07 Sep 2007

“Until Proven Innocent”

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Abigail Thernstrom has some harsh comments on the Progressive community in her review of the new book by Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson on the Duke Lacrosse Case.

Until Proven Innocent” is a stunning book. It recounts the Duke lacrosse case in fascinating detail and offers, along the way, a damning portrait of the institutions — legal, educational and journalistic — that do so much to shape contemporary American culture. Messrs. Taylor and Johnson make it clear that the Duke affair — the rabid prosecution, the skewed commentary, the distorted media storyline — was not some odd, outlier incident but the product of an elite culture’s most treasured assumptions about American life, not least about America’s supposed racial divide. …

The state attorney general — after an agonizing yearlong investigation, culminating in Mr. Nifong’s removal from the case — determined in April 2007 that Messrs. Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann were innocent of all charges. Nothing — absolutely nothing — had happened at the party. The players’ innocence had been apparent to their own attorneys from the outset. It should have been apparent to Mr. Nifong, too, given all the exculpatory details he knew. But he was desperate to win a close primary election and needed black votes, so he proceeded with an unjustified prosecution and publicly vilified innocent young men.

In this fundamental injustice, he was aided and abetted by others in Durham. Richard Brodhead, the president of Duke, condemned the lacrosse players as if they had already been found guilty, demanded the resignation of their coach and studiously ignored the mounting evidence that Ms. Mangum’s charge was false. He was clearly terrified of the racial and gender activists on his own faculty. Houston Baker, a noted professor of English, called the lacrosse players “white, violent, drunken men veritably given license to rape,” men who could “claim innocence . . . safe under the cover of silent whiteness.” Protesters on campus and in the city itself waved “castrate” banners, put up “wanted” posters and threatened the physical safety of the lacrosse players.

The vitriolic rhetoric of the faculty and Durham’s “progressive” community — including the local chapter of the NAACP — helped to intensify the scandal and stoke the media fires. The New York Times’ coverage was particularly egregious, as Messrs. Taylor and Johnson vividly show. It ran dozens of prominent stories and “analysis” articles trying to plumb the pathologies of the lacrosse players and of a campus culture that allowed swaggering white males to prey on poor, defenseless young black women. As one shrewd Times alumnus later wrote: “You couldn’t invent a story so precisely tuned to the outrage frequency of the modern, metropolitan, bienpensant journalist.” Such Nifong allies — unlike the district attorney himself — paid no price for their shocking indifference to the truth.

Some observations by the authors themselves appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post.

The 24-hour sentence was imposed on Mike Nifong, the disbarred former district attorney of Durham, after a contempt-of-court trial last week for repeatedly lying to hide DNA evidence of innocence. His prosecution of three demonstrably innocent defendants, based on an emotionally disturbed stripper’s ever-changing account, may be the worst prosecutorial misconduct ever exposed while it was happening. Durham police officers and other officials aided Nifong, and the city and county face the threat of a massive lawsuit by the falsely accused former students seeking criminal justice reforms and compensation.

All this shows how the criminal justice process can oppress the innocent — usually poor people lacking the resources to fight back — and illustrates the need for reforms to restrain rogue prosecutors. But the case was also a major cultural event exposing habits of mind among academics and journalists that contradict what should be their lodestar: the pursuit of truth.

Nifong’s lies, his inflaming of racial hatred (to win the black vote in his election campaign) and his targeting of innocent people were hardly representative of criminal prosecutors. But the smearing of the lacrosse players as racist, sexist, thuggish louts by many was all too representative.

Dozens of the activist professors who dominate campus discourse gleefully stereotyped and vilified their own students — and not one member of Duke’s undergraduate faculty publicly dissented for months. Duke President Richard Brodhead repeatedly and misleadingly denigrated the players’ characters. He also acted as though he had no problem with Nifong’s violations of their rights to due process.

The New York Times and other newspapers vied with trash-TV talk shows hosted by the likes of CNN’s Nancy Grace, a biased wacko-feminist, and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, a right-wing blowhard, in a race to the journalistic bottom. The defendants — who endured the ordeal with courage and class — and their teammates were smeared nationwide as depraved racists and probable rapists.

To be sure, it was natural to assume at first that Nifong had a case. Why else would he confidently declare the players guilty? But many academics and journalists continued to presume guilt months after massive evidence of innocence poured into the public record. Indeed, some professors persisted in attacks even after the three defendants were declared innocent in April by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper — an almost unheard-of event.

Brushing aside concern with “the ‘truth’ . . . about the incident,” as one put it, these faculty ideologues just changed their indictments from rape to drunkenness (hardly a rarity in college); exploiting poor black women (the players had expected white and Hispanic strippers); and being born white, male and prosperous.

This shameful conduct was rooted in a broader trend toward subordinating facts and evidence to faith-based ideological posturing. Worse, the ascendant ideology, especially in academia, is an obsession with the fantasy that oppression of minorities and women by “privileged” white men remains rampant in America. Its crude stereotyping of white men, especially athletes, resembles old-fashioned racism and sexism.

Hat tip to Daniel Lowensten.

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