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Alan Dershowitz's Dishonest Defense

02/22/2006 06:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You've got to give Alan Dershowitz credit: the man stays on message. And regarding the resignation of Lawrence Summers, his message is this: a "coup d'etat" by the "radical hard left" has toppled a visionary president who made the mistake of expressing "politically incorrect views."

Here's Dershowitz on HuffPo: "The academic coup d'etat engineered by hard left members of the faculty of arts and sciences against Harvard's president Lawrence Summers has broad implications beyond Cambridge and even beyond the Ivy League."

Here's Dershowitz in the Washington Post: "One group of faculty managed a coup d'etat not only against Summers but against the whole Harvard community."

Here's Dershowitz in the Harvard Crimson: "I think this is an academic coup d'etat engineered by the hard left and stimulated by Summers' politically-incorrect statements, but then joined by an assortment of others--including some who had been dismissed and disempowered by Summers, some who didn't like his style, and a few well-intentioned people who didn't understand the damage they were doing to the University."

Here's the effect of Dershowitz's words as manifested in a Globe editorial: "Summers's departure raises fears that a small number of faculty from only one part of the university have staged a coup...."

And here is the headline for the editorial that Dershowitz, inbetween giving interviews to the Globe, etc., cranked out for the Globe: Coup against Summers a dubious victory for the politically correct.

Okay, Alan. We get the point. But was there really a coup? Or are you just being alarmist, intellectually dishonest and irresponsible?

Let's consider that Boston Globe editorial, starting with the first sentence: "A plurality of one faculty has brought about an academic coup d'etat against not only Harvard University president Lawrence Summers but also against the majority of students, faculty, and alumni."

That opener is disingenuous from its first noun, "plurality."

If the faculty of arts and sciences professors who opposed Summers were the architects of a coup, by definition they have to be a small group--that's what coups are, a takeover of power by a small group--and "plurality" usually suggests the largest of several groups, but one that falls short of a majority. ("Bill Clinton won a plurality of the 1992 vote against George Bush and Ross Perot.")

But as Dershowitz surely knows, the bloc of professors aligned against Summers was a majority within FAS--if it were only a plurality, Summers would probably have taken his chances with that second vote of no-confidence.

It is, however, hard to argue for the existence of a coup when you have the majority of the university's largest faculty--and wealthiest school--in opposition to the president. Hence "plurality."

Dershowitz does not, however, hesitate to use the term "majority" when he refers to the allegedly pro-Summers opinion of students, faculty, and alumni.

How does he know this? Well, there's the Crimson poll of undergraduates, shaky though it may be. But about graduate students, Dershowitz has no idea. Faculty in other graduate schools? Ditto. One might expect that Dershowitz would know the pulse of the law school, but given the number of law school faculty who disagreed with Summers' inaction on the Solomon Amendment, it seems unlikely that HLS is a solid pro-Summers bloc. Alumni? Well, alumni giving is down about ten percent since Summers became president, and I've certainly spoken with quite a few of them who don't like Summers (particularly women). But maybe I've just happened to reach all those crazy radicals among the Harvard graduates working in law, business and finance here in New York City.

Let's face it: Dershowitz is making this stuff up.

Why, then, does he think that there's been a coup by the radical hard-left? What evidence does Dershowitz present for such a serious accusation? Let's look.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences includes, in general, some of the most radical, hard-left elements within Harvard's diverse constituencies. And let there be no mistake about the origin of Summers's problem with that particular faculty: It started as a hard left-center conflict. Summers committed the cardinal sin against the academic hard left: He expressed politically incorrect views regarding gender, race, religion, sexual preference, and the military.

No evidence here, just a couple of canards. So let's dispense with them, shall we? (Won't take long.)

The first is that the Harvard faculty of arts and sciences has a "radical, hard-left"--sounds scary, doesn't it? Oooh!--constituency. It's true that there are a handful of left-wing professors within FAS. But in general, it's not a very politically active body, and it is hardly full of extremists, as Dershowitz claims.

The second myth is that Summers expressed politically incorrect views. No: Summers expressed stupid views. Economists are smarter than political scientists. Men are smarter than women. Seoul had a million child prostitutes.

The reason that Harvard faculty rejected these declarations is that, while couched as wisdom delivered from on high, they were uninformed, irresponsible, and beneath the level of intelligence the FAS faculty expects of the president. Not because they were politically incorrect.

In need of something to back up his smears, Dershowitz plays his trump card: "The original no-confidence motion contained an explanatory note that explicitly referenced 'Mr. Summers' apparently ongoing convictions about the capacities and rights not only of women but also of African-Americans, third-world nations, gay people, and colonized peoples.'"

Dershowitz concedes that this left-wing--for he's right, it was left-wing--language was deleted from the statement, but he implies that the omission was effected as a way of hiding the faculty's true agenda.

That is exactly wrong.

The reason the language, written by anthropologist Randy Matory, was deleted was because Summers' less ideological opponents believed that it would lose the day for them; in other words, that Matory's views were not representative of the faculty, but of Matory.

And, of course, they were right. The no-confidence vote passed because Summers' opponents believed that he was an incompetent leader, not because of some cloaked desire to stand up for third world nations and colonized people.

Dershowitz goes on to argue that Summers' opponents believe in free speech only for those who agree with them, but not for Larry Summers or his defenders. (It's a women-in-science controversy reference.) Their attitude, he proclaims, was "Free speech for me, but not for thee!"

As a reporter who's covered this story for years, I can tell you that this is an idiotic suggestion. It was not the faculty who stifled free speech, but the president. Larry Summers created a climate on campus in which members of the Harvard faculty and staff felt not just uncomfortable, but scared, to express their opinions; they feared professional and personal retribution. On February 20, 2004, the Crimson editorialized about this very phenomenon, writing: "As Summers has consolidated his hold on Harvard, his adminstration has demonstrated an unsettling penchant for secrecy.... Summers' tactics hint at contempt for students and faculty." In an interview with me for my book, Harvard Rules, Crimson editor Kate Rakoczy noted that "the people who work for Larry are scared to death when the Crimson calls."

Larry Summers believed in free speech? Not for Cornel West, he didn't; he chastised West for the professor's political involvement. (And when asked by a member of the New York Times editorial board later to explain himself, Summers stated--falsely--that West had "a sexual harrassment problem." But of course, as with so many of Summers' nastier remarks, that was supposed to be off the record.)

Larry Summers believed in free speech? Not for Zayed Yasin he didn't. Remember, this is the president who forbade anyone working for him to say a word in defense of the 2002 undergraduate commencement speaker who made the mistake of choosing a dumb title ("My American Jihad") for his otherwise praiseworthy talk. This is the president who never said a word to Yasin, one of Harvard's most upstanding students, after a national news organization falsely accused Yasin of supporting Hamas. Larry Summers let Zayed Yasin twist in the wind, and he did so because he did not want Yasin to express his views. Rather than reaching out to Yasin, Summers described him in semi-private conversations as a "little shit."

Larry Summers believed in free speech? Try telling that to the multitude of Harvard administrators who worried that the wrong remark might cost them their job...to all the professors who worried that they and their departments would be punished if they spoke to the press...to reporters who found his press office obfuscatory if not outright deceptive...to the deans of Harvard schools who dared to put out a press release without running it through Mass Hall first, to make sure that it contained language that made Larry Summers look good.

The irony is that, in fact, it's really Dershowitz who has the hidden agenda here; there's a subtext to his argument. Alan Dershowitz almost surely believes--and implicitly suggests--that the core group of Larry Summers' opponents is anti-Semitic and that their opposition to Summers is based on the fact that Summers is Jewish.

While Dershowitz may have many reasons for supporting Summers, judging by what he has said in public, Summers' opposition to anti-Semitism is paramount among them. The law school professor never spoke out for Summers more vigorously than he did during the debate over the Morning Prayers anti-Semitism talk. Similarly, he supported Summers' opposition to a speech by anti-Semitic poet Tom Paulin. (By contrast, he publicly broke with Summers when the president declined to stand up for gays in the Solomon Amendment debate.)

There's certainly nothing wrong with Dershowitz agreeing with and standing up for Summers on this issue. But when it informs his description of the "radical hard-left"--when, in this context, and for those who know the back story, Dershowitz is clearly using code words for anti-Semitic--it is deeply wrong for him to talk about a secretive minority of the faculty staging a coup d'etat.

Dershowitz closes by writing, "Now that this plurality of one faculty has succeeded in ousting the president, the most radical elements of Harvard will be emboldened to seek to mold all of Harvard in its image. If they succeed, Harvard will become a less diverse and less interesting institution of learning governed by political-correctness cops of the hard left."

I wonder: If there really is a "political correctness cop" in this discussion, is it faculty members of all different politics and temperaments who opposed Larry Summers, or is it Alan Dershowitz?