Sunday, April 02, 2006

Truth & Fiction

An Associated Press article, written by one Allen G. Breed, caught my eye. Read the first lines, which opine that the case "seems to fit the stereotypes so perfectly" (my emphasis). Two black women were paid to strip at a party for Duke's lacrosse team (mostly white), though one, the alleged rape victim, asserts that they thought they'd be dancing for a small group of people and did not expect forty men. The police have stated that medical evidence supports the woman's claim, not to mention broken fingernails, cash, and other belongings being found at the Duke University-owned house where the party and alleged rape took place. At least one eyewitness (the lacrosse team's next door neighbor) attests to at least a certain amount of conflict between the woman and the partiers, though his witness is only of verbal assaults. At any rate, this rape accusation seems quite credible even if a thorough investigation were hypothetically to disprove it. Despite this credibility, this AP article rhetorically dances about in trying to paint an objective picture of "conflict" in race and class in Durham, North Carolina.

The only "evidence" that Mr. Breed puts forth in this "dilemma" is assertions by the lacrosse team and members of the local population who support the team (mostly white, it appears). "It's so easy to see the incident ... in terms of powerlessness and privilege, town and gown, black and white. Many on campus and in the streets of this gritty working-class vertex of the famed Research Triangle are framing it just that way. But not everybody is comfortable with that." Obviously, I don't know what happened this night a few weeks ago, and if the accused are innocent I hope they're absolved. But what bothers me about this specific article (and not, say, three more balanced ones put out by the NYTimes--here, here, and here) is how heavily it stacks the deck against the black woman and the black community, as though they were on trial for being too resentful from their oppressed past, against their more privileged white neighbors--resentful enough, in the case of the accuser, to fabricate accusations. A black woman "sobs with impotent rage" when she reports racial slurs in her neighborhood; some people still refer to the University as "the plantation"--as though they're just unable to "let go" and are consequently oversensitive when white people might go just a tad too far.

Meanwhile, as I said, this article offers zero evidence that would bolster the case of Duke's lacrosse team. Only self-defense and cant from the team itself and those who sympathize with them. Nothing mentioned in their corner that would act as counterweight to the accuser's physical evidence of sexual assault and the evidence of at least some level of conflict at the party that night. The article tries to manufacture a tortured social and moral dilemma out of something that does not appear to be such. Certainly, we should not rush to judgment of the lacrosse players; but this is a journalistic case that goes well beyond the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty.' Allen G. Breed's bedrock assumption here is that it just seems too easy for this accusation to be credible. White privilege enacting sexual violence upon a member of a poor black population? It's just a little played-out, right? Of course--Roots did it better anyway! As though a woman's claim of rape victimhood were not subject to forensic investigation and juridical deliberation so much as narrative-aesthetic evaluation. "There's more than meets the eye," one white Durham local asserts in the article, though this elusive "more" stinks of a canard to me, based on what I've read. If there's more evidence that suggests this allegation really is a very complex one and that the lacrosse players may all be quite innocent, why don't articles actually mention this evidence? We have otherwise only assertions, and for now it seems that the word of privileged white college athletes is still worth at least as much as the word of a black woman and preliminary forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony. Or is it "too easy" to point that out?

Critiquing a fiction for presenting "too easy" a statement is one thing; dismissing or casting dubious aspersions on a real-life allegation because it, too, simply seems "too easy" is a sign of an ethical lapse on a societal scale. Why is it so difficult to believe that in 2006, privileged white male groupthink can still deal a vicious blow to a poor black woman? We can critique fiction, and art, for being "too easy" because we presumably can still maintain some moral clarity in real life. A film or novel that simply narrates an elementary historical injustice and asks us to feel upset about it should be insulting precisely because we already know this, and are already upset by it. And yet: apparently not all of us are so upset. Can I really allow myself the indignance I feel when so many of my fellow whites assume that racism is a thing of the past?

One reads the occasional article about the "CSI effect," whereby prosecutors are finding it more difficult to get convictions because TV-watching jurors want to be swayed by high-tech forensics. The mindset betrayed by this AP article seems to me to be related. We are subordinating material, historical reality to the aesthetic demands of our pop culture. Two relevant references from two of the twentieth century's great figures of literary theory come to mind here. Walter Benjamin, in his most famous essay, wrote that "[Mankind's] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic." Meanwhile, Roland Barthes wrote (in what might be my favorite essay of his that I've read, "Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature") of accused murderer Gaston Dominici, who was defeated by a Justice that "took the mask of Realist literature"--according to Barthes, prosecutors spoke to give the provincial Dominici a "credible psychology" which "explained" his alleged actions, thus convicting him in what Barthes might have characterized as a dual act of jurisprudence and literary criticism.

If the alleged victim is, for some reason, lying or withholding information, then I hope she's revealed. If the lacrosse players are all basically telling the truth, I hope they make it out of this unscathed. But from where things stand, and from my perspective, some of the media are not giving this black woman a fair shake. Her victimhood or their innocence are the paramount issues; but what interests me further though is the media rhetoric that surrounds this situation and which may or may not correspond to actuality. I hope that further coverage doesn't come off like this AP article. Consider this my gesture of support (however feeble) for both of the black women's rights and their voices.

Finally: a few links - Justice 4 Two Sisters (blog) and Alas, a blog (round-up of links).

1 comment:

Maya said...

Thanks for bringing my attention to this. It always makes my blood boil how the victims of rape are further victimized by the spotlight placed on them. It's a no-win situation. It takes a truly strong woman to work through the double assault to any modicum of justice.