Friday, August 11, 2006

Intellectual Thuggery

On April 20, one day after the procedurally dubious arrests of two Duke students, President Richard Brodhead participated in the institution’s first public event discussing the ramifications of the lacrosse scandal. This “Conversation on Campus Culture" was designed, according to the Duke Chronicle, to “discuss issues of sexism, racism and student social life.” In addition to Brodhead, the nine-member panel included several students, the dean of students, the university chaplain, and one faculty member: Mark Anthony Neal. A professor of African and African-American Studies, Neal was one of the 88 Duke faculty members who had signed a public statement saying “thank you” to campus protesters who had shouted to lacrosse players, “Time to confess”; banged pots and pans outside the residences of team members and Duke provost Peter Lange; and distributed a “wanted” poster containing photos of more than 40 team members.

Two weeks earlier, Brodhead had issued a public statement seeming to acknowledge that a rape had occurred; at the campus culture initiative, he announced, "This is a moment to look at things and ask if those things are what we want for ourselves." (Due process and the presumption of innocence do not appear to be among the “things” the president mentioned.) Chaplain Sam Wells amplified on themes from his April 2 sermon, reproduced in full in the April 9 Herald-Sun, in which he denounced "the subculture of reckless 'entitlement', sexual acquisitiveness and aggressive arrogance” and spoke of exposing “the reality that sexual practices are an area where some male students are accustomed to manipulating, exploiting and terrorizing women all the time—and that this has been accepted by many as a given." In an e-mail to me, the chaplain denied that these statements referred to members of the lacrosse team, and said that he was simply issuing a general critique of sexual misconduct. But it seems hard to believe that many people on campus or Herald-Sun readers would have appreciated such nuance.

As the dean of students, meanwhile, expressed fear that Duke students had created a "culture of crassness,” Neal pressed for curricular changes “that will allow our students to engage one another in a progressive manner.” By this point, he already had emerged as a point person in heightening campus protests. The professor sought to help “various communities mobilize[] to lay claim to [the allegation’s] significance”—groups such as “activists rightfully protesting yet another incident of alleged sexual violence related to a college campus” and “members of various black communities who wanted to highlight the racist implications of the alleged assault.” Though absolutely no evidence exists that the team captain who organized the party requested black dancers (and, indeed, the second dancer specifically denied such a request was made), Neal opined, “Regardless of what happened inside of 610 N. Buchanan Blvd, the young men were hoping to consume something that they felt that a black woman uniquely possessed. If these young men did in fact rape, sodomize, rob, and beat this young women [sic], it wasn’t simply because she was a women [sic], but because she was a black woman.”

This past spring, Neal also spoke with Duke’s alumni magazine, which just published the interview. Attempting, in part, to defend the accuser’s chosen profession, Neal reasoned:

When we think about women who work in strip clubs, the key component there is that word "work." In some ways this is legitimate labor, and we need to be clear about that. And women make these decisions based on what kind of legitimate labor is in their best interest. While it's important that black women's sexuality not be exploited, at the same time, I don't want to get into the business of policing black women's sexuality, which is just as dangerous.

Neal was even more revealing in discussing his own intellectual approach:

I have an alter ego—my intellectual alter ego. My intellectual alter ego is thugniggaintellectual—one word . . . I wanted to embody this figure that comes into intellectual spaces like a thug, who literally is fearful and menacing. I wanted to use this idea of this intellectual persona to do some real kind of "gangster" scholarship, if you will. All right, just hard, hard-core intellectual thuggery.
“Intellectual thuggery” seems a highly appropriate description for the actions of the Group of 88, faculty members who sold out their own students to an unethical prosecutor to forward their own persona, curricular, or ideological agendas. That Duke Magazine elected to disseminate this information to all the University’s alumni—at the same time, in an earlier article, the magazine could not bring itself to mention any of the lacrosse players’ positive accomplishments revealed in the Coleman Committee report—gives a sense of the Brodhead administration’s current mindset.

At first blush, however, it appeared that the administration simultaneously rebuked the “intellectual thuggery” the campus experienced last spring. The just-revised version of the student behavior code contains the following provision: “Disruptive picketing, protesting, or demonstrating on Duke University property or at any place in use for an authorized university purpose is prohibited.”

While Duke is committed “to protect the right of voluntary assembly, to make its facilities available for peaceful assembly, to welcome guest speakers, to protect the exercise of these rights from disruption or interference,” it also respects the right of each member of the academic community to be free from coercion and harassment.” Indeed, the code maintains, “the substitution of noise for speech and force for reason is a rejection and not an application of academic freedom.”

Surely, it would seem, people who bang pots and pans outside students’ residences would exemplify “the substitution of noise for speech and force for reason.” And an institution where faculty members who practice “intellectual thuggery” publicly thank protesters who distribute “wanted” pictures of students around campus is not one that “respects the right of each member of the academic community to be free from coercion and harassment.”

Lest the anti-lacrosse protesters misinterpret things, however, Duke’s student life apparatus took out a full-page ad in the most recent Duke Chronicle. The new policy has its own tag-line: Bad Behavior—“Not Fine by Duke.” If this language structure seems vaguely familiar, it should: last spring, the anti-lacrosse protesters so cherished by the Group of 88 sported T-shirts reading: “Men’s Lacrosse? Not Fine by Me.” The Brodhead administration’s message: the revised behavior code represents an extension of the springtime protesters’ agenda.

In this respect, the provision might best be characterized the “Judge Stephen A. Titus Rule on Disruptive Picketing.” Titus, of course, is the Durham judge who recently issued a gag order after D.A. Mike Nifong had completed his publicity barrage—but as defense attorneys were still picking apart the district attorney’s myriad misleading and inaccurate public statements. The Group of 88 and their pot-banging allies have already had their say on campus. So it seems as if the Titus Rule represents a preemptive strike against returning students who, this fall, might be inclined to ask with excessive passion why the administration and much of the Duke faculty have stood silently by as local authorities have created a dual-procedure system in which they treat Duke students with a different, and less protective, set of procedures.

In the meantime, it’s worth pondering what it says about Brodhead and his administration that the president denounced Duke’s alleged “culture of crassness” while he spoke supportively alongside a professor who describes himself as “thugniggaintellectual” and says he embodies “this figure that comes into intellectual spaces like a thug, who literally is fearful and menacing.”