Blogs > HNN > A Few Obvious Questions about the Duke Lacrosse Case (that no one seems willing to ask)

Apr 24, 2006 1:56 pm

A Few Obvious Questions about the Duke Lacrosse Case (that no one seems willing to ask)

The first and most obvious question is: why is this case worthy of national attention? What differentiates it from the thousands upon thousands of similar cases being dealt with by police departments and DA's offices around the country?

If the answer is that this case involves race and class, my response is: why does that matter? Race and class are essentially irrelevant to ascertaining the facts of a case or offering a judgment on guilt or punitive desert. Why then should race and class assume such colossal proportions by otherwise intelligent people discussing a criminal accusation? For that matter, how does even race and class differentiate the Duke case from the thousands of cases out there?

We are told that there is something unjust about the way the accused lacrosse players are being treated. There is a judicial presumption of innocence, goes the argument, and yet they (or the students recently arrested) are being treated as though they were guilty. True enough. How does that differ from thousands and thousands of cases splashed over daily newspapers every day in every town, city and county in the country? Every day people are arrested and treated in the press as though they were guilty when no one knows their guilt or innocence. When was the last time we had a national debate about the in-principle propriety of this practice?

Likewise the university practice of suspending students for being arrested is old as the hills. It didn't come into existence with this case. For years, I've read nothing but self-serving crap from academics and administrators about the self-regulating features of the modern academy. Well, what happened? Have they just recently discovered that this sort of thing happens all the time, at all levels of American universities? Why the fuss now about this?

We are told with great sanctimoniousness that there is something deeply repulsive about white, wealthy, privileged sportsmen hiring strippers for their amusement. Pardon me, but isn't a little consistency in order? If it's repulsive to hire a stripper, isn't it repulsive to be one? And please don't dredge up sob stories about how tough it is to be a poor student scrounging for money, as though stripping was the only way out. It isn't, and anyone who thinks it is, is simply on the wrong planet.

Moving back to the consumers: If it's repulsive for rich kids to hire strippers, isn't it repulsive for less-than-rich kids to do so? If it's repulsive for white kids, isn't it repulsive for"kids of color"? Is the contention here that only rich white boys hire strippers? How then do strippers stay in business in North Carolina? Do they make all (or even the bulk) of their earnings from rich white lacrosse players? Since the answers to these questions are patently obvious, the real question to ask here is: why aren't we have a nationwide debate about the moral impropriety of stripping as such? Imagine what such a debate would look like--if your imaginative powers are powerful enough to get you that far.

However absurd that debate would look, it wouldn't look half as absurd as the spectacle of people combing assiduously through shards of forensic evidence like do-it-yourself Perry Masons, trying to make profound claims about race, class, gender and the American university system.

The key to understanding the Duke lacrosse case is this: It has no great significance whatever. It is a banal pseudo-event in Boorstin's sense. But precisely that explains the need to discuss it. American cultural and political discourse is set up in such a way as deliberately to avoid any discussion of fundamental issues. It is also set up so that stereotypes and images replace rational principles as items of debate. The Duke lacrosse controversy simply abets that state of affairs. The more we let this case consume our attention, the more we allow the trivial to trump the fundamental. The question to ask is: is that what we want?

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Thanks. It's an interesting column, but not a particularly satisfying explanation. She says that the case serves a "function" and meets a "need," but doesn't really explain what function or what need beyond saying that we feel the need to discuss the nature of human evil. Well maybe we do, but then why pick a case where the evidence is so muddled?

There's no shortage of evil in the world to discuss. I don't see anyone discussing the evil of say, the Iraqi insurgency, with very much cogency. (This is a topic that might cogently be discussed whether one agrees with the war or not.) So the "need" seems lazier and less flattering than Applebaum's column would have it.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Interesting comment. I don't want to imply that it's trivial for the people directly involved; clearly it isn't. My point was that this case is no less trivial (or more so) than the thousands of cases no one ever hears about. There is no good reason--soap opera melodrama aside--why the nation should be sucked into the details of this case.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/26/2006

You might find this Washington Post op-ed by Anne Applebaum an interesting "reply" to your post.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/24/2006

You know, I was disagreeing with you vehmently all the way up to the conclusion. And then you were absolutely right. It is, of course, not trivial for those truly caught up in it, but in the greater scheme of things, it is.

Trivia obscures reality all around us. To some extent that's the human condition. Toward the end of Wilder's "Our Town" a dead girl returns to an ordinary day and is heartborken at how unaware people are about the miracles around them.

But your point underscores the way a media both trivializes these stories and feeds us these stories, not for us to solve the problem but for us to wallow in the pain and sexual violence. The class issues add a certain something to the soap opera whose melodramatic tropes obscure the that real pain there.

And the damnable truth is, that is what many people want.