In 1998, a Salon byline revealed that Scott McLemee was “at work on a book, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: Conspiracy Theory in American Culture.” Eleven years later, that book has not materialized. Indeed, not a single book has emerged from the McLemee Easy-Bake Oven, save for two books he edited: 1994’s C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C.L.R. James 1939-1940 and 1996’s C.L.R. James on the Negro Question. So what has McLemee, a man who doesn’t even possess a bachelor’s degree, been doing on the book front over the past two decades? Well, nothing. He’s your garden-variety freelancer hacking into the fallow with a small shovel, lacking the courage to plant even a grand gardenia. He’s the kind of sad middle-aged loser you see shuffling around the philosophy section at a Barnes & Noble, hoping that some local notable will observe him buying a Josiah Royce volume as a tenuous gesture to phony erudition.
All that time to think and not a single tome to show for it! Well, these professional deficiencies haven’t hindered McLemee from bleating his tendentious little heart out at Inside Higher Ed and in newspapers, where his crude and lifeless essays have proven so soporific that, in 2004, the National Book Critics Circle awarded him the dubious Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing for his unadventurous pursuits. It was a questionable distinction, enervated by the fact that only a handful of out-of-touch elitists actually care about this dubious accolade. But as McLemee put it in his victory speech, “In the ordinary course of things, people do not grow up thinking that they would like to publish book reviews someday. But I did. ” It was the apotheosis of an undistinguished and unambitious career.
Now in an anemic attempt at a Cornel West takedown, this underachieving pot has called the kettle black. McLemee has avoided engaging directly with West’s book, which is not academic, thereby violating Updike’s first rule of reviewing: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” He bemoans three academic works in progress that West has not yet finished, as if West were operating solely to placate McLemee’s childish gimme gimme disposition. He expresses his disenchantment with West producing hip-hop albums and appearing in a Matrix movie. (Why not badmouth Marshall McLuhan for appearing in Annie Hall? Or Susan Sontag in Zelig? Or Neil deGrasse Tyson for his goofy appearances on The Colbert Report? West isn’t the only prof with a musical hobby. Bruce Bartlett reported that Russ Roberts was shooting a rap video in October.) He is annoyed that West has written a popular book rather than a formidable academic text. West has set out to write a book in a “conversational voice” (in a line quoted by McLemee). McLemee chides West for not enlightening. But West has clearly set out to dive into raw and visceral waters with this volume. In an interview with Amy Goodman, West states that he “just wanted to lay bare the truth in my life, the ways in which I’ve tried to bear witness to love, truth, justice.” Not the stuff of scholarly exegesis, to be sure, but then McLemee prefers to pursue clumsy dichotomies between amour propre and self-knowledge without textual excavation.
McLemee insists that “West’s work has grown less substantial over time,” but fails to cite any examples from West’s recent academic work to prove this hypothesis. With a dated Run DMC references confirming his unfamiliarity with crunk and glitch, McLemee is more energized by foolish armchair speculations into West’s personal life rather than a full-scale analysis of West as scholar. While it’s true that many are waiting for West to deliver more academic books, McLemee confirms his crass commitment to Perez Hilton-style gossip by reading a personal passage to his wife, obtaining her simplistic analysis, and then belittling West for getting divorced for a fourth time. It’s a superficial conclusion distressingly reminiscent of a teabagger’s uninformed protest. What does West’s personal life have to do with his academic life? What indeed does any of this have to do with West’s academic work? If West is truly finished, should not such a bold argument be presented in response to his scholarly papers? Should not McLemee be sifting through the large gap between the early 1980s and the present day? Well, yes, but our dopey man in Washington refuses to tackle this. Why, for example, is McLemee so silent on Race Matters? He quotes West’s future projects from The Cornel West Reader. Could it be that McLemee has merely skimmed this greatest hits collection with all the éclat of a dutiful CliffsNotes acolyte rather than tackling the West oeuvre? Judging by McLemee’s failure to write or publish a book and this deficient article, this appears to be the case.
McLemee fails to understand that Lawrence Summers’s request for fortnightly meetings, as related in West’s book, emerged after Summers called West’s hip-hop album “an embarrassment” — an affront extending beyond West’s academic role and into the territory of black identity. Summers also claimed that West allegedly missed numerous classes. West responded to Summers by stating that he could not “tolerate the disrespect you show me by attacking me without a shred of evidence” and by pointing out that he only missed one class in twenty-six years, when West was scheduled to deliver a keynote lecture at an AIDS conference. McLemee also conveniently elides West’s remarks before the “miscreant graduate student” line. Here is the full passage:
“Professor Summers, I am glad to meet with you whenever you like. You’re the president of Harvard and, as such, you’re surely entitled to meet a faculty member whenever you like. But if you think that I’m going to trot in here every two weeks to be monitored like a miscreant graduate student, I’m afraid, my brother, that you’ve messed with the wrong brother.” (221)
While it certainly takes two egos to tango, when one factors in Summers’s infamous remarks about believing that “under-populated countries in Africa [being] vastly UNDER-polluted,” one uncovers a distressing pattern. Since scholarly work was at the center of the Summers-West imbroglio, is it really much of a surprise that West is disinclined to do more of it at Princeton?
We have in Scott McLemee a failed and unaccredited critic with a potentially interesting thesis, completely undermined by his country bumpkin approach to scholarship. As W.E.B. Du Bois once put it, “To stimulate wildly weak and untrained minds is to play with mighty fires; to flout their striving idly is to welcome a harvest of brutish crime and shameless lethargy in our very laps.” With McLemee, we have more than shameless lethargy. We have a sad and vitiated charlatan desperately striving for relevance with agonous and unconsidered tactics.