Alice Goffman’s book about low-income black men and their interactions with the police, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, was published last year to glowing reviews. Now the shit is hitting the fan.
Here are some things to consider:
- The Oprah Syndrome. Oprah frequently fell in love with supposedly non-fiction books which struck a responsive chord with her, only to find later that they were just made up. There is little doubt that some of the early encomia for Goffman’s work were by people who fell victim to the Oprah Syndrome.
- Schadenfreude. Now that Goffman has been built up, our jealousy is satisfied by tearing her down. If it weren’t for Schadenfreude, we here at Biteme.me would have nothing to live for.
- Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University, has raised the question of whether Goffman technically committed a crime during her six years of hanging with the black underclass of Philadelphia. For this, Lubet got himself prominently mentioned in the New York Times, which is more than than can be said for the ink-stained wretches here in the BiteCastle.
- Goffman wrote that she learned from Philadelphia police officers that officers visiting hospitals regularly run the names of patients and visitors through criminal databases, arresting those with outstanding warrants. Law professor James Forman has queried public defenders and civil rights lawyers in Philadelphia and found no one who could confirm Goffman’s account. This at least raises a serious question about the accuracy of Goffman’s reporting.
- The Times says that “some sociologists counter that ethnography is concerned not just with facts but with people’s perceptions of those facts, which powerfully shape their behavior and experience.” Sure, but if Goffman reports her subjects’ perceptions as if they were facts not perceptions, she’s engaging in polemics, hagiography, homiletics . . . or fiction.
- While we’re at it, the Times refers to “some sociologists” without naming which ones. Cute maneuver, there. By proximity, they imply that they’re referring to Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland. But maybe not. Maybe they just pulled “some sociologists” out of their ass.
- Lastly, the Times attributes to ethnographer Victor Rios the opinion that Goffman’s focus on “outrageous criminal exploits” gives a distorted picture. But the Times only quotes three words out of Rios’ mouth: “outrageous criminal exploits.” They made up the rest.
Since everyone turns to the Bitemaster for guidance on how to think about such Important Issues, here’s our take:
- Alice Goffman has written one hell of an interesting book.
- There are some questions about its reliability.
- As usual, the Times muddies the waters.
- Other than that, you’re on your own, kiddies.