I’ve been thinking about the long delayed exoneration of the four young white men from upper-class backgrounds who stood accused of having kidnapped and gang-raped a poor black exotic dancer. Accusations are flying, this time against North Carolina authorities, Duke University authorities, and the National Press for rushing to judgment against the students.
How much of this “rushing to judgment” was due to Political Correctness, or at least to a wish to prove to the world that the South is no longer racist?
I have a personal interest in Duke. I went to Durham for a book signing not so long ago. (my views on book signings another time). On the occasion, I flew into Raleigh on an airplane that was one step up from a rattling helicopter, part of a commuter airline that not long afterward crashed a plane (no survivors). My cabbie from Raleigh to Durham, was a young middle-eastern man who had just come to this country. He got terribly lost. Among other excursions, I got a tour of the Duke campus, a very large and beautiful place with green lawns, large brick buildings with white columns, and neatly kept parks. My new publisher (no doubt, in a honeymoon spirit) had booked me into the Duke Inn. This adjoins the campus and exemplifies grand Southern hospitality, much like the famous Williamsburg Inn in Virginia. I was seriously intimidated by its elegance, by the large photo showing the enormous Duke family (founders of the university) gathered in front of the inn, and by the regal manner of the middle-aged black waiter who seated me in the restaurant. The menu prices were almost too rich for my budget (I had decided to follow Barry Eisler’s advice and take care of all minor expenses myself), but the chicken salad was the most delicious I ever ate. This was the South at its best and this is what I remembered as I followed the TV coverage.
It is easy to make scapegoats out of those who have already been branded evil by the popular mind. No doubt, people were on the defensive in Raleigh. Southerners and affluent whites want to prove that they have changed, that they are no longer racist. The all-pervasive Political Correctness demands a certain position in such matters. And so four young men and their families went through hell.
What does this have to do with the stellar success of the Da Vinci Code? Well, the scapegoat there is the Catholic Church. In a country where Fundamentalist Protestants are a powerful political faction, and where recent sensational revelations of child abuse by priests and a cover-ups by bishops have turned a whole country against Catholicism, Dan Brown’s choice of villain and conspiracy was inspired. Well, at least smart. In a business sense. He knew his audience. Which was additionally made up of many liberated women. In short, he knew he had a hot topic.
I ask myself about a writer’s responsibility in a climate where it is all too easy to choose a scapegoat to please a crowd. As mystery writers, should we not give as much thought to our choice of villains as we do our good guys? And as readers, should we not refuse to be manipulated?