Scott McLemee: A Wildly Weak and Untrained Mind

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.


  1. Man oh man, the thesaurus is sure dogeared after all that bluster and bile.

    So let me get this straight, to win the National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing is to a *negative*? We should all have such negatives land in our laps. And what really matters is McLemee doesn’t have a university degree? Why? Because then he’d be not just a brilliant writer but a brilliant writer with a fancy document hanging on the wall?

    I have three degrees, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., I’ve taught in five disciplines (history, American Studies, philosophy, English literature, and political science) at six universities in four countries, not counting the universities I taught at as a grad student T.A., and I learn from McLemee every time I read him. In point of fact I’ve always been in awe of McLemee for managing to pull off the feat of writing for the two main outlets on higher education — the Chronicle and IHE — without having completed his own undergraduate degree. It’s a feat very few could replicate, and it speaks to innate writerly talent, not fraudulence. An intellectual is defined by craft, not credential.

    I say all this as someone who admires Cornel West’s generosity of spirit and political leanings immensely and respects his early writings on pragmatism. For me to parse all that I think about him or McLemee’s essay would take too long to say, but it is something I hope West takes to heart and whose spirit is in notable contrast to this silly and preposterous blog screed.

  2. Three publishers have been asking me to put together a collection of my essays. I sure hope none of them read this blog. They would find out my work is actually “lifeless” and stop asking.

    And how often to publishers go asking you to put together a collection of your essays? Not often.

    Curse you, Rupert Pupkin!

  3. Hi, Ed,

    I would think that you of all people might have some sympathy with the position of a freelancer who can’t put the time together to work on larger projects.

    But I would be very excited to read the books that you have published without the benefit of tenure, sabbaticals, and an endowed chair, all of which Cornel West has that McLemee does not.

    Along similar lines, I am eager to read your painstakingly detailed analysis of West’s new book, as I assume you wouldn’t accuse McLemee of skimming it when you haven’t pored over it for many hours. And I’d be even more eager to see you dig up the scholarly publications West has put out in the last five years that McLemee is supposed to be engaging with. Did you even check what West’s publishing record is over the past few years before you wrote this post? You know what, I’ll do the work for you. Since the end of 2004, West has published a 1300 word Afterword to a 2007 Theory & Event symposium on Sheldon Wolin and one five-page article called “Why I Left Harvard University” (Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 2005). He was also a participant in a “conversation about Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man'” in the Fall 2007 issue of Daedalus (so that doesn’t really even count as something he wrote). That is literally all I can find.

    Finally, I want to commend you on your rigorous standards of ethics and evidence. You use an anonymous and wholly unsubstantiated comment from nearly three years ago (which even misspells “bachelor” as “batchelor”) to try to flog McLemee without producing a shred of corroboration. Even if your claim is true (and I fail to see why it matters), how do you think this is responsible argumentation? How do you think it’s even responsible writing?

  4. Andrew Seal: “And I’d be even more eager to see you dig up the scholarly publications West has put out in the last five years that McLemee is supposed to be engaging with.”

    As I specified in the piece: “Should not McLemee be sifting through the large gap between the early 1980s and the present day?” An attempted takedown of a major public figure without a quote or a reference to his major work seems strange and foolish to me. And it’s indicative of McLemee’s failure over a few decades to find time to work on long-term projects.

    Seal: “Even if your claim is true (and I fail to see why it matters), how do you think this is responsible argumentation?”

    Oh, but isn’t that McLemee’s position? All that ribald speculation into West’s personal life — confirmed by his wife, no less! By the way, McLemee doesn’t have a college degree. You might want to try Googling. Or see Phelps’s comment above. I liked that link the best precisely for the reasons you disapproved.

    Christopher Phelps: “I learn from McLemee every time I read him.”

    Very glad to hear it. You’re certainly more rational than this Seal guy. I agree with you about how an intellectual is formed, but McLemee possesses neither craft nor credential.

    Phelps: “And what really matters is McLemee doesn’t have a university degree?”

    And HOW is this different from McLemee’s absurd position that what really matters is West’s failure to produce enough scholarly papers or books on McLemee’s time?

  5. Well, I think McLemee was addressing the evaporation of West’s scholarly work over the past decade or so, not since the early 1980s, and I didn’t get the sense from him that he thought West’s output during the 90s was questionable, so I’m not sure why it is incumbent on him to include Race Matters in his critique since he’s, uh, not critiquing it. A reference to West’s 2004 Democracy Matters might have been nice, but really not entirely necessary–it’s not exactly a “major work.”

    I don’t think it was ribald speculation; I think it was more a question of wondering how the hell anyone would ever assemble words into that order on purpose. “I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!” Really?

  6. I read McLemee as expressing disappointment that West, whom he admired, had failed to produce projected work that would have been a significant contribution to the our collective intellectual life. This seems reasonable, when somebody decides to spend their time on a memoir that, from the quotes provided, looks as if it has very little of value in it.

    Nor did he speculate about West’s private life. He provided a direct quote from the book which, if sincere and not merely a joke, made M’s wife (and anyone, I would have thought) think that this would be someone to avoid having a romantic entanglement with.

    I didn’t understand this:

    “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?”

    I had assumed that he moved to Princeton in order to get away from Summers (who was President of Harvard). I imagine, too, that Princeton supplied him with particulars of the position that he took, and that he took the job knowing what the expectations were. I’d be disappointed if my own university hired a tenured Professor with a named Chair away from Harvard with the understanding that he or she would had an aversion to doing scholarly work.

    On the other hand, I would be delighted if more of my colleagues had the intellectual qualities and writing talents of a Scott McLemee.

  7. This is one of those rants that leaves a reader feeling better about its target and worse about its author.

    I’ve never had any patience for the dumb populist habit of making fun of academics. I almost became one myself. But there are plenty of idiots with a lot of letters after their names – and plenty of wise people without them. Despite being uncredentialed in the conventional sense, Scott McLemee has read a lot, thinks well, and writes with a lot of style and wit. I’m always happy when there’s something new of his to read.

    Edward Champion comes off like a bitter hack. I hope this sour eruption haunts him for years, and eats at his cramped and moldy soul.

  8. Gee, Ed. When I think of the wildly monomaniacal ravings, tinged with paranoia, that you’ve posted here over the years inveighing against The Gatekeepers, it’s a touching reminder of the persistence of rhetorical opportunism to see you pissing on someone because he “doesn’t even possess a bachelor’s degree” and because of the failure of a book to “materialize” from his “easy-bake oven.” Gosh, I would have thought that the wattage of the lightbulb shining on this blog would have been enough to illuminate the glass house, at least vis a vis the publications part. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of underbaked cupcakes, decorated with icing depicting scenes ranging from your autoerotic habits to your hatred of Steve Almond, and not a bite to eat.

  9. PS:

    “Just about the last thing I want is to turn into some condescending bourgeois hack like Laura Miller, Lee Siegel, or John Freeman. I look to folks like the late John Leonard, James Wood, Scott McLemee, Ed Park, Liesl Schillinger, John Updike, and Tom LeClair (to name only a few), all of whom understand that remaining open-minded, passionate, playful, and sometimes a bit idiosyncratic about books (yes, even Wood and Updike) is part of the deal.”

    — Ed Champion, January 2009

  10. “doesn’t even possess a bachelor’s degree”

    Hmm. Ansel Adams, Woody Allen, James Baldwin, Carl Bernstein, Shelby Foote, Robert Hughes, Jose Saramango, Gore Vidal …. bunch of phoneys, all of them, clearly …

  11. Why should I? Do you “look to” him, or not? Is your incoherence simply a facet of your “style,” or an aspect of your personality? I’ve read you for a long time, Ed, and the mode of attack that fills you with the greatest thrill is the ad hominem, whenever the opportunity presents itself, even if it means ignoring a position you’ve taken before. Can you disagree with McLemee’s evaluation of West meaningfully, even somewhat disrespectfully? I think so. But here’s what you’ve said:

    garden-variety freelancer
    lacking the courage
    sad middle-aged loser
    phony erudition
    professional deficiencies
    bleating his tendentious little heart out
    crude and lifeless essays
    dubious Nona Balakian Citation
    unadventurous pursuits.
    only a handful of out-of-touch elitists actually care about this dubious accolade. undistinguished and unambitious career.

    this underachieving pot
    childish gimme gimme disposition.
    prefers to pursue clumsy dichotomies references energized by foolish armchair speculations
    crass commitment to Perez Hilton-style gossip distressingly reminiscent of a teabagger’s uninformed protest.
    our dopey man in Washington
    all the éclat of a dutiful CliffsNotes acolyte McLemee’s failure to write or publish a book

    We have in Scott McLemee a failed and unaccredited critic
    country bumpkin approach
    a sad and vitiated charlatan

  12. Two things seem noteworthy in all this spittle: one, Mr. Champion’s complete failure (or, perhaps, discreet refusal) to defend the actual contents of Brother West, and two, the impossibly tiny-minded incoherence of an attack on McLemee as a garden-variety freelancer w/o a bachelor’s degree whose not-garden-variety Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing somehow demonstrates that his unadventurous work appeals only to elitists. (Far from being a “dubious” award, it’s quite impressive. Try to win one sometime and see!) Sane people would say that McLemee is a voracious reader, distinctive writer and discriminating critic who’s gotten thousands of people (many with multiple degrees, many without) to keep on the lookout for his byline wherever it appears, merely by dint of his talent rather than any institutional imprimatur (see also Scialabba, George). Less sane — or more vicious — people would try to cast McLemee’s considerable success as a critic as some kind of secret failure. But that effort, as Doug Henwood suggests above, would make McLemee’s would-be detractor look really, really foolish.

  13. Who, I wonder, would even want a “trained” mind? Sounds like the intellectual equivalent of a police dog — or “canine”, as the cops for some strange reason like to say.

    McLemee’s piece about West was a lot funnier and a lot less Colonel Blimp than this Jeremiad. Of course I personally have always had a pretty low opinion of West — one of those academic Macy’s balloons. Does EC really like or admire West? Is that the source of the animus here? Or does lese-majeste just make him mad?

  14. “Does EC really like or admire West? Is that the source of the animus here? Or does lese-majeste just make him mad?”

    No references to West in the archives of this blog. I guess McLemee just makes him mad.

  15. Why would you take the time to trash a person like this, using the worst kinds of put downs? How bitter can you get? There aren’t very many independent reviewers left, ones with integrity like Scott. Try reading the crap in the NY Times Book Review. Lots of scholars but lots of trash, an insiders’ game if ever there was one. You write as if McLemee is a character out of New Grub Street. You might try looking in the mirror.

    Aren’t you even a little bit suspicious that Cornel West has a collaborator for a “memoir?” A person who helps produce a voice that sounds like West’s own? He’s a very well paid professor and a celebrity to boot. His “street” babbling doesn’t cut it in my opinion. He’s entertaining, I’ll give him that. McLemee, on the other hand, is serious. I hope his essays do get published. I’ll bet they blow West out of the water. You too.

  16. Gil: With the exception of Christopher Phelps, none of these comments have come close to offering anything thoughtful and none address the primary argument — namely, why Cornel West, for whom McLemee is too incompetent to offer any weak scholarly citations, is washed up as a scholar or should be written off because he has dared to write a popular book or put out a hip-hop album. Instead, all of the commenters here, demonstrating their supposed commitment to civilized discourse, have proceeded to level ad hominem attacks, thereby demonstrating that it’s not so much McLemee’s writing that matters, as it is accepting everything he has to say without question when, in this essay, he has failed to cite West’s scholarly work and unnecessarily delved into his personal life to support the claim that West is washed up. I’ll be a gentleman, and leave out the questions of black identity and white privilege.

    Indeed, these ostensible masters of great thought were incited by Doug Henwood on a listserv, as follows: “Please visit the comments section and make this douchebag’s life miserable.”

    Well, they have neither made my life miserable, nor have they offered any compelling intellectual meat, much less posited any angle other than the ones already in existence. Groupthink at its finest. Trained minds of an altogether different and atavistic sort who special in fallacies, false inferences, and many outright wrong speculations upon my motivations (the most absurd being that this was revenge for not winning the NBCC Board race, which I couldn’t care less about). Fortunately, notable names bad and behavior have been memorialized here, on a volunteer basis, revealing the illogical idiots within these supposedly civilized husks. Ignoratio elenchi. But I’m happy to be proven wrong by anyone who wishes to offer a more reasonable response.

  17. First time farce, second time folly. Mr. Ed asks, “what have the Romans ever done for us?”

  18. I was going to leave a nasty message, but after seeing that this post mentions both Cornell West *and* Larry Summers, I think my work of discreditification has already been completed.

  19. I don’t think McLemee said that West was washed up. He said that he’d written a silly book — had a silly book ghost-written — and that it was a disappointment compared with the more substantial work he’d done earlier in his career. I suppose by saying that I’m “positing an angle already in existence,” but let it go. I don’t know if the silliness of the book in question is the case, since I haven’t and don’t intend to read it, but I think McLemee makes a good case.

    It’s easier to accept what McLemee says because he says it persuasively and well, and doesn’t devote the bulk of his argument to attacking West personally, except insofar as West has made himself (as opposed to his thought) available to scrutiny by writing a memoir. Seems like the nature of the beast, particularly when such a memoir is both ghost-written and apparently steeped in self-righteousness. I can imagine attacking Augustine if he’d hired someone to manufacture a “conversational” voice and then in that voice had justified his bad treatment of The One.

    I’d be very interested if you weren’t a gentleman, and shared some of your thoughts on “black identity and white privilege” with your readers, particularly since you no doubt will go at it with your typical tact. I should note that the one entry in your blog archives that mentions Cornel West is headed “So Does All This Explain Cornel West’s Hair?” So let me get this straight: criticizing an inferior book by a renowned black scholar is an instance of white privilege, but poking fun at a renowned black scholar’s nappy hair is all in good fun?

    Who ever claimed to be a master of great thought? It doesn’t take great thinking to identify a wholly unwarranted takedown whose intellectual reasoning is specious and whose bulk is made up of personal attacks against McLemee. You’re the one who’s out of his depth, here, Ed. None of the commenters have the burden of proving McLemee’s point, and you’ve failed to disprove it. In fact, nothing in your post really suggests that you’ve ever read West, or followed his career, or considered for longer than it took your knee to hit your chin whether holding an endowed chair at a prestigious university entails doing scholarly work or serving as a celebrity ornament.

    Your motives are only interesting because, as previously pointed out, you have in the past referred to McLemee as someone you “looked to” for intelligent commentary, someone who was “always dependable.” Now he is “incompetent,” plus a whole lot more. Why? What changed? What’s the evolution of your thinking on McLemee? It would have been a far more interesting post if you discussed the way your opinion had gradually changed, if misgivings and doubt had begun to creep in regarding McLemee’s abilities as a critic and thinker. Other examples? Or is this it, zero tolerance from Ed Champion? One bad review, in your opinion, and the career’s completely invalidated? Well, anyone can do that. You just do it a lot.

  20. That’s a great Du Bois quote. It seems to be taken from his _The Souls of Black Folk_, chapter 6, “Of the Training of Black Men.” However, after looking at the passage in its historically situated original context, I am missing how it, especially its second part, is too relevant here.

    On the other hand, a dozen or so pages later in the same chapter, Du Bois makes a statement about black college graduates that, we all must agree, could apply to any collective of people who’ve attained bachelor’s degrees: “They have, to be sure, their proportion of ne’er-do-weels, their pedants and lettered fools.”

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