Untangling the Kaufman-Johnson Controversy

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 09/02/07

All right, here’s my take on the Kaufman-Johnson kerfuffle hinted at in Ahistoricality’s post yesterday.  But first, some background for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about — presented as succinctly as possible:

Three white members of the Duke lacrosse team were charged with raping a black stripper.  Evidence eventually turned up that the stripper was lying and the sex had been consensual and there had been no sex at the lacrosse party (though apparently there had been earlier).  Further searching turned up the fact that the district attorney in the case, Mike Nifong, had known of the exculpatory evidence and ignored it in his zeal to convict the three lacrosse players and win a contested re-election primary.  Nifong was subsequently removed from office and disbarred.

In the process of the case, a group of eighty-eight Duke professors (known as the “Group of 88“) issued a statement calling the situation a “social disaster” and situating it in a historical context of racism.  Robert “KC” Johnson, a Harvard-educated historian and scholar at CUNY-Brooklyn (and a founding blogger at Cliopatria), has been probably the best-known critic of Nifong and the Group of 88 throughout the case, first at his blog Durham in Wonderland, and now in a forthcoming book, Until Proven Innocent.  Johnson himself is a self-described Democrat and Obama supporter, but the fact that his blog criticizes a number of well-heeled (and not-so-well-heeled) academics at Duke, he’s become surrounded by anti-academic conservatives, particularly at his blog.

So matters stood until two weeks ago, when Scott Eric Kaufman of Acephalous decided to skewer Johnson’s reportage and book:

I’ve got to say: keeping K.C. Johnson on the roster [at Cliopatria] does the rest of the contributors a disservice.  He divined the truth of what happened in Durham on the night of March 13th long before the police announced the results of their investigation.  He was correct.  Those who believed three Duke lacrosse players had raped an African-American women were incorrect.

Granted.

But I spent an hour this afternoon catching up with Johnson’s Durham-in-Wonderland.  If the research presented on the blog is indicative of the content of his soon-to-be-published book-Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case-then I can only conclude that the book’ll be positively Horowitzian in tenor and substance.

Kaufman continued the assault on Johnson in a second post, in which he explains exactly what he means by the term “Horowitzian”:

Horowitzian, adj.  (of a writer) belonging to or characteristic of David Horowitz, esp. as regards intentionally withholding profession-specific information when speaking before a general audience in order to incite it to commit acts of rhetorical violence.

The pieces, as you can imagine, have caused quite a firestorm both in the threads at Acephalous and across the very insular history blogosphere.  For the moment, the wagons have circled around both individuals.  Kaufman’s got his defenders; Tim Burke of Easily Distracted has been whacking at KC from within Acephalous threads.  But Johnson, too, has some high-profile backers; Ralph Luker (for one), proprietor of Cliopatria, has been aggressively defending Johnson’s reputation at his own site and in the comments at Acephalous.  Are these people backing Johnson because he’s in “the club”?  Such a charge could conceivably be levied against Luker, who blogs with KC (though I don’t believe it for a minute), but Johnson certainly doesn’t belong to any club with the venerable Jeralyn Merritt, a blogging titan (she’s the proprietor of TalkLeft) who’s endorsing Johnson’s forthcoming book at Durham in Wonderland.  Jeralyn’s liberal credentials are impeccable, and if she thinks the book’s worth a read, I for one am not going to argue.

I suppose, as a liberal, I should agree with Scott and trash KC as contributing to anti-intellectualism.  But, like Jeralyn, I just don’t see the evidence.  For one thing, I’m on record as admitting that there’s some real factual basis for that anti-academic sentiment KC’s blog feeds into.  For another, neither Scott nor I has actually read KC’s book, and criticizing it on the basis of blog posts sets an exceedingly dangerous precedent.  Ralph Luker’s been the voice of reason on this:

I’ve never held that KC’s public statements shouldn’t be criticized, but those who’ve criticized his blogging as lacking scholarly standards just haven’t thought about that criticism in terms of their own blogging.

From my own perspective, this is the most important comment in the whole debacle.  Ralph’s absolutely right about what we do: it’s extemporaneous, not scholarly, by nature and shouldn’t be held to the rigorous standards of published works.  Errors in the world of blogging are permissable that would be career-ending if they appeared in a published book (such as the time last week when I presumed to know more about Stendhal than did the Regenstein Professor of Literature at Chicago…and was proved wrong by an astute reader).  Special exceptions can be made for people like Horowitz or Michelle Malkin or Glenn Greenwald, who’ve published books on the same topics as their blogs before and have demonstrably employed the same evidentiary requirements in both.  But KC’s never published a blog-book before, and presuming that we can dismiss his book out of hand just because we don’t like his blog is a very dangerous argument to advance.

This isn’t merely a scholarly debate; both sides have stepped over the line at points.  Ralph Luker was wrong to suggest, as he did at Cliopatria, that Scott should show proper deference for KC because Johnson’s published more books; frankly, few people have published as many books as Johnson (including Ralph himself), yet he shouldn’t be any farther from reproof, certainly in the hypothetically-egalitarian world of blogs, than anyone else.  On the other hand, Scott’s repeated demands for KC to be removed from Cliopatria’s roster are in very poor taste; as a blog proprietor, I wouldn’t appreciate such comments any more than Ralph does.

But the salient fact here, to me, is that KC’s being criticized for a book that hasn’t even come out yet.  When it does, and after we’ve all had a chance to read it, I’ll be more than happy to participate in the criticizing of KC Johnson’s work if it so deserves.  But to prejudge its standards of scholarship before even seeing a copy of the work comes dangerously close to committing the sin Johnson himself decries in his title: finding him guilty until proven innocent.

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