On April 11, Roy Cooper, the North Carolina Attorney General, announced that he was dropping all charges against the three Duke lacrosse players who had been indicted for kidnapping and raping a black stripper in March 2006. As Mr. Cooper stressed, he was dropping the case not because there was insufficient evidenceoften a euphemism for probably guilty, but we cant prove itbut because the three players were innocent of the charges that had recklessly been brought against them. Mr. Cooper went further: not only had there been a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations, but the case also showed the enormous consequences of overreaching by a prosecutor.
In fact, the Duke lacrosse case showed a number of things. Yes, there was the issue of the disgraced District Attorney Michael Nifong running amok, suppressing evidence and cynically bartering the lives of three white lacrosse players in his populist bid to win reelection in racially divided Durham. Nifong was certainly part of that tragic rush to accuse. As was Syracuse University, which decided not to accept as transfers any students from the Duke lacrosse teamnot just the three accused chaps, mind you, but anyone contaminated by having played lacrosse for Duke.
But there are at least two other aspects of the case that deserve comment. One is the role of the media, which with few exceptions descended on the story like Lord Byrons fabled Assyrian and his cohorts pursuing the destruction of Sennacherib. Oh, how The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and countless other bastions of liberal self-satisfaction loved it! Race. Class. Sex. Victimhood. It was the perfect morality tale. Those white jocks at the Harvard of the South just had to be guilty. And what a good time we were all going to have lacerating the malefactors while at the same time preening ourselves on our own superior virtue!
The editorials, the op-eds, the comments, the analyses poured forth non-stop, demonstrating that one of the deepest human passions is the urge to self-righteous pontification. The novelist Allan Gurganis epitomized the tone in an op-ed last April: The children of privilege, he thundered, feel vividly alive only while victimizing, even torturing. You dont say? Even sports writers got into the act. Selena Roberts located Duke University at the intersection of entitlement and enablement, virtuous on the outside, debauched on the inside. In August, as Nifongs case was betraying worrisome fissures, the Times published a 7,000-word article arguingpraying might be a more apposite termthat, whatever weaknesses there might be in the prosecutions case, there is also a body of evidence to support [taking] the matter to a jury. As the Times columnist David Brooks ruefully noted after the tide had turned, the campaign against the athletes had the lineaments of a witch hunt.
Not, of course, that the Times was alone. Even after the lacrosse players had been declared innocent, The Boston Globe began an editorial stating that three members of the Duke lacrosse team may have been louts, but all the evidence suggests they were not rapists. Suggests, you see. Not shows or demonstrates, even though the Attorney General declared the athletes innocent of all charges. And what evidence is there to suggest that they are louts? They have to be louts, countless character references and testimonials to the contrary, otherwise the story wouldnt go according to script.
The other aspect of the Duke lacrosse fiasco that deserves special scrutiny is the behavior of university officials, especially the faculty. So lets see: there is a wild allegation of gang rape. What does Richard Brodhead, Dukes president, do? He remembers that in America there is the fundamental principle that one is innocent until proven guilty, so he urges patience and discretion, and displays statesmanlike leadership in helping Duke negotiate the troubled waters stirred up by the incident.
Just kidding. What President Brodhead really did was to suspend the accused students, fire the lacrosse coach, cancel the rest of the teams season, and pander to every possible interest, but especially to those baying for the heads of the accused. (One commentator estimated that only 3 percent of Brodheads statements could be construed as supporting the accused students.) And then there is the Duke faculty. As Vincent Carroll, writing recently in the Rocky Mountain News, noted, the most astonishing fact, hands down, was and remains the squalid behavior of the community of scholars at Duke itself. For months nearly the entire faculty fell into one of two camps: those who demanded the verdict first and the trial later, and those whose silence enabled their vigilante colleagues to set the tone.
Particularly egregious was the behavior of the Group of 88, a congeries of faculty activists and fellow-travelers who signed What Does a Social Disaster Sound Like?, a full-page manifesto published in April 2006 in the Duke student newspaper. The statement, which purported to be listening to students on campus, mingled anonymous student comments with racialist agitprop. Regardless of the results of the police investigation, ran part of the introductory comment, what is apparent everyday now is the anger and fear of many students who know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism. There followed a mosaic of histrionic proclamations: We want the absence of terror, one student is supposed to have said. But we dont really know what that means. This is not a different experience for us here at Duke University. We go to class with racist classmates, we go to gym with people who are racists
The Group of 88 had clearly mastered the art of feigning shock in order to rivet attention and generate anxiety. But as Richard Bertrand Spencer noted in The American Conservative, Far from coming as a shock, the accusations that white students gang-raped a black stripper reached the Group as a kind of fulfillment of a dream. The case was, for them, an affirmation of what they always knew about Duke, Durham, and American society in general. According to the Group of 88, the alleged rape of a black woman by three white men was just business as usual in racist America. In fact, as the journalist Robert VerBruggen reported, white-on-black rape is so rare there really isnt any way to measure its ups and downs. For five out of the last ten years, the National Crime Victimization Survey put the number at zero for its respondents.
But reality counts for little in the febrile world of the Group of 88. How little? Wahneema Lubiano, a tenured associate professor of literature and African-American studies, summed it up with all possible clarity when she wrote regardless of the truth, whatever happens with the court case, what people are asking is that something changes. Note the deflationary scare quotes around the word truth. Truth is expendable (if, indeed, it even exists): what matters is political action. So: it doesnt matter what those lacrosse players actually did; what matters is who they are: where they fit in the racial-sexual-ethnic constellation of merit. As Professor Lubiano gleefully noted on her blog, members of the lacrosse team are almost perfect offenders because theyre the exemplars of the upper end of the class hierarchy and the dominant social group on campus.
Some of the Group of 88 are common or garden-variety academic liberalstimid souls whose long tenure in the protected purlieus of the university surrounded by adolescents has nurtured their risible sense of self-importance and political enlightenment. But a good percentage are radicals more devoted to political activism than scholarship. Indeed, one scandal that still has not received sufficient publicity is the preposterous pseudo-scholarship purveyed by many trendy academics. A look at the CVs of many members of the Group of 88 provides a case in point, partly shocking, partly embarrassing. Its 99 percent race-class-gender gibberish embroidered with a toxic dollop of ill-digested lit-crit-speak and infatuation with the dregs of pop culture. Shuckin Off the African-American Native Other: Whats PoMo Got to Do with It?, Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic, etc. This is scholarship at one of Americas best universities?
One of the central players in the scandal was Houston A. Baker, Jr., a former president of the Modern Language Association who has built his career through a carefully orchestrated fabrication of race scandals and juvenile cultural relativism. (Choosing between Shakespeare and Jacqueline Susann, he once wrote, is no different from choosing between a hoagy and a pizza, adding that I am one whose career is dedicated to the day when we have a disappearance of those standards.) Soon after the lacrosse scandal broke, Professor Baker called for immediate dismissals of those principally responsible for the horrors of this spring moment at Duke. Coaches of the lacrosse team, the team itself and its players, and any other agents who silenced or lied about the real nature of events. He joined the other members of the Group of 88 in signing a thank you letter to campus radicals who had distributed a wanted poster of the lacrosse players and publicly branded them rapists. After the more serious charges against the three students were dropped in December, the mother of another member of the team emailed to ask if he would reconsider his comments. Professor Bakers response is illuminating:
LIES You are just a provacateur [sic] on a happy New Years [sic] Eve trying to get credit for a scummy bunch of white males!
I really hope whoever sent this stupid farce of an email rots in . umhappy [sic] new year to you and forgive me if your [sic] really are, quite sadly, mother of a farm animal.
Houston Baker was the George D. and Susan Fox Beischer Professor of English at Duke (how proud the Beischers must be); he has recently decamped to a distinguished professorship at Vanderbilt University. What does that tell us about the state of American academia?
The story of this tawdry melodrama at Duke deserves a book. Fortunately, it is about to get one. K. C. Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College, has been providing a meticulous chronicle of the unfolding scandal on his aptly named weblog Durham-in-Wonderland. In September, Thomas Dunne will publish Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case, co-authored by Mr. Johnson and the journalist Stuart Taylor. A lot of people have suffered because of the Duke farce. But what of the Professor Bakers and Wahneema Lubianos? What of the Group of 88? They will wrap themselves in the mantle of academic freedom and proceed as if nothing had happened. What a travesty.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 9, on page 1
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com