Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Duke lacrosse

After a few relatively quiet weeks on the Duke lacrosse team rape scandal beat, David Brooks brings it back up again in his most recent column. (It was picked up in the Raleigh N&O, where I read it -- I don't do NY Times Select.) I'll take this occasion to post something here about the scandal--I've been thinking about it quite a bit.

Brooks columnized about the lacrosse rape case once before (on April 9--reproduced here on the Feministe blog) and he set his glib tone right from the opening sentence: "All great scandals occur twice, first as Tom Wolfe novels..." He lacks a basic understanding of the nature of rape, calling it a failure of chivalry, or a case of "lust gone wild," and nowhere in the piece do you sense the existence of a flesh-and-blood woman alleging a violent crime.

In the April 9 column Brooks set up a dichotomy between the language of sociology and that of morality; he remarked how the general run of commentary on the Duke case rested so heavily on racism, sexism, and other -isms, and so little on character, will power, and the young men's descent into "depravity" (Brooks's word), abetted by "shock jocks and raunch culture" (also Brooks's words).

Why the problem has to be one either of nature or of nurture, and not both, is a strawman. Here in Duke's backyard, there is plenty of pointed discussion both of the individual lacrosse players and of systemic problems the rape case reflects. But strawman arguments come in handy for Brooks in the May 28 follow-up piece. This column is not glib, but rather full of tender sympathy... for the lacrosse players who may have been falsely accused.

First off, we know that the players are not dumb jocks--in fact, they are honor students. (Who ever said they were dumb?)

We also know that the lacrosse players are not the amoral goons of popular legend. The members of the Coleman commission [internal Duke investigation] interviewed many of the people the players came into contact with and found almost universal praise and admiration. The groundskeeper and the equipment manager described the current team as among the best groups of young men they have worked with during their long tenures at Duke.

Well, the groundskeeper and equipment manager aren't the players' peers. This is a little like getting the butler and gardener to vouch for the character of Richie Rich; it's a curious tack if you're trying to bolster the case for some guys who are thought to suffer from an elitist sense of privilege. But anyhoo.

"The committee has not heard evidence that the cohesiveness of this group is either racist or sexist," the Coleman report says. The current and former black members of the team are "extremely positive" about the support they received. The coach of the women's lacrosse team says relations between the men and women are respectful and supportive. "They are great kids," she has said of the male players.

"The cohesiveness of the group is not racist or sexist" doesn't tell us much, merely that the lacrosse team was not a chapter of Aryan Nations. Nobody said they were constituted as a hate organization. Also, "current or former black team members" in the Duke lacrosse program adds up to maybe three people. But I'll concede the point that many people at Duke like and admire the lacrosse players.

[Coleman report again:] "Their conduct has not been different in character than the conduct of the typical Duke student who abuses alcohol."

Okay. Much greater in frequency (even Brooks admits), but not different in character. Typical of Duke students who abuse alcohol, which is many of them.

There may have been a rape that night, but it didn't grow out of a culture of depravity, and it can't be explained by the sweeping sociological theories that were tossed about with such wild abandon a few weeks ago.

Okay, now I'm confused. Seven weeks ago Brooks said it was one or the other of these: depravity or a sociological explanation. If it's neither, what is it? The reality of rape is strangely absent from this piece; all we hear about is an assessment of the treatment the lacrosse players received.

(You know another word that is absent from this piece? "Indictment." That's a new development in this story since early April that you'd think might rate a mention.)

Here's the nut of Brooks's recent column, howver:

Furthermore, when you look at the hyperpoliticized assertions made by Jesse Jackson, Houston Baker, and dozens of activists and professors, you see how mighty social causes like the civil rights movement, feminism, and the labor movement have spun off a series of narrow social prejudices among the privileged class.

The members of the lacrosse team were male, mostly white and mostly members of the suburban bourgeois middle class (39 of 54 recent graduates went on to careers in finance). For many on the tenured left, bashing people like that is all that's left of their once-great activism.

75% of Duke lacrosse players graduate and go on to Wall Street? Wow. That's how I read it--I don't think these guys are going to be loan officers at your local credit union. Anyway, notice how David Brooks identifies the privileged class in America as "the tenured left," and not these well-to-do Duke students who are future masters of the universe. That's the old conservative switcheroo. And I'm glad our community's pain could be converted for use in Brooks's project.

Brooks thinks he is ratcheting the controversy down by portraying the lacrosse players as typical rather than atypical. I'd feel better if I thought the players under indictment were deviants or bullies, that their presence at Duke was a fluke or an aberration. The more troubling thought is that they are typical of Duke's campus life--are put on a pedestal by many students. The day the first two players, Seligmann and Finnerty, were indicted, a local TV station interviewed two young women students who lived in their dorm. These women gushed over the players, called them the sweetest and gentlest people they knew. Hell, Finnerty has another charge pending against him, for beating up a guy in D.C. last summer. A lot of people express wonder at how the players, seemingly average college students, and apparently on a ladder to success, might commit such an awful crime. I also wonder why this young woman, similarly normal and well-adjusted, views this guy with two violent offenses on his rap sheet as "the sweetest boy she knows." What's going on in her head? Is it self-protective Duke tribalism, or is her self-esteem and judgment of people's characters that shaky?

I will say that the sociological angle has been overplayed in some ways. Does Durham have town-gown tensions? Yes--like many college communities. Racial tensions? Sure--like many cities in the South and in other regions of the country. But prior to the lacrosse story breaking, not many people around here consciously thought of Durham as a place with a race-relations problem. The problems that the lacrosse team scandal exemplifies are predominantly Duke problems, they are not Durham problems. (I commend to your attention this excellent piece in the Independent about the unfair treatment Durham gets in the court of public opinion. I also commend this piece about how the scandal has roiled Duke's campus. It's in the Duke alumni magazine, so there's a certain pro-Duke spin, but it lays out the issues pretty well, and is not blatantly trying to sweep things under the rug.)

I don't expect the lacrosse players to be convicted. That statement probably won't shock anybody. This is our own little Joe College version of the O.J. Simpson trial, with Joe Cheshire in the F. Lee Bailey role, Mike Nifong as the hapless prosecutor... Sorry, now I'm being glib. I really don't know if a rape occurred or not, I just know how hard it is to prosecute rape, the physical evidence seems ambiguous, and the victim in the case will not be a very credible witness. The players will walk. That's my cold-eyed reality-based assessment. (Furthermore, after an acquittal I predict there will be an ugly tendency by Duke students to view the players and by extention themselves as victims, for having allegations thrown about that were ultimately not proven.)

The racial insults, however, almost certainly happened--the players' lawyers don't even really dispute that. I think it's likely that someone threatened to rape the women with a broom handle, as has been reported. The verbal abuse, verbal assault really, ought to be chargeable, as far as I'm concerned. Also, I don't think enough has been made of the fact that the lacrosse players lured the women to that house on false pretenses. They promised that the party was a small gathering of baseball and track athletes--I don't know whether that was to conceal their identities in case of trouble after the fact, or to get past a bad reputation of the lacrosse team's; it's bad either way--and they promised the women money which they don't seem to have intended to pay. They lied; they set a trap; their abuse and humiliation of those women was quite premeditated. To sum up: The things we are pretty certain the players did are disgraceful, and really troubling to anyone who cares about Duke University, and takes it seriously as a place that educates leaders and citizens.