Cornel West Taken Down
Could there be any more damning a critique of the well-known, African-American Marxist intellectual Cornel West, than this one just published by Inside Higher Ed?
The review, which covers West’s recently published Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, suggests that West, the outspoken celebrity intellectual and author of the best-selling Race Matters no longer, it seems, has anything significant to say. McClemee writes:
Cornel West’s work was once bold, challenging, exciting. The past tense here is unavoidable. His critical edge and creative powers might yet be reborn (he is 56). But in the wake of his latest book, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, this hope requires a considerable leap of faith. Published by Hay House, the book also bears a second subtitle: “A Memoir.” It is the most disappointing thing I have read in at least a year.
Why is it so disappointing? McClemee says that the book offers little insight into the author’s thinking and even less detail on West’s philosophical autobiography, even though he occupies a unique position as one of the most well-known Marxist/Race theorists of a long, and peculiarly American tradition. Instead, West exhibits a heightened self-regard, without the depth of meaning one would expect from such a well-known public intellectual, that makes him a parody of the very same intellectual celebrity he is. McClemee says, “this is not the intellectual biography West promised a decade ago. In essence it is a fawning celebrity profile [sic] that…
If sketchy in other regards, Brother West is never anything but expansive on how Cornel West feels about Cornel West. He is deeply committed to his committed-ness, and passionately passionate about being full of passion. Various works of art, literature, music, and philosophy remind West of himself. He finds Augustinian humility to be deeply meaningful. This is mentioned in one sentence. His taste for three-piece suits is full of subtle implications that require a couple of substantial paragraphs to elucidate.
McClemee reveals that Cornel West’s now famous run-in with the President of Harvard, Lawrence Summers (now President Obama’s lead economic advisor) is the largest section in the book. In 2001, the incident became a national story with the usual race-centered paradigm. Summers was reportedly questioning West’s academic abilities and eventually rebuked West for missing too many classes, contributing to grade inflation, neglecting serious scholarship, and spending too much time on his economically profitable projects and politics (West made a rap CD and was on a committee for Al Sharpton’s truncated run for United States Senator from New York.)
The African-American Studies Department at Harvard jumped on Summers and framed West’s rebuke as a conservative attack on black studies and black academics. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the head of the Department, accused Summers of being insensitive to race because he did not mention affirmative action in a campus address, and threatened to move the entire Department to Princeton (which was happy to have them). Eventually, the African-American Studies Department called in Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to cause trouble over the incident and Summers was forced to issue an apology. West eventually left Harvard for Princeton after the incident, where he has remained.
McClemee ponders whether this threw West into such a professional turmoil that his work suffered. He also wonders if Larry Summers wasn’t onto something about Cornel West’s abilities in the first place:
I would much prefer to think that all of this is a matter of his life being in turmoil throughout this decade, rather than Larry Summers being right about anything. But the painful truth is that West’s work has grown ever less substantial over time. He has gone from being a public intellectual into a mere celebrity — someone well-known for being well-known. Brother West marks the extremity of that process.
While McClemee is sympathetic to West’s earlier work and grudgingly admits to his more recent decline, there were questions about West’s relevance and theoretical contributions long before the Harvard incident stirred suspicions about it. In a 1995 New Republic article, The Unreality of Cornel West, Leon Wieseltier declared West’s work “almost completely worthless.” He went on to describe Wests’s misplaced Marxism, his descriptions of himself as a ” prophetic Christian freedom fighter,” and his economicist explanantions for inner city poverty as “puerile,” “meaningless,” “turgid,” and “pompous.” Wiesleltier also described West’s works up to that point as “monuments to the devastation of a mind by the squalls of theory” and characterized his writing as, “noisy, tedious, slippery, sectarian, humorless, pedantic and self-endeared.”
Thus, one is left to wonder if there was ever anything at all about West’s work that was once actually, “bold, challenging and exciting” as McClemee’s suggests. Perhaps, to the Left, West represented (and still represents) that black militant/intellectual presence that they imagine so frightens middle America. Perhaps they celebrate West and other African-American Marxist intellectuals, like West’s Harvard comrade Henry Louis Gates, Jr., (recently of Obama’s shameful and embarrassing “Beer Summit”) because they genuinely believe that they represent the fruits of the progressive struggle inside capitalist, racist America and are the forerunners to that sunlit land where harmony and socialism prevail across the fruited plane. Nevertheless, as Wieseltier pointed out in the conclusion to his 1995 critique of West, it will not, in the end, be theory of the kind that West promulgates that will get the progressives to the promised land because it is unreal:
Cornel West has been called “the preeminent African American intellectual of his generation.” This cannot be so. He is a homiletical figure, a socialist divine, who has come to lift the spirits of the progressives. He is forever imploring them, the “progressives of all colors,” to come together. But if the progressives of America finally come together, all that will have happened is that the progressives of America will have finally come together. It is obvious only to them that the greatest failure of American society since slavery will stop for them. Terrains of human bondage to the commodity form! From such notions, the nasty world has nothing to fear.