Harvard University president Lawrence Summers recently got himself in Very Big Trouble by mistakenly believing that he could try to hold all Harvard faculty to the same academic standards regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin. He met with several faculty members who, in his opinion, had not in recent years produced the quality and quantity of academic research and publication that is expected of Harvard faculty. One of these faculty was the Afro-American Studies Professor Cornell West, who Summers reportedly accused of spending too much time on such things as advising Al Sharpton’s "presidential campaign" and cutting rap music videos when he should have been in his office writing.
West screamed "racism" after leaving the meeting. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and the usual cast of characters began criticizing Summers until he announced over and over again his everlasting devotion to affirmative action. West threatened to move to Princeton, whose president issued him an open invitation to join the faculty there.
The media piled on Summers as well, defendng West as "eminent," an "academic superstar," and, in the words of the Washington Post, an "academic rock star." That got my attention. Being an academic I thought it might be useful to find out what it takes these days to become an academic superstar. I wouldn’t mind an open invitation to teach at Princeton or Harvard myself, so I retrieved from the library a copy of The Cornell West Reader, which is part autobiography and part a collection of essays. Here’s the recipe for academic superstardom that I discovered in the Reader:
First, one must completely ignore the worldwide collapse of socialism, for all the world’s misery is the fault of capitalism. Along with this, one must swear one’s everlasting devotion to Marxism and spend one’s academic career debating and discussing with other Marxists the "dilemma" that Marxism faces in light of the worldwide implosion of socialism and the complete discrediting of Marxist theory.
It’s useful to tell academic "war stories" such as: "We read voraciously and talked incessantly about . . . the crisis of Marxism." A real home run would be able to brag, as West does, of having discussed with the late Michael Harrington "the necessity of rethinking and reinterpreting the insights of the Marxist tradition in light of the new circumstances." Harrington was a socialist "god" to the academic Left. (West also considers himself "part of a great legacy, of Norman Thomas," who ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket several times).
It is OK to "adopt an anti-Stalinist stance"; one’s colleagues will tolerate that. Stalin, after all, was not a very pleasant fellow. But then just to be safe, one must boast about one’s Marxist bonafides with statements like, "I learned much from readings of Trotskyist intellectuals like Leon Trotsky himself."
It also apparently pays to write books that most ordinary people would think were one of those joke books with a crazy-sounding title on the cover and a hundred blank pages inside. Like West’s first book, "Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought." The more outrageous and obviously false are the statements one makes about socialism, the bigger one’s reputation becomes, apparently. Like, "Marxist thought is an indispensable tradition for freedom fighters."
One’s devotion to Marxism can be further demonstrated with statements like, "It is necessary to discredit the fashionable trashing to Marxist thought in the liberal academy." Or, "When I arrived as Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Union Theological Seminary . . . one of my concerns was . . . defending Marxist theory . . . in the struggle for individuality and democracy." Just ignore the fact that no government on earth that ever embraced Marxist philosophy tolerated either individualism or democracy.
One must stake out one’s practical policy positions as well, defining them broadly as "a kind of democratic socialism." Or, the key to "solving" the problems related to civil rights and abortion is "the defense of the relevance of Marxist thought."
Now that Marx’s theory of class struggle is pretty much discredited, the appropriate response is not to admit that you were wrong but to redefine Marx’s theory for him. For example, just announce that "race, gender, sexual orientation, age . . . have assumed the place of the proletariat in Marxist theory." That is, assume that all women are conditioned to think alike by their environment, as are all men, all people of the separate races, sexual orientations, etc. If one happens to run across, say, a black conservative who contradicts the theory, try to destroy his reputation and assert that holding such political views disqualifies him as a genuine black man. Remember, Marxist theory must be defended at all costs if one is to become an academic superstar.
One of the favorite buzzwords of the academic Left is "commoditization," which is sort of a catch-all condemnation of capitalism in their eyes. So, whenever any kind of social problem is apparent, one is best off blaming it all on commoditization (i.e., peaceful, free-market exchange).
It doesn’t matter if one sounds stupid; virtually everyone else outside the university’s economics department does, too, when it comes to economics, so what does it matter? For example, West ignores the fact that the government’s war on drugs makes drug markets illegal, which is why there is so much crime attached to the drug trade, just as there was with alcohol during Prohibition. That way, all the problems caused by the government’s war on drugs can be blamed on commoditization, or "because it [the drug trade] is a matter of buying and selling." Just do away with buying and selling, and "individuality and democracy" will thrive.
Cornell West seems to have all of his economics backwards. But hey, you can’t argue with success, can you? For example, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe points out in Democracy: The God that Failed, democracy tends to raise peoples’ rate of time preference so that they want more consumption now, and government does its best to try to supply all those demands for handouts at someone else’s expenses. As usual, West gets this backwards by announcing, "market values encourage a preoccupation with the now, with the immediate."
Even though one may be every bit as much a communist as Stalin, Lenin, Mao, or Castro, in today’s world it is important to give oneself a label that will hide this fact from ordinary Americans. "Progressive socialist," non-Marxist socialist," or "a black Christian deeply indebted to the Marxist tradition" seem to have worked well for West.
Finally, it seems imperative to speak in gibberish so that ordinary people (and your students) will think that you are really, really smart. Say things like, "Marx wisely shuns any epistemic skepticism (as promoted by the deconstructive critics of our day) and explanatory agnosticism or nihilism (as intimated by those descriptivist anthropologists and historians bitten by the bug of epistemic skepticism.) Instead, Marx refuses to conflate epistemic and methodological issues, philosophic and social theoretical ones, matters of justification for the certain or absolute grounds for knowledge — claims and matters of explanation that provide persuasive yet provisional (or revisable) accounts of social and historical phenomena."
How could Larry Summers have been so blind?
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland. His latest book is The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (Forum/Random House, Feb. 2002).