Duke's Reichstag Fire

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More than six years ago, I wrote about contrived campus "incidents" in which college students falsely report racial (white on black) or sexual attacks as a modern form of the Reichstag Fire. Certainly, the patterns are the same. After the 1933, the German parliament gave the Hitler government carte blanche to do whatever it wanted to "prevent" future attacks:

In the wake of the Reichstag fire, the German parliament gave the Nazis full authority to do whatever they wanted. Rule of law became rule of thuggery, as the government stripped citizens of any rights they might once have enjoyed in that formerly civilized country, including freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and private property rights.

Of course, instead of government-sponsored anti-Jewish pogroms, college administrators demand new rounds of "diversity training" and "campus initiatives" to browbeat students and faculty members into "confessing" the "wrongness" of their thinking. Moreover, unlike the Reichstag Fire — which really did occur — the vast majority of these "incidents" turn out to be fictitious, although administrators rarely seem to acknowledge that fact.

Thus, we come to another version of the campus Reichstag Fire, that being the false accusations of rape against three Duke University lacrosse players. As has been documented in a number of previous articles, the charges are transparently false, and if any crimes have been committed, they were carried out by District Attorney Michael Nifong and the Durham police.

For the most part, however, I have left out things that have occurred at Duke University since the initial charges, save some pointed criticism directed toward certain faculty members. However, much more has happened at Duke since Nifong levied the original charges, and although the prosecution’s case continues to fall apart as attorneys and bloggers thoroughly shred it, the campus initiatives that were started in the wake of the charges have continued as though the charges were true.

For those who are unaware of the frenzied atmosphere at Duke in late March and April, it would be safe to say that things were out of control. A number of vocal faculty members and students declared that Duke President Richard Broadhead had not done enough to condemn the students allegedly involved in perpetrating and covering up the alleged gang rape. As I pointed out previously, English Professor Houston Baker wrote in a letter to the Duke administration:

There can be no confidence in an administration that believes suspending a lacrosse season and removing pictures of Duke lacrosse players from a web page is a dutifully moral response to abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken white male privilege loosed amongst us.

How many mandates concerning safe, responsible campus citizenship must be transgressed by white athletes’ violent racism before our university’s offices of administration, athletics, security, and publicity courageously declare: enough!

How many more people of color must fall victim to violent, white, male, athletic privilege before coaches who make Chevrolet and American Express commercials, athletic directors who engage in Miss Ophelia-styled “perfectly horrible” rhetoric, higher administrators who are salaried at least in part to keep us safe, and publicists who are supposed not to praise Caesar but to damn the unconscionable … how many? Before they demonstrate that they don’t just write books, pay lip service, or boast of safe citizenship … but actually do step up morally, intellectually, and bravely to assume responsibilities of leadership for such citizenship. How many?

How soon will confidence be restored to our university as a place where minds, souls, and bodies can feel safe from agents, perpetrators, and abettors of white privilege, irresponsibility, debauchery and violence?

Surely the answer to the question must come in the form of immediate dismissals of those principally responsible for the horrors of this spring moment at Duke. Coaches of the lacrosse team, the team itself and its players, and any other agents who silenced or lied about the real nature of events at 610 Buchanan on the evening of March 13, 2006. A day that, not even in a clichéd sense, will, indeed, always live in infamy for this university.

A responsible, and in many instances appalled — and yes, frightened — citizenry of Duke University is waiting … and certainly more than willing to join considered actions by bold leaders to restore confidence in a great institution and its mission. Today I polled my class whose enrollment is predominantly women and white. All said that nothing had happened in terms of this university’s response that had left them anything but afraid. The shame of this is unconscionable. Still, these women will surely sleep better this evening than the black woman injured at 610 Buchanan Boulevard by the white lacrosse team’s out-of-control violent partying will ever again rest in her life.

Baker, who was a leader of the protesters (and now is a proud member of the Vanderbilt University faculty — which openly bragged about hiring him, to its everlasting shame), was only warming up:

Duke University’s higher administration has engaged in precisely such a tepid and pious legalism with respect to the disaster of recent days: the actual harm to the body, soul, mind, and spirit of black women who were in the company of Duke University lacrosse team members as far as any of us know. All of Duke athletics has now been drawn into the seamy domains of Colorado football and other college and university blind-eying of male athletes, veritably given license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech, and feel proud of themselves in the bargain.

Many citizens have weighed in, and one hopes all departments, programs, and concerned members of our university community will speak out forcefully for swift and considered corrective action.

Keep in mind that "legalism" was Baker’s way of saying that there should be no presumption of innocence or anything like that. It was up to Broadhead to declare the athletes guilty, kick all of them out of school, and have the DA railroad them directly to prison. Baker declares:

There is no rush to judgment here about the crime — neither the violent racial epithets reported in a 911 call to Durham police, nor the harms to body and soul allegedly perpetrated by white males at 610 Buchanan Boulevard. But there is a clear urgency about the erosion of any felt sense of confidence or safety for the rest of us who live and work at Duke University. The lacrosse team — 15 of whom have faced misdemeanor charges for drunken misbehavior in the past three years — may well feel they can claim innocence and sport their disgraced jerseys on campus, safe under the cover of silent whiteness. But where is the black woman who their violence and raucous witness injured for life? Will she ever sleep well again? And when will the others assaulted by racist epithets while passing 610 Buchanan ever forget that dark moment brought on them by a group of drunken Duke boys? Young, white, violent, drunken men among us — implicitly boasted by our athletic directors and administrators — have injured lives. There is scarcely any shame more egregious than one that wraps itself in the pious sentimentalism of liberal rhetoric as though such a wrap really constituted moral and ethical action.

In other words, "no rush to judgment" meant that they were guilty, period. Baker and the other Duke faculty members had declared guilt; therefore, the athletes were rapists, all of them. That over time we have learned that literally everything Baker claimed in his letter was untrue, or, at best exaggerated, has not made a whit of difference to the people at Duke, from the president to the faculty to student groups, which still operate under the assumption that Nifong’s charges are true.

Of course, while Baker was one of the most vocal (and dishonest, so Vanderbilt can take pride in having someone like him as a featured faculty member) of the Duke faculty members, he was not the only one who was dishonest. Peter Wood, a professor of history was another outspoken faculty member who did not have to worry about being truthful, given that his very protests made him a celebrity with other faculty members. Wood, who it turns out, had Reade Seligmann as a student, but could not bring himself to tell the truth about the young man (who, apparently, received an "A" in the course). Writes Professor K.C. Johnson, who has blogged regularly on this case:

Wood’s next unfortunate moment came with the release of the Coleman Committee report. In spring 2004, Wood wrote a letter to the dean complaining about "the decline in classroom behavior of lacrosse players in particular and athletes in general." But in 2006, he decided to offer a far more negative tale of lacrosse players’ behavior in his 2004 class. The problem? Coleman Committee members found no evidence to corroborate this revised version of events. Wood’s teaching assistant conceded that she couldn’t back up his tale; nine other professors who taught extensive numbers of lacrosse students presented a wholly different version of their in-class behavior than did Wood.

Then, in a June interview with the local alternative weekly, Wood revealed that he taught two of the indicted players — one of whom was Reade Seligmann. He described the lacrosse players’ personal character: "Cynical, arrogant, callous, dismissive — you could almost say openly hostile." The problem? Nothing exists to substantiate this characterization of Seligmann’s character, while overwhelming evidence exists that Wood’s portrayal was slanderous. Four times over the past three months, most recently two days ago, I emailed Wood requesting even one piece of evidence to substantiate his attack on Seligmann’s character. He has never replied.

Now, one would think that professors who slandered their own students and perhaps even outright lied would be disciplined for their actions. At Duke, unfortunately, they are rewarded. Broadhead, it seems, selected Wood to head up the “athletics initiative,” which is a euphemism for false attacking the character of student-athletes like Seligmann.

A recent article in the New Yorker further chronicles the "Reichstag Fire" mentality at Duke:

Peter Wood and Orin Starn (another Duke professor) were among those who believed that the lacrosse scandal represented a rare opportunity for Duke. Starn hoped that Duke would eventually pull out of Division I competition. In a conversation in late May, he told me that the first important indication of Duke’s direction would be a decision on whether or not to reinstate the lacrosse program. "I think it would be a huge mistake to go back to business as usual," he said. "Now, what happened, or didn’t happen, I’m not sure we’ll ever know.

Furthermore, the university’s "investigation" of the lacrosse team found something quite different from the image of drunken, racist animals that the press and faculty members were trying to promote:

The committee examining the lacrosse culture found no evidence that team members were racist or sexist. The players were regarded by their professors, ten of whom were surveyed, to be "academically responsible students." (The lone dissenter was Peter Wood.) The committee’s principal findings might have been crafted by the lacrosse booster club. "By all accounts, the lacrosse players are a cohesive, hard working, disciplined, and respectful athletic team," the report said. "Their behavior on trips is described as exemplary. Players clean the team bus before disembarking. Airline personnel have complimented them for their behavior. They observe curfews. They obey the team’s no alcohol rule before games. They are respectful of people who serve the team, including bus drivers, airline personnel, trainers, the equipment manager, the team manager, and the groundskeeper. Finally, the lacrosse program has a 100% graduation rate." As for the team’s inclination toward alcohol abuse, the report noted that, in this, the lacrosse players differed little from other Duke students.

Keep in mind that the people writing the report were not booster club members; indeed, they wanted to find official justification for the attacks on the players, but could not find anything incriminating. Even a true Reichstag fire needs a flame, but there was none there, at least where the lacrosse players were concerned.

Of course, the "Duke students had better behave" theme still reverberates. Broadhead himself emphasized that thesis in an address to incoming students last month at the start of the academic year. The Durham Herald-Sun, which I recently criticized, has followed with its own work of editorial nonsense:

Last year was a rough one for Duke University. Its athletes, in particular, were under intense scrutiny in the wake of allegations that three lacrosse players raped and beat an exotic dancer during a wild party in March.

After the rape charges, Duke athletes were under tremendous pressure to be on their very best behavior. They knew that any misdeed, big or small, would be blown out of proportion by a ravenous local and national media on campus to feed on the juicy tidbits of the lacrosse scandal.

And what was true then is true now. No, the huge television satellite trucks haven’t again rolled on to campus. But Duke athletes know, fair or not, that they will be the most closely watched student/athletes in the nation this school year.

So, it was smart Monday for the university’s athletic department to call Duke’s athletes together to give them a timely pep talk. The session, led by basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, also gave Duke officials an opportunity to remind athletes of their responsibilities to the university, the Durham community and most importantly, themselves.

“What this situation this spring did was that people wanted to put a cloud over all of athletics and specifically lacrosse, and I don’t think that’s fair, quite frankly, because we have so many great kids,” Krzyzewski said.

Duke officials acknowledged that in the spring that morale among athletes was pretty low. But Athletic Director Joe Alleva says he believes it is back to normal and trending to high.

“I thought we had already turned the corner, but this really does help,” he said. “It’s a fresh start. We’re turning the page, and we’re moving forward.”

It’s understandable that Duke officials want to put the whole lacrosse scandal behind them, and the quicker the better. It would be unfair to the hundreds of responsible athletes to have their seasons lessened by dwelling too much on the lacrosse case.

But it is also important for Duke athletes and school officials to be mindful of the rape charge, which is scheduled to go to trial in the spring. The last thing Duke needs is a repeat of that regrettable night, and all of the negative attention that came along with it.

Unfortunately, something is missing here: the search for truth. The Herald-Sun, especially since last summer, has been virtually a cheerleader for Nifong, even as bloggers and attorneys and journalists like Stuart Taylor demonstrate just how dishonest the man’s case really is. Likewise, it seems that Broadhead and certainly a large number of Duke faculty members do not care for the truth, either.

Instead, they seized upon the moment in an attempt to re-make Duke into the politically-correct mold of which they could only dream. In the early days, when the truth still was held down and Nifong’s words to the press were treated like the Oracles from the Gods, there were able to have some real success.

However, now that we realize that the entire case is a lie, we still have the same people at Duke trying to use this as a wedge for their own PC power-mongering purposes. That Broadhead still has not publicly defended the wrongly-accused athletes, nor has he said anything in public that even hints at criticizing Nifong tells me that this man is not fit for any job that requires use of a backbone.

Indeed, this account from the New Yorker clearly tells us that Broadhead lives in a fantasy world, one in which people like Houston Baker and Peter Wood are seen as Seekers of Truth, and the Michael Nifongs of the worlds are heroes:

Brodhead reflected on all that had happened as we chatted in his office in July, and said that it brought to mind Shakespeare’s "Othello" — not for its obvious associations with interracial passions and violence but for its lesson on prejudgment. The scene at the beginning of the play, he said, was particularly instructive. Desdemona’s father hears about his daughter’s relationship with the Moor, and he sighs, "Belief of it oppresses me already."

"He doesn’t say, u2018Oh, now I see what you’re getting at,’ " Brodhead said. "He’s saying, u2018Now I realize that I always believed it’ — u2018Belief of it oppresses me already.’ It’s probably, to my mind, the greatest literary image of the action of prejudice — how a story is told to engage something in the mind that brings with it absolute certainty that derives from the nature of the stereotypes."

He had located a clarifying point of reference in the lacrosse ordeal, and he became animated. It had been a headlong narrative, driven partly by a willingness to affirm favored certitudes about justice.

" u2018Belief of it oppresses me already,’ you know?" he continued. "And the thing is, we actually can’t blame people for being subject to this, because it is so deeply human. And if, from day to day, we’ve seen people in the throes of this, we recognize that as a dimension of our humanity. At the same time, it really is our obligation to resist it, because, you know — truth and justice, they are cant phrases unless we try to take the trouble to make them have a reality to them. And what do truth and justice mean? Truth and justice mean something opposite from our preconceptions."

If Broadhead and his fellow faculty members at Duke wish to use the theater for an analogy, I have one they can use: The Theater of the Absurd. Only in that place can we have a Reichstag Fire without any flames and without any burning buildings. The buildings burn only in the mind, but apparently that is all that Broadhead and the PC-lings need in their pursuit of a reformulated version of "truth and justice."

September 14, 2006

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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