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Feb 25, 2006 11:19 pm


Summers Fallout



I have been struck by the remarkably sharp reaction to the Summers resignation from Establishment voices of the center-left. The Washington Postdescribed Summers' departure as"prejudice wins," a setback for those who believe that"universities exist to pose tough questions, promote critical thinking, and generally challenge complacency and prejudice." Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic,"alleged that"the most prestigious professoriate in the world, Harvard's, has just made an ass of itself," unseating"one of the few contemporary college presidents who tried to turn liberal ideals into government policy, rather than just opining about them from the ivory tower." Marty Peretz, in the same journal, noted"tact is not the issue. It's conviction that's the issue, and many FAS faculty do not like his convictions." Alan Dershowitz lamented "an academic coup d'etat" that originated from Summers having" committed the cardinal sin against the academic hard left: He expressed politically incorrect views regarding gender, race, religion, sexual preference, and the military" (and policy toward Israel). Even the New York Times Magazine's James Traub, in a piece that minimized the ideological nature of the conflict, lambasted Summers' most outspoken faculty critics, observing that, as"university presidents who have something to say that is worth hearing are as rare as hen's teeth," he worried"that an emboldened faculty will push the Harvard Corporation to choose as his successor the reincarnation of Neil Rudenstine."

These comments aren't coming from the Wall Street Journal editorial board. And they reflect a general understanding that, regardless of Summers' obvious interpersonal shortcomings, there's a problem when a considerable portion of the faculty of the nation's most prestigious university considers the specific views that Summers presented on Israel, ROTC, expectations of scholarship, and faculty diversity not merely wrong but so beyond the pale that he deserved a vote of no-confidence and a continued opposition campaign thereafter that ultimately ended in his resignation. As the Post noted about Summers' public positions on the Israeli divestment petition, ROTC, and the idea that University Professors should remain productive scholars,"the fact that these commonsensical positions alienated people at Harvard speaks volumes about the cultural gap [between university faculties and the rest of the country] that troubled Mr. Summers."

I'm sure the Harvard Corporation is troubled by such reaction. Obviously, Summers was forced out for a combination of his personality shortcomings and his views on issues cherished by the contemporary campus left. Yet, as Dershowitz pointed out,"the 400-pound gorilla in the room" in the affair is the explanatory note initially attached (though subsequently removed from) the 2005 no-confidence resolution. In retrospect, passage of this resolution made untenable Summers' presidency. And, for the considerable faction of the faculty prepared to back a no-confidence vote solely on grounds of the unchanged resolution, Summers' viewpoints, not his administrative style, was the critical issue.

The negative press reaction badly complicates Harvard's search for a new president. Take the case of candidates who would rather not sit silently the next time a segment of the faculty offers an anti-Israel petition, or who have expressed doubt that the academy should orient its curricular and personnel policies around the currently dominant race/class/gender trinity. It's hard to believe that the best of such candidates would be eager to come to Harvard, where they could either focus on non-academic matters or, if they chose to act upon their ideals, run the risk of a no-confidence vote against them. On the other hand, if it chooses a president who reflects the viewpoints of Summers' faculty critics (someone like Shirley Tilghman), the Corporation would effectively be implementing an educational vision that a majority of its members don't seem (quite properly) to share.

It's beyond Harvard, though, where it seems to me that Summers' resignation will have the most dramatic effect. The Post, correctly, fears that"because of the prestige of Harvard, [Summers'] defeat may demoralize reformers at other universities." University administrators at less prestigious institutions who might be inclined to press for more pedagogical diversity among the faculy, or be willing to speak out against the professoriate's more radical ideas, or be eager to uphold more traditional scholarly standards will surely think twice about Summers' fate before acting: appeasing the dominant voices on campus ensures job security. But if administrators refuse to provide needed checks and balances on personnel and curricular matters, is there any reason to assume that the trend toward increasing ideological homogoneity among the faculty will be reversed?

Perhaps, if the Post, and TNR, and the political forces for which they speak, continue to pay attention to the issue. But I'm more inclined to agree with the London Times, which yesterday predicted that"Summers' end marks the start of a long winter in American universities," as he unsuccessfully" challenged all the academic pillars of political correctness."

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Robert KC Johnson - 3/2/2006

I'm not quite sure what Bush's failures as a president have to do with Larry Summers' departure; I don't believe I expressed support for Bush's policies at any point in this thread.


Barry DeCicco - 3/1/2006

Robert, Bush is at 34% approval; anybody who's been actually observing the past few years and is honest knows that he's the worst president we've had since Nixon, except far more corrupt and far more incompetant. And at this point in his administration it's clear that he's not into damage control, but into 'staying the course' (i.e., continuing to inflict damage on the US).

The Iraq War was a fraud from the start, pursued for personal political gain. Which, I'm sure, Republicans would be calling treason, if commited by Clinton.

Even now, in terms of general defense, the policies of Rumsfield are the same old same old - buy very expensive toys, which were on the wish lists of generals back when the anticipated war was purely conventional. Our Army is being ground down in a guerrilla war, and the DoD is not adapting to it. Note - a guerrilla was without massive outside support. It's pretty much open knowledge now that, if Iraqi Shiites did want to throw us out, with Iranian help, it'd be a sure thing.

Torture - now, the US has always used torture and mass murder as tools of polcy. But it's always hidden in the shadows, lurking in the alleys, which limited its power. Due to the Bush administration's lust for unrestrained power, we're now at the point where the administration openly tortures people. And openly defies Congress about it.

Executive power: this administration, and the GOP, has advanced/tolerated a level of executive power which has yet to recognize a limit. They've claimed that there is no limits on a presdient's power in war. Cheney has said that this war will last for the rest of our lives. The only limitation actually imposed on them so far is that US citizens can't be 'disappeared' without trial. Foreigners can be.


Economically: The Bush administration has been as close to 100% fraudulent as an administration could be, without publicly forecasting a shower of gold from the sky. Bush denounced Gore's far more accurate statements as fuzzy math, repeatedly lied about who was getting the bulk of the tax cuts, and what the effect of those tax cuts would be. His policy is clearly to spend the US into the verge of bankruptcy, and to let the next Democratic president take the fall. And to use his fraudulent spending to attempt to destroy important programs like Social Security. If it weren't for the facts that French is not PC among Republicans, and that he couldn't pronounce it without terminal stuttering, the official Bush economic policy would be 'Apre moi, le deluge'.

In terms of other policies, the trademarks of the Bush administration has been an unprecedented amount of secrecy, for the obvious reason that the corruption would stink too much. Scientifically, the policy of the Bush administration has been one of pure fraud. Associations of historians and scientists have denounced the administration in unprecedented terms.

So tell me, Robert - how is even the harshest criticism of Bush proof of anything to the left of a rational center?


Robert KC Johnson - 2/28/2006

Here's the link to TNR's blog, the Plank, written by several of its staffers:
http://www.tnr.com/blog/theplank

It contains repeated entries about Bush hacks, mocking comments on the Abramoff scandal, and criticism of Newt Gingrich. It can be said, of course, that this is the voice of the right. Just as, I suppose, some people might describe the Weekly Standard as the voice of the left.

It seems to me that the allegation that a US citizen is more loyal to another country than to the US is an extraordinarily serious charge. I certainly haven't seen any evidence that academic critics of divestment or supporters of Israel more generally could be tarred with such a description.


Barry DeCicco - 2/28/2006

Oh, some other New Republic things which other people mentioned: Andrew Sullivan's hyping of 'The Bell Curve'; Michael Kelly, who hated Clinton with a deep and abiding passion (good riddance!), their opposition to the Clinton health plan.


Barry DeCicco - 2/28/2006

An item which just occurred to me - the Bush administration was the first administration since the Hoover administration, to have the number of jobs in the US decline. Not be flat, not grow more slowly than the US labor force, but to actually declined. How many people would have bet money back in the 1990's that such a president would have been re-elected? Also, real salaries/wages have been declining over the past 4 years, even as we are allegedly coming out of a recession. This should have prevented re-election (has any president been re-elected under those circumstances)?.

9/11 + (right-wing) evangelicals + a scared, corporate media + the interests of concentrated wealth have had a drastic effect on US politics over the past few years.


Barry DeCicco - 2/28/2006

To start: neocons who wrote that policy proposal for the Netanyahu govermentment in 96, urging that Saddam be ousted, and who then implemented that policy in the Bush administration (IIRC, Feith and others), Dershowitze (against torture until the Israeli government admitted to it, then OK with it), most PMD evangelicals.

As for The New Republic, they were also very critical of the Clinton adminstration (see: Kelly, Michael for a good start, then Sullivan, Andrew). With the difference that there was actually was a right-wing cabal throwing dirt at the Clinton administration, whereas the Bush administration actually does evil.

I classify the 51% who voted for Bush as a combination of right-wingers, the scared and the deluded. Please note that, even now, Bush has ~40% of the American people supporting him (caveat: I'm not up on the latest figures). Considering just how bad the past five years has been, and how much more dirt has come out since the election, and that the Bush administration has clearly taken re-election as vindication, rather than a gift, 40% is truly amazing. Please remember that 51% approval can indicate either centrism, or a good job of polical maneuvering, or good luck, or a population which is politically aligned. If a politician achieved a genuine popularity of 51%, this doesn't mean that he's not politically extreme. Just the Iraq War alone makes Bush an extreme right-winger; when was the last time that a US president deliberately invaded and conquered a medium-sized government for purely political gain?


Robert KC Johnson - 2/27/2006

I've heard similar stories--stirring up controversy for the sake of doing so isn't a good idea (one reason I thought his women-in-science comments, quite beyond the weird wording, were foolish, unlike his position on the divestment resolution, where the controversy was created by others).


Robert KC Johnson - 2/27/2006

TNR endorsed Gore in 2000, Kerry in 2004; Dershowitz (as far as I know) did the same. The majority of TNR's articles are critical of the Bush administration. If such views represent the "right," where do we classify the 51% who voted for Bush?

I'd be curious which figures you're referring to that "could be legitimately suspected of having a stronger loyalty to Israel than to the US."


Barry DeCicco - 2/27/2006

"Advocates of such resolutions rarely, if ever, explain why they choose to hold Israel to a standard different from other countries in the world."

American advocates of Israel also hold Israel to a different standard, frequently to the point where they could be legitimately suspected of having a stronger loyalty to Israel than to the US (and no, I don't mean Jews specifically; I mean Rapture-loving Evangelicals). The US gives Israel a few billion dollars each year, with no particular strings attached.

Israel is in a rather unique position in the world; so be it.


Barry DeCicco - 2/27/2006

The 'Even the liberal' New Republic is not center-left, unless attacking Iraq and scr*wing the Palestinians as much as possible are center-left positions. The New Republic *used* to be center-left, but that was long ago. When I first read it during the Reagan administration, I thought that it was a Republican magazine which, dut to some quirk, didn't like Rea
gan.

Alan 'Torture is good; Israeli torture is double-plus gooder!' Derschowitz is also not a member of the center-left. At one time, a while back, he might have been, but he's burned that membership card very thoroughly. He just wrote a book 'Preemption' which (judging from the cover page summary) puts him firmly in the 'bomb them all, and let God sort them out' camp.


Michael Kazin - 2/27/2006

Whatever one thinks of Summers' positions on undergrad education, women in science, Israel, or anything else, one has to acknowledge that he is a wretched politician. His main tactic for changing people's minds was to shock them, then belittle their objections. That would be obnoxious but acceptable behavior for a brilliant professor; but it was self-defeating for the president of a university, where everyone thinks they know what's best for the institution.

Summers displayed his tone-deaf arrogance when he spoke at my 35th Harvard reunion last June. Unprompted, he went out of his way to defend the Vietnam War, saying he thought it could have and should have been won (although not taking the trouble to explain why or how). This before a group of baby-boomers many of whom protested the war and had just been asking him whether current undergrads were opposing the war in Iraq. His position may or may not have been an intelligent one. But he was obviously going out of his way to rile us up.

Michael Kazin


Michael Kazin - 2/27/2006

Whatever one thinks of Summers' positions on undergrad education, women in science, Israel, or anything else, one has to acknowledge that he is a wretched politician. His main tactic for changing people's minds was to shock them, then belittle their objections. That would be obnoxious but acceptable behavior for a brilliant professor; but it was self-defeating for the president of a university, where everyone thinks they know what's best for the institution.

Summers displayed his tone-deaf arrogance when he spoke at my 35th Harvard reunion last June. Unprompted, he went out of his way to defend the Vietnam War, saying he thought it could have and should have been won (although not taking the trouble to explain why or how). This before a group of baby-boomers many of whom protested the war and had just been asking him whether current undergrads were opposing the war in Iraq. His position may or may not have been an intelligent one. But he was obviously going out of his way to rile us up.

Michael Kazin


Robert KC Johnson - 2/26/2006

I didn't "bother" to deal with Yglesias' argument because I discussed it in some detail in my previous post on Summers. On the issue of "labels," the central thrust of this post was the unexpectedly strong condemnation of Summers' resignation coming from editorial voices we normally associate with the center-left Establishment. It did seem useful to point out that few would consider Yglesias such a voice; I apologize if doing so seemed lazy.

On the Summers argument re the Israeli divestment petition, I think he was absolutely correct. Advocates of such resolutions rarely, if ever, explain why they choose to hold Israel to a standard different from other countries in the world. Such initiatives--most spectacularly the UN's Zionism-is-racism resolution--can fairly be described as anti-Semitic in effect, since they treat the Jewish state differently from all other nations.


Jacob paul segal - 2/26/2006



I suppose that phrase "anti-Semitic in effect if not intent" could mean that at least these activities are anti-semitic in effect, but could also be anti-semitic in intent. In either case, the argument is nonsense and attempts to attach anti-semitism to worthy criticisms of Israeli policies.

I note that Johnson does not bother to deal with
Yglesias' argument (that Summers survived the poltical controversies but lost his office because of more mundane internal politicies (pertaining to new buildings and the firing of a popular Dean). Instead, Johnson lazily tags him with a label, as if that were an argument.


Robert KC Johnson - 2/26/2006

I believe that the comment made by Summers was that the proposed resolution was "anti-Semitic in effect if not intent." This comment does not identify the supporters of the resolution as anti-Semitic. It does say that singling out Israel for treatment different from any other country in the world has an anti-Semitic "effect."

In terms of who speaks for the Establishment center-left--the Post and TNR or Yglesias--I would say the Post and TNR. I never claimed that those on the activist left like Yglesias were critical of Summers' departure; it is, indeed, a major victory for them.


Jacob paul segal - 2/26/2006

Johnson does not mention, of course, that Summers identified the supporters of distinvestment from Israel of anti-semintism. An outrageous comment. Also, please note this post from Matthew Yglesias at http://www.tpmcafe.com/node/27016 for, shall we say, a broader view of this matter from the center-left and Johnson.

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