Go West?
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Jan. 7 2002 1:20 PM


Dear Tony,


The papers are rich with Americana this morning. The Washington Post  and others bring us more on the mau-mauing of new Harvard President Lawrence Summers by Cornel West, who has described himself as "a prophetic Christian freedom-fighter" imbued with "ego-deflating humility," and other members of Harvard's all-star Afro-American Studies Department. The Post also chronicles the effort by a new CBS series called First Monday to make a TV show out of the Supreme Court, by tarting up what goes on there—which, if depicted with a tincture of accuracy, is duller to everyone but us mavens of commerce clause jurisprudence than Mullah Omar's sex life. Well, make that duller than dishwater. (Which seems more real: the angry scene in which a clerk threatens to resign because his justice refused to vote anti-abortion? Or the one in which a justice grants stays of execution to eight death row inmates who haven't applied for them to protest a wrongful execution he could not stop?) The Post also carries the up close and personal story of the star female fighter pilot who is suing rock star Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over a rule requiring female personnel at Prince Sultan Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia to cover themselves from head to toe with the locally fashionable abaya and matching head scarf.

Let's start with Harvard, where you once professed to me (not to mention the editor of this magazine), so Pied Piper-like as to lure us both from the path of the law into what we then supposed to be a more honest line of work. Where did Summers—the former Clinton treasury secretary and Democratic economic policy guru known for his brusque manner and indisposition to suffer fools gladly—go wrong? "His inaugural address emphasized the value of skepticism and denigrated slavish followers of orthodoxy," as your favorite editorial page (the Wall Street Journal's) noted today. "It embraced, with great warmth, the principle of inclusiveness in its description of Harvard as a place where men and women of all faiths, races and classes were welcome. It addressed with passion the principle of equal opportunity ... regardless of … financial circumstances."

That was not all bad, although the slavish following of orthodoxy is something to be denigrated at one's peril on today's campuses. But Summers had neglected to genuflect at the shrine of affirmative action, which has become synonymous (at least on campus) with preferential treatment of African-American and other favored minorities (including those who are children of wealth and privilege) over white people (including those who are children of coal miners, cops, and firefighters), especially males. Summers crossed the line from the incorrect to the unforgiveable, as the Washington Post details this morning—in a summary of an NPR interview of West that is airing today and available online here—when he met privately with West in October and questioned his recent scholarly activities. These include making an alleged rap CD (not rap, says West, who touts it with ego-deflating humility as "a watershed moment in musical history"), chairing the lying racist demagogue Al Sharpton's presidential exploratory committee, and contributing to the grade inflation that has made B-plus a below-average grade at Harvard.

West's account (denied by Summers) is that Summers "attacked and insulted" him and treated him with "disrespect." While West is safely tenured and Summers can't do much to him, West can do plenty to Summers, and has. He told NPR that "the one thing I do not tolerate is disrespect, being dishonored and being devalued." He and his allies have threatened to decamp to Princeton. The harpies of political correctness have descended on poor Summers like avenging angels. Sharpton and the lying demagogue Jesse Jackson have volunteered their services to gin up a feast of victimology on behalf of the pampered professor.

By the way, is West—one of only 14 (or is it 17?) Harvard professors honored with the prestigious title of "University Professor"—a serious scholar? Leon Wieseltier, deconstructing his almost impenetrable postmodernist jargon in a 1995 piece in the NewRepublic, concluded that his books "are almost completely worthless." Others disagree. I haven't yet mustered the patience to resort to the dictionary as often as would be necessary to assess this debate. But when current events prompt West to say, "I weep for Harvard," I can agree.

Over to you, Tony.

Stuart Taylor Jr. is a National Journal columnist and Newsweek contributor.


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