The meaning of the scandal at Duke is meaninglessness

Posted: May 01, 2006 12:05 AM

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum called the Duke rape case "a scandal in search of meaning." She points out that every new piece of news that emerges is like a Rorschach test. Everyone - conservatives, liberals, blacks, whites, men and women - interprets what is happening according to his own predisposition.

For me, the story has conjured up images from a depressing and gruesome film of a number of years ago, "Leaving Las Vegas." The film served up to the audience a distillation of the worst that life has to offer. The protagonist, played by Nicolas Cage, loses his job and concludes that it's not worth going on. He takes whatever money he has left and goes to Las Vegas with the objective of giving himself a month to drink himself to death.

Cage meets a prostitute and they connect on a personal level. But the terms of engagement are that it can't get too personal. They can connect, but she can't interfere with his goal of drinking himself to death. That is, although moments of humanity might be permitted, they'll both remain aimless and pointless objects of life's serendipity. He, an unemployed loser with no prospects. She, resigned to sustaining herself by selling her body.

In one of the film's more horrible scenes, she receives an order to a hotel room from a few college kids who are apparently in Las Vegas for a weekend joyride. When she arrives and enters the room, she tells them she'll take them one at a time. Even in the flesh-peddling business there's apparently a place for some kind of civil rules of engagement.

But the boys will have none of it. They gang-rape her, sodomize her and beat her.

The pathetic story fits well with the backdrop of Las Vegas, the quintessential human supermarket.

So, it's this sad story of human emptiness that I see in the tale from Duke.

It may be true that those with different politics or sympathies may interpret the facts differently. But what seems consistent across the board here is the complete absence of any glimpse of quality and decent behavior by anyone.

Like in "Leaving Las Vegas," one is left with a cynical sense that the only way people are capable of relating to one another is as objects for one another's use.

Even if the Duke boys shake the rape charge, it's hard to feel much sympathy for them. You can see them going through life like it's all one big fraternity party. The sense one gleans of why they're getting a university education is to acquire a pedigree and technical skills so they can afford the accoutrements for the party.

The various attempts to paint the stripper as a struggling student and mother trying to support herself, of course, ring hollow. No one has to do this kind of work for a living. No one with any kind of sense of value or personal respect would. It's even more troubling now that her parents are weighing in. That is, we now know she has them and they are in contact. Where have they been all these years, and what kind of parents are they?

After the brutal gang-rape scene in "Leaving Las Vegas," you feel outrage at the two-legged animals who ravaged this woman. Yet, one feels pathos rather than sympathy toward the beaten and swollen prostitute. She is not an innocent victim.

The issue of race that has been injected into the picture here is also sordid. If violence did occur, would somehow that violence been more acceptable if it were black athletes who were the perpetrators, or if the stripper were white?

And, of course, there is the media, loving every minute of this. In a world with no shortage of real issues and problems, including a holocaust taking place in the Sudan, where there really are innocent victims, this rather unremarkable story is getting breathless national coverage.

I have written that the dysfunctional behavior we see in so much of black America is really just a reflection of what is happening in the country as a whole. If there is anything positive to say about hip-hop culture it is that it is honest. When blacks say they are "keeping it real," they are keeping it real.

The perception of reality that hip-hop culture reflects is one that says that life is just about getting and exploiting. Why pretend that anything else is going on?

This is the meaning I see in the scandal at Duke. It reflects the emptiness of the crass materialism and relativism that seems to grip all social strata our society more and more each day.