I started this as a comment on an earlier post, since I am taking my friend Tim Lacy's suggestion (talk about what we can learn from the younger set -- dignity, kindness and civility come to mind) that I move on to the topics my regular audience prefers to read about. But, with apologies to Tim, it got too long, and I had to post it. And I also think some of these ideas, and the critique I am trying to develop here, contribute directly to what responsibilities academics, and historians in particular, have for thinking about the ethics and practices cohering in that public square called the blogosphere.
The first issue I would like to speak to is my argument about resentment, in the paragraph where I theorize about what Durham in Wonderland is "really about" (it's always interesting to me what gets picked out and what gets ignored. Most of the post is usually ignored, not just by DIW people, but by most commenters. I do it too.) Let me say that, as I noted in the post, there are the "facts" of history and then there are the stories we tell about historical events using those facts. Historians and lawyers (among others) know that you can tell a number of different stories from the same collection of facts, depending on how those facts intersect with other imperatives. Several of those versions will, perhaps, be true, but audiences (juries, academic fields, fans, activists, voters) will tend to coalesce around the arguments they find especially compelling. And this is what, connected to my strong feelings about needless harm done in the name of acquiring "justice" for the falsely accused at Duke, is culturally interesting about the DIW story -- it is not the "fact" of the accused men's innocence that is the source of so much intensity, although DIW was committed to establishing that -- it is the nature of their innocence, and its absoluteness, that the story both elaborates on and makes the source of intense feeling.
Consider this: it was not the fact that Eliza and Tom were slaves that caused Harriet Beecher Stowe's white readers to weep openly before strangers; after all, some of them saw slaves on the street every day, and they knew the shirts on their backs and the sheets on their beds were made from cotton cultivated and picked by actual, not fictional, Black hands. It was those readers' conviction that they could, through Stowe's words, feel Eliza's and Tom's spiritual and physical anguish in their very own bodies and souls. That was the source of their tears.
So we need to ask ourselves, why is one particular story -- a tale about men whose honor and purity is articulated in complete contrast to the criminal role they were falsely cast into -- largely by black women, if we are to believe the rhetoric -- so intriguing to the DIW crowd? Why not another story? One might imagine the possibility of this, very different, narrative: in youthful exuburance, naivete, pounding hormones, inebriation and an ignorance of the human condition, young men who have everything in the world to lose make a dumb mistake. They compound their mistake when they realize they have invited a desperate woman who is under the influence into their home, she fails to perform, and they refuse to give her all the money she wants. They respond to her threats that she will get revenge on them, not by removing her gently (perhaps with the aid of the campus police), but by shoving her out the door. She makes good on her threat by charging them with one of the worst crimes imaginable, and the system, to their horror, seems bent on convicting them -- not of foolishness, but of rape. And yet, justice prevails, all the same. The young men emerge wiser, more mature -- if battered -- and vow never to forget that citizens must always be vigilant over government to ensure that the principles our democracy stands for prevail. They will dedicate their lives to this evermore. The end.
I find this story completely believable. And, much as I find parts of it tawdry, I find it sympathetic in a number of ways. But it is not heroic -- it is comedy, turning quickly to tragedy.
It is striking to me that the DIW crowd has had its imagination so completely captured by a heroic story of stark good and evil, one in which the conspiracy is unimaginably huge, that they prefer to understand what happened in Durham as almost entirely local in its significance. And yet, all kinds of things are happening around the country that are equally dreadful, and all kinds of injustices done -- many at schools and universities, but many in the thousands of courtrooms that make up a justice system that favors the prosecution almost exclusively. And it is also happening at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan, Iraq -- need I go on?
However, connections to those other systemic injustices (some quite horrendous, involving murder and torture) are almost never made, the extension of the ideas expressed at DIW to larger ideas about the justice system or prosecutorial misconduct virtually never articulated. That many respondents felt a moral and ethical compulsion to come to the defense of young men who were being wrongly prosecuted in Durham for a spectacular crime doesn't surprise me, since they have written about it in heartfelt and sincere ways. What does intrigue me is the level to which the faculty and administration at Duke have been targeted by DIW for not "saving" the young men themselves as if, in fact, this was possible, and as if any prosecutor gives a rat's ass what the Duke faculty thinks. And they have been targeted using (highly disputable) interpretations of actions, documents, emails and speeches, interpretations that have been produced by a group and a scholar who more or less reject interpretation as a credible way of producing knowledge.
As I say -- it's only a theory -- but you have to think that there is a strong desire among the DIW commenters to be intimately linked to Duke itself, through the lacrosse players. Their need for justice does not include, for example, the desire to help a man on Long Island, also railroaded by a prosecutor, who has been in prison since he was a teenager for a double homicide that may have been committed by his father's business partner in 1990. I find it striking that only the falsely accused Duke students themselves have made that kind of connection, and it has had very little impact on the general tenor or interests of DIW as a virtual community.
To return to the almost wholesale rejection of argument and interpretation as a mode of thought by the DIW crowd: their strident positions about the Duke faculty and administration, based on Johnson's often selective readings of texts produced by Duke faculty, actually constitutes an argument -- laced as it might be with racism, mockery and name calling -- not a mere collection of facts and sources, as DIW commenters and Johnson assert. The invective they prefer is crucial to the interpretative field that they have created, and it is critical to positioning Johnson as the voice of reason who creates a rhetorical space between the "extreme right" and the "extreme left."
Furthermore, rejections of the position that the "the Listening Statement" was not an attack on the accused students per se also rest on this invective. The invective argues that the faculty who signed are, always were, and always will be, liars and incompetents, independent of their actions in this particular case. These arguments, mediated and authenticated by Johnson as an "insider" critic to the culture of academia, are stylistically representative of longstanding right-wing movements to "take back" knowledge production from the egghead academy from faux intellectuals hiding behind ten-dollar words that obfuscate their thinly-veiled contempt for "real" Americans. But the rhetoric of guilt and innocence has played another role too, and it is the prominence of African-American women as objects of contempt on DIW that is a critical piece of evidence here. The absolute "guilt" of (Black Woman) Wahneema Lubiano, the faculty member who has been positioned as the leader of the "guilty" 88 and the Duke administration, is a necessary, symbolic and practical corollary to the supposedly absolute legal and social "innocence" of the three white men who were falsely accused of the crime.
In other words: Sally Hemings was a liar and her children bastards; hence, Thomas Jefferson was a paragon of political masculinity and the father of our freedoms.
To move on. This is a useless correction, I'm sure but -- I never said in the other post that the DIW crowd can't get into college, or that middle-class people in general can't get into college: they can get in, they just can't pay for it anymore, many of them. I was writing not literally, but metaphorically. What I do believe about DIW and its readers' emotional connection to both Johnson and the act of taking continuous revenge on the so-called "Group of 88" is that imagined connections to elite universities are talismanic and magical in a day and age in which many people, for good reasons, are deeply insecure about the future. The veneration for places like Duke is acted upon almost exclusively through fandom in a day and age when student or alumni status is harder to achieve and there are fewer alternate routes to wealth and social power. In addition, the difficulty of getting into elite colleges has escalated at a historical moment when the economic need to have that credential seems dramatically enhanced. Fantasized connection to places like Duke, particularly through varsity sports, is one way to become part of a community that won't take you otherwise. Athletes also sometimes come in for special veneration because they are seen as people who have made it to the top, not through namby-pamby, untrustworthy bookishness or their wealthy parents' connections, but through traditional masculine virtues: hard work, toughness, and strength. Or, in the case of lacrosse, whiteness. DIW readers have a lot to say about how the lacrosse team's overwhelming whiteness and maleness made it an object of hatred by "others" -- they have nothing to say about what seems to some of us very important: being white and male makes some athletes objects of cultural love too. Pointing this out is, of course, how my involvement in this whole mess began in the first place.
DIW, in my view, represents an attempt to "take back," for the People, an elite place like Duke, a place that ordinary folk long to be connected to but despise for their lack of actual access to it. Some people enact that connection through buying game jerseys (drug dealers in New Haven wear Yale gear.) Many DIW readers, and Johnson himself, acted on their desires through what they perceived as an heroic crusade -- saving three "innocent" men -- that for the readers, if not for their leader, also required devoting a lot of volunteer time to the project. Hence the crucial importance of the word "innocent" to this group, because by recognizing and defending the accused men's innocence, they demonstrate their own moral fitness to be part of the Duke community and -- more importantly - the moral unfitness of their enemies, the faculty and activist students protesting campus racism and sexual violence, to be privileged with an actual, material association with Duke.
"The bottom rail is now on top, Master," the black Union soldier is reputed to have said to a Confederate officer at Appomatox.
Here's something else that I think should be highlighted on the credibility chart: virtually all the DIW commentators who really run the show and set the tone on the comments are anonymous. The hate mail is anonymous. The phone calls are anonymous. This has caused me to wonder at times whether some of these characters are someone we actually do know by name posting under different pseudonyms (and some of the tactics and rhetoric suggest that they are) to whip up the interest in and narrative value of the blog. Who is crazed Debrah? Gregory? And why does he go "MOO!"? Who is the dignified Amac? Steve from DC? John? The vicious Polanski? beckett03? The multiple anonymous posters? We don't know. And yet it is the so-called "credibility" of people who do use their real names, who write in ways that allow people to respond to them, that is repeatedly called into question and abused through invective, letters written to university officials, the call for "facts" and the like.
Finally, Professor Horwitz's point about free speech is well taken, and I think it is an important principle. Let me extend it: the right to free speech does not extend to unlimited anonymous speech, or to cyberbullying, and no reputable publication prints anonymous letters. The only reason I tolerate anonymity at all on Tenured Radical is because I know that some bloggers I know and respect feel they need it. I began as an anonymous blogger, and that may be a necessary step for some people as they gain confidence. In addition, I want to encourage my students, and untenured faculty over whose careers I could potentially have some say, to engage in dialogue with me.
The DIW crowd is always yelling about who is going to get sued next, but they have all protected themselves from any consequences for their behavior by not revealing who they are. And threatening to harm someone using the mails, the internet, or the telephone is a federal crime, in case you think I am just referring to the ethical implications of such acts. I have received a number of hate letters at my office, for example, and at one point I started writing back to them to see if the addresses were good, and guess what? I got the letters back. No such people at those addresses. On the other hand, Horwitz, myself, Burke, Lacy and Zimmerman - not to mention Piot, Lubiano, and the others linking their work to the anti-KC Johnson blog -- all publish, blog and comment under our own names. That the masses at DIW and their hero KC can exercise what they see as their right and duty to "hold us accountable" is only possible because you know who we are.
The point about a blog having only its credibility to offer may be something I disagree with to the extent that I think DIW's criteria for that are very self-serving and can't be universalized. There are many people who don't think the New York Times is credible (can you say "Judith Miller"?) although mostly I do. But what, exactly, is completely credible about a blog whose integrity is proven by the presence of large numbers of vicious people who are afraid to tell us their names, and a blogger who claims to have no responsibility for what they do or say? I ask you.
(Photographs were taken from this site by permission.)
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