Bonfire of the Blue Devils

April 27, 2006

Like every other observer of the sex-race-class-legal-political-media drama unfolding at Duke University, we can't possibly yet know if any crimes were committed, or even who may turn out to be the true victims - if any - in this story.

But this grotesque bonfire in Durham, N.C., is impossible not to watch, nonetheless.

Take a big dose of privilege.

(Who doesn't know by now that Duke, where the annual tab is about the same as the U.S. median household income, is among the most impossible-to-get-into schools?)

Multiply that privilege by injecting one of the nation's highest-ranked teams in perhaps the most elite college sport, lacrosse.

(Don't think that the grooming of top high school athletes for big-time college programs doesn't produce an overly large sense of entitlement in many young minds.)

Then jazz it up with the undisputed fact that two young, scantily dressed women were hired to entertain dozens of young men.

Douse the incident with lots of alcohol.

Did we mention that the two women are black and from the other side of a small Southern town and all of the young men are white, with many from much better circumstances in the Northeast?

Throw in the not atypical, he-said, she-said uncertainty of cases involving claims of rape - with defense lawyers proffering all manner of evidence: DNA tests, medical records, cell phone logs, time-stamped photos, restaurant receipts.

And last but not least, mix it all up with an ambitious local prosecutor in a tough re-election campaign and a pricey cast of defense lawyers for the Blue Devils.

As a chronicle of the sharp clashes of many of the ugly divisions within American culture, it reminds us of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe's sociological satire of New York City's simmering race and class tensions.

Perhaps more to the point, two years ago, Durham's newspaper ran a column by a Duke professor making a very strong case that Mr. Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, his most recent novel on the coarsening of college life, is based on life at Duke.

Now we have an open window providing an all-too-real view of that sort of cultural decline, whether a crime was committed or not. And this time, it's no mere satire.

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