Liberty, Power, and the Duke Lacrosse Hoax
Over the last year, I've been following pretty closely the Duke Lacrosse Rape Hoax. For those who might be interested, the single best source on the case is our HNN/Cliopatria colleague KC Johnson's "Durham-in-Wonderland" blog. KC and Stuart Taylor from National Journal have a book on the case that is now available at Amazon and elsewhere entitled "Until Proven Innocent."
This case fascinated me for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which was the generally deplorable behavior of 88 Duke faculty and several members of the administration. However, the deeper fascination was much the same as I had with the Dan Rather memos case from a few years ago. In re-reading a long blog post of mine on that case this morning, I realized how much I wrote then was just as true of this case. In particular, my theme of the "blogosphere" being an example of liberty checking power seems just as, if not more, applicable to this case. Bloggers like KC (and there were others) dug deep while the mainstream media swallowed the hoax hook, line, and politically-correct sinker, and were a significant part of the process by which the three accused young men were declared innocent. No doubt they had great legal representation, but even the lawyers were reading the blogs to keep up with new events.
KC and the others used the power of the net-press to save three young men from as much as 30 years in jail and to expose the corruption of the Durham police and DA's office and, in so doing, sent a warning to other DAs and cops about the sort of scrutiny they might come under in reasonably high-profile cases. That is nothing short of heroic, but that very heroism depended crucially on the institutional context of the Internet.
This particular passage from that earlier post about the Rather memos seems to apply to the Duke case and the role of the media with equal force. One can simply change the particulars and still get the same story about the media not questioning their own premises and the unwillingness of too many on the Left to see the exposure of their own as a victory for principles they should uphold:
None of this should be surprising to those of us raised on Hayek. After all, this is nothing more than the intellectual version of "Competition as a Discovery Procedure." Or better yet, it is Michael Polanyi's work on "The Republic of Science" transferred to current events. Even in the blogosphere, the commentary has talked about the "distributed intelligence" of the Net, or "open source journalism," or even the "hive mind" (a bit too Borg-ish for my taste, but it makes the point). The Hayekian lesson is that it is through the ability to enter the market and compete that knowledge gets created and made socially available to others. Just as in economic competition, where the process will tend to allocate resources better than alternative processes, so in the competition to produce news does the process tend to produce the best approximation to "truth." Markets are in that way examples of liberty defeating power. The very openness and competitiveness of markets makes any momentary hold on power tenuous, requiring that those who possess it continually act affirmatively (e.g. innovating, serving consumers well) to keep it. CBS and other Big Media simply have never had to face this sort of environment before and have become sloppy as a result.
I should add here one or two comments on how this all might have happened. I don't believe that CBS or others exhibit deliberate, conscious bias against conservatives. I don't believe (although it could be true) that Dan Rather said "I need to destroy Bush, so I'll take shortcuts to try to do so." Instead, as others have argued, the problem is more bias-induced laziness. Assuming CBS was duped and not complicit, I'm sure they saw these memos as fitting their priors about Bush and political issues more generally and simply didn't see any reason to investigate further because the memos, in some sense, just had to be true. All the head-scratching about why it took 12 hours for the blogosphere to see the obviously shoddy forging job while CBS missed it can be explained by the differences in behavior induced by both different political priors and the differing perceptions of the rules of the game held by bloggers and Big Media. Political priors will frame what sorts of things require "investigation" and what sorts do not. ...
Finally, I appeal to my friends on the Left to take the right lesson from this whole event. Again, this is a triumph of democracy, liberty, and the common person over some of the most powerful institutions in America. That aspect of this event, again assuming the memos are forged, should be cause for celebration on the Left. It's possible that this could further doom the Kerry campaign, but don't let that obscure the sunshine. To all who argue that monopolized unchecked corporate power is a problem, the outing of CBS, and the advent of the new media on the Internet more generally, should be a cause for celebration. More power to the people and all of that. The way in which competition takes advantage of distributed knowledge and mobilizes it through the rules and procedures of the competitive process is the key to toppling power, whether economic, political, or intellectual. It works in markets just as well as it works in the world of the new media. I'm sorry if you don't like the particulars, but if you call yourself a person of the Left, this is a moment you should have been waiting for. Orwell just got that whole technology and power thing ass-backwards. The democratization of knowledge production and the ability of one person with a computer to check the power of the major social institutions is here, and it is the technology of the telescreen that brought it to us.
Left, Right, Libertarian, or whatever, liberty has once again defeated power by redistributing it back to the people.
Congratulations to our colleague KC for a job well done. And for the rest of us, we can take a moment to recognize the victory, if small, for liberty over power that this case represents.
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Mark Brady - 9/4/2007
1. We shouldn't forget that it was more than, and less than, the Left. More than, in that the Durham police, like so many police forces, has imbibed at the well of political correctness. Less than, in that some on the Left were outspoken against the witch hunt that the police and university administration pursued against the students.
2. And this point ties in with Robert Higgs' perceptive analysis above. My recollection is that the end result of the affair of the Dan Rather memos was to obfuscate the truth about George W. Bush's past, not to reveal what actually happened.
Robert Higgs - 9/4/2007
In discussing the Duke boys' escape from the criminal injustice system as "a victory, if small, for liberty," the operative word is small.
Yes, it is glorious that in this highly publicized case the bloggers, along with others, managed to expose the prosecutor to such a blinding glare of truth that the system's custodians had to react, to preserve the system's threatened legitimacy. Unfortunately, however, on the day that Nifong was sentenced to a day in jail, there must have been thousands of people across this country unjustly arrested and jailed, dishonestly tried and unfairly sentenced, and sent to rot in prison. Many of them, even if they were tried fairly and honestly, ought never to have been in court to begin with because the actions with which they were charged had no victims. They are, in the most literal sense, political prisoners, and this country is sinking beneath the weight of such unjustly imprisoned men and women.
I think people of our ideological predispostion consistently exaggerate the extent to which the new technology, in general--and the Internet, in particular--serves as a bulwark againt the powers that be. A victory here and there amounts to little more than a drop in the ocean of tyranny.
Consider, for example, how many, many commentators in the Web and elsewhere have for years on end exposed the Bush administration's blatant disregard for either liberty or the truth. Yet the government's response to all this exposure boils down to a hearty, smirking "screw you" and an unabated commitment to "bombs away." These tyrants have the power, and they use and abuse it pretty much as they like, regardless of what we say about their actions.
One of the few liberties Americans still have is the freedom of speech, which they now exercise to the full via the Internet and the Web. The reason the authorities permit us to exercise this liberty is that they understand that, as an approximation, it doesn't do us a damn bit of good. We are at their mercy because the great mass of Americans is perfectly happy with tyranny, and the rulers know it. So let the dissenting crows caw, as Pareto once advised Mussolini. The rulers create more trouble for themselves than it's worth by attempting to squelch our yelping. They even have the audacity to cite our unmolested yelping as proof that "the system works" and as an important example of "democracy in action."