There are many African American scholars -- Thomas Sowell, Henry Louis Gates, Randall Kennedy, Orlando Patterson, Stephen Carter, William Julius Wilson and Glenn Loury to name a few -- who are making major contributions in their fields. Cornel West of Harvard is not one of them.
In spite of this -- even because of it -- West is a star of an academic world that is progressively left and politically correct. In addition to his professorships in theology and African American studies at Harvard, he has been on the faculties of Yale, Princeton and the University of Paris. His income is in the six-figure range, and his books are required texts in college curricula across the nation.
Only 46 years old, West has been called -- if only by his publisher -- "the pre-eminent African American intellectual of his generation." His work has elicited White House invitations and more requests as a speaker, blurb writer and distinguished guest than any individual could possibly fill. In a market in which it is increasingly difficult for genuine scholars to get an academic monograph in print, West has written or edited 20 books published by commercial publishers -- 16 in the last 10 years alone.
Even more remarkable, except for a thin volume of rambling opinions on issues of the day called "Race Matters," none of West's books sell sufficiently to justify the commercial support his work has received. They are put into print (as one of his publishers informed me) as "prestige" publications to bring credit to the house.
One reason for the failure of West's books to gain intellectual traction is that while his writings combine the philosophically grandiose with postmodern frou frou, they are singularly lacking in the intellectual power that would sustain either. His first effort, published when he was 29 (and old enough to know better) was titled "Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity." Then followed "Prophetic Fragments," "The American Evasion of Philosophy," "The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought," "Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times," "Prophetic Reflections," "Keeping Faith" and "Restoring Hope."
If the subject matter implied by these titles suggests intellectual airiness, their style recalls a Jesse Jackson riff without the rhymes. Thus we learn from notes West has supplied for the new Cornel West Reader that "prophesy" (which appears to be his academic specialty) means injecting Marxist clichis into religious dogmas: "These introductory remarks to my second book, 'Prophetic Fragments' (1988), convey my moral outrage at the relative indifference of American religion to the challenge of social justice beyond charity." The excerpt from the book that appears in the Reader is more explicit (the style pompously typical): "The principal aim of 'Prophetic Fragments' is to examine and explore, delineate and demystify, counter and contest the widespread accommodation of American religion to the political and cultural status quo."
A few years ago, Leon Wieseltier wrote a cover feature for the New Republic on West's oeuvre called "The Decline of the Black Intellectual." West's productions were, in Wieseltier's mortifying words "monuments to the devastation of a mind by the squalls of theory." Surveying the corpus of West's academic work, Wieseltier concluded that the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. Harvard professor was an intellectual empty suit whose writing was "noisy, tedious, slippery ... sectarian, humorless, pedantic and self-endeared," and whose works were "almost completely worthless." As Gertrude Stein once said of the city of Oakland, there is no "there" there.
Ironically, it is the very emptiness, even incoherence, of his intellectual persona that West has managed to turn into a career virtue. One of the early catalysts of his rise into the cultural stratosphere was his plea for racial harmony. As a Marxist black radical he was almost unique in saying that it was not appropriate for other black militants to hate all whites and Jews. Yet he has endorsed the radicals grouped around the magazine Race Traitor, which calls for the "abolition of whiteness," and two of America's most notorious black race haters.
While West is known as the most prominent radical among African-Americans preaching ecumenical healing between blacks and Jews, he is a friend to Louis Farrakhan, the most influential anti-Semite in America. Recently, as Bill Bradley's advisor on blacks, he encouraged the presidential candidate to meet with Al Sharpton (whose own senatorial candidacy West supported). This is the same Sharpton who incited black anti-Semites to boycott a Jewish-owned store in Harlem, which was then torched by a deranged member of the group and set on fire, killing seven people.
West can maintain this oxymoronic position -- racial healer and bedfellow of racial extremists -- for the simple reason that no one takes him seriously. He is the quintessential non-threatening radical, an African American who can wave the bloody shirt to orchestrate the heartstrings of white guilt, while coming to dinner at the Harvard faculty club and acting as a gentleman host.
The text of the "Cornel West Reader," itself a holograph of his iconic place in the PC culture, reads like the diary of an inginue -- breathless with discoveries both real and imagined, particularly the discovery of self. It is as though Georgie Porgie, reincarnated as a Harvard don, stuck in his thumb and pulled out this plum: "I am a Chekhovian Christian." Thus West announces his intellectual identity in the introduction.
He proceeds to go on and on about his "Chekhovian Christian viewpoint," whatever that means. But looking for tangible meaning in West's prose is a terminally discouraging quest, a bit like looking for a breath of fresh air at the bottom of the sea. There is no "there" there, except perhaps the tedious injection of more religious sentiments into Marxist cant:
I am a Chekhovian Christian ... By this I mean that I am obsessed with confronting the pervasive evil of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery.
If we ask why Chekhov (and not, say, Tony Kushner or Spike Lee), however, all we get is a blast of hot air: "I find the incomparable works of Anton Chekhov - the best singular body by a modern artist ..." Or, as specifically as West can manage: "[Chekhov's] magisterial depiction of the cold Cosmos, indifferent Nature, crushing Fate and the cruel histories that circumscribe desperate, bored, confused and anxiety-ridden yet love-hungry people, who try to endure against all odds, rings true to me."
Well, duh. What has this to do with identifying Chekhovianism as a genus of Christianity? It is beyond West's mental reach to address the question his juxtaposition begs: How can a Christian universe informed by love and the prospect of redemption be squared with the cold Chekhovian Cosmos, an "indifferent Nature [and] crushing Fate?" Don't spend too many gray cells attempting to answer that one.
Throughout, the intellectual superficiality is accompanied by an intellectual status-seeking worthy of a character out of Molihre: "Despite my Chekhovian Christian conception of what it means to be human - a view that invokes pre-modern biblical narratives ..." "I stand in the skeptical Christian tradition of Montaigne, Pascal and Kierkegaard ..." "My Chekhovian Christian viewpoint is idiosyncratic and iconoclastic. My sense of the absurdity and incongruity of the world is closer to the Gnosticism of Valentinus, Luria or Monoimos ... My intellectual lineage goes more through Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Rilke, Melville, Lorca, Kafka, Celan, Beckett, Soyinka, O'Neill, Kazantzakis, Morrison and above all, Chekhov ... And, I should add, it reaches its highest expression in Brahms's 'Requiem' and Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme.'"
Notwithstanding the intellectual jive, comedy would be an inapt term to describe a yearning like West's, which has been socially constructed and is entirely unnecessary. For his intellectual charade reflects the political sickness of the modern academy, which has thrown over its traditional calling to the "disinterested pursuit of knowledge," and assumed a new institutional identity as an "agency of social change." West's plight is that of a paradigmatic affirmative-action baby, whom the good wishes of his "oppressors" have elevated so far beyond his merits that he has lost sight of terra firma below. As a result, he has been condemned to a life of suspended animation, his entire being addressed to the impossible task of proving that he is someone he can never be.
Although West is almost incapable of writing a concrete sentence, he shows just enough autobiographical skirt in "The Cornel West Reader" to betray the source of this dilemma. Growing up as a precocious black child in the radical 1960s, West became a black militant activist, president of his senior high school class and an inevitable target of liberal uplift. At 17, he was recruited to Harvard where his political militancy convinced him that he had more to tell his professors than they had to teach him. He was determined, as he informs us, to press the university and its intellectual traditions into the service of his political agendas and not the other way around: to have its educational agendas imposed on him. "Owing to my family, church, and the black social movements of the 1960s, I arrived at Harvard unashamed of my African, Christian, and militant de-colonized outlooks. More pointedly, I acknowledged and accented the empowerment of my black styles, mannerisms and viewpoints, my Christian values of service, love, humility and struggle, and my anti-colonial sense of self-determination for oppressed people and nations around the world."
This was a crucial moment for what could have been a promising student -- the confrontation of a brash but also impressionable youth with a 300-year-old educational institution dedicated to passing on the intellectual traditions of a 3,000-year-old civilization. It was a system that had shaped generations before him. Yet, it was a system that failed West, as its liberal ramparts collapsed before his militancy, backed by the cultural radicalism of the age.
In the years West was a student at Harvard, traditional disciplines were being broken down and destroyed, intellectual authority assaulted and deconstructed, and the university transformed into a quasi-political party. New disciplines and even entire institutions were created -- ideologically committed black studies and women's studies departments, paganized theology schools, Marxist and post-Marxist curricula in the fields of English and the humanities.
The old and tested rules of scholarship were rejected. Instead of educating and disciplining their intellectual tyro, Harvard and its liberal faculties merely encouraged him. It was the PC thing to do for the oppressed. Cornel West's aborted education was a case of what Shelby Steele has analyzed as liberal whites looking for moral absolution and radical blacks looking for the easy way up -- and who could blame them or West for that? As a result, the once-promising student never learned the difference between an intellectual argument and a political attitude, between the pursuit of an intellectual inquiry and the search for "answers" that were ideologically correct.
"The Cornel West Reader" is a testament to the intellectual vacuum that a progressive education creates. The trappings of intellect are in place, the canonical names invoked, the capsule histories recalled, the theories broadly rehearsed. But behind the footnotes and the latinate prose, the vulgar mind of the activist is feverishly at work. A "discourse" is produced in which political postures invariably substitute for thought.
The intellectual ruin of West is not an isolated case. There is a whole generation of racially favored intellectual water flies -- Bell Hooks, Michael Dyson, Robin D.G. Kelley, Patricia Williams, to name a few -- whose cultural elevation is not only unrelated to any serious intellectual achievement, but has eliminated the possibility of one.
For them, as for West, the pathos lies in what might have been. The left-wing university culture has stripped them of an educational opportunity that is given only once per individual lifetime. Meanwhile, the self-appointed social redeemers, whom West thanks for helping him along, are in reality the very people who deprived him of a chance to learn the hard, old-fashioned way, and thus helped to destroy whatever intellectual potential he may once have had.