January 25 2007

Was the Duke lacrosse scandal a metanarrative?

Charlotte Hays

There were so many things that went wrong with the rape allegations scandal at Duke University. IWF is in the process of putting together an all-star panel to examine the issues.

Meanwhile, Charlotte Allen has produced a terrific piece on the scandal for the Weekly Standard. A lawyer, Charlotte is great on the legal flubs, but she is even more brilliant on the intellectual atmosphere at Duke that led to the ridiculous response of the benighted faculty:

[I]t was the Duke faculty that could be said to have cooked up the ambient language that came to clothe virtually all media descriptions of the assault case -- that boilerplate about "race, gender, and class" (or maybe "race, gender, sexuality, and class") and "privileged white males" that you could not read a news story about the assault case without encountering, whether in the New York Times, the Washington Post, or Newsweek for example. The journalists channeled the academics.

Although outsiders know Duke mostly as an expensive preppie enclave that fields Division I athletic teams, the university's humanities and social sciences departments -- literature, anthropology, and especially women's studies and African-American studies -- foster exactly the opposite kind of culture. Those departments (and especially Duke's robustly "postmodern" English department, put in place by postmodernist celebrity Stanley Fish before his departure in 1998) are famous throughout academia as repositories of all that is trendy and hyper-politicized in today's ivy halls: angry feminism, ethnic victimology, dense, jargon-laden analyses of capitalism and "patriarchy," and "new historicism" -- a kind of upgraded Marxism that analyzes art and literature in terms of efforts by powerful social elites to brainwash everybody else.

The Duke University Press is the laughingstock of the publishing world, offering such titles as "Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity" and "An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures." Phrases such as "race, gender, and class" and "privileged white males" come as second nature to the academics who do this kind of writing, which analyzes nearly all social phenomena in terms of race, gender, class, and white male privilege. A couple of months after the lacrosse party, Karla F.C. Holloway, a professor of English and African-American studies at Duke, published a reflection on the incident titled "Coda: Bodies of Evidence" in an online feminist journal sponsored by Barnard College. "Judgments about the issues of race and gender that the lacrosse team's sleazy conduct exposed cannot be left to the courtroom," Holloway wrote. "Despite the damaging logic that associates the credibility of a socio-cultural context to the outcome of the legal process, we will find that even as the accusations that might be legally processed are confined to a courtroom, the cultural and social issues excavated in this upheaval linger."

There was a fascinating irony in this. Postmodern theorists pride themselves in discerning what they call "metanarratives." They argue that such concepts as, say, Christianity or patriotism or the American legal system are no more than socially constructed tall tales that the postmodernists can then "deconstruct" to unmask the real purpose behind them, which is (say the postmodernists) to prop up societal structures of -- yes, you guessed it -- race, gender, class, and white male privilege. Nonetheless, in the Duke lacrosse case the theorists manufactured a metanarrative of their own, based upon the fact that Durham, North Carolina, is in the South, and the alleged assailants happened to be white males from families wealthy enough to afford Duke's tuition, while their alleged victim was an impoverished black woman who, as she told the Raleigh News and Observer in a credulous profile of her published on March 25, was stripping only to support her two children and to pay her tuition as a student at North Carolina Central University, a historically black state college in Durham that is considerably less prestigious than Duke. All the symbolic elements of a juicy race/gender/class/white-male-privilege yarn were present. The theorists went to town.

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