KC in Wonderland: An Overview

No one exploited the Duke lacrosse scandal better than an obscure history professor, Robert “KC” Johnson.

Johnson was initially denied tenure at Brooklyn College, and blamed this in part on the forces of political correctness and the supposed left-wing domination of American universities. The Duke lacrosse case gave him his chance for revenge. Johnson denounced Duke faculty for what he charged was their failure to defend three white lacrosse players against rape allegations made by a black woman hired to strip at a drunken team party. His telling made the case into a parable of political correctness gone crazy.

There was only one problem with this picture: it was all wrong.

Few who know anything about Duke would ever think of it as a bastion of liberalism in the first place. The single most powerful man on campus, basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, calls George W. Bush his hero, as a recent profile by Jon Pessah in ESPN The Magazine describes. The heavyweight Fuqua School of Business and Duke Law School tilt to the corporate right of center; the biggest university growth area has been the hard sciences. The social sciences and humanities are full of ideological and disciplinary tensions, hardly the monstrous political correctness machine that Johnson would have us believe.

And Durham itself is an admirable, diverse, and hard-working place that has much to teach the rest of the country about tolerance and reconciliation. It’s very far from the ugly stereotypes and condescenscion that Johnson conveys in the very title of his blog, “Durham in Wonderland.”

None of this has stopped Johnson from making blogging about the lacrosse case into a virtual full-time job. Many of his literally hundreds of posts are snide, misleading, and, to say the least, ungenerous attacks against various faculty members. Fine scholars and mentors — winners of Duke teaching awards and top book prizes with years of dedicated university service — figure as little more than leftist goons and apparachniks in Johnson’s posts. His blogging has made him a right-wing darling, a fellow traveler with Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, and his writing about the the lacrosse case can be found in the on-line magazine run by neoconservative extremist David Horowitz.

Johnson has taken his crusade all the way to bank. His book Until Proven Innocent with Stuart Taylor, a reporter with the National Journal, reportedly received a large advance. Johnson and Taylor sold the movie rights to HBO.

When it serves his purposes, Johnson does not hesitate — and there’s no more charitable word for it — to lie. A recent post decries the “all-but-unprecedented nature in the history of American higher education of 88 faculty members taking out a full page advertisement denouncing their own students.” Johnson has repeatedly misrepresented the ad in question as “denouncing” and “condemning” students, a lynch-pin of his claim that Duke faculty rushed to judgment against the accused lacrosse players. But here’s the ad. It raises issues about the campus gender and racial climate following the lacrosse incident. Nowhere does it “denounce” or “condemn” anyone no matter for Johnson’s continual false assertions to the contrary.

The creepy pseudo-objectivity of Johnson’s blogging and book mask many other distortions and outright falsehoods, documented below in much more detail. It’s also worth noting the dimensions of selective outrage to Johnson’s obsession with the Duke case. As much as one should sympathize with the falsely accused players, no one went to jail, and the three men have each now received handsome multimillion dollar settlements. It’s simply absurd to imagine that this ranks with the worst episodes of official misconduct in “modern American history,” as a recent player lawsuit has it. The Duke case injustices pale by comparison to those in a number of other recent North Carolina sagas where wrongfully convicted men — most of them poor and often African-American — have spent years on death row for murders they did not commit (and received minimal state compensation even after being exonerated). None of this has stopped Johnson from depicting the Duke episode as if it ranked right up there with global poverty, the AIDS crisis, and war in the Middle East as among the great moral issues of our times.

Along with fabricated evidence, a hallmark of Johnson’s blogging is selective sourcing, systematic distortion to show the subjects of his attack in the worst possible light. Unlike Johnson, we do not have time or interest in making a career of the Duke lacrosse case. And, in fact, the case is already fading, no matter for the pending lawsuits. But we do want to make available some documents and articles that may help to set the record straight. These materials follow:

1)Called Out by His Own Hero: Throughout his blogging and in his co-authored Until Proven Innocent, Johnson depicted Duke law professor James Coleman as the main hero of the Duke lacrosse case for his defense of the accused players. Yet Coleman himself has sharply criticized Johnson and co-author Taylor in an October 7 letter to the Duke Chronicle. Together with professor Prasad Khasibatla, Coleman takes the two men to task for their “biased and unjustified misrepresentation of the facts.” Here is the full text of that letter:

We are impressed with President Richard Brodhead’s continued attempts to reach out to all members of the Duke community to promote healing and reconciliation in the wake of last year’s lacrosse incident, as evidence by his recent remarks at the Duke School of Law. We are disheartened, however, by the continued drumbeat of destructive criticism of the administration and faculty by some within and outside the Duke Community. More importantly, as chairs of two of the five committees that examined various issues brought to light by the lacrosse incident last spring, we take issue with the biased and inaccurate rhetoric espoused by some of these critics.

Firstly, we reject the characterization put forward by critics like Stuart Taylor and KC Johnson that the Lacrosse Committee report, that examined the past behavior of the lacrosse team, is a “stunning vindication” of the team (Washington Post, September 7, 2007). On the contrary, the report very carefully details a pattern of behavior that the committee characterized as “socially irresponsible” that should “have been a cause for alarm.” Dismissing this finding as trivial is a biased and unjustified misrepresentation of the facts.

Secondly, there is a recurring theme advanced by critics like Taylor and Johnson that the faculty at Duke and at other universities are increasingly a bunch of ideologues who care less about the their students and more about promoting their own extremist agendas. Nothing could be further from the truth. Faculty at Duke, as at other universities and colleges, care deeply about students and are passionately committed to their personal and intellectual growth. Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of the daily life of a faculty member will quickly appreciate the time, effort and energy that faculty put into teaching, advising and mentoring students. To suggest otherwise, on the basis of isolated and selective incidents that occur over the course of complex events and are taken out of context, is nothing more than a tragic rush to judgment.

–James Coleman, Professor of the Practice of Law, Duke School of Law and Prasad Khasibatla, Associate Professor, Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences

2)Racist Hate Mail: Blogging and Bigotry: Many Duke faculty have received harassing, sometimes threatening anonymous e-mails and phone calls in connection with the Duke lacrosse case. But the hatemongers have reserved a special place for Duke’s African-American faculty; they’ve been flooded with an astonishing amount of revolting racist hate mail and even death threats. Distinguished Duke faculty mainstays like Wahneema Lubiano, Karla Holloway, Mark Anthony Neal, Paula McClain, and Kerry Haynie have been among the targets of these attacks. In fairness, Johnson himself never uses such vile racist language, but he has never spoken out against it, and at least some of these anonymous e-mailers are clearly enthusiastic readers of his blog (one, for example, even uses Until Proven Innocent as the subject line in his messages). Whatever his own intentions, Johnson’s obsessive, contemptuous posts about black Duke faculty have tapped into very ugly currents of bigotry and hatred. We offer here a compendium of some of these hate e-mails and death threats with the full addresses concealed for legal reasons. Warning: these messages use gross, disgusting language.

3)KC Johnson, Neoconservative Culture Warrior: We now have a number of longer essays and blog posts that give context for understanding Johnson and his views. An essay called “KC’s World” by Charles Piot provides a good starting point. Duke music professor Robert Zimmerman has also blogged thoughtfully about Johnson, despite the usual nasty comments and blog hooliganism on his site by Johnson’s small band of supporters. Cathy Davidson writes about the willful falsehoods propagated by Johnson about the ad on campus gender and racial tensions signed by Duke faculty members after the lacrosse incident. University of Texas law professor Brian Leiter faults Johnson for this and still other gross inaccuracies. Orin Starn also offers thoughts about bile and blogging around the lacrosse case. An essay by Karla Holloway explores the complex questions of gender and race at stake.

Some of Johnson’s pettiest, most vituperative blogging has been directed against Wahneema Lubiano, a professor of Literature and African and African American Studies. The comments page to his posts about this well-respected teacher and brilliant scholar has also seen new lows in sometimes racist derision, name-calling, and personal attack. Here Lubiano documents the numerous distortions and outright lies about her in Johnson and Taylor’s Until Proven Innocent. Political science professor Kerry Haynie provides an e-mail exchange showing yet another of the book’s many fabrications, this one the made-up accusation that Haynie threatened another professor with physical harm.

And Raleigh News and Observer columnist Barry Saunders wonders about the thirty million dollar lawsuit brought by the three formerly accused players against the city of Durham. The smart, funny Saunders has a more recent column about “lacrosse fatigue” and another questionable lawsuit, this one lodged by lacrosse players who were never even charged. An entertaining related piece by first-year medical student Alex Fanaroff appears in Duke’s Towerview magazine. Fanaroff writes that “The Duke Lacrosse case has become nothing more than a touchstone for conservatives…So the commentators keep banging the drum, hoping to squeeze a little more political juice out of it.” The accompanying cartoon by Taylor Jardno depicts KC Johnson whipping a dead horse labeled “Duke Lacrosse case.”