Politics & Policy

Loose Ends

Duke after Nifong.

Lest there be any confusion, I am not Peter H. Wood, professor of history at Duke University. Professor Wood (B.A. Harvard, 1964, Rhodes Scholar, B.A. Oxford, 1966, Ph.D. Harvard, 1972) specializes in early American history and African-American history. According to his website, he played lacrosse at Harvard and Oxford, and coached Duke’s Women’s Lacrosse Club for several years.

Professor Wood has been on my mind since Mike Nifong, the Durham County district attorney who pushed the prosecution of three Duke lacrosse students on grounds of rape, was disbarred over the weekend for “fraud, dishonesty; deceit or misrepresentation; making false statements of materials fact before bar investigators, and lying about withholding exculpatory DNA evidence, among other violations.”

Justice of a sort has been done. But there are, of course, loose ends. What of the police who, knowing full-well that Nifong’s case against the lacrosse players was contradicted by the evidence, kept quiet or, at least in one case, colluded with him? Some of those police officers were involved to the level of attempting to silence Moezeldin Elmostafa, the Sudanese cab driver who was the alibi witness for one of the lacrosse players, Reade Seligmann.

What of the New York Times which, in the early days, breathlessly framed the story as one of privileged white boys savaging a struggling-for-education African-American single mom? The Times wasn’t alone among the media in this spin. Especially eager to tell a race-class-gender tale for our time was talk-show host Nancy Grace.

What of the president of Duke, Richard Brodhead, who early on tried to balance his support for the presumption of innocence with words and actions that suggested the players’ guilt was a foregone conclusion. He called the contents of the original warrant “sickening and repulsive,” suspended the lacrosse season, and welcomed the coach’s resignation. President Brodhead was perhaps better positioned than anyone to challenge the atmosphere of intimidation created by Nifong and some of the Duke faculty. But he didn’t. Described by Don Yeager and Mike Pressler (the fired coach) as someone with a “timid, calm demeanor” and as struggling to establish himself while managing “a faculty becoming more vocally radical in its political views,” Brodhead dithered through the crisis.

In the current issue of an alumni publication, Brodhead sounds a defensive note: “I am flabbergasted to re-read the statements that came from the district attorney’s mouth and the extraordinary degree of certainty [of guilt] that they suggested, at the time when he was the only person with access to the evidence in the case. Something I see in so much commentary about this matter now is people acting as if everybody could have known at the beginning of the story what people did know at the end of the story. But that’s just not so.” True, true. But within days of the indictments, sober legal scholars were expressing significant doubts. President Brodhead chose to temporize with the campus radicals, rather than give any real weight to the possibility that the students were innocent.

And what of Crystal Gail Mangum, the woman who falsely accused the young men and who simply fabricated the entire story? She is a drug abuser with a long history of mental illness.

Justice for all these actors in the Duke drama most likely will take the form it usually takes in life: moral diminishment. That may not sound like a harsh sentence, but it surely is. The loss of both self-respect and credibility within a community can’t be measured, but it will follow these folks the rest of their lives. It might not sound like Crystal Gail Mangum has much further to fall, but she does.

The more troublesome prospect is what becomes of the group of 88 Duke professors from the University’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences who, soon after the initial allegations, placed an ad in the student newspaper declaring that Duke was in the midst of a “social disaster.” The typography of the ad is chaotic, perhaps to suggest the agitated feelings of the signatories. The message begins “We are listening to our students,” and declares those students to be in the midst of “anger and fear” because they “know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism.”

Near the end of the ad, the typeface settles down to a single size and font, and the signatories explain, “We’re turning up the volume in a moment when some of the most vulnerable among us are being asked to quiet down while we wait.” To these students, the signatories say, “thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard.”

This is hardly the most inflammatory declaration ever to spring from the minds and mouths of faculty members, but the ad as a whole, and its conclusion, is an almost pure case of campus demagogy. That is to say, it is an appeal for the overthrow of reason and the enthronement of anger. Your grievances are valid say the 88; now is the perfect opportunity to press them.

The ad doesn’t declare the accused lacrosse players guilty. It simply renders their guilt or innocence irrelevant. What matters is that Duke students who feel victimized by racism and sexism have an opportunity to command public attention. Ten months later in January 2007, the same group (minus one member) signed a new “open letter to the Duke community” and posted it on the Internet. The new statement retracts nothing and offers no apologies. Rather it complains that the first letter had been “broadly, and often intentionally, misread.” The signatories declare that, as of January 2007, they “stand firmly by the principle of the presumption of innocence. It concludes:

There have been public calls to the authors to retract the ad or apologize for it, as well as calls for action against them and attacks on their character. We reject all of these. We think the ad’s authors were right to give voice to the students quoted, whose suffering is real. We also acknowledge the pain that has been generated by what we believe is a misperception that the authors of the ad prejudged the rape case.

We stand by the claim that issues of race and sexual violence on campus are real, and we join the ad’s call to all of us at Duke to do something about this. We hope that the Duke community will emerge from this tragedy as a better place for all of us to live, study, and work.

I have not visited Duke, but if students there are indeed suffering racial injustice and sexual violence, the university should take appropriate steps to enforce the law and restore a climate of civility.

I don’t mean these as empty words. The party in March 2006 that set off this whole sorry train of events is plenty of evidence that something was wrong at Duke. Jocks hiring strippers for drunken parties speaks to the crudeness of student life at all too many large universities. That racism and sexual violence are part of this crude mix at Duke and other campuses is plainly true. Hands-off college administrators and blind-eye coaches are necessary ingredients in this stew.

The group of 88, in other words, did have something to complain about: the atmosphere of a campus that had, in significant ways, shirked its responsibility not just to teach, but to civilize its students. That this happened at Duke of all places — the university that spent the better part of two decades promoting a humanities program focused on deriding, deconstructing, and demoting civilization — seems worth pondering. Hellaciousness on the part of students, including sexual “transgression” as the gender-studies folks would call it, is probably ready to rise in any community of adolescents once social controls are relaxed, as they have been on college campuses for a long time. Add to that the celebrated efforts of Duke’s humanities faculty to treat “social controls” themselves as artificial restrictions on human autonomy and self-definition, and I suppose young men and women (but especially men) feel a certain surge of independence. Strippers for our party? Why not?

But the members of the group of 88 were not complaining about the decline of civilization on campus. They were complaining about a campus culture in which racism and sexual violence are supposedly endemic. Perhaps they were speaking in the only dialect of moral censure they could summon, and in this I think they misconstrued the problem. Duke in Spring 2006 stood in need of broader moral authority.

What it got from the group of 88 was an effort to whip up hysteria. The initial ad shrugged off the question of whether the three lacrosse players were guilty of what Nifong accused them of. A few days later, one of the 88, Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of Black Popular Culture in the Program on African and African American Studies and director of the Institute for Critical U.S. Studies at Duke, elaborated:

We have a commitment to believing those who come forward with stories of survival first. This case is no different. Something dehumanizing, frightening, and wrong happened in that house. Regardless of the specifics, there is healing to be done and justice to be fought for. Sexual assault is a parasite that feeds on silence, and with each heroic public step forward, the wall of silence is chipped away. One of the most, if not the most, important factors in the healing process of survivors is to be believed.

Professor Neal was unctuous in his concern for victims of sexual assault, and willing to grant a seemingly unlimited readiness to believe “the victim.” Professor Neal also startlingly declares:

And don’t let this thing get dis-proven in a court of law, or actually turn out to be false (those two statements, mind you, are not saying the same thing)…

Survivors will be forced further underground.

Does this mean what it sounds like? He would be willing to countenance false convictions to avoid calling into question the principle that the alleged victim is always right?

When the group of 88 (minus one) reconvened for their January 2007 affirmation of their original (“broadly, and often intentionally, misread”) statement, some of the authors also took the occasion to supplement their joint declaration. Cathy N. Davidson, professor of English and Interdisciplinary Studies, for example, declared in the News & Observer, January 5, 2007:

… most of my e-mail comes from right-wing “blog hooligans.” These hateful, ranting and sometimes even threatening folks don’t care about Duke or the lacrosse players. Their aim is to make academics and liberals look ridiculous and uncaring. They deliberately misrepresent the faculty and manipulate the feelings of those who care about the lacrosse players in order to foster their own demagogic political agenda. They contribute to the problem, not to the solution.

I hope never to be a blog hooligan or to threaten anyone. But as for making “academics and liberals look ridiculous and uncaring,” the members of the Duke group of 88 have done that themselves.

As for Peter H. Wood, whom I am not, he played one of the leading roles in the group of 88, and went on to make numerous other painful declarations in the New York Times, the News & Observer, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. Mostly this has come in the form of derisive comments on Duke lacrosse players (e.g. “Cynical, arrogant, callous, dismissive — you could almost say openly hostile.”) Wood has won notice from bloggers as one of the teams “most vitriolic critics,” and as a perpetrator of “the most horrifying public display” on this issue.

How to tell the difference between us? I’m the one who doesn’t owe Duke University an apology.

— Peter W. Wood is the executive director of the National Association of Scholars.


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