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Defending The Hard to Defend



There are two comments in Paul’s first discussion of the odd NYT profile of Alice Goffman that, in admittedly extreme form, exemplify how Goffman and her defenders have tried to explain away stories that are almost certainly made up:

My brother was a police prosecutor, an assistant DA, and eventually a defense attorney. He was the kind of attorney you got if you really truly committed the crime. Based on the above incidents, Goffman’s tome seems true enough. In fact, if these are the most outlandish events in her book, I’d say she only penetrated the outer layer of police brutality/racism and cover-up.

More important to me is why you and others continue to hound her. Professorial misogyny? Academic policing?

Having gone through the dissertation process and seeing firsthand what PhD candidates do with facts and statistics, and no, it isn’t pretty, I’m trying to get a handle on just what exactly fuels your rage.

Goffman may have embellished and lied. On those points she is vulnerable and deserves scrutiny and, perhaps, even censure. The continual lambasting of her methods and character are, however, way over the top.

There are stories I could tell you from my brother’s files that make “On The Run” seem juvenile. I’m from a part of the country where the deck isn’t just stacked against minorities, said minorities aren’t even permitted in the poker room to play. You want to rail, rail against real white privilege. Put your commitments where your typewriter fingers are. Do something. Goffman is not the problem.


Well, it’s striking that this article can largely be summarized as

reporter: “Dear Mr Piggy: did you or your officers wildly violate the law and/or de jure (as opposed to de facto) department policy?”

Pig: “Of course not! Haw Haw Haw that supposed incident is laughable.”

to which I reply, drawing from one of so many incidents, Laquan McDonald. Where 19 officers corroborated the murderer’s lies, 5 of them stole video from the restaurant, and we just learned more detained witnesses until they chose to corroborate the story.

This pretty much echoes what Goffman offers in the profile in lieu of any corroboration for her stories — questioning her version of events is an attempt to silence minorities, and if you question her version of particular events it must be because you think the police are incapable of bad behavior, and believe them uncritically. To state the obvious, this is all bullshit. Of course police officers do things far worse than what Goffman describes on a depressingly frequent basis. This does not in any way mean that Goffman’s stories deserve the level of deference her supporters demand.

To take the second charge first, it’s simply untrue that Paul and other critics have relied solely on police sources to question Goffman’s claims. In the case of the allegedly widespread practice of Philadelphia police officers using maternity ward check-in lists to identify people with outstanding warrants, Paul checked with criminal defense attorneys and hospital employees, none of whom could in any way corroborate Goffman’s assertions. (It’s worth noting that in this case Goffman is not just saying that police are behaving badly; she’s accusing ordinary hospital workers of systematically engaging in illegal and unethical behavior. It strikes me that such claims need more evidence than “take my word for it.”)

It is true that Paul only talked to police sources with respect to the alleged Menace II Society re-enactment. But Paul is not arguing that the officers who questioned Goffman’s account should be taken at face value because they’re police officers, which would be silly. Rather, Paul is pointing out that the arguments being made by the officers in this case are vastly more plausible than Goffman’s account. It is, needless to say, not hard to believe that the police would depart from SOP to intimidate suspects and witnesses. What is hard to believe is that their method of intimidation would be to put guns on a table where they could be seized by the suspect/witness and turned against them. I suppose I can believe that the police would stray from SOP to use officers from the SWAT team to intimidate a witness (although my non-expert inclination would be to use a, you know, experienced interrogator if I wanted to intimidate someone.) But it is massively implausible that the SWAT team would be hauled out to intimidate not an alleged cop killer or child molester but a middle-class white female academic who is not a criminal suspect. The fact that the police lied and suppressed evidence to cover up the murder of Laquan McDonald is neither here nor there in terms of whether this particular story is true. And, as Paul says, questioning events that either happened to Goffman or Goffman claims to have witnessed is not silencing the voices of racial minorities who are routinely subject to police misconduct.

On the first point, I’ll cede the floor to djw:

The “continuous” factor is surely partly because of how the relevant professional academic organizations and institutions don’t appear to be taking the issues raised seriously.

If the quantitative/experimental political science community, Science, UCLA, and Princeton University had circled the wagons for Michael Lacour, you can be sure the critical coverage of his fraudulent research would have a been a great deal more continuous. And if Hugo Schwyzer was still teaching at Pasadena CC and being published in major feminist outlets, you’d see a lot more about him. To be clear, I’m not asserting Goffman’s misdeeds were comparable, nor that the consequences should be as harsh. But criticizing the coverage of apparent fraud for not stopping after a story or two when the relevant institutions take no steps to address it is silly.

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