In Steve Channing's recently unveiled Durham: A Self-Portrait, we're reminded that Durham is here because the Dukes are here.
Early on, the film shows Reconstruction-era photos of the shacks and fields where in just a few decades the Duke family would build the booming center of a tobacco empire, which employed thousands of blue-collar workers in the tobacco heyday. Today Duke University is Durham's largest employer, and all our lights are lit by Duke Energy. All of us—town and gown, black and white, rich and poor—share the common historical root of Duke bright-leaf, and as Self-Portrait closes it looks toward the future, in which the rough twining of Duke and Durham will inevitably grow tighter and thicker.
All that remains of the Duke lacrosse case, on the other hand, are the words. The case itself is closed, trailed only by the customary lawsuits sequent to slander and scandal. Crystal Mangum, the accuser, has disappeared, as will, probably, the disgraced and disbarred District Attorney Mike Nifong. The indicted players are gone, too, along with their ousted coach, Mike Pressler. The media that swarmed campus has long since decamped for other hysterias. The social dissent spurred by the so-called "Group of 88" has been silenced. "It is all falling," to borrow from the novelist Don DeLillo, "indelibly into the past."
With three new books about the toxic welter of race, sex, class, violence, academia, sports, power and money that made Durham perhaps the most scrutinized place in America in the spring of 2006, the past has just become more indelible by exactly 1,001 hardbound pages. And if the words are all we have left, what are they telling us about the Duke lacrosse case?
But wait—even that last sentence betrays a hidden bias, a common but spurious claim, even a judgment: the Duke lacrosse case wasn't the Duke lacrosse case. "Duke Lacrosse" was never charged with—and did not commit—a crime. Three young men, who were members of the Duke lacrosse team, were framed by a rogue prosecutor. It was Mike Nifong who broke laws, Nifong who took a murky accusation and flew it as a kamikaze prosecution, Nifong who ultimately ran innocent people out of Durham, including his own client. It ought to be called the Mike Nifong case.
Yet it will forever be known as the "Duke lacrosse case," and the persistence of that title places subtle but intractable blame. Other than the underage drinking, the players broke no laws, but it seems that "Duke Lacrosse" committed an unpardonable cultural felony: breathing. More specifically, they exhaled an "Air of Entitlement," an apparently malodorous scent that would make a good name for a men's cologne. ("Entitlement: For the Man Who Deserves Everything.") Duke: snobbish, exclusive, and expensive. Its lacrosse players: boorish, loutish, hooligans, "not choirboys."
Even these three books, which fervently support the players, bear the words "Duke lacrosse case" on their covers as well as pictures of the three accused players. Two of them go so far as to dub it the Duke lacrosse rape case. But there was no rape, and "case" is itself a tenuous term: It never went to trial.
If the very title needs excavation, then what about the rest of the lingua franca of the case? Immediately after March 13, 2006, an impenetrable cargo of words and phrases arrived, almost mysteriously, as accompanying sociopolitical baggage. But what did the words really mean?
To start at the beginning:
Duke. An assumed name (the former Trinity College became Duke in 1924, in recognition of a large gift) for two very different campuses—and not just West and East. The first is corporate Duke: the one with the world-class, multibillion-dollar hospital; the prestigious athletic program (basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski is Duke's highest-paid employee); the esteemed training ground for future capitalists, lawyers and doctors. This Duke is perhaps best called by the name of its athletic booster organization, Iron Duke.
The other, newer Duke is the Duke of former President Nannerl O. Keohane and English Department Chair, Stanley Fish; the Duke where professors call themselves "post-structuralist teacher-critic leftist" and even "thugniggerintellectual"; the Duke that hosts the American Dance Festival and the North Carolina Gay Pride Parade; the diversity-driven Duke whose faculty radicalizes scholarship in books that argue, for example, that Chinese basketball player Yao Ming "represents the spectral presence of Chinese capital within America [and] is, precisely because of his ideological heritage, the most profound threat to the American empire." Call this Duke "Red Duke."
Iron Duke and Red Duke share a name but virtually nothing else. They are totally disconnected, ideologically opposed, and probably irreconcilable. Perhaps that is a function of design: their simultaneous presence gives the school every necessary—and necessarily contradictory—credential required to qualify as an elite university. Unfortunately, Mike Nifong may have permanently riven them. But for a short time, ironically, they were in surprising, total agreement on one crucial but misjudged point: The lacrosse team was a pox on Duke.
Exotic Dancer. Of Greek origin, "exotic" basically means "outside." In this phrase, the word is a decorous substitute for "erotic," but its sexual sense is connotative not denotative. ("Ecdysiast," H. L. Mencken's facetious but vivid coinage, is unlikely ever to gain currency.) The dancing is subsidiary to the nudity, and it wasn't particularly "exotic" on March 13, 2006: By all accounts Crystal Mangum was too intoxicated to dance much.
Yet the sense of exotic as "outside" can help illuminate what happened. Had the strippers been, say, Duke students, or for that matter white women of any means at all (and there are strippers who make a healthy living at it), the incident would surely not have metastasized as it did. Mangum's status as an outsider to the traditional grounds of power and comfort—to Duke (Iron and Red), to whiteness and its privileges, to financial leverage (and its privileges)—gave the gun its powder. In that sense, then, yes: exotic.
But one can only be outside (to borrow again from DeLillo) if there is an agreed-upon inside. The stone wall that encircles East Campus—and which the now vacant and pitifully haggard house at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. sits just outside of—emblematizes such an agreement. The wall physically bars no one, but it's a strong and purposefully invidious social divider, erected by the people inside to enclose a privileged space. By dwelling outside the wall, the lacrosse players had pushed their privilege past its natural boundary, into a community eager to contest it.
Rogue Prosecutor. This popular descriptor of Mike Nifong was used to condemn him, but it was really a face-saving disavowal of complicity. "Rogue," which has several meanings, is used here in a secondary definition that denotes a person who has deviated from the established order and is no longer controllable by or obedient to it. And perhaps because of its homophony with "roam" and "rove," rogue evokes drifters and vagrants (exotics?). Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now is a rogue commander. Grafitti artists are rogue painters.
Mike Nifong was not a rogue prosecutor. He could not have advanced his attack at all without assistance active and passive, and encouragement explicit and tacit. He enjoyed plenty of both. The large cast of abettors, according to the books, included: Mark Gottlieb, an apparently anti-Duke Durham policeman; Brian Meehan, a DNA tester who colluded in suppressing conclusive exculpatory evidence; Tara Levicy, the nurse-in-training who tendentiously fabricated "evidence" out of Mangum's rape-kit exam; Duke President Richard Brodhead, who quickly folded against Nifong's bluff; the flame-fanning media; Bill Bell, Mayor of Durham, who quietly donated money to Nifong's reelection campaign less than three weeks after the strip party; the Red Duke "Group of 88," whose open, signed letter in the Duke Chronicle encouraged protest over this "social disaster"; the Iron Duke administration, which apparently tried to protect only its own reputation, at the cost of its students'; and us.
Durham paid Mike Nifong to do this. We waited to stop him until it was almost too late. Lines from Marianne Moore keep coming to mind: "What is our innocence, what is our guilt? / All are naked, none is safe."
It's especially unfortunate that the recently re-elected Mayor Bell remained (and remains) mostly mute and inactive, perhaps partly because of his support of Nifong's campaign. Nor did we hear much from Gov. Mike Easley, who appointed Nifong, until well after the D.A. had been discredited.
And it's also too bad that Mike Krzyzewski stayed silent. Coach K's explanation, that he resisted public comment because his offer of help was rebuffed by the Brodhead administration, isn't convincing: Krzyzewski is portrayed in all three of the new books as probably the most powerful man at Duke. (In 2004, shortly after assuming the presidency, Brodhead himself joined a student rally to implore Krzyzewski to stay at Duke after the Los Angeles Lakers tried to woo him away to the professional ranks: a "kind of ritual obeisance, or fealty, that was required of him," remarked Duke professor Orin Starn.) He could have spoken his mind without fear of reprimand. His self-protective choice not to speak was active and purposeful.
When the holes in Nifong's prosecution began to widen—which happened, these books point out, as soon as he embarked on it—his leadership listed and sank. No one stepped into the breach, enabling him to drag the case through months of wasteful, ugly litigation and misprision.
RUSH TO JUDGMENT. This little phrase was heard over and over again, and the title of Nader Baydoun's book plays on it. Yet the rush was in many ways more to credulity than to simple verdict. That is, it was really not a rush at all: The snap collective judgment arose from a long, history-laden journey through the shadows of privilege and inequity, prejudice and jealousy, economics and oppression—and in Trinity Park, student drinking, noise and litter that set residents on edge. The resentment toward the money- and sports-driven world of Iron Duke, and toward its perceived, predatory droit de seigneur, was so strong that it created "a powerful emotional need to believe," as one columnist wrote. Belief needs circumstance in order to take hold, and it attached to Crystal Mangum with ferocious adhesion.
Not even Crystal Mangum's rush to judgment—her own false accusation—was really a rush. Several years earlier, she had accused some men of gang-raping her and then dropped the claim. She had been here before. This time, Nifong made sure she stayed. Until Proven Innocent calls Mangum "evil," "vicious," "malicious," but she likely gave little forethought to crying wolf. Drunk or drugged, anxious to avoid detainment, and encouraged to accuse, she probably acted on impulse—a ruinous impulse, as it turned out, a sort of unextinguished sociocultural match. And Nifong started the bonfire.
Wall of Silence. Until Proven Innocent points out that the lacrosse players were, at least at first, more than willing and even eager to come clean. They submitted to DNA tests and requested polygraphs as well, apologized to their parents, their coach, and the Duke brass for the party and the drinking, and asseverated their innocence to an unconvinced Brodhead. The sudden swarm of what Until Proven Innocent calls "the media-academic complex" sent the players running for cover and silence, at their lawyers' urging. That silence was filled by the thunder of thousands of voices, many of them calumnious, ignorant and self-serving. The Duke lacrosse case felt much more like a wall of words.
Speaking of words, then, what about these three new books? The first to hit the shelves was inauspicious. A Rush to Injustice, by Duke alumnus Nader Baydoun, is a work of dreadful incompetence, an embarrassment to his alma mater and his publisher. It is lazily researched, ineptly written, hastily edited, fecklessly and confusingly argued, stunningly naïve and childishly self-regarding. The less said the better.
That leaves It's Not About the Truth and Until Proven Innocent. These books make essentially the same case in different ways: innocent student-athletes wrongly accused and even more wrongly prosecuted by a malicious D.A. and his abettors; vilified by an agenda-driven media, Red Duke, and the Durham community; and hung out to dry by their uncaring school. A campus culture of political correctness run amok. A preening, pretentious university versus a resentful, rundown Southern city.
If all of that sounds exactly right to you, or exactly wrong, skip the books. Their attention to the evidence is sincere and, in the case of Until Proven Innocent, commendably diligent—but these are predictable polemics, and their authors are reactionaries and rhetoricians. They repeat themselves and each other.
The brusque, off-the-cuff prose of It's Not About The Truth is the mark of a sportswriter. Light on analysis and heavy on big plays, like any sports story it foregrounds turning points, momentum, victories and defeats, and especially heroes and goats. Don Yaeger's hero is, not surprisingly, his collaborator, the expelled (with a cash settlement) Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler. Despite his co-author credit, though, Pressler seems only to have granted Yaeger interviews and access to the journal he kept during the spring of 2006. It's Not About the Truth is less about Nifong's misconduct (Yaeger barely glances at some of the major elements of the case) than about Pressler's savior-like rectitude and benevolence, contrasted against the sangfroid and hauteur of the bungling Duke administration.
Yaeger also indulges in a character assassination of Crystal Mangum, using his interviews of a security guard (bouncer?) at the Platinum Strip Club, where she worked, to insult her intelligence and speculate graphically and lasciviously on her sex life. Yaeger may intend this as payback for the media's defamation of the lacrosse players, but it is close to libel, and his journalistic integrity wobbles as a result—as it does in his slanted misrepresentation of Durham, which overstates the seriousness of the crime rate and botches simple facts, like calling Trinity Park "the Duke Forest neighborhood." (And from this particular perspective, Yaeger doesn't help his cause by describing the Indy as "a local alternative newspaper with low circulation and unimpressive journalism." Gee, thanks, and same to you.)
New York-based historian KC Johnson started his "Durham-in-Wonderland" blog in April 2006 and contributed a daily, almost obsessive voice to the case. (He finally put the blog on hiatus earlier this month.) His collaborator, Stuart Taylor, is a national political columnist and a Harvard Law School graduate. Their book, Until Proven Innocent, offers a historian's fact-ferreting thoroughness and an attorney's relentless rhetorical bluster. If you're seeking a meticulous, convincing reconstruction of the fiasco, sequined with moral indignation and embroidered with pointed conclusions about widespread diseases in the legal system and politically correct campuses, Until Proven Innocent suffices. (Mike Pressler is barely mentioned, probably because he threw in his lot with a rival writer.)
Be aware, though, that at 420 sedulous pages, this is a long, exhausting read, the sort of courtroom slog that leaves jurors dazed and drained. Johnson and Taylor are not so much beating a dead horse as doing a full autopsy in order to prove that the horse wasn't actually killed; she was never alive in the first place because she never existed; Nifong and his accomplices conspired to frame innocent jockeys for the staged murder of a fake animal. There is never a mare in a mare's-nest.
Unfortunately, the horse's mouth is closed. We're unlikely ever to hear from Mangum or Nifong again, and what satisfactory apologia could they possibly give if they tried? The errors of the guilty speak for the guilty, indelibly, and in doing so conceal the people behind the deeds. Their seclusion may be the best thing for them, but it leaves the rest of us exposed in the shallows of incomprehension, where there is only one pat story left to deposit in the annals, and gather dust, and even the Nader Baydouns of the world get to have a say in it.
Yet if "it is all falling indelibly into the past," it is falling fast and hard. Only about a dozen people, all of them white, attended Until Proven Innocent co-author Stuart Taylor's languid appearance at Borders Books in Chapel Hill on Nov. 1. By contrast, thousands of people, black and white, packed the premiere of Durham: A Self-Portrait at the Carolina Theatre two weeks later. The attentive crowds were clearly excited and concerned about the city—which is, the film reminded us, quite young, barely 150 years old—and about studying its history in order to stabilize the present and look to the future. The books, on the other hand, want to ossify the past, but two words from them linger in the mind as watchwords for the Durham and Duke to come: succisa virescit. That is the Latin motto of the Delbarton School in New Jersey, a major prep feeder for college lacrosse programs, including Duke's. Succisa virescit means "Cut down, it grows back stronger."