Blogs > HNN > The Duke Lacrosse Debate: People With Nothing to Say, Saying Nothing

Apr 17, 2006 12:17 am

The Duke Lacrosse Debate: People With Nothing to Say, Saying Nothing

It would be an interesting task to figure out what current event deserves the title of"the silliest controversy of the season." I guess top prize would have to go the Walt-Mearsheimer debate--which consists on the one hand of people who think the Arab states are our allies because they shut Israel out of the 1991 Gulf War, and on the other of people whose defense of Israel consists of the accusation that two top-tier professors of international relations are actually covert lobbyists for the Czar of Russia.

Close behind this would have to be the debate over the Duke lacrosse scandal, which consists on the one hand of people who desperately want to violate the presumption of innocence in order to have something profound to say about race and class—and on the other hand, of whatever it is that David Brooks thinks he's saying.

Brooks's contribution to the Duke lacrosse debate consists of the following thesis, expressed in an April 9 column in The New York Times called "Virtues and Victims":

The key word in the coverage [of the Duke scandal] has been ''entitlement.'' In a thousand different ways commentators have asserted (based on no knowledge of the people involved) that the lacrosse players behaved rancidly because they felt privileged and entitled to act as they pleased.

The main theme shaping the coverage is that inequality leads to exploitation. The whites felt free to exploit the blacks. The men felt free to exploit women. The jocks felt free to exploit everybody else. As a Duke professor, Houston Baker, wrote, their environment gave the lacrosse players ''license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech and feel proud of themselves in the bargain.''

It could be that this environmental, sociological explanation of events is entirely accurate. But it says something about our current intellectual climate that almost every reporter and commentator used these mental categories so unconsciously and automatically. Several decades ago, American commentators would have used an entirely different vocabulary to grapple with what happened at Duke. Instead of the vocabulary of sociology, they would have used the language of morality and character.
What exactly does this milquetoast-encrusted passage say? The passage begins by offering a semi-disparaging description of the coverage of the scandal. It then concedes that the coverage might well be accurate. Having made this concession, Brooks then offers the by-now irrelevant observation that in the good old days, a different explanation would have been offered.

Why anyone should care about going retro in the way he describes is not explained. Why anyone should seek an explanation for an event after having gotten an accurate one gets no explanation either. And what is the thesis? That the scandal is now being described in sociological terms when in days past it would have been described in moral terms. This latter claim would seem to depend essentially on a sharp distinction between the vocabulary of sociology and that of morality. And what is that distinction supposed to be? Drumroll....

Brooks offers no clue—and seems not to have one, either. In what respect is an appeal to"privilege,""exploitation," or"inequality" not simultaneously an appeal to the vocabulary of" character and morality"? Brooks doesn't explain. So in what respect, ultimately, does he have a point? None, really. Thus speaks the talk of the town.

It hurts rather than helps things that Brooks's own thesis is a sociological one, and that it's susceptible of obvious counter-examples, (e.g., the Brown vs. Board decision, which was written precisely decades ago, was on a related topic, and used sociological data to make a moral argument). All things considered, we're talking about a thesis with a cogency rating of 0.

Alas, Brooks's liberal critics do no better. Here's Stephen Metcalfe on Slate, taking Brooks up on his anti-sociological challenge and offering an appeal to the vocabulary of" character and morality":
The greatest secular moral thinker was Immanuel Kant, who argued that in obeying the moral law, and thereby treating all human beings as ends in themselves, we exit the world of physical causation. Moral action is an expression of our free will—it's nothing like a billiard ball bouncing off of another billiard ball, and, for that matter, has nothing to do with a person assaulting another person because he is white and rich, and she is poor and black. I often wish I could be a good Kantian, motivated only by the moral law, the same way I sometimes wish I could be a believing Christian, motivated only by agape.
Well if being a Kantian is a matter of free will, what's stopping him? Anyway, Kant wasn't a"secular" moral thinker: he thought morality required the"postulation" of God and immortality. As for his"greatness" as a moral thinker, I don't think I can improve on Kant's formulation of the ultimate rational justification of what he called"the moral imperative":
And so we do not indeed comprehend the unconditional practical necessity of the moral imperative; yet we do comprehend its incomprehensibility, which is all that can fairly be demanded of a philosophy which in its principles strives to reach the boundary of human reason. (Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 463).
That'll show those lacrosse players.

Behind this swatch of debate stands not Kant, but Tom Wolfe, whose recent novel I Am Charlotte Simmons is evidently what inspired Brooks to put his wisdom on offer in the first place (and is eliciting the sort of praise from conservatives once reserved for Allan Bloom). Wolfe's thesis (and in turn Brooks's thesis and Metcalfe's rebuttal) is essentially one about moral philosophy, so it's not a coincidence that this is what Wolfe regards as a description of the state of"American philosophy" today (from his numbingly preposterous book, Hooking Up):
But above all, there was the curious case of American philosophy—which no longer existed. It was as if Emerson, Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey had never lived. The reigning doctrine was deconstruction, whose hierophants were two Frenchmen, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. They began with a hyperdilation of a pronouncement of Nietzsche's to the effect that there can be no absolute truth, merely many 'truths', which are the tools of various groups, classes, or forces. From this, the deconstructionists proceeded to the doctrine that language is the most insidious tool of all. The philosopher's duty was to deconstruct the language, expose its hidden agendas, and help save the victims of the American 'Establishment': women, the poor, nonwhites, homosexuals and hardwood trees.
Suffice it to say that not a single sentence of this passage even begins to approximate the truth—"absolute" or otherwise.

American philosophy certainly exists, and pragmatism of the James-Dewey variety is a central player alongside the partisans of Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hume and Mill. Contrary to Wolfe, I doubt that there's a single department of philosophy in the United States where deconstruction is the reigning doctrine or Foucault, much less Derrida, is the patron saint. As for the idea that truths are the tools of various groups, that claim is as about as unique to Nietzsche as it is to the Federalist Papers, but truth to be told (so to speak), that isn't the reigning doctrine in American philosophy departments, either.

What are we to conclude from all this? It would be nice to conclude that it's all inconsequential and worth ignoring. But it wouldn't be accurate. The better inference, I think, is that the people who occupy the most prominent roles as social commentators in America are among the most deeply confused human beings to walk the planet. They have almost nothing of interest or cogency to offer even about the most banal event (or non-event, as it may be): a racially-motivated crime committed (or not) by a bunch of overgrown college students. They can barely think in a straight line, and most of what they say is neither true nor original, much less any combination of the two.

And yet they achieve great prominence: people listen to them and they get paid to talk. Why is that? Any answer, sociological or moral, would go some of the way toward dispelling the mystery.

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