At Duke, a scandal in search of meaning

By Anne Applebaum Published:

By Anne Applebaum

Just like everybody else, apparently, Ive followed the twists and turns of the Duke lacrosse team scandal with rapt attention. The exotic dancers charge that several team members raped and abused her; the subsequent discovery of time-stamped photographs allegedly showing she was abused before she arrived; the testimony of the security guard; the shifting claims of the other dancer; the mixed DNA evidence; the district attorney running for re-election; the criminal records of both the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrators; the angry black community in Durham; and the presumably angry, presumably white, online community that has already made Duke Lacrosse T-shirts a best-selling item on eBay and elsewhere.

But just like everybody else Ive found that every shift and change in the story, or, rather, every shift and change in what the public is told about the story, have also led me to draw different conclusions about what it all means. At different times over the past few weeks this story has looked like the War Against Boys made real: innocent young men being lynched for the sake of a DAs re-election campaign! At other moments, it has looked like a dark, porn-and-alcohol-laced saga of the Corrupt Youth of Today: Back in the day we had keg parties, not strippers! At still other times, it seemed an even darker tale of Old Racism in the Old South. Or New Racism in the New South. Or some combination thereof.

It seems Im not alone in this pursuit of deeper meaning. A quick trawl of the airwaves and the Internet produces one columnist who sees in this story a moral about the disappearance of chivalry and honor among boys in contemporary America; another who sees in the same story a moral about the disappearance of modesty and caution among girls in contemporary America; and several others who believe, one way or another, that all of this has something to do with President Clinton. Within just a few weeks the case has become as another writer has already put it an ink-blot test, not a legal proceeding. The right sees the story it wants to see, the left sees the story it wants to see, Jesse Jackson sees the story he wants to see and Rush Limbaugh sees the story he wants to see.

I suppose this rush to judgment, absent the facts, is deplorable, and indeed many are already deploring it. Or deploring the media that are paying too much attention to it and twisting the evidence and ignoring the truth for their own reasons and so on. But Ive also come to the conclusion that these periodic national moments of intense obsession with hyped-up criminal cases and celebrity trials are somehow necessary in this country, and the media havent invented that need out of whole cloth.

In June 1994, after O.J. Simpsons wife was found murdered and Simpson tried to run from the law in his Ford Bronco, followed by police cars, helicopters and reporters from nearly every television station in the country, I sat up most of the night with a group of friends arguing about the case: whether an innocent man would ever try to escape and whether, having made such an attempt, he could ever get a fair trial, particularly given that he was black and his murdered wife was white and this was before the trial had begun.

The rest is history. Our argument became a national argument. The trial was not only televised, it was covered by 2,000 reporters. It produced dozens of books and made celebrities out of the prosecutors, the defense lawyers and the judge. Some 90 percent of Americans said they had seen part of it. About 142 million people are thought to have watched or listened as the verdict was delivered. Not since January 1953, when 71 percent of television-watching Americans saw Lucy Ricardo bring a baby home from the hospital (more than had watched President Eisenhowers inauguration), had there been an event that so many Americans could discuss so easily in bars, coffee shops or supermarkets with so many other Americans on the following day.

Which is the point, of course. Particularly now that there is no more I Love Lucy and very little of anything that everyone watches at the same time and can discuss around the water cooler on the following day the O.J. Simpson trial and the Duke lacrosse case, truly horrible though they are, serve that function. They contain elements that everyone can relate to, black or white, rich or poor, male or female. They involve sports. They involve sex. At the deepest level, they involve human evil murder, rape, jealousy and pride. No wonder so many people are trying to figure out what it all means.

2006, The Washington Post

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