"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Scandal of the Conservative Mind

In an article on National Review Online today, K. C. Johnson notes that most conservatives jumped on the bandwagon when an ambitious prosecutor in North Carolina went after what he clearly saw as an ideal group of Great White Defendants, to use Tom Wolfe's astutely devised term from Bonfire of the Vanities, and pushed ahead with a no-evidence case against three Duke University lacrosse players accused by a stripper of rape allegedly done at a party at which she had been performing her great art. It's entirely clear now, that this case was a railroading from the start, and it is going to fall by the wayside quietly in the end, without the accused ever getting a chance to clear their names.

Equally repugnant was the rush to judgment by Duke University president Richard Broadhead, documented in sickening detail by Michael Rubin in NRO today. Rubin writes,

On March 25, Duke University President Richard Brodhead issued a statement declaring, “Physical coercion and sexual assault are unacceptable in any setting and have no place at Duke.” Of course, he issued the caveat, “People are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” but on campuses today, such presumption is secondary. On April 5, Brodhead canceled the lacrosse team’s season and promised an investigation of the culture of college athletes as well as Duke’s own response. The lacrosse coach resigned.

Months later, more is known about the incident. While District Attorney Mike Nifong is pressing on with charges of rape and related accusations against three lacrosse players, his case is unraveling. Photos, witnesses, alibis, inconclusive DNA evidence, and even passed polygraphs make his case increasingly tenuous.

That last sentence is an understatement. Nifong has no case, and he knows it, but he doesn't care because he got what he wanted out of it: renomination to office on the votes of people gulled into thinking he was protecting them when in fact he was using them as cynically as could be.

I understand that there were valid reasons for Duke coach Mike Pressler to resign, given that his charges had taken part in underage drinking and hired a stripper, both of which are common activities among young people but which the college formally opposes. It was understandable that his head should roll, even though he is not known to have condoned his players' behavior. But if not for the charge of rape, which was entirely false, would there have been any public stain on Duke's program? Of course not. I certainly hope that Pressler will catch on somewhere soon and continue the fine coaching work he was doing at Duke.

Along with the Duke players who foolishly put themselves in position to be exploited as socioeconomic tackling dummies, it is Nifong, Broadhead, and the accuser who are to blame for this ugly incident, not Pressler.

Brodhead should resign and apologize. Nifong should be impeached, and the accuser should be prosecuted. Of course, none of these things will happen, which is an indictment of the voters of North Carolina and Duke University's trustees, donors, and parents.

The interesting political angle that Johnson points out in his NRO piece is how political conservatives jumped on the bandwagon to convict the Duke team before a shred of real evidence was in. Even our own, esteemed Reform Clubber Michael Simpson did so, writing on our site, "Duke's lacrosse team has managed to thoroughly embarrass itself and the rest of the school by hiring strippers for a party and then, allegedly, taunting one of the strippers (who was black, while the team is almost entirely white) with racial taunts and then (again, allegedly) raping her. A real class act, these guys." Yes, Michael did use the word allegedly, but the thrust of his comment was to place the blame squarely on the Duke players and then on the permissve attitude toward student sexual behavior that prevails among college and university administrators. Michael's point was that this kind of behavior was the inevitable repulsive consequence of the prevailing campus ethos.

But other than the underage drinking and presence of a stripper, and possibly the racial taunts (though I very much doubt they occurred), the team did nothing at all outside the mainstream of college behavior, and certainly did nothing at all that could be characterized as "thoroughly embarrassing." It was the rape claim that made this story important, and that was false.

As Johnson puts it,

A few conservative bloggers and columnists have seared Nifong’s behavior, and the issue has received play on talk radio and television. But many conservative thinkers either have declined comment or concentrated on condemning the lacrosse players’ acknowledged behavior (drinking, hiring a stripper for a party) while calling for more focus on academics at colleges.

Typical of such sentiments is John Hood, president of North Carolina’s John Locke Foundation, who denounced the players as “irresponsible louts” and called for colleges to refocus on “the life of the mind, not the life of the party.” Vin Cannato compared the lacrosse scandal to Harvard’s treatment of Larry Summers and Yale’s admitting a former Taliban official as a student—two of the most indefensible events in higher education in the past year. At NRO’s Phi Beta Cons, Carol Iannone cited the case to endorse “the return of in loco parentis, and preferably the old-fashioned kind of parens. It’s only four years and you can actually live without strippers for that time.”

Although not a conservative, your present correspondent was one of those happy few on the Right who criticized Nifong and argued that the Dukies were being railroaded unconscionably. I wrote,

The recent case in North Carolina—in which a prosecutor rushed forward with indictments against two Duke University lacrosse players despite a complete lack of plausible evidence against them and openly disregarded undeniable exculpatory evidence regarding one of them, in order to court votes from people of the same skin color as the accuser during primary elections that were then just a couple 0f weeks away—was just one of the more blatant examples of prosecutorial misconduct in recent months.

I think that this case illustrates the difference between conservatives and classical liberals. The former are intensely (and appropriately) concerned about the need for social order, whereas we classical liberals seek the right balance between liberty and order. In the present case, a little attention to classical liberal values went a long way toward finding a reasonable position. Having attended many a bacchanal that got out of hand in my young adult years, and having been to the occasional party at which there happened to be naked prostitutes and the like, I recognize that these things happen, and I cannot see any reason why an otherwise exemplary person—which is precisely what the Duke lacrosse team consists of—should be cast into the third circle of hell merely for a little spirited hijinks.

As Johnson notes regarding the Duke players,

Ironically, the calumny heaped upon them has obscured the lacrosse players’ actual records. An investigation headed by James Coleman, a Duke law professor and former (Democratic) counsel to the House Ethics Committee, confirmed that while the men’s lacrosse players had a disproportionate number of alcohol violations, they also performed extensive community service, achieved athletic excellence, and demonstrated unfailing courtesy to Duke staff. The Coleman Committee found no evidence that “the cohesiveness of this group is either sexist or racist.” On the academic front, more than half the team made the ACC’s academic honor roll; one professor recalled that “the lacrosse players were willing to defend unpopular positions in class.” Given the ideological tenor of the Duke faculty, the positions that the players took can easily be imagined.

Those who still wonder if the players’ character should distract from a campaign to restore justice in Durham should follow the lead of Duke’s women’s lacrosse team. Coach Kerstin Kimel explained, “There is a strong camaraderie between our teams, and my players—being smart, savvy young women—would not associate with them if they felt on the whole, there was an issue of character.” And so, having made the 2006 Final Four, the women’s team members wore “innocent” headbands to express solidarity with Nifong’s targets. In light of their own faculty’s response to the case, this demonstration of personal values and courage should make even the strongest critics of the Duke lacrosse program reconsider.

Yes, what the Dukies did at the party was stupid and wrong, but real adults don't fly into a panic about such things.

Political conservatives often do exactly that, however, and that is why the Republicans so frequently run into entirely unnecessary political trouble. They're very willing to take the good with the bad when it comes to having a market-oriented economy, but when it comes to college students having a few beers—and possibly, heaven forbid, having a few too many—suddenly liberty is a dangerous thing. Real people, however, know better than to blow up over a little tomfoolery, and this kind of silly crusade is precisely what turns people off about current-day political conservatism.

9 comments:

Tlaloc said...

"But if not for the charge of rape, which was entirely false"

Funny, isn't your post about how wrong it is for people to assume they know the truth about such things ahed of time?

I'm just sayin...

Tlaloc said...

by the way here's the newsweek story on the case. It does a pretty good job of exploring the matter:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12442765/site/newsweek/

You know, if you care...

Michael Simpson said...

So this is the quote that you pull out of my earlier post: "Duke's lacrosse team has managed to thoroughly embarrass itself and the rest of the school by hiring strippers for a party and then, allegedly, taunting one of the strippers (who was black, while the team is almost entirely white) with racial taunts and then (again, allegedly) raping her. A real class act, these guys."

In what sense has the lacrosse team *not* embarrassed the wider university? In what sense have they *not* shown themselves to be classless punks? Having a decent respect for the limits of government and the corresponding liberties of individuals (what I take to be the essence of being a "classic liberal" ) does not in any way preclude us from passing (non-legal) judgment on execrable behavior. Indeed, it may heighten its necessity if, as you yourself noted in a post the other day, that virtue is necessary for the maintenance of a free society and that the development of said virtue cannot be the province of government.

The point of my post was not - as I made quite clear (and you only grudgingly acknowledge) - that the players had violated the law. It was that they acted like boors and that universities are all too happy to allow students to act that way. Boys will be boys, after all, and there's no need to get all excited. Except that excessive alcohol use on college campuses is responsible for almost every date rape (both real and false accusations) and all sorts of other significant problems.

The DA may well be way out on a limb and the evidence that we know about so far does not support the rape accusations. But that's no reason to think we have no grounds for moral criticisms of the lacrosse players.

S. T. Karnick said...

I suppose drinking any alcohol at all makes one a classless punk in the eyes of those who claim that any use of alcohol by a minor is excessive. But I don't agree. And as K. C. Johnson's article noted, those boys are anything but classless punks in every other way, and therefore it doesn't sound either fair or Christian to be throwing around names like that. And by acting like boors, do you mean having a party and a stripper? To be a boor is to be rude and insensitive, whereas the transaction involved in having a stripper is voluntary for both parties. It's not a good thing to do, but come on, that stretches the definition of "execrable" way beyond usefulness, and it doesn't "thoroughly embarrass" a person except in very puritanical eyes. You ask, "In what sense has the lacrosse team *not* embarrassed the wider university?" Good question, and the answer is, in every other way but in this one incident that has been blown far out of proportion because of a false accusation attached to it. These guys aren't perfect, but they're better than average in their deameanor and accomplishments, according to the school's own report, and therefore to describe them as punks and their behavior as execrable is surely excessive and unfair.

Tlaloc said...

"And by acting like boors, do you mean having a party and a stripper?"

He might have meant the racial epithets and the email talking about killing strippers, skinning them and then performing a sexual act on them.

Kind of boorish.

Michael Simpson said...

If I were complaining about the fact that the lacrosse team had been having a wine tasting and that the out of control young men had broken a window or something, then maybe it would be reasonable to label my complaints as "puritanical," unfair and un-Christian. But that's not what goes on in college parties - and it sure doesn't sound like what went on in this party (even if the claims of racial epithets and rape are untrue). The fact that the hiring of the stripper is a *voluntary* exchange doesn't make it just fine, no more than it is fine that plenty of college boys in my town frequent the couple of "adult" establishments where they can ogle women to their heart's content. I think hiring a stripper for a keg party is execrable and boorish to boot. It trains and reinforces the view of women as primarily objects of lust and binds men together around activities that are surely more vice than virtue. I'm not sure why you can't see that.

Finally, I do still think you mischaracterized my original post by throwing me in with those who found the Duke players guilty of criminal behavior. I was (and am) interested in the ways in which universities' abdication of the project of moral formation contributes to and sanctions students' licentious behavior and how such abdication undermines what should be its educational and moral goals.

S. T. Karnick said...

Michael Simpson wrote,

"The fact that the hiring of the stripper is a *voluntary* exchange doesn't make it just fine, no more than it is fine that plenty of college boys in my town frequent the couple of 'adult' establishments where they can ogle women to their heart's content. I think hiring a stripper for a keg party is execrable and boorish to boot. It trains and reinforces the view of women as primarily objects of lust and binds men together around activities that are surely more vice than virtue. I'm not sure why you can't see that."

Because it's not true. It's your opinion, and mine differs. To describe the hiring of a stripper for a keg party as execrable is exactly the kind of claim I think damages conservatives in the eyes of others, and rightly. The act involved is not something we ought to do, but it's not execrable. Not everything that shouldn't be done is unspeakably evil, unless you're talking on the level of all sins being equal, etc., in which case nobody can ever criticize anybody. If we accept that some things are worse than others, then we must be careful not to use extreme words to describe less than extreme actions, lest those words lose their power. No amount of feminist rhetoric will change that reality. I'm asking for perspective, not condoning bad behavior.

Tlaloc said...

"Because it's not true. It's your opinion, and mine differs."

LOL

Hallelujah! Karnick has joined us in the realm of moral relativism. Welcome, brother.

Seriously Karnick, given what jesus said about looking at a woman with lust in your heart I'd think you'd be getting Simpson's point here. I certainly don't agree with it but then again I'm not christian.

S. T. Karnick said...

In saying that, Jesus was saying exactly what I've been saying here.