[Note update below.]
In March 1948, shortly after a coup that installed totalitarian rule in
Four years later, a wave of anti-Semitic show trials occurred throughout the Eastern Bloc;
bourgeois-nationalist traitors, spies, and saboteurs.” Eleven of the fourteen arrested leaders were Jews. All were found guilty in show trials; eleven, including Slánský and Clementis, were executed.
The trials’ outcome required creating a new, politically correct, version of the past. Propagandists eliminated the executed party members from communist history books. Clementis, for instance, was airbrushed from the photograph at the
The true story of Clementis and his fur cap comes from the opening of Czech dissident Milan Kundera’s novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. To one of the novel’s characters, the tale showed how “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” For historians, Clementis’ fate illustrates the willingness of totalitarian regimes to alter the past to align with their contemporary political interests; and, from the other side, the need for scholars to resist such efforts.
In recent days, the spirit that Kundera condemned has resurfaced on the Duke campus. The administration has airbrushed from the past events and people whose actions or even existence, like Clementis in Prague, they would prefer to forget.
The first sign came with the Duke Alumni Association “talking points,” which pretended that more than 80 years of efforts by professors and academic institutions to protest procedural abuses in the criminal justice system simply didn’t exist. “Within our democratic system,” the DAA document lectured, “it is the role of the legal system—not of universities or others—to determine when it is appropriate to charge people and have trials. The district attorney and others with responsibility for this process have an obligation to act fairly and responsibly in pursuing the truth.”
In the world of the alumni association’s “talking points,” Harvard Law professor and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who believed that academics have a particular obligation to voice their dissent against procedural abuses of the criminal justice system, never used his academic talents and prestige to rally opposition to prosecutorial misconduct in the Sacco and Vanzetti case. Nor, apparently, did professors and academic institutions in the early 1960s fight against Southern prosecutors who abused due process to file trumped-up charges against African-Americans. And even in the lacrosse case, the DAA’s blanket statement removed from history the recent actions of Duke Law professor James Coleman. Far from assuming that in all cases “the district attorney and others with responsibility for this process have an obligation to act fairly and responsibly in pursuing the truth,” Coleman delineated Mike Nifong’s pattern of procedural misconduct and demanded that the D.A. give way to a special prosecutor.
The Duke Alumni Association’s actions, however, look mild when compared to an examination through the Duke website. In June 2006, Duke president Richard Brodhead reluctantly revived the men’s lacrosse program, in remarks that made no mention of official Duke findings that the team members had very strong academic records, an impressive rate of community service, and showed no evidence of sexist or racist behavior on campus. In due time, Duke officials also restored the men’s lacrosse website on the Duke Athletics homepage.
But, very much like that photograph of Gottwald from the March 1948 rally, Duke has airbrushed from history those whose existence the institution now considers politically inconvenient. The website features printed versions of both the 2004-2005* and 2005-2006* rosters, which list the players on the team, their heights and weights, their hometowns, and their year in school. These rosters are, in effect, historical documents. Yet they do not contain the names of three students—Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann—who played for Duke during both seasons. According to the Duke website’s official version of events, Evans, Finnerty, and Seligmann were never on the Duke men’s lacrosse team.
A search through the box scores or final stats likewise will yield no evidence that Evans, Finnerty, or Seligmann ever played for the team. Duke has disabled the links to the box scores, which routinely list a full roster of all players and, of course, those who score goals. The website’s only evidence that Evans, Finnerty, or Seligmann ever played for Duke men’s lacrosse comes from a line buried in the writeup of the 2006
That sentence, it seems, is the Duke equivalent of Clementis’ cap—a stray item that accidentally survived the censors’ airbrush. Duke is an educational institution, supposedly committed to a search for the truth. That its official version of history would airbrush people and events in a manner reminiscent of Stalinist Czechoslovakia is shocking.
I confirmed that neither defense attorneys nor the players’ families ever requested (or even knew about) Duke eliminating the three players from the official history of the men’s lacrosse program.
I don’t claim to know the motives of Duke administrators who denied that professors and academic leaders long have crusaded against due-process violations in the criminal justice system. Nor can I imagine why anyone associated with Duke would have chosen to erase the names of Evans, Finnerty, and Seligmann from the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 lacrosse rosters. But Brodhead’s Durham is not Gottwald’s
[*Update: As of approximately 3.35pm, Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann were restored to their rightful places on the Duke 2004-5 and 2005-6 rosters. (I saved versions of the airbrushed rosters for my own records, and am happy to supply them to anyone who needs verification, since the links above now proceed to the corrected rosters.) A small victory in “the struggle of memory against forgetting.”]
[**Update, 12.15am, Tuesday: I received an email from the Director of Internet Operations for the Duke University Athletics Association stating, "In March, at the request of the men’s lacrosse parents, we deactivated all players in the GoDuke.com system. " The site was reactivated in September, but players not on the 2006-2007 roster were not included in previous rosters. The process, I was told, was completed on Sunday. There was, I was told, no effort at "deleting anybody from the history books."]