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The Fiction of Social Justice

Guest Column
Richard Stone

Recent articles in The Tech regarding the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, by Michael Borucke [“Why Mumia Matters,” Nov. 23, 1999], Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, by William Hafer [“A Lesson from Hurricane,” Mar. 3], and the recent secret study on alleged MIT discrimination against women, by Susan Buchman [“Twenty Irrelevant Pages,” Jan. 19] and Aimee Smith [“Another Look at Gender Inequity in Science,” Feb. 29], provide a depressing reminder of the pervasiveness on American campuses of a fundamentalism as rigid as that of any biblical creationist, namely that of the “social justice” left; and a reminder of the bad faith and factual distortion which characterize all such fundamentalism.

Take first Smith’s and Buchman’s articles, seeking to discredit the critique of the MIT discrimination study by Judith Kleinfeld. Kleinfeld’s thesis is, simply, that MIT’s report was prepared by a group a majority of whom were active complainants in the allegations they were judging, and that all evidence allowing any scrutiny of the claim is to be kept secret. Smith and Buchman join President Vest and Dean Birgeneau in their extraordinary contention, expressed in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, that this doesn’t violate the basic tenets of either science or justice merely because the panel was composed of eminent scientists, and secrecy was allegedly needed for reasons of privacy and fear of retaliation.

To be blunt, this is not a conception either of the scientific method or of the most elementary aspects of justice with which I am familiar. Indeed it is hard not to perceive substantial bad faith on display when one considers the following simple thought experiment: suppose that to judge the allegations a panel had been convened of equally impressive scientists, but who were interested parties as defendants against the charge of discrimination by their departments, and suppose they had issued a report absolving MIT while demanding their evidence remain secret. Such a panel would have met every single one of the criteria that Smith, Buchman, Vest and Birgeneau claim to find sufficent to validate the scientific and moral integrity of their report. Yet is there a soul alive who thinks that Smith, Buchman or any of their allied feminist groups (let alone the national media) would have accepted its conclusions as legitimate?

Much more morally troubling in turn are the articles by Hafer and Borucke on Rubin Carter and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Hafer finds Carter almost Christ-like in his suffering, decency and compassion, convinced entirely on the basis of the recent Hollywood film that he was framed for murder by a brutally racist police system. It may then be a shock for him to learn that almost every event depicted in that film is false.

For example, Carter was tried as a youth not for bravely defending himself and a friend against a child molester, but for brutally assaulting a bystander with a bottle and stealing his watch, one of nearly 20 youthful convictions, many of them for assaults and mugging. The policeman who oversaw the gathering of evidence in his trial, depicted as a vicious racist in the film and by Hafer, and now dead so he cannot defend himself, is not known to have said or thought a single racist thing in his entire life.

Indeed, there is something truly disturbing in the casualness with which Hafer charges every policeman, juror and judge involved in Carter’s trials with racism without feeling obliged to state a solitary piece of substantiating evidence or to detail a single element of the alleged “strong evidence” exonerating Carter. The jury impanelled at Carter’s second trial was not all-white as the movie depicts, nor was Carter ultimately found innocent in a federal trial. Rather, he had an appeal for a third trial granted on rather technical and highly debatable grounds which the prosecution ultimately chose not to challenge only because several witnesses had died and Carter was already approaching parole. And on and on.

On these lines it would be interesting to know if, during the recent speech which Hafer found so compelling, Carter described at all the circumstances under which, in 1976 (as reported by leading black journalist Chuck Stone and confirmed in recent interviews by the victim herself) he beat within an inch of death a small woman Carolyn Kelley, whose sole provocation had been to dedicate a year of her life to winning a retrial for a man she had thought until then to be a fellow black man ensnared by racism. Perhaps Carter did not have time, or perhaps Hafer forgot to ask.

And yet for sheer factual distortion, even this case pales by comparison with that made on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal by Borucke. He claims that officer Daniel Faulkner and Mumia’s brother were shot to death (in fact, Mumia’s brother was unharmed) and that at Mumia’s trial “crucial evidence was suppressed,” “Mumia could not represent himself,” and “witnesses gave false testimony” in a “joke” of a trial. Borucke fails to give any details in his column, but suffice to say that every one of these claims is false, and easily verifiable as such by anyone who, unlike Borucke, chooses to examine, the transcript of the 1998 Pennsylvania Supreme Court appeal hearing.

Mumia was allowed to represent himself until his repeated threats and intimidation towards jurors and judge necessitated his removal, even after which he was allowed to closely supervise his defense. No evidence was suppressed at his trial, and if this is, as I presume, a reference to the allegation that the murder bullet was a .44, not a .38 matching Jamal’s gun, it should be noted that this pervasive myth has long been debunked. The bullet exactly matched the groove, rifling characteristics and special type of Jamal’s gun which was found with five spent cartridges next to the dead man as Jamal lay wounded wearing his empty holster.

Finally, as for the accusations that the police bribed and threatened witnesses into framing Jamal, this is based on an alleged 1997 confession by one such witness, Cynthia White. It was effectively refuted at the 1998 hearing by producing a death certificate showing that White had died in 1992.

Given the absence of any detailed discussion of the case and the factual falsehood of what little is provided, one can only wonder at the preposterous conspiracy fantasies which made up the bulk of Borucke’s column.

What all three of these “social justice” causes share is the fundamentalist’s belief that their ideological convictions are the true reality, and that facts are only relevant insofar as they conform. Smith and Buchman don’t believe one should study the evidence in a report in order to determine if MIT’s practices are indeed sexist. Rather, they know axiomatically that this is so, with evidence entirely dispensable when the right conclusions have been reached.

Hafer and Borucke believe with such blind fervor in the truth of their worldview, of monolithic police racism and dark conspiracies to oppress the weak, that they absolve themselves of any obligation to inquire honestly about the specific facts of any particular case, while simultaneously completely ignoring any cases that do not fit their preconceived ideological framework.

In the end, no notion of justice is served simply by penning exaggerated articles striking ostentatious moral poses against the cosmic injustices of racism and sexism in the fashion displayed in these four; nor by casually demonizing all who disagree as bigoted and evil (a habit evident in all too many of The Tech’s opinion columns); nor, finally, by neglecting the elementary duty of investigating in detail the merits of each specific issue, policy or case being considered.

Richard Stone received a master’s degree in 1996 from the Mathematics Department.