(On 5/21/09 I revised the original essay. Most of the changes are minor editing to clarify some points that may have been confusing (http://forums.talkleft.com/index.php?topic=2008.0), but the final paragraph is entirely new.)
Professor Robert Zimmerman has written numerous times about the Duke lacrosse case and how the faculty responded. His praise of Professor Leitner’s article (the “sense” in the sense-and-nonsense post) indicates that he is sympathetic to the group of 88 faculty who signed the listening statement. Yet he has also written about the excesses of some in the Duke community (http://reharmonized.an-earful.com/2007/11/trouble-with-potbanging/). His assessment (http://reharmonized.an-earful.com/2007/12/sense-and-nonsense/) of Professor Steven Baldwin’s op-ed to the Duke Chronicle in October of 2006 is typically David Broderesque in its attempt to find some wrong on both sides (for example, http://reharmonized.an-earful.com/2007/11/lacrosse-racket-postscript).
Baldwin wrote (http://media.www.dukechronicle.com/media/storage/paper884/news/2006/10/24/Columns/The-Administrations.Mismanagement.Of.Lacrosse-2384801.shtml), “The faculty who publicly savaged the character and reputations of specific men’s lacrosse players last spring should be ashamed of themselves. They should be tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail and removed from the academy.” Professor Robyn Wiegmann replied (http://media.www.dukechronicle.com/media/storage/paper884/news/2006/10/25/Letters/Cultivate.Community.Of.Critical.Thought-2400650.shtml), “Being tarred and feathered is the language of lynching, and the practice of lynching was rarely one that eventuated in a court case of any kind, let alone one in which the defendants claim 10 minutes on one of the most important television programs in the United States. My disappointment in Duke right now is that it wants to avoid the analysis of the language and history of race, instead of using this moment-in its broad social implications-to actually study it.” Baldwin then apologized by saying (http://media.www.dukechronicle.com/media/storage/paper884/news/2006/10/25/Letters/insensitive.Language.Unintentional-2400648.shtml?norewrite200610261312), In particular, in the next-to-last paragraph of the editorial I used some terms that I have now learned have racial connotations for some…I deeply regret that what for me is a totally non-racial issue has assumed that character.”
Zimmerman critcized Baldwin, writing, “I’m happy to grant that it was past time for faculty members to speak publicly and critically about the treatment of the lacrosse players on campus and by Nifong. I’m hard pressed to think of a way of making the point that’s more obnoxious and less constructive than Baldwin’s, though.” By failing to say what he would find constructive, Zimmerman took the easy way out: He cloaks himself in a mantle of moderation (indicating some wrong on both sides), but he doesn’t have to commit himself and take a stand against the group of 88 and their allies. In contrast, Zimmerman praised Wiegman’s reply as “well-modulated” and implied that her “language of lynching” statement has been blown out of proportion. Why didn’t he defend Baldwin by the same criterion? Most of Baldwin’s letter concerned the right and wrong ways that a university might treat its students; his tarring and feathering comment is no more the bulk of what he is saying than Wiegman’s language of lynching comment, perhaps less.
Zimmerman treated Baldwin’s comment that certain faculty “removed from the academy” literally. He also described “targeted” faculty as engaging in a “it-for-tat that strikes me as unwarranted” when they wrote to Broadhead to ask for his removal. This is a false equivalence. No one has ever said that Baldwin contacted President Broadhead to remove anyone. Moreover, because he coupled it with a clearly metaphorical call for tarring and feathering, the passage in his letter cannot be read as an actual call for anyone’s dismissal. However, some members of the Duke faculty had previously called for Coach Pressler’s removal (Pressler was forced to step down), and now some were literally calling for Baldwin’s.
Zimmerman conceded that tarring and feathering are not really the language of lynching, “but so what? It’s still the language of intolerance and vigilantism, directed indiscriminately at an unspecified group of colleagues who didn’t live up to the paternalistic standard Baldwin set for himself and the university.” Zimmerman thus set up a false alternative; a professor need not agree with Baldwin’s principle of in loco parentis to refrain from publicly shaming his or her students (not only is it wrong to do so, but it is also not a very effective teaching tool). Since Baldwin was not literally calling for tarring and feathering, one can ignore Zimmerman’s equating Baldwin’s comments with vigilantism, however given his post on the potbangers, he is probably sincere in reviling vigilante justice. More problematic is that he seems to be holding up tolerance as always and unquestionably a good thing. Yet, the Duke faculty should not tolerate mistreating students any more that it should tolerate racism.
Zimmerman’s cavalier “so what” is inadequate in two ways. First, accuracy of expression is among the central goals of the academy (I would put it close to the top). Baldwin was criticizing specific members of the faculty for what they did do, whereas Wiegman was calling Baldwin, a self-described liberal, to task for something that he did not do, that is making a remark with strong intimations of racism. Even if Wiegman, a professor of Women’s Studies and Literature, were merely ignorant of the origins of the phrase to tar and feather (which seems unlikely), it would still be a serious error. Furthermore, for Zimmerman to say that her false charge of racial insensitivity does not matter while at the same time praising those who raise issues of racial inequality (such as Wiegman and Leitner) is blatantly inconsistent.
If one is in any doubt that some Duke professors shamed their students in wildly inappropriate ways, the Liestoppers board has collected some examples (http://s1.zetaboards.com/Liestoppers_meeting/topic/1632939/1/). I will present only a sample. Grant Farred accused the Duke students who registered to vote with the intention of ousting Prosecutor Michael Nifong of racism and naked self-interest. As the case was unraveling, Houston Baker called the lacrosse players a “scummy bunch of white males.” If a Duke professor had called a black fraternity a scummy bunch of black males, I wonder what the public outcry would have been. Karla Holloway rebuked the women’s lacrosse team for wearing armbands in support of the men’s team, whose season had been cancelled (Until Proven Innocent, p. 234). Tim Tyson likened the team to “white supremacists” and said that the spirit of the lynch mob lived in that house on Buchanan Street (http://durhamwonderland.blogspot.com/2008/05/tyson-reinvents-history.html). He also said that Duke students not talking to Sgt. Mark Gottlieb outside the presence of their attorneys “may be illegal” and constituted a “terrible moral miscalculation.” Perhaps most disappointingly Father Vetter and Reverend Wells, both of whom minister to the Duke community, independently gave sanctimonious, guilt-presuming sermons. Most astonishing, though, is Kim Curtis’ interpretation of the players’ confidence that the DNA results would exonerate them. She implied that the lacrosse players knew that someone else had perpetrated a rape and that the players were accomplices by not naming him.
To paraphrase the NYT’s Peter Applebome, some in the media had declared open season on the Duke lacrosse team in general and the three indicted players in particular. One wonders why more in the faculty did not rebuke the media for doing so, instead of painting bull’s-eyes on the players’ backs. Zimmerman does not understand what makes the Baldwin-Wiegman exchange “unbearably sad” to Harvey Silverglate (co-founder of FIRE). Perhaps it was that the discussion about the inexcusable way that the “feckless” faculty were treating their own students was interrupted by a claim that these faculty were victims, an eerily similar claim to one found in the clarifying statement made the following January (http://www.concerneddukefaculty.org/) by the Group of 89.
Here are some questions to which I would like to hear Professor Zimmerman’s answers. Is it his contention that a discussion of the language and history of race was more urgent than a discussion of how Duke should treat its students in legal peril? What did this “moment” actually have to do with the “language and history of race” in the first place? If Wiegman knew that tarring and feathering was not associated with lynching but made this charge anyway, would Zimmerman still say, “so what?”
No one has ever claimed that the three indicted players used racial epithets on the night in question. Therefore, long before October of 2006, there was no reason to believe that the alleged rape had anything to do with race. Yet Wiegman and the Group of 89 still wanted to speak of nothing else: They played the accusation of racism as though it were an ace that could never be trumped. When I first encountered this case, I believed that the members of the Group of 88 were sincere in their concern about racism at Duke, despite being overzealous about the accusation of rape. After Wiegman’s spurious charge of racism against Baldwin, Huston Baker’s racist attack on the players, and the Group of 89’s showing more concern over unspecified racism and sexism than for its students being denied due process, I can no longer take their claims seriously.Full disclosure: I am the reporter who originally solicited Harvey Silverglate’s comments (http://web.duke.edu/~kcl10/DSFEDuke/Duke_Taylor11.pdf).