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Wise Guys in Cambridge

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Wise Guys in Cambridge

What Cornel West and Larry Summers actually agree about December 4, 2009

Is there anyone in public life more reviled than economic eminence and White House chief economic advisor Larry Summers? Liberals, moderates, women, academics, and now, with his hand in the financial crisis, Middle America: he’s managed to offend them all. But if there is any good still lingering anywhere in the vicinity of Summers, the publication of Cornel West’s memoir Brother West is sure to kill it off.

West, you may remember, was an African-American studies professor at Harvard, when then–university president Summers called him on the carpet for seeming more interested in carelessly doling out As to students and pursuing a rap career than in actual scholarship. Not surprisingly, West was miffed. The professor, soon flanked by Jesse Jackson, Charles Ogletree, Henry Louis Gates, and the New York Times, warned that Summers was “picking on the wrong Negro.” It was enough to intimidate even the notoriously leather-skinned Larry Summers. He apologized to the offended professor, but it was too late. In a huff, West took his show (and fellow African-American studies professor Kwame Anthony Appiah) to Princeton, where he teaches today.

Now, in his memoir, Brother West adds an interesting detail to the meeting with Summers that started the whole bro-haha. It seems that when they met, Summers invited West to join him in undermining Harvey Mansfield, professor of government and one of the few conservatives anywhere in Cambridge. “Help me f . . . him up,” Summers reportedly said to West, apparently apropos of nothing and with no elaboration. You read that right. “Help me f . . . him up.” “For my part,” West writes, “I was astounded that the President of Harvard would stoop to such tactics.” Indeed.

It’s entirely possible that West, a great lover of jazz as well as rap, is doing some improvising here. As far as we know, Mansfield never woke up with a bloody horse head in his bed. But there’s another equally unsavory possibility. It’s commonly believed that Summers’s social IQ is somewhat lower than his cognitive IQ—to put it gently. James Traub, the author of a 2003 New York Times Magazine profile of Summers, once commented that the great economist seemed “only barely socialized.” But perhaps even Summers had enough social sense to know that if you need to placate an Ivy League professor, particularly a minority professor, go after conservatives on campus—the most reviled minority of all.

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