In Defense of Duke

As we at NPI have previously hinted, we have all emanated from that majestic and triumphant institution of higher learning, Duke University. In fact, it is fair to say that, without Duke, this blog would not exist. Other gifts to humanity that Duke has bestowed include basketball extraordinaire Jason Williams, former Heroes star Jack Coleman, novelist Reynolds Price, journalist Charlie Rose, and former NFL star Sonny Jurgensen. That’s not a bad list, and it’s by no means everybody.

Of course, Tim, Josh, and I would not say that Duke is perfect. For one, we’re not the kind of people that love institutions unconditionally. It’s pretty obvious that every university has its flaws. In fact, we probably wouldn’t object if you said that Duke has more flaws than your average elite institution.

But when someone who writes for a prominent magazine—like, I don’t know, let’s say The Atlantic—writes an unjustified hatchet-job that is illogical, mean-spirited, and not supported by any hard evidence…well, that really grinds our gears. See, hating Duke has been trendy for about two decades now (it probably started when Christian Laettner stepped on Aminu Timberlake). There are a lot of reasons for this that I won’t bother going into here, but suffice it to say that sometime around 2006, when three members of the Duke lacrosse team were accused of rape,* members of the non-sports media realized they could churn out “polarizing” columns by regurgitating the same accusations of racism and elitism that had been levied against the basketball team for 15 years.

*Should I even bother pointing out that these accusations were discredited and the DA who pursued them was disbarred and briefly imprisoned for proceeding with the case?

It’s not that these criticisms don’t have some truth to them—there is probably the kernel of a good point buried in the cowdung that is Caitlin Flanagan’s article but….

You know what? Instead of going any further, I’m just going to revert to a basic breakdown of Flanagan’s piece, since it is such a perfect example of both the charges levied against my alma mater and lazy, shitty writing in general. I’ll be doing a basic Fire Joe Morgan-style read through, though I’ll be omitting certain sections for the sake of brevity (and cuz im a dukie, yo, and we hatesss reading, man, fuck yeah!):

The Hazards of Duke

I have no issues with this title. It’s actually pretty good.

A now infamous PowerPoint presentation exposes a lot about men, women, sex, and alcohol—and about how universities are letting their female students down.

Yes, we will be talking about the Fuck List. If you’re thinking that you already know what the Fuck List tells us “about men, women, sex, and alcohol”—mainly, that sometimes, when men and women drink alcohol, they are more likely to have sex—then boy does Caitlin Flanagan have something to tell you. You obviously don’t get feminism.

NO MATTER WHAT your opinion of the now notorious online “thesis” of the recent Duke graduate Karen Owen—a comprehensive and often pornographic report on her sexual encounters with 13 athletes, most of them lacrosse players—you have to admit that it was a terrible PowerPoint.

Yeah, fuck you Karen Owen! You make shitty PowerPoint presentations!

This may seem like a harmless joke on its own, but it’s part of one of my biggest complaints about Flanagan’s piece—how much of it is devoted to basically insulting Owen herself.

That program is intended for creating a visual accompaniment to a lecture, keeping audience and speaker on track by reducing the essential ideas of a complex presentation to a series of bullet-pointed phrases and concepts, the irreducible takeaway. But the 42 slides of Owen’s report on her “horizontal academics” are so dense with narrative detail, bits of dialogue, descriptions of people and places, and reproduced text-message conversations that they are a chore to read. It’s as though two impulses are at war with one another: the desire to recount her sexual experiences in a hyper-masculine way—marked by locker-room crudeness and PowerPoint efficiency—fighting against the womanly desire to luxuriate in the story of it all.

Yeah, because when I think “hyper-masculine,” I think “PowerPoint efficiency.” I mean, just the other day I was in the locker room with a couple other dudes, and after we got done making fart noises with different parts of our body, my buddy started telling me about this time he boned this girl. But I was all, “Dude, if you’re going to finish this story, you have GOT to spruce it up with some visual aides and bullet-points!”

Also, why do women get a monopoly on the “desire to luxuriate in the story of it all”? Since when is narrative a feminine trait?

Clearly the very last thing Karen Owen would want is for a reader of her thesis to perceive her as a vulnerable creature whose desire for sex with campus big shots was at least partly motivated by a powerful and unmet desire for affection.

Wow, this is impressive. Not only does Flanagan get in a nice passive-aggressive swipe at Owen, but she also manages to do some nice armchair psychoanalysis of someone she has obviously never met. Can I play too? I’ve always wanted to reduce someone down to a cliché! Here I go:

“Clearly the very last thing Caitlin Flanagan would want is for a reader of her article to perceive her as a repressed creature whose antagonism towards is Owen is at least partly motivated by suppressed envy of the latter’s diverse sexual experiences.”

Eh, that seemed mean. And almost certainly false, not to mention hugely unfair. I guess I’m not as good at this game as Flanagan…

But in the sheer amount of anecdotal detail, and in particular in her relentless descriptions of the anatomical shortcomings of various partners, she reveals that the thesis is motivated by the same force that has prompted women through the ages to describe with savage precision their liaisons with men who discarded them: revenge.

What? Revenge about what? Is Flanagan implying that Owen was trying to punish these guys by being pliant and submissive sexually? Or was this all part of some elaborate scheme to shame them?

Oh my god! Maybe Owen is “A”!

In 2009, GQ magazine named Duke America’s second-douchiest college, a distinction that came with a caveat: “They’re probably number one. But we’d rather not rank Duke number one at anything.”

Oh man, GQ, that was a pretty nice zinger. No wonder you’re known for your wit and verve. But was it really worth sacrificing the scientific rigor of your “douchiest college” ranking for that joke? Granted, it was a pretty hilarious joke, but how is the field of Douche Studies going to advance if you keep putting one-liners ahead of your empirical findings?

It’s difficult to argue with GQ’s thinking on either score; something ugly is going on at the university—a mercenary intensity that has been gathering strength for the past two decades, as the institution made the calculated decision to wrench itself into elite status by dint of its fortune in tobacco money and its sheer ambition.

It’s hard to even conceive of a more ridiculous sentence. Let’s start with the first part: “It’s difficult to argue with GQ’s thinking on either score.” Seriously? Based on what standard of difficulty are you making that claim? Also, on either score?! So not only does Flanagan find GQ’s douche rankings to be so rigorous as to be virtually axiomatic, but she’s also granting that Duke is so douchey that it can’t even win a Douche Ranking?

As for the second clause—it’s got everything you could want for a crazy sentence. First, there’s the assertion that “something ugly is going on.” The evidence she provides is that “the institution made the calculated decision to wrench itself into elite status.” It’s pretty amazing how the words “calculated” and “wrench” can turn a self-evidently worthwhile goal into something sinister.

Finally, there is the factual inaccuracy Flanagan is willing to resort to stain Duke that much more: By bringing up the “fortune in tobacco money,” the bulk of which was received prior to 1925, so way before the two-decade window she is talking about, she manages to make Duke seem like a school built on America’s decrepit lungs.

If I, like Flanagan, were a UVA alum, I’d probably think twice before I cast aspersions on the moral failings of another university’s founder.

It lured academic luminaries—many of them longer on star power than on intellectual substance—

Nice blanket, unspecific criticism. Joe McCarthy would be proud.

built a fearsome sports program, and turned its admissions department into the collegiate version of a head-hunting firm. (I was a college counselor at a prep school in the ’90s, and the zeal with which Duke gunned for our top students was unseemly.)

The audacity! How dare a university go after top students with zeal! It really is unseemly. Everyone knows that the college admissions process is supposed to function like a Victorian courtship, in which the school’s admissions officers show up at the door of the college counselor and politely ask for the student’s hand. Or maybe it should work like an episode of Date My Mom.

In some respects Duke has never moved on from the values of the 1980s, when droves of ambitious college students felt no moral ambivalence about preparing themselves for a life centered largely on the getting and spending of money.

Yeah, a life centered on the getting and spending of money is SO 1980s! It’s like Dexys Midnight Runners, Atari video games, or the movie Fletch. Nobody does that stuff anymore.

Now, of course, I get what Flanagan means: College students today are, by and large, less socially conscious than in years past. This is not unique to Duke. You could probably argue that it’s more exaggerated at Duke, but you have to make that argument. YOU CAN’T JUST SAY SO AND MOVE ON.

With a social scene dominated by fraternities and sororities (a way of life consisting of ardent partying and hooking up, offset by spurts of busywork composing angry letters to campus newspapers and taking online alcohol-education classes),

Yeah, who ever heard of a college social scene that consisted of ardent partying and hooking up? I mean, doesn’t everyone remember that Asher Roth song about reading Tennyson and discussing Leonhard Euler?

with its large share of rich students displaying their money in the form of expensive cars and clothing,

Notice, once again, the complete lack of evidence presented that rich students make up a “large share” of Duke. I mean, I’m not denying that’s the case, but like virtually every criticism Flanagan makes in this paragraph, it’s also true at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, Georgetown, etc. Are all elite private schools stuck in the ’80s?

and with an attitude toward campus athletics that is at once deeply southern (this is a part of the world where even high-school athletes can be treated with awestruck deference by adults) and profoundly anti-intellectual,

It always comes back to sports, doesn’t it? The only difference between Duke and the other schools I mentioned that Flanagan feels is worth pointing out is sports—which basically means basketball and lacrosse (I mean, have you seen our football team?). It seems like most of the anger directed at Duke can be traced back to either basketball fans who resent Duke’s continued success, or intellectuals who find the idea of caring about sports completely beneath an academic institution.

Also, I love the condescension by which Flanagan implies that the deference to athletes is unique to the south (when, in fact, the sports Duke excels in—basketball, soccer, lacrosse—are all decidedly not southern sports). Yeah, nobody ever glorifies student athletes in the northeast or the West Coast…

it’s a university whose thoughtful students are overshadowed by its voraciously self-centered ones.

As an alum who is both thoughtful and voraciously self-centered, I resent this false dichotomy.

It was from both within this world and outside it that Karen Owen emanated.

Remember way back in the first paragraph, when I said that Tim, Josh, and I had “emanated” from Duke? Well, I was kind of joking. People, for the most part, don’t “emanate.” Superheroes emanate; ideas emanate; Greek goddesses emanate. But college students don’t emanate, even if we’re trying to load them with all kinds of cultural significance so we can fill some pages in a magazine and cash another undeserved paycheck (not that such petty concerns as “the getting and spending of money” plague Flanagan’s noble mind).

Also, doesn’t the construction “it was from both within this world and outside it” license the application of any attribute to any individual?

“It was from both within the War on Terror and outside it that Lady Gaga released The Fame.”

“It was from both within the Age of Obama and outside it that Cliff Lee signed with signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.”

“It was from both within the Judeo-Christian world and outside it that Cavemen was cancelled after only two episodes.”

She reports that she had spent her freshman year gazing at “frat stars” (frat star and sorostitute are terms of art at Duke and at other similarly composed schools), but the predictable angry letter to the school newspaper about the episode, written by a group of “female Greek leaders on campus,” was quick to point out that Owen was not herself a member of any sorority. It was not only an attempt to distance sorority life from the antics of someone like Karen Owen, it served to underscore the disdain that the actual Karen Owen seems to have engendered in her fellow students, whose closed social system offered her no safe harbor.

Here I’ll just admit that I can’t figure out what point Flanagan is even trying to make. Is she implying that if a Duke sorority had accepted Owen, she would have had a “safe harbor” and therefore not resorted to the tragic episodes of sexual promiscuity? Is there ANY evidence for this? Do we even know if Owen rushed or had any interest in joining a sorority?

Or is Flanagan just criticizing sororities for the speed with which they distanced themselves from Owen? But, at the risk of defending sorority girls, if someone like Owen is going to lead to all kinds of accusations and criticisms of the Greek social system—like the very ones Flanagan herself makes in the same fucking paragraph!—then isn’t the fact that Owen was not actually in a sorority at least a tiny bit relevant? Or should we not let facts stand in the way of the speculative bullshit any hack writer wants to crap out?

Also, as a former Duke independent, it’s nice to know that my non-membership in a Greek organization means that I must have engendered disdain in my fellow students…

One of the many implausible aspects of the entire incident is the notion, which Owen has forcefully asserted in her brief communications with the press, that she sent the PowerPoint to only three friends, and then was shocked when it was sent onward, ultimately reaching a huge audience, including the men whom she describes.

Well, if you had made a PowerPoint that bad, would you want the world seeing it?

Anyway, what kind of “blame the victim” shit is this? Is Flanagan seriously implying that Owen was asking for the Fuck List to go viral?

It’s absurd to believe that she was innocent enough to think that such an incendiary document, transmitted by email, would not quickly enjoy a large audience.

I don’t think Flanagan knows how email works. It’s not like Owen made it a Facebook note, or put it on her blog or anything. Email is a private medium—you don’t expect your emails to be read by the world at large. It was probably dumb of Owen to email it, but I don’t think it was part of some diabolical plan to leak it to the press. She probably expected a few others to read it, of course, but I’m sure as shit she didn’t expect Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic to read it. If she did, then why were her Facebook and LinkedIn pages taken down almost immediately, and why hasn’t she said virtually anything to the press? 

But it’s not at all hard to believe that Owen had only three friends in college.

Jesus fucking Christ, lay off! Who the fuck works at The Atlantic, read this sentence and thought, “Yeah, it’s totally appropriate to make a joke about how many friends a 22-year-old had in college. That shit reeks of journalistic integrity.” This kind of thing is beneath US Weekly. It’s the kind of thing you read on Perez Hilton, both in tone and quality.

The overwhelming sense one gets from the thesis is of a young woman who was desperate for human connection, and who had no idea how to obtain it.

That’s the overwhelming sense you got? The overwhelming sense I got from the Fuck List was, “Man, this chick had a lot of sex. She also has a good memory.”

For all the attention Owen has received as a boundary-breaking, sexually empowered new woman, there has been almost no discussion of the fact that the kind of sex she most enjoyed was rough to the point of brutalizing.

First off, let me just clarify one thing: Nobody is really calling Owen “a boundary-breaking sexually empowered new woman.” I mean, some people are defending her, but it’s not like NOW is asking her to be a spokesperson or anything. In fact, WAY MORE people seem to be arguing against this idea than for it. But arguing against it is absolutely pointless—it’s like writing a column called “Why There Shouldn’t Be Exclusively Mosques at Ground Zero.”

Also, Flanagan, I know you like insulting Owen’s social skills and PowerPoint abilities, but I think you should probably draw the line at criticizing what kind of sex she likes.

One encounter that occurred during an alcoholic blackout was still, as Karen Owen would say, “baller,” because in the shower the next day she found bruises on her body; another was great because it was so “violent”—and she means that “in a good way.” He was “throwing me around like I weighed nothing.”

Oh well, agree to disagree…

And now it comes time to Flanagan to fling her vitriol at the men of the list:

What a glittering social world came along with these athletes. With their king-size beds, their huge television sets, their love of porn and Mario Kart, their apparent unconcern for matters cerebral (one of the 13 was suspended from play for academic violations; another dropped out when he got drafted into a Major League Baseball team),

How dare he! How dare someone drop out of school after getting the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream and get paid a ton of money to do it! This guy obviously has no respect for the collected works of Immanuel Kant.

Also, Flanagan, you have got to be consistent with your irony. As written, this sentence sounds like you are either criticizing the athletes for having large beds and TVs, OR you legitimately think that porn and Mario Kart constitute “a glittering social world” (in which case, man, you should see my basement!).

their eagerness to whip out their genitals on almost any occasion, and their casual racism, they offer any parent ample reason to think twice before sending a beloved child to Duke.

Mothers, lock up your daughters! Don’t even think about sending your kids to Duke, where some of the guys are—[gasp]—immature! Send them to Princeton instead…

These louts did not operate on the fringes of polite society at the university, but existed—were lionized—at its epicenter.

This part is actually true. Thrice weekly the Duke student body is assembled in the Chapel while we watch various females (white ones, of course) fellate the lacrosse team while they spew racial slurs and play Nintendo 64.

It’s almost like Flanagan got to this paragraph and finally realized that she was making absurd generalizations about an entire student body based on the little she knew about 13 athletes. So instead of doing actual research or trying to make a legitimate point, she figured she’d just assert that these 13 represented some kind of Council of Elders that the other 6,000+ undergrads pay deference to.

Seriously, how does one exist “at the epicenter” of a university?

WE HAVE BEEN INVITED, by both Karen Owen’s supporters and her detractors, to view her as the arrival of something new:

No we haven’t. You are arguing against nobody.

either as the embodiment of women’s complete victory over the old double standard,

Nobody has said this. You are making this up. Stop lying.

or as proof positive that our culture has finally run aground.

Who are the Manichean extremists that Flanagan associates with? Does Owen really have to be one or the other? Why can’t she just be a girl who was kind of a slut in college?

She is a puzzling character, because she seems on the one hand to have been invented by a committee of frat boys. In a way, she more closely resembles them than she does the sorority girls who spurn her. She’s like a fraternity’s ideal pledge: she races around to deliver hot breakfasts to the brothers, drives them to practices, hangs out loyally on cold streets while they work out potential DUI hassles with the cops, listens to them chew over their buddies’ girlfriend problems, tells them—with apparent sincerity—that they’re awesome at spitting Biggie raps, never demands her own turn at Mario Kart.

How do you know she never demanded her own turn at Mario Kart? This was not an implication of the Fuck List, as I read it.

I mean, I know this portrait isn’t exactly Romeo and Juliet, but all the things Flanagan listed—getting them breakfast, driving them to practice, listening to them talk about their problems, sharing interests with them—are things lots of girls do for the guys they’re with. Guys reciprocate in kind. This is the exact opposite of “puzzling.”

Even her attitude toward (and during) sex seems to have been dreamed up during a Sigma Nu smoker: she’s certainly not the first young woman to perform fellatio in a crowded college library, but surely there aren’t many others who in the middle of this act earned an appreciative—and robustly returned—high five.

Screw her (no pun intended [see what I did there?]) for enjoying sex and apparently being very good at it!

There is every reason, in fact, to believe that Owen’s sense of herself, both as a sexual being and as a raconteur of outrageous sexual exploits, was shaped not by her own desires but by a particular male sensibility, in fact by a particular male: Tucker Max, whom she specifically mentions as a rival in the art of the scandalous and ridiculous hookup. The notion of becoming his female counterpart is clearly not far from her mind in each of her lurid descriptions and ratings of her sexual encounters.

“Every reason”? “There is EVERY REASON, IN FACT” to create a direct cause-and-effect line between Tucker Max and Karen Owen? No other reasons need be considered, because every single one indicates that, once Max’s book was published, the emanation of Karen Owen was all but inevitable?

I was really hoping that Flanagan might be able to get through an article on Duke without mentioned Tucker Max, but alas, the allure is too great. Brace yourselves, folks:

Max, a brainy and reasonably attractive kid from a troubled family, attended the University of Chicago, graduating in three years and earning a scholarship to Duke law school, where his life changed. He ascertained quickly that sexual aggression—not just in the act of sex, but in the way a man can choose to treat women, verbally and emotionally—is a force to which a huge number of educated, liberated young women are deeply attracted. Combining this aggression with a Howard Stern–style vulgarity, he quickly became the unofficial king of Duke. He published his exploits in an unbelievably nasty little book called I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, a compendium of anecdotes that was a best seller for several years; it has made him a legendary figure to fraternity members across the country, who treat him—and his simple system of playing directly on women’s insecurities to get them in bed immediately—as a messiah.

Ah yes, the Divine Brotherhood of Tucker Max, the fastest growing religion in the world. (The movement is so massive that it drove the movie adaptation of the book to a whopping $1.4 million gross!) Max, like all great messiahs, divined something previously unknown to man: that sexual aggression can be attractive to women. He was also the first person ever to play on women’s insecurities to get them into bed immediately.

All across the land men made pilgrimages to his feet, to ascertain the ways of Max. High school students across America saw Duke as a kind of Mecca, where their hero had been forged, and hence flocked there in a collective attempt to get laid.

Either that, or people like Max exist all over the place and Max just happened to be a better writer. One or the other…

Now, if you were thinking that Flanagan’s article has thus far been shitty, illogical, and mean-spirited, but at least it was focused, well then get ready, because she goes off on some tangent about underage drinking before saying:

[M]any university presidents—including Duke’s own president, Richard Brodhead—have signed on to something called the Amethyst Initiative, a perplexing document that essentially absolves them of any responsibility for what is taking place. Apparently, the current legal drinking age of 21 is bad for young people because the need for fake IDs forces students to “make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.” How much would you have to hate yourself to sign a document that made that assertion?

First of all, I have no idea how the Amethyst Initiative is at all “perplexing.” The statement is 215 words long, and it’s written in language that’s about as clear as can be.

Secondly, add another to the long list of journalistic crimes committed by Flanagan’s piece: the unfair and unjustified accusation that signing the statement constitutes an attempt to absolve themselves of any responsibility for underage drinking. In fact, the Initiative does the exact opposite of that: “A culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking’—often conducted off-campus—has developed… We pledge ourselves and our institutions to playing a vigorous, constructive role as these critical discussions unfold.”

There’s some more stuff about underage drinking and female college students, but Flanagan’s lost most of her credibility there. Finally, we get to the good stuff:

The notion that Karen Owen is good at getting the guy, that she represents something awesome for the future of feminism, is an assertion that cannot withstand a careful reading of the actual PowerPoint, a package that—far more than Owen could ever have intended—constitutes a story, one with a beginning, middle, and very sad end, and reveals her to be one of the most pitiable women to emerge on the cultural scene in quite a while. Her assignations are arranged chronologically in the thesis, and in the arc of experience that led her from Subject 1 to Subject 13, there is a very old story about women, desire, expectation, dashed hope, and (to use the old, apt, word) ruin.

Oh, man, get ready: We are about to get some major, Philip Roth-level speculation about a real person’s life. It’s very important to Flanagan’s point that Owen turn out to be “one of the most pitiable women to emerge on the cultural scene in quite a while” (if you are wondering to what extent it’s fair to say that Owen “emerged on the cultural scene”—as opposed to be forced onto the cultural scene by shitty writers who want to make lazy arguments—then you’re like me), and since most of the information we have about Owen is in the form of her thesis, Flanagan does what all good journalists do: She makes shit up.

First she recaps what’s already in the Fuck List (if you’ve read it, feel free to skim):

After a freshman year spent in the thrall of the school’s handsome white athletes, something exciting happened: on the night of her 19th birthday, in September of her junior year, one handsome lacrosse player, recently broken up from his girlfriend of three years, bought her “many, many beers” at a Durham club called Shooters, and then asked her to go back to his house to “hang out.” The invitation was thrilling; it’s easy to imagine that the prospect of becoming his next years-long girlfriend was enticing, and even if the night began with some strange twists and turns—such as the man inviting his pals to admire her breasts outside the bar—wasn’t that the way it had probably begun for the last girlfriend? But once they went to his house, and then to his bed, things weren’t quite what she had hoped for: “It was over too quickly. I was probably a little awkward and didn’t really know how to move or what to do. And it was a tad bit painful …”

She never slept with him again—apparently he had no interest in seeing her again—and she was chastened enough by the events not to risk a repeat of them for several months. It’s not difficult to imagine what the days and weeks following the encounter were like: the expectation that he would call again, the anxious and depressing realization that he was done with her. But the following March, she was ready to try again. After many “long looks” exchanged with a campus tennis star on her way to and from the gym, the young man approached her at Shooters and asked her to dance; on the dance floor, he asked her to go home with him. What followed was the kind of one-night stand that changes a woman. He was rude to her in the cab, and things only got worse once they were in bed: “He was terrible, did not even bother to kiss me more than a few seconds, and finished in about five minutes, after which he simply walked out of the room and did not return.” She reports that “absolutely everything,” except for the fact that he was a successful athlete, was terrible about him, that the whole situation was terrible: “I accidentally left my favorite pair of earrings from South Africa. When I texted him this fact, he responded with ‘I will leave them outside of the building for you.’”

Now we get to the real literary stuff:

The story of Karen Owen is the story of those forgotten earrings.

What is this, a Robert Frost poem?

Imagine the moment in which she paused to take them off—her favorite earrings, the ones that came all the way from South Africa and that she took care to remove before going to bed, because that’s what you do if you’re a responsible girl with a nice pair of earrings. You keep them safe.

Or an episode of Degrassi?

At the very least, she must have imagined that Subject 2 was inviting her to do what Subject 1 had done—not just to have sex with him, but to hang out with him. And then to be turfed out so rudely, so quickly, to be treated with such ugliness afterward. Imagine having been so young and so hopeful, being used sexually and then held in such contempt that rather than see you again, a young man leaves your jewelry outside his building, where anyone could come along and take it.

Subject 2, who was rated a 1 out of a possible 10, is the impetus for the entire thesis. In fact, at the very end of the whole ugly mess of it, after she has become so good at oral sex that she is repeatedly praised for having no gag reflex, after she has learned to crave sex so rough that she’s left battered, after she’s been cast aside over and over again, the final line of the thesis—before her jaunty “Acknowledgements” slide— is another angry remark about Subject 2. Being rejected by Subject 1 was hurtful and embarrassing, but being treated like a whore by Subject 2 is what broke her heart and her spirit, and if you are the kind of person whose heart and spirit can be broken by a one-night stand, then you may not be the brave new face of anything at all.

Wow, there’s a nice big “Fuck you” to any woman who’s ever had her heart broken by a one-night stand: Congratulations! You will never do anything original or bold!

A few paragraphs later, Flanagan gets to the lacrosse case of 2006:

It’s impossible to read Karen Owen’s encomium to the “glorious, alpha-male dominated world of Duke lacrosse hookups” without thinking back to the events of 2006, when the Duke lacrosse team threw a private party that became infamous. Three of the teammates were eventually accused of raping a stripper, and although the charges proved false and the investigation a travesty, few people would suggest the night represented any kind of high-water mark for the team or the university that it represented.

It may be true that it is “impossible” not to think of the lacrosse case when reading the Fuck List, but all that proves are general similarities (scandals involving sex taking place at Duke). If Flanagan is implying that they are part of a systemic trend, then she has to make that argument. I assume she’s building to that.*

*She’s not.

Hiring strippers—two desperately poor women, one of them a mother of two,

To be fair, I don’t think that they requested a mother of two or specified a salary-range…

both with lives shaped around more sorrow and misery than the average Duke lacrosse player could begin to imagine—becoming angry when they turned out not to be white, suggesting the women use a broomstick as a sex toy, and then hurling racial slurs at them as they stumbled back into their car falls so far outside the realm of what anyone can call decent behavior that the accused players’ improbable turn as victimized solid citizens was the most unpleasant result of the D.A.’s bungled case.

It might be the most unpleasant result of the case if you, like Flanagan, are genetically predisposed to think only in terms of absolutes: Either the team is full of racist degenerates, or they are solid, upstanding citizens.

If, on the other, you’re inclined to accept that the party was not the most tasteful thing the team could have done but also that hiring strippers is not a capital offense, if you condemn racial slurs but realize that kids often say stupid and insensitive things when they’re drunk, and if you feel sorry that the strippers’ lives may have been “shaped around…sorrow and misery”* but that this doesn’t justify false accusations of rape… then you might think that the most unpleasant result was that THREE PEOPLE WERE INDICTED FOR CRIMES THEY DIDN’T COMMITT!

*Because of course anyone whose occupation is less than respectable must have a life “shaped around sorrow and misery,” like a Dickensian peasant or something.

Anyway, how exactly is it relevant to the current situation? How does recalling all of this—and painting each side in the grandly romantic terms of pitiful victim against the insensitive villains—add anything at all to the discussion of Owen?

Oh wait, she’s getting to that:

In fact, the man identified as Subject 1 in Owen’s PowerPoint was a member of that very team, present and accounted for at the ugly party and named in several of the police reports garnered about the night. Player Dan Flannery said that when he “tried to apologize and reason with” one of the strippers in a bedroom of the house, Subject 1 may have been with him, and David Evans told police that Subject 1 at one point followed the women out into the street.

Ironically, it was his role in that awful scene that put Subject 1 in Durham in time to spend his ill-fated night with Karen Owen. Although he had already graduated with his bachelor’s degree, the NCAA had offered him a rare extra year of eligibility as a compensation for the season he’d lost to the scandal.

What the hell?! This is the crucial insight into the connection between the Duke lacrosse case and Karen Owen—the kind of “What if?” storytelling that fuelled several seasons of Lost? Is Flanagan’s next story going to be about how the University of Virginia’s decision to play out its lacrosse season despite a team member being accused of murder is heroically preventing a current team member from having consensual sex with a pitiable female in 2014?

Or is Flanagan merely trying to shoehorn these details in to help paint every male at Duke as an insensitive, hyper-masculine, violent, misogynist who is guilty a priori of abuse to women.

This is one of the most frustrating thing about Flanagan’s article: that the problems she discusses—underage drinking, sexual assault, female alcohol abuse—are issues at universities everywhere, yet only one school is named in the article. As a Duke alum, though, the single most upsetting thing about this article is that there is a very good article to be written here. There is something to be written about how the Greek scene operates at Duke (and other schools), how it appeals to some students and repulses others, and how it affects things like drinking, sex, and academia.

Instead, of writing this article, though, or even trying, Flanagan resorted to lazy psychoanalysis and mean-spirited attacks on caricatured villains. Evidence and reasonable arguments are replaced with broad, unjustified assertions, cherry-picked examples, and implied-but-never-explained allegations. It is, in essence, a piece of propaganda, but not even propaganda with a message: It’s propaganda that results from being too lazy to construct a real argument.

16 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wey on January 13, 2011 at 7:28 AM

    You had me at Cavemen…

    John, really great dissection; some of your finest work. Enjoyed virtually all of it.


  2. This was a great post and dissection of C. Flanagan’s article.
    I have to admit however, I thought this was going to be about a more recent sex scandal at Duke.

    I had never read Flanagan’s article before but it does seem as though she is making some pretty ridiculous statements that are mean and unresearched.

    I feel happy and sad for Karen Owen. It’s hard to believe that in this time of social media and the advancements such as forwarding an email, that she did not think other people would read this list! Gossip and scandal that good has to be passed from friend to friend.

    This blog was really well written and I enjoyed reading it. You should send this to Flanagan if you haven’t already. Hopefully she will appreciate some real constructive criticism and feedback.

    Thanks for sharing!


  3. Posted by Douglas on January 13, 2011 at 2:55 PM

    Bravo. As a Duke alum, I’m obviously predisposed to enjoy this. However, what I liked best about this is that you didn’t argue against Flanagan’s points as much as you argued against her inexcusable methodology. It had to be done, and you did it quite well.


  4. Posted by doc on January 13, 2011 at 9:40 PM

    Nice job, John. Ms. Flannery sounds like Gloria Steinem and Barry Goldwater’s illegitimate daughter, not that I have any proof of that, although I heard that they had great, violent sex.


  5. Posted by Tim on January 13, 2011 at 10:48 PM

    The two things I find the most unpleasant (what? I personalized the idea of unpleasantness instead of making an umbrella statement about it? Who does that?) are the following:

    1. Flanagan’s grossly unprofessional sideswipes in criticizing the University and Owen. The space between long dashes and commas is typically not where you attempt to make your most damning assertions, and yet this is where Flanagan places her critique of Duke professors (without a suggestion of specificity; you’d find more useful and intelligible rationales on Rate My Professors), of the fraternity scene at Duke, and often, of Owen herself.

    2. You’re right, John. As much as we like (and in my case, love) the University, there are serious issues that could/should have been the focus here. Instead, we get Flanagan freestyling on Owen’s forgotten earrings. I would even compare what Flanagan does in her psychoanalysis of Owen to what the character Darl does in Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” around the time of Addie’s death. It’s really a great way to write fiction. But that’s something I learned at Duke from a professor undoubtedly devoid of intellectual substance. So who’s to tell?


  6. Posted by Chavez on January 14, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    Those “desperately poor” lacrosse party strippers were not nearly as “desperately poor” as the two prostitutes who accused the Scottsboro boys (if the $2000 Crystal Mangum claimed to have had on her is indicative of her weekly earnings, then that puts her in the $100,000 per year range–before “expenses”). And poverty doesn’t excuse falsely accusing persons of rape.

    As for the party, it was a substitute for the team’s missing Spring Break to practice. (What were other students nationwide doing on Spring Break?) Many of those attending didn’t even know there were going to be strippers until they were asked to contribute to their fees; and there were some– including two of those ultimately indicted–who hadn’t wanted to attend but did so because it was a team event.

    And the DA’s case wasn’t “bungled”; it was a frame-up from the beginning, by a candidate who was 20% behind in the polls but raced to victory after he went on a spree accusing out-of-town “white privileged youth” of raping a “poor working woman of color, and mother of two”, as the phrase in her hagiography had it (a “poor working mother of two” who had a record of making false claims to the police, including a previous claim of gang-rape; who had a lot of cash, two drivers, and whose family and associates drove a lot of expensive cars).


  7. Posted by Wey on January 15, 2011 at 2:31 AM

    :::sigh::: can’t we leave Barry Goldwater out of this…


  8. Posted by doc on January 15, 2011 at 1:48 PM

    Sorry, Wey, but AuH2O, aka Goldwater has to be included in this kind of discussion. He gave birth, so to speak, to the idea the civil rights are uncalled for in this country.


  9. Posted by Wey on January 15, 2011 at 7:40 PM

    1., I don’t see how this follows, and 2., This simply isn’t true… That said, I’ll leave the debating of the civil rights act of 1964 to Rachel Maddow and Rand Paul


  10. Posted by Wey on January 16, 2011 at 11:08 AM

    it honestly was not a great year for Rachel Maddow…


  11. Posted by Wey on January 16, 2011 at 12:06 PM

    Also, I don’t know if any of you remember, but Wey ‘Ruepten’ was quoted in the AP story on the Amethyst initiative…


  12. Duke Is 100% Good


  13. Posted by missyujin on January 23, 2011 at 2:56 AM

    It was such a cray cray semester. Sigh.


  14. […] Cruyff takes a different approach to pace in the NBA, and The Atlantic puts forth another curious (in a bad way) offering with James Parker’s amateur exploration of […]


  15. Howdy! This article could not be written any better!

    Looking through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!

    He always kept talking about this. I am going to send this information to him.
    Pretty sure he’s going to have a very good read. I appreciate you for sharing!


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