The Campus Uprisings, Israel, and the Downfall of Larry Summers
The Wall Street Journal of November 14-15 carried an astute article by Roger Kimball (editor of the New Criterion) entitled “The Rise of the College Crybullies.” The lethal mixture of trembling sensitivity and mob ruthlessness in these student insurrectionaries has turned the country’s universities into a vast bedlam with a thousand wards. He tells how “the crybully…has weaponized his coveted status as a victim” with two calling cards: race and gender. He uses these to exploit to the fullest extent what Joseph Epstein has called “the unassailable virtue of victims.”
The past month alone has seen the humiliation and forced resignation of assorted faculty members, deans, and even university presidents. Some schools have run up the white flag of surrender even before they were invaded, or tried what might be called preemptive action to ward off the wrath of the new brownshirts by appointing presidents and provosts who proclaim their unswerving devotion to diversity training; or to appointing (more) deans of equity; or to fighting “minoritization” and “marginalization”; or to celebrating gay marriage and transgenderism; or to requiring “trigger warnings” about dangerous books; or to implementing race quotas; or to realizing all the other countless desiderata of campus radicals.
At NYU, for example, “Students of Color” currently list no fewer than 28 “demands” but encouraged the submission of still more. Their counterparts at Brandeis (as of this writing) lag behind with only 13, but are more peremptory and menacing about deadlines by which their demands must be met. Yale’s revolutionaries complain that their uprising against the school’s administration has come “at great expense to our health and grades,” and expect to be compensated accordingly. UC Berkeley’s Black Student Union and its satellites want allocations of money, black faculty, and black psychologists to bring them up to the achievement levels of Asian students at that noble institution. So far Mitch Daniels of Purdue University seems to be the sole exception in the entire country to the rule of presidential surrender to these campus insurrectionaries.
Kimball uses the well-known story of Lawrence ‘Larry’ Summers’ demise at Harvard in 2005-06 to illustrate what might be called the pre-history of the present debacle. He asserts that Summers was forced to resign his presidency at Harvard because he had violated progressive dogma on race in 2001 and on gender in 2005. (Summers, it should be added, had also irritated many Harvard faculty by his candor about phony subjects, laughable grade inflation, and the pedantry of professors who know so much about so little that they can neither be contradicted, nor are worth contradicting.) “Race,” says Kimball, “came first” when Summers publicly suggested that Harvard’s heavily petted Cornel West use his comfortable chair for something more in the line of scholarly work than producing rap CDs. A storm erupted, several black professors at Harvard threatened to resign, and West himself headed south to Princeton.
In 2005 Summers delivered a lecture at a conference on “diversifying” the workforce in science and engineering in which he mentioned the possibility that women were underrepresented in these disciplines because they might have different aptitudes from men. That mere conjecture was, according to Kimball, Summers’ fatal blunder.
But Kimball has surely left out something of considerable importance, both in the history of Summers’ being sent down from Harvard, and in the definition of his case as a precursor of the current upsurge of mob rule on the campuses. Summers had violated liberal dogma and aroused liberal dictatorialness in a third instance. In September 2002, later than the Cornel West conflagration but earlier than the “gender” controversy, he gave a speech to the Harvard community deploring the upsurge of antisemitism in many parts of the globe. He included synagogue bombings, physical assaults on Jews, desecration of Jewish holy places, and denial of the right of “the Jewish state to exist.” But his most immediate concern was that “at Harvard and…universities across the country” faculty-initiated petitions were calling “for the University to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university’s endowment to be invested.” This brought an avalanche of attacks on Summers from Israelophobe professors throughout this country and also the United Kingdom. Judith Butler of Berkeley, well-known as a practitioner of Queer Theory (and the stupefyingly opaque prose that accompanies it), published in the London Review of Books of August 21, 2003 a furious attack on Summers called “No, It’s Not Anti-Semitic.” His accusations of antisemitism, Butler insisted, were “a blow against academic freedom,” his words had had “a chilling effect on political discourse.”
In October 2003 Tony Judt’s “Jewish” call for an end to the state of Israel (largely because it caused him undeserved shame at cocktail parties) was published by the New York Review of Books. In November Harvard itself played host to Oxford’s poetaster Tom Paulin, who had urged, in one of his doggerel productions in the London Review, that Jews living in Judea “should be shot dead.” This was, of course, explained by his sponsors (not only at Harvard but also at Columbia, where he was a visiting professor) as “criticism of Israel.” If Summers’ speech had had a chilling effect on antisemitic clarion calls, including incitement to raw murder, one would not want to know what the fully heated versions sound like. Once Summers had failed the litmus test of contemporary liberalism called “the Palestinian cause,” he was already in great danger. Questioning “gender” doctrine was his third strike, not his second; and calling the BDS movement what it most assuredly is—antisemitic–was the only “heresy” he did not recant. It is hardly a secret that antisemitism is rife on American campuses, from Poughkeepsie to Austin to Irvine, especially among the very groups that are dispatching presidents and deans into early retirement. Matthew Arnold was prescient when he wrote (about Oxford, England’s Harvard): “there are our young barbarians, all at play.” Summers would eventually find out that in this game, as in others, three strikes and you’re out.
Edward Alexander’s most recent book is Jews Against Themselves (Transaction Publishers).