in and out of DIW like gossip, but this is ridiculous.

[Update: I’ve just received an email from Karla Holloway. In it, she says that Anderson’s claim is “an absolute and patent falsehood,” that he’s “reporting a conversation that could never have taken place” and that it “misrepresents [her] views.”]

It isn’t the first time that Anderson has claimed to be privy to the inside scoop on Holloway, either. He floated a rumor a couple of years ago (more recently, I’m sorry to say, he slipped it into my blog, too) that she “fixed” a sexual assault charge against a colleague. The two rumors are quite a combo—they make Holloway out to be an ultra dogmatic leftist feminist who’s also an utter hypocrite. Stranger things have happened, so I won’t claim it’s impossible. I don’t find either the new or the old claim to be credible. Even if I did, I can’t imagine why anyone in their right mind would circulate such a story as hearsay.

I’ve had some long go-rounds with Bill Anderson. He can seem like a reasonably intelligent, thoughtful, and even gracious person at times. He’s also capable of passing wild judgments on the people he sees as ideological enemies, and of convincing himself that they’ve thought or said things that he’s in no position to know. The most jaw-dropping example I know of is a wild post on the Liestoppers forum last July, asserting, based on his understanding of the way those kind of people think, that local African American leaders had a supremely callous attitude towards the murder of Eve Carson.

Let us be honest here. There is a portion of Durham—and that includes Irving Joyner—that has an underlying approval for what was done to Eve Carson. I am not saying that Joyner approved of her murder, but he has said nothing that goes to the heart of the situation. He sees himself as a guardian of African-Americans in Durham, and I would not be surprised if he was hoping for an act of jury nullification so Atwater and Lovette could be set free.

Let us not forget that Joyner, McSurely, and the NAACP held that the biggest threat to Durham was the Duke lacrosse team. They desperately wanted these young men railroaded to prison, and in their minds, if Lovette and Atwater are acquitted despite the evidence against them, it will be a “fair trade” to the AA community for the lacrosse players not going to prison. Don’t kid yourself; this is how people like Joyner, Barber, and others think.

With respect to the latest claim about Holloway, Anderson assures us that his source “was not exaggerating, and he is an accomplished academic and not given to loose talk.” I don’t find that very reassuring.

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ANOTHER UPDATE

There’s an update on KC Johnson’s post that registers the message I got from Karla Holloway. He also left a comment here, proving himself yet again to be a petty demogogue whose answer to any question or criticism is to point at someone else.

He starts the comment with a classic of sleazeball journalism à la O’Reilly—the “invitation” given out to someone whose been trashed, kindly allowing them to explain their side and get trashed some more. Then he takes up two questions I recently posed in a comment on the Duke Chronicle. True to form, he has no real answer to the first one except packages his denial with the non sequitur suggestion that the “Group of 88” did worse things. On the second question, he points to the other guy (formerly the “towering figure”)—it’s his fault.

Q: Did Johnson end our exchange of comments on DIW with a moderator’s veto? A: He doesn’t know He didn’t, “to the best of [his] knowledge,” but never mind that—the Group of 88 hasn’t defended anything they did, and Zimmerman is a public apologist for them.

Q: Why didn’t Johnson engage any critical reflection after Jim Coleman criticized him? A: It was up to Coleman, apparently, to translate the criticism into chapter and verse in DIW or UPI. Since he didn’t “corroborate his claims,” Johnson can do nothing but wonder why on earth would say such things.

Finally, he adds a paragraph about me, the messenger. In the lacrosse case, he says, the DA was trying to “railroad three innocent students at Prof. Zimmerman’s own institution. During the time those students were in harm’s way, Prof. Zimmerman… was silent about their fate, while 88 of his colleagues signed a public statement which… thanked protesters who had presumed the students’ guilt.” A year and a half ago I pointed out his habit of responding to challenges by pulling out that the formulaic indictment of the 88. He’s still at it. In this case it’s pure ad hominem—a lazy and cowardly response that discredits the messenger in order to deflect the message. And it’s especially effective with the thoughtless and bigoted.

Speaking of cowardly, his first order of business in the update on DIW is to pigeonhole me (“Group apologist Robert Zimmerman reports that he has received an email from Karla Holloway….”), but then he doesn’t have the guts to link to my post. It certainly calls for a link, and there’s even some bullshit in his comment here about public service I’m doing by revealing the (fictional) Group’s thinking. It won’t do them any good if they can’t find me.

The comment is down here. [Further comment/clarification from Johnson is here and here. My reply to the last of those sums up this incident of an uncleared comment, as I see it.]

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Béla Fleck’s excellent adventure

Bela Fleck with two African musicians

Before it was Béla Fleck’s current tour, Throw Down Your Heart was a documentary film, an album, and the album’s title track. The subtitle on the film’s website is “Bela Fleck brings the banjo back to Africa.” What he got in return, apparently, is a wonderfully diverse group of musical interlocutors. Last week, thanks to Duke Performances, they joined Fleck, one or two at a time, on the stage in Page Auditorium. The long and idiosyncratic concert was a pleasure all the way through.

The musicians came from far-flung parts of the continent, and to some extent they captured the musical personality of their region. Toumani Diabaté, a 72nd generation griot who plays the kora, is certainly a West African classic. He came out last, wearing flowing golden robes—like musical royalty, a friend of mine said. Before him, it was South African Vusi Mahlasela, a powerhouse singer from the continent’s economic and vocal powerhouse, a man with a message and the personal magnetism to get it across. Before him, from the enigmatic island of Madagascar—fringe Africa, I guess you could call it—we heard an enigmantic guitar virtuoso named D’Gary with an utterly distinctive style. And finally, from East Africa, Anania Ngoliga, an impish blind man who sings like a chicken. Continue reading ›

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Clearing the Air about John Williams’ Simple Gift (part 2)

Picking up from part 1, which is mostly an analysis of “Air and Simple Gifts,” the composition John Williams wrote for Obama’s inauguration (it was all a single post until I saw how long it’d turned out)…

The negative reactions that I’ve come across tend to work the premise that we should have gotten a more original, ambitious, challenging, and/or grand work of art. To some extent this is a matter of taste and not worth arguing over. But it seems to me that there are unexamined assumptions behind that “should,” and those I’m inclined to question.

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Clearing the Air about John Williams’ Simple Gift (part 1)

I was looking forward as much as any average Bush-loathing voter to the Change that finally became official week before last, but I wasn’t going to let myself get glued to the TV for the inauguration. And then it snowed, and schools were closed, and what could I do? I heard the first part in the car as I drove the older daughter to a friend’s house (our progress was nothing short of miraculous, in spite of three and a half whole inches of snow!). I think Biden was being sworn in when we got there and started watching.

I had been paying enough attention to know that I’d be hearing Rick Warren and Aretha Franklin, but the “unique musical performance” of “a composition arranged for this occasion by John Williams,” to quote Diane Feinstein, caught me by surprise. My heart sank a little at the composer’s name, but still. There, on the screen, four freezing, windblown musicians with ridiculously old-fashioned instruments were playing their hearts out. At the moment he officially became president, Obama was listening intently to the music. Like most anyone who’s dealt with string instruments and the people who play them, I was astonished to see Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma sawing away, not even in overcoats. And it sounded pretty damned good! I thought maybe they’d rigged up some way of flooding the area with warm air. It didn’t occur to me that they might be playing to a recording. It may be a sign of just how much of the Kool Aid I’ve drunk that I really don’t care. I’m glad to know what was going on, though—everything makes sense now. (See the New York Times for a fairly thorough article about the decision to use a recording, or this shorter piece on the BBC.)

I was delighted by the performance, and on balance I liked the composition, too. My immediate reaction was about the same as Carl Wilson’s: “Musically, John Williams could have been far worse—there was dissonance! Yo Yo Ma looked so ‘Yo yo yo!’” Low expectations were a factor for me, as well (I’m not quite sure about the “yo yo yo!” part but I think I’m with him on that, too). I probably wouldn’t have thought much more about it, but that evening I came across some criticism that led me to call the thing up on YouTube and listen again. I found that the piece (my sense of it, really) holds up pretty well under repeat listening, and it also holds up pretty well under analysis. The analysis addresses some of the criticism, so I’ll see how much of it I can get across without getting too technical, and then get back to the critics.

This clip, out of many choices on YouTube, skips Feinstein’s introduction but gets all of the music (the one that found its way into a lot of the early reviews cut out the first few seconds of the performance). It’s the clip I’m referring to when I give time points. If you use a different one you’ll probably have to adjust by a few seconds. For audio only, here’s a blog with an mp3 recorded off the radio.

Air and Simple Gifts, by John Williams
Anthony McGill, clarinet; Gabriele Montero, piano; Itzhak Perlman, violin; Yo-Yo Ma, cello
INTRO |AIR            |SIMPLE GIFTS                                               |CODA (AIR)
+-----|---------------|transition---|variation 1---------|variation 2-------------|----------+
pn     vn       vc     cl   (tempo)  vn         vc        pn      trading  tutti
:06    :16      :54    1:26 1:44     2:09       2:24      2:39    3:09     3:18    3:44
(pn=piano, vn=violin, vc=cello, cl=clarinet)

For listeners who liked the piece, the things that seem to stand out are (1) the plaintive theme in the Air, played beautifully by Perlman and then Ma, (2) the familiar Shaker song (according to Wikipedia, it’s not a hymn) and the evocation of Aaron Copland’s gorgeous setting of it in Appalachian Spring, and (3) the dramatically somber ending, which brings back the music and mood of the Air. Taken on its own, Williams’ setting of “Simple Gifts” is unremarkable, though it’s not as indebted to Copland as some listeners seem to think. The Air is more original, but neither part stands on its own—the contrast between the two is integral to the composition. And it’s not just a matter of bookending the cheery song with something more serious. From the beginning, when the violin’s first line rubs against the piano’s placid opening chords, there’s interaction between two different kinds of music, and at the end those interactions are intense and dramatic.

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Stupid conservative tricks: metaphor madness, schizo Springsteen, specious Sowell

I don’t want to make it a habit, or at least not a major preoccupation, to ridicule stupid people. In fact, I’ve been telling myself that in 2009 I’ll concentrate on smart people. But then I ran across this ridiculous thing written by a guy named Rich Galen. The name didn’t ring any bells, but it seems that he’s somebody in the Republican party (he was press secretary to Newt Gingrich, for instance), and he’s on TV a lot. Last Monday he posted his “mullings” about “The Difference Between Running and Serving.” It’s a natural thing to be thinking about right now—what’s the follow-up to all those campaign promises going to be once Obama is the decider and the make-happener? In particular, Galen’s concerned with Obama’s promise to “close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act and adhere to the Geneva Conventions.” Galen points out that the ACLU “ran a full page ad in the New York Times to remind one and all of that promise” (this was two months ago, right after the election, not in the run-up to inauguration). At the same time, in a press release, they demanded that he ban torture and abuse (which, in Galen’s world, amounts to “foreswear[ing] anything stronger than reduced potty breaks in interrogations”). And, most ominously, they pledged to “hold [his] feet to the fire” to get their way. Coming from the fanatics at the ACLU, that’s not just a figure of speech.

In one sentence the ACLU’s demands that unsavory techniques be banned from questioning suspected terrorists. In another, the ACLU urges putting the feet of the President of the United States into a flame to force him—torture him, if necessary—to do what they want.

Interesting, huh!?

This came to my attention because of President-elect Obama’s interview with George Stephanopoulos yesterday. In one section, George asked about that pledge—the one the ACLU is willing to betray its core civil libertarian values to make him live up to—to close Guantánamo. [my emphasis]

So, if the ACLU turns up the heat—maybe they’ll target Obama with another searing ad in the New York Times, but there’s no telling what extremes they’ll go to—it’ll be (yet more) proof that the ACLU is a quivering mass of hypocrisy, perfectly comfortable with torture when it suits their purposes. Don’t worry about Obama, though. He’ll already have his nose to the grindstone (the way the shit’s gonna hit the fan, it might be a blessing in disguise). I doubt he’ll even notice the hot feet.

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The commonplace campus radical and the tragic tale of decline and fall

There’s another rhetorical crutch at work in the conservative critiques of academia that I’ve been going over—the golden age. KC Johnson’s commentary (see the last post—this one is a close offshoot of that one) refers to “the alarming decline in intellectual pluralism,” and—here’s a coincidence—the site that ran it, Minding the Campus is “a project devoted to a revival of intellectual pluralism and the best traditions of liberal education.” It’s up to the reader to piece together what those “best traditions” are and what era of intellectual pluralism is being revived.

A natural place to look for guidance is “Liberal Education, Then and Now,” by Peter Berkowitz, the featured essay on the site’s “Must Reads” list. It’s a solid and constructive piece, but the lecture that it’s based on had a more accurate title—“John Stuart Mill’s Idea of a University, and Our Own.” The “Then” that Berkowitz contrasts with our degenerate “Now” isn’t a real place and time, it’s an ideal. It may well be that universities used to embody Mill’s ideal much better than they do now, but Berkowitz has nothing to say about that.

Another professor and public intellectual, D. G. Myers, appreciates Johnson’s vote of confidence for the conservative side in the battle of ideas but he’s not optimistic about those “intriguing possibilities” offered by Obama. The issues enumerated in Johnson’s essay are, for Myers, symptoms of a deeper problem—“the loss of the university principle altogether.”

The current principle animating university life in America is the social principle. The contemporary university is a little society, a self-contained and self-governing body of people living together, where one behaves oneself in accord with common rules so as not to disturb or offend any other residents of the community.

Hence collegiality, an irrelevant value in scholarship, becomes a minimum standard for participation in academic society. […]

Since university professors are social beings just like everyone else (ok, maybe not just like everyone else), it’s hard to imagine that this “social principle” wasn’t a factor until the last generation or so. The “principle animating university life” undoubtedly shifts over time, but in the picture Myers paints few things are a matter of degree.

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The commonplace campus radical and the cure that’s worse than the disease

There’s a simple question behind the things I’ve written over the past six months or so about the intersection between the Duke lacrosse case and the conservative critique of higher education. How can anyone who’s worried about the academic world’s low intellectual standards, who’s pushing to raise those standards, even, how can they not only tolerate but promote the anti-intellectual nonsense that’s been used to inflated the Duke scandal into a cause celebre and rally the shock troops?

I’m not thinking about the ignorant ranters who are ready with a knee-jerk response on most any political topic. I’m thinking about people who work in or around academia, especially those who are inclined to translate their dissatisfaction into a program for reform, though a lot of the time the difference between these more informed critics and the random ranters is not all that clear. My theory is that what the reform movement stands for is more subtle and a lot less compelling than what it stands against—a litany of outrageous incidents involving scary, muddle-headed tenured radicals and the craven administrators who do their dirty work. Without the radicals to generate fear and loathing, the movement has little claim to public attention. The point man in pressing the lacrosse case into service for the cause is KC Johnson, but his crusade is larger than that one scandal and, as I’ve pointed out in the last two entries, he’s just as nonsensical and unprincipled when he’s pursuing other targets.

About a month ago the web site Minding the Campus ran an essay of his, “Obama And The Campus Left.” It’s a post-election look at the “intriguing possibilities” for “meaningful reform on the nation’s college campuses” under the new administration. It overlaps quite a bit with pieces of his that I’ve already written more than enough about. All I’m interested in this time is what the essay reveals about the reform movement.

Minding the Campus is brought to you by the Manhattan Institute. Where there’s an Institute, there’s an agenda, or better yet, many agendas, each with a Center devoted to it. Continue reading ›

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