Man Without Qualities

Friday, January 18, 2002

Decline of West and the End of Summers Sale

A friend who from time to time sends me excited e-mails writes about the ongoing Cornel West/Larry Summers kerfluffle at Harvard:

Am I the only one who finds the absence of media follow-up in the West/Summers dustup to be peculiar? For example, Summers says that he has spoken to many - perhaps dozens - of Harvard faculty members the same way he spoke to West. That has been one of Summers' main arguments offered up to meet West's accusation that Summers had no business "humiliating" West the way West says Summers did. Well, if that's the argument, then why are there no media articles asking just who else on the Harvard faculty Summers spoke with in that way? Since Summers is making a big deal out of this argument, it seems to matter whether or not other (white) faculty members, especially those whose performance has been no better than West's, have been confronted by Summers. Also, once those other members of the faculty have been identified, shouldn't the media be asking them whether Summers spoke to them as strongly as he did to West? If this information were obtained, it might be possible to determine whether Summers dealt more harshly with West than with other because of his race.

Further, various mainstream media have now run articles recounting how Summers is focused on what he is reported to call "spent volcanoes" at Harvard: faculty members who have not recently been productive. The issue is reportedly of such concern to Summers that he has gone so far as to veto a tenure appointment of a top Cambridge University scholar whose only offense was that he is 54 years old - thereby triggering the predictable "age discrimination" chorus. But if there are enough of these "spent volcanoes" around Harvard so that Summers feels he has to go that far, one would expect that there are plenty of "spent volcanoes" to whom Summers could (or should) have spoken as he did to West.

So who are they, were they spoken to by Summers, and what was said?

Let's consider Alan Dershowitz, a very high profile professor in the Harvard Law School. It appears that Dershowitz has written few law review articles in many years. But Dershowitz has participated in defending the likes of Claus von Bulow and, notoriously, O.J. Simpson. Doesn't a Harvard law professor's participation in what is arguably one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in twenty years rate as close a look as West's involvement with Al Sharpton or Bill Bradley? Dershowitz also regularly writes books about his highly non-academic exploits, and those books have been criticized as being empty and self-promotional. They certainly aren't serious scholarship. Isn't all that at least as bad as West's recording a music CD on his own time? In another incident, an editor of the magazine “Lingua Franca” - an English language magazine - recently reviewed one of Dershowitz’s books. "Lingua Franca" is a classic Latin phrase. Dershowitz sent an embarrassing (to Dershowitz) letter objecting to the review on the grounds that the reviewer was incompetent since he was the editor of a "French magazine".

So let's have the media ask: Mr. Summers, what kind of conversations have you had with Mr. Dershowitz?


In a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, Mr. Dershowitz now opines that judges should be allowed to authorize torture of prisoners:

"The suspect would be given immunity from prosecution based on information elicited by the torture. The warrant would limit the torture to nonlethal means, such as sterile needles, being inserted beneath the nails to cause excruciating pain without endangering life."

So, again, one must ask more urgently: Mr. Summers, what kind of conversations have you had with Mr. Dershowitz?

Further Update:

Mr. Dershowitz appears to believe he is starting something significant with this op-ed effort and the book it promotes. "So, let the debate begin" he writes, apparently unaware that torture has been the subject of vastly more sophisticated and serious legal scholarly analysis by John Langbein, now Sterling Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Professor Langbein has written extensively on the topic and explored its connection with plea bargains and the reliability of criminal trials for over twenty years. And he has done that without the silly grandstanding of the op-ed Dershowitz - surely as counterproductive an approach as could be taken in regards to this most inflamatory topic.

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