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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Rape, murder, torture, and other uncertainties

A month ago, Peter Boyer had a fascinating and unsettling piece in the New Yorker about the Duke lacrosse team rape scandal:

“The nature of the information kept changing, and was extraordinarily confusing,” [Duke president Richard H. Brodhead] recalls. “You don’t have a playbook in the drawer. And what made it hard was not only the scale of emergency—it was the combination of the extraordinarily inflammatory versions of the story with very high degrees of uncertainty.”


Brodhead reflected on all that had happened as we chatted in his office in July, and said that it brought to mind Shakespeare’s “Othello”—not for its obvious associations with interracial passions and violence but for its lesson on prejudgment. The scene at the beginning of the play, he said, was particularly instructive. Desdemona’s father hears about his daughter’s relationship with the Moor, and he sighs, “Belief of it oppresses me already.”

“He doesn’t say, ‘Oh, now I see what you’re getting at,’ ” Brodhead said. “He’s saying, ‘Now I realize that I always believed it’—‘Belief of it oppresses me already.’ It’s probably, to my mind, the greatest literary image of the action of prejudice—how a story is told to engage something in the mind that brings with it absolute certainty that derives from the nature of the stereotypes.”

The Duke case seems to be ending with some clarity, but there are so many high-profile cases in recent American history where we will probably never know what happened. Did Kobe Bryant really experience that sex as consensual? Was Lee Harvey Oswald killed to protect mob leaders or to protect Pentagon war promoters?

In rape cases, in particular, it seems that evidence is incredibly difficult to parse, especially through far-removed news reports. Few other crimes hinge so much on the understanding on the people involved, rather than more readily verifiable events.

In many public cases of he-said-she-said, like Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill or the Bush administration ignoring intelligence on al-Quaeda and Iraq, it's not hard to piece together a coherent picture of how events transpired because one side has such a clear incentive to lie. This is also generally taken to be true in rape cases, but there have been enough cases of false accusation to make this assumption dangerous.

It's interesting to see who buys the theory that the Sept. 11 2001 attacks were orchestrated by some portion of the US government. In my view, Occam's razor makes it clear that the canonical version of events--i.e., the planes that crashed were the planes we were told they were, the pilots weren't in on the plot, the hijackers really were al-Qaeda agents operating without instruction from the US government. Of course some details, such as if the White House looked the other way or willfully left the country vulnerable so as to draw an attack, are open questions. It's possible that one day Anita Hill will reveal her accusations to have been lies, just as it's possible that mice run the world as a giant computer, and that Jesus will come down from heaven and be angry that I (like he) never converted from Judaism. In the mean time, I agree with Richard Dawkins, paraphrased by Newsweek: he's agnostic about God [and I'm agnostic about 9/11 conspiracies] the same way he's agnostic about the existence of fairies.

But the fact that certain cold, hard facts can never be knowable is lost on some people, including Alan Dershowitz, whom no amount of facts will ever convince that there's something deeply wrong about the fact that our people violently seized Palestinian Arabs' farms and homes in 1947-49. In his NY Times review of Sebastian "Perfect Storm" Junger's new book A Death in Belmont, Dershowitz writes:

In an intriguing paragraph, Junger makes a disturbing claim about the genre of nonfiction that many have made about great fiction: "Maybe the truth isn't even the most interesting thing about some stories, I thought; maybe the most interesting thing about some stories is all the things that could be true. And maybe it's in the pursuit of those things that you understand the world in its deepest, most profound sense."I think he is wrong. Nonfiction must be about actual truth, not about how coincidences could lead to a deeper truth. Junger should understand this, especially since he has criticized James Frey's "new journalism." An important difference between fiction and nonfiction is that in novels and plays, Chekhov's dictum prevails: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off." There are no coincidences: a chest pain is followed by a heart attack; a phone call is always meaningful; the purchase of a life insurance policy is followed by a murder or suicide. In real life, on the other hand, most chest pains are caused by transient indigestion; phone calls tend to be from life insurance salesmen; the purchase of a policy is followed by years of good health; and rifles gather dust on walls.

Dershowitz's writings on Judaism and Israel would benefit from his taking Junger's words to heart. See his assertion in The Case for Israel that “Israel’s record on human rights is among the best in the world”, the cogent accusations from (also often unreliable) Norman Finkelstein that Dershowitz plagiarized parts of that book (see Finkelstein's summary of the case, and Dershowitz's evasive defense), an argument between Dershowitz and Israeli anti-torture activists where his memory doesn't seem as crystal clear as he claims, and his haphazard treatment of one ideological debate.

In a course on "narrative history", I once asked Simon Schama what problems occur in writing history as a story focused closely on people, rather than a series of corroborated facts stated dispassionately and conspicuously sourced. If all we know is that a group of soldiers went from point A to point B in two hours and encountered scattered fire, can we say for example that they "trudged on, going into the oncoming bullets, when they longed to go away from them"? If weather reports say that a particular day in history was rainy, can we work rain into the day's events at will, as some narrative historians do, when the rain might well have let up, or the report could have been wrong in the first place?

I got the impression that Schama had never carefully examined these questions. He didn't find the question interesting--I should say it seemed to me that he didn't find it interesting--and said simply that the rules of evidence are the same no matter what kind of history you are writing. Dershowitz would surely agree.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Oct 05, 10:35:00 AM:
One thing that really bugged me about the Duke article was how Boyer kept referring to the lacrosse players as "boys." There was a letter in the most recent New Yorker about this, actually. None of the players are minors, right? This is like the opposite of those cases where a 10-year-old is tried as an adult--only here, someone is trying to portray adults as children. For what purpose, I'm not entirely sure.
Blogger Ben on Thu Oct 05, 10:54:00 AM:
That does seem weird now that you mention it. Though "men" or "guys" would also be awkward. Maybe it unconsciously reflects a paternal aspect of sports teams' relationship with their coach, administration, and alumni?