Saturday, August 19, 2006

A Duke Feminist Speaks Out

The lacrosse affair has featured a consistent pattern of Duke students outperforming their professors in respect for both due process and evaluating evidence free from ideological blinders. The latest example comes in a superb post from recent Duke graduate Natalia Antonova, who laments, “Fellow Duke feminists have reported verbal thrashings from the larger feminist community on the ongoing Duke Lacrosse debacle, confirming my suspicions that if you don’t toe the line, you’re hung out to dry faster than you can say ‘Pressler.’”

Antonova distrusts the accuser’s veracity not because of her race, class, or profession—but:

because of the actions of Mike Nifong, who tried this case in the media before it ever got to court, who engineered a shoddy “line-up,” and who is now backtracking, exposing himself to be the opportunist some of the most perceptive people at Duke have known him to be from the start.

Nifong’s actions are indicative of a case that is weak at best, and, at worst, completely false. He must have known that it was false the minute he laid eyes on the accuser, hence the hoopla. He needed this case to galvanize the community and win the election, and had hoped that the facts would get lost in the hysteria, as they pretty much did.

Antonova’s recognition of the connection between flawed procedure and flawed results mirrors that of USC law professor (and prominent feminist) Susan Estrich, who recently wrote that Nifong’s conduct “suggests a failure to follow standard procedure that is rather mind-boggling.” “At the very least,” she argued, “standard procedure should have been to await the results of tests, and then, given the results, the inconsistencies in the woman's statements, the fact that at least one of the boys seems to have an airtight alibi, investigate further before indicting anyone.” In one of the single best lines this case has produced, Estrich concluded her essay by noting, “There are reasons you follow procedures. In general, they are there to spare outrage.”

Perceptively, Antonova also noted this case’s potentially disastrous tactical outcomes for the feminist community. National women’s groups like NOW have embraced Nifong’s cause as their own, while cable commentators claiming to represent a feminist perspective such as Wendy Murphy or Georgia Goslee have engaged in outright falsehoods to justify their belief in the accuser. Antonova, on the other hand, contends that “blindly attacking the entire Duke community for the sake of re-asserting femininst credentials (or whatever other credentials) only makes it worse for Duke women in the long run, not to mention the negative impact this is going to have on future rape cases both at Duke and within greater Durham.” Estrich agreed: “Victims rights advocates like me will be depressed because we will worry, rightly, about all the messages being sent to legitimate victims.”

Antonova wonders, “Am I less of a feminist because I recognize the lack of credibility in this case as well as the negative impact of the coverage?” Her essay offers strong criticism, from a feminist perspective, of the social and institutional culture at Duke. But, in her opinion, this critique doesn’t require embracing a rape claim that’s almost certainly false and certainly has been handled in a procedurally irregular fashion by authorities.

Contrast Antonova’s nuanced argument that maintaining impeccable feminist credentials did not require either exploiting the crisis to advance ideological aims or blindly defending Nifong with that of the most publicized “feminist” perspective to come from the faculty, the Chronicle of Higher Education article penned by visiting professor Elizabeth Chin. (Chin published a shorter version of her article as an op-ed in the equally blindly pro-Nifong Durham Herald-Sun.)

Complaining that the administration of Duke president Richard Brodhead didn’t schedule a “town meeting, teach-ins, and coordinated efforts in residence halls to promote dialogue and reduce tensions,” Chin decided to take action in her class. Her group consisted of “well-off white women who were in the most elite sororities at Duke,” along with “three brave men (one Jewish, one Latino, and one African-American), several heterosexual women of color [Chin declined to explain how she knew they were heterosexual or why this fact is relevant], and a handful of what I affectionately thought of as my radical feminists.”

Chin’s portrayal of Duke as a whole was almost comical—filled with broad assertions about campus life backed by not a scintilla of evidence. As one current Yale Ph.D. student in molecular biology pointed out, “As a 2005 Duke graduate, I would love to see the data that suggested to Professor Chin that “many whites [at Duke] have no significant interactions with people of color or anyone ‘different’ in some way, like sexual orientation” . . . Her fantasies do not deserve to be published in The Chronicle or anywhere else.”

In class, Chin said that she committed herself “to keep the classroom a safe space for all the students, while allowing people on both sides of the issue to hear and understand each other.” That the space was a whole lot safer for one side than the other became clear when an anti-lacrosse player rally coincided with one class session. Chin stopped class and instructed the students to go outside and listen. (There’s a good strategy for an easy prep.) “After a while,” she relates, “I noticed that, one by one, the sorority girls were going back inside.” (Many of the sorority “girls” knew members of the lacrosse team.) Chin continues: “When I went after them, their pain and frustration were obvious. ‘It’s just not fair being targeted as a group,’ wailed one woman.” Wailed? Imagine the appropriate condemnation from faculty members like Chin if a male professor had used this verb to describe an upset “girl” in his class.

Chin’s response to the demonstration and its aftermath effectively assumed that the players were guilty, her view of the scandal was undeniably correct, and teaching diversity is the only conceivable approach in the classroom. Her view of an in-class “olive branch” over the lacrosse issue consisted of a “radical woman” admitting that she could have a common experience with a sorority “girl”: the “radical woman” stated that she, too, knew a man who “had raped someone.” (No rush to judgment about the lacrosse players there.)

Leaving aside the question of whether it was an appropriate use of class time to peruse a demonstration with whose message the instructor sympathized (Chin seems not to also cancelled class to observe the “innocent” demonstrations that occurred later in the term), Chin might have explored with her “radical feminists” the question that Antonova’s post raised: why so many on campus, including the demonstrators, seemed to presume guilt—even at an early stage of the investigation, when the lacrosse players had all denied criminal wrongdoing, their captains had told the authorities they would take lie detector tests, and the procedural irregularities that have come to characterize Nifong’s inquiry already were becoming apparent. This question appears not to have occurred to Chin, who describes herself as a “good liberal.” Apparently she doesn’t see promoting civil liberties as the kind of activity in which a “good liberal”—much less a “good feminist”—would engage.

If readers placed the Antonova and Chin essays side-by-side but removed the authors’ biographies, most likely would assume that Elizabeth Chin was the student and Natalia Antonova the professor, since Antonova’s essay shows far more intellectual subtlety and far less ideological dogmatism. That this inversion of the traditional student/faculty relationship has appeared time and again on the Duke campus raises serious questions about the quality of instruction at Duke—questions that will linger long after this case has ended.


Natalia said...

Oh wow, you're making me blush. I'm not at all as qualified as professor Chin, I just tried not to have an agenda when I wrote that. I'm sure I'm going to piss some people off, but you can't please everybody, and I'm glad that so far no one has gone off on me. Yet.

KC Johnson said...

"I just tried not to have an agenda when I wrote that."

That seems to get to the heart of the problem for many in viewing the Duke case: as academics, we're supposed to evaluate the facts critically, rather than view them solely through the lens of preconceived ideology.

Anonymous said...

you're so full of feminist propaganda, it seems an agenda come natural to you.

You're a joke, and so is this blog.

Anonymous said...

Wait. Maybe you're not a feminist. Maybe you're a modern woman who actually do want fairness and equality. If so. You're very brave standing up to the feminist nazis. They don't take too kandly to woman who have minds of their own. Feminist groups like NOW only want easily brain-washed idiots to be lead blindly along.

I think you'll find that most healthy women would agree with you.

Natalia said...

LOL KC, is this BS addressed at you or at me?


Shouting Thomas said...

I appreciate this blog's chronicling of the Duke case.

A minor quibble.

Why the worry about "good" versus "bad" feminism?

I gave up on that one 25 years ago. What the Duke rape case demonstrates is that there is no "good" feminism. This monstrosity of the natural end feminism.

This isn't a perversion of a good idea. The entire feminist movement is, and has been from the start, an intellectual fraud.

duke09parent said...

Whew! I knew that anti-feminism was around but I'm always surprised to see how strong it can be. I wonder, of course, if there is a common definition of feminism. But that's for another time and place.

Thanks to natalia for a good think piece. I was able to read it. I did not want to spring for $45 for the six month subscription to the Chronicle of Higher learning to read more than the first two paragraphs of Chinn's piece, so unless I remember to look for it in a university library, I'll just have to miss it.

What the NOW piece failed to recognize the damage a notorious false accusation can do to efforts to encourage more real rape victims to report and prosecute the crimes.

I'm male and a father of two, by the way, and still consider myself a feminist.

Anonymous said...

I think, it is time to update your blog. Or are you speechless?

14th Jan. 2007 is the date today.

Anonymous said...

Women's Studies Courses at Duke

Women's Studies Courses at Duke