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Friday, December 28, 2007

Friday, December 28, 2007

Duke Lacrosse Revisited

This is the story that wouldn't die. If you've completely missed this one, don't start now, so I won't fill you in. But notable events of the last 12 months include:
  • rape charges against the Duke Lacrosse team players were dropped almost exactly a year ago, at the end of December 2006. North Carolina's attorney general threw out all remaining charges in April 2007.
  • the county prosecutor who brought the rape charges but who seems to have withheld evidence, exaggerated the evidence he did have, and lied to a judge, announced his resignation on June 15th.
  • The three Lacrosse players who were charged received an undisclosed settlement from Duke around the same time.
  • In October, these three players went to federal court to sue various Durham police officers, the city, the police chief, and the disgraced former DA.
  • In December, three other players sued a total of 45 defendants for negligence, fraud, and conspiracy. Duke has apparently offered to pay their legal fees.
  • the year saw the publication of at least three separate books on the subject, including one by KC Johnson, a faculty member at Brooklyn College.
The blogging and general debate have if anything intensified around a story that started close to two years ago, and whose serious criminal dimension ended one year ago.

I offer two thoughts.

1. The recent pattern shows that the Duke case is the Right's best current chance to continue its culture war on non-conservative faculty. This is sometimes a war on them personally, as in the hate mail, but more broadly on the social and intellectual change they represent. Other initiatives like David Horowitz's crusade against campus "Islamo-fascism" and other scapegoats like Ward Churchill are fading or fallen. All the more reason to try to keep the story alive.

In fact, Lacrosse story arc has ended several times, both when the charges were dropped and when the real villain for the Lacrosse students - the crooked DA - went down. KC Johnson - probably the leading crusader at the moment - is doing his best to make the main issue the faculty "Group of 88" that raised questions about campus climate in a statement of 20 months ago. I have to assume this is because he is obsessed with the Group of 88 itself, and with its infamous statement faculty challenges to the not-so-enlightened race and gender attitudes on the campus. Johnson has received enormous media attention and support - see the Amazon page list of publisher blurbs.

Let me draw an inference: many powerful people do not want to see attacks on the current "post-civil rights" detente around social movements. That detente says that fields like the critical humanities, race or genders studies, and cultural studies, and individuals like students or faculty of color shall be present in elite institutions, and yet at the same time they will not change or control the basic ground rules of those institutions. The detente remains Nixonian, for whom the genius of affirmative action was the very small numbers of people of color and women it would let in, Noak's ark style, two at a time. The detente says that "minority" fields - numerically and politically - will not demand power sharing (remember the public burning of Lani Guinier for advocating this), and that they will not organize. They will not form groups of 88 or even 8. Within the detente, the lives of affluent white students - whether drunken sports hooligans or great future economists or both - can go on very much as they always have. If "Duke Lacrosse" meant anything, it meant the right of a traditional Duke constituency to carry on as it always had even in the "new" and cosmopolitan Duke.

2. The whole episode reveals an obvious but forgotten fact about the elite private university in the US today. These are normally seen as liberal bastions, immune to crude outside influence and holding their own against the power of money and right-wing politics. In reality, elite private universities are run by and for . . . elites! Poor and middle-class kids are there if and only if they have elite potential - that is the entire point of admissions at "highly selective" universities. Since many great researchers and scholars are liberals or even leftists regardless of discipline - a Pew poll found that a higher percentage of engineers oppose Iraq war policies than did history professors - liberals must be tolerated at great universities. But they are best tolerated on a short leash. The leash is held by trustees, donors, and parents, who at places like Duke, Princeton, and Stanford are generally wealthy, powerful people who have done well with current arrangements and want to keep them as they are. But at Duke, the inviolability of their world was punctured by the accusation of one black stripper. Then they saw a proto-rebellion appear in the Group of 88, whose very existence implied deep problems with the campus status quo as such.

My core reactions:
I feel baldy for my friends there caught up in this. An already unstable climate has turned plain nasty for them.
The public university is more important than ever - it just is NOT subject to the same assertions of elite ownership that have been dogging Duke.

A very short list of sources:

-A reasonable, lengthy overview and update from an off-Dukeworld teacher and composer Robert Zimmerman.
-Anthropologist Charles Piot's piece "KC's World," which criticizes self-appointed watchdog KC Johnson's "Duke in Wonderland" blog and prints two of the racist hate mails black Duke faculty received.
-KC Johnson's Duke blog.
-An anti-KC Johnson blog, which has a lot of links and prints some of the hate mail Duke personnel received.


reharmonizer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
reharmonizer said...

It's always nice to see a fresh perspective on this controversy, and I'm glad you found my posts helpful. Both your points highlight a structural level of the scandal that's easily obscured by the forest of detail--the built-in tension between the elite/establishment role of a place like Duke--something that's generally subterranean and unquestioned--and the attention-grabbing leftist and minority faculty.

Mired in the details as I am, I think they're rich and paradoxical enough to both embrace and critique the points you make--not at all a bad thing at all.

In addition to the sources you've listed, I'd direct both you and your readers to a series of sharp and engaging posts by historian Claire Potter (aka Tenured Radical). The slew of comments following her most recent post are an attempt at detente in the rhetorical war--not exactly successful but revealing.

becket03 said...

Chronology of the left's response to the Duke Lacrosse case:

Mar-Apr 2006: Castrate them! Time to confess!
Apr-Jan 2007: Nifong is our hero!
Jan 2007-Apr: Something happened
Apr 2007-June 2007: Nifong is a bum! But still, something happened.
June 2007-Present: We never said we wanted them castrated. Or that anything happened. It's all one big misunderstanding. We're the victims here!


karma said...

i'm grateful to see the big picture addressed. chris, i think your point about the refusal of universities to do more than the minium required by detente helps us see something not easy to parse out. i understand you to be saying that detente is the ground that's been settled for, not what we want. what we want is more radical.

makes me see a challenge and a try at pushback, not a bunch of left or minority attention grabbers.

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