Finding new ground in the Duke Lacrosse case

For a long moment, the Duke Lacrosse case was the national story, bursting from the squalid swamps of Nancy Grace sensationalism to dominate news cycles everywhere. Clearly, the story hit a nerve.

The 24/7 coverage by talking hairdos usually brought more heat than light. But issues that needed discussing were finally getting discussed: the prevalence of sexual assault and sexism, still-huge race divides, arrogant class privilege. In some ways, the Duke scandal succeeded more than Hurricane Katrina in stimulating conversation from the street corner to CNN about these fundamental fissures in our society that belie every "United We Stand" bumpersticker.

The public quickly took sides in the Duke case, often based on who they were inclined to believe based on their own gender, race, or class (while everyone, of course, thinking they were "beyond that").

Extreme positions developed at both ends that became increasingly indefensible. Much of the Duke establishment and other defenders of elite and/or jock culture (a bizarre mix in the real world, by the way) went overboard to protect the students, savage the accusers, and belittle the charges as a "witch hunt" (thank you, David Brooks).

Progressives largely fell into the other camp, embracing or sympathizing with the woman making the charges, and linking the incident (both the known events, such as racist taunting, and allegations of rape, still in dispute) to a larger culture of injustice.

But there were clear contradictions here from the beginning, too. I discovered this when talking to one activist, who told me "it doesn't matter if the Duke guys are innocent or guilty." At what level are we talking? It certainly matters to them, and the legal concept of "innocent until proven guilty" matters to, say, Mumia Abu Jamal, or the (often white and privileged) protesters who get routinely locked up while demonstrating against the Iraq war or WTO.

In any event, it became clear there were (and are) two debates going on -- one, about a legal case (which was getting murkier every day, thanks to emerging facts plus the defense team's massively successful media strategy), and the second, a discussion about larger social issues. The two have had points of contact, but in some ways have been unrelated to each other.

Columnist Hal Crowther attempts to navigate this thorny terrain in a thoughtful piece in this week's Independent Weekly (the excellent paper based here in the heart of the Duke scandal beast, Durham, N.C.). It's long and worth reading in full, but here are some interesting snippets:

ON MEDIA REACTION: "What do we make of his unmistakable impulse to worry more about injustice to the white boys than to the woman who says they raped her? To imply that rich white athletes are unsafe in the North Carolina legal system is like saying the Pope can't get a fair trial in Vatican City."

ON LESSONS LEARNED BY THE STUDENTS: "One is about transactions involving sex and money, and the stupidity of imagining that the one who sells surrenders more dignity or moral currency than the one who buys. A race factor compounds the bitterness of this lesson, which many men never learn. But the great lesson they should have learned, if they're able to learn at all, is one that might make them better men and better citizens than the ones they would have become if no charges had ever been filed. It's a lesson learned too late by most children of privilege, blinkered well into adulthood by the myth of the affluent middle class--the myth that elite lives proceed smoothly from triumph to triumph with nothing but glory down the road. But the awful, class-blind truth--ask Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, at the top of his world on Monday, unemployed and invisible on Thursday--is that we live our lives with one foot on the banana peel, on the well-oiled roller skate. How quickly fortunes change, how very quickly it can all slip away."

ON CAMPUS PRIORITIES: "[W]e read that a new contract for the women's basketball coach at Tennessee has pushed UT's budget for two basketball coaches and a football coach past $4 million, enough to hire a whole new faculty and buy half of them new cars. Of course that's chump change to Duke's Coach K--not just a coach, his commercial says, but "a leader." In lieu of leading, the great coach seems to have retreated to an underground bunker with his image engineers, afraid or disinclined to say a word about the scandal that has substantially devalued the turf he rules by divine right, as Duke presidents come and go. ("He's not the power behind the throne; he sits on the only throne there is," said one disenchanted professor.) My god, what if some blue-chip basketball recruit, intimidated by a school so tough that even the lacrosse team commits felonies, should switch to a safer campus like Stanford or Syracuse?"

ON THE DEFENSE SPIN: "Compassion begins with the woman who says she was raped. The shock-and-awe media campaign against her credibility, like those attacks on the district attorney for election-year grandstanding, is the handiwork of defense attorneys on fat retainers. (As were those pro-Duke columns by David Brooks and his Times colleague Nicholas Kristof, which recycled stale spin the defense ladled up two months ago.) They're just doing their job, which isn't always a pretty one. If you feel a compulsion to believe them, you're the one who might catch a glimpse of your inner racist in the mirror."

ON VALUES: "The 18-to-34-year-olds, who made a megamillionaire of the creepy sex ghoul Howard Stern--so much for respecting women--grew up with Jerry Springer, shock jocks, the World Wrestling Federation, Paris Hilton and Ann Coulter. Archaic nouns like shame, dignity and integrity make rare appearances in their vocabulary. Their appetite for "reality" television embraces the most repugnant role models: even Donald Trump, without an atom of shame or a single glowing neuron in his baroquely thatched head, glaring truculently from the duck blind of his personal foliage like a silly crib toy that thinks it's a wolverine. (Do young people understand that all the money in the world doesn't make a jackass less laughable?) But the values these shows advertise -- a feral Darwinian struggle to prevail, to exploit any advantage and vault gleefully over the bodies of the fallen -- are values common to Enron and Al Qaeda."

There's lots more, and although one can find strengths and weaknesses in any piece like this, it seems to be Crowther's attempt at an honest reckoning of the situation, which starts with the progressive values that need to be kept front and center.