To the Extreme

Cornel West was in The Matrix, but cultural politics isn't a video game. Scott McLemee responds to the continuing discussion.

December 9, 2009

Last week this column offered an assessment, not exactly glowing, of Cornel West’s latest book, an autobiography of sorts. The review failed to say anything about race. That will sound like a paradox to some people but it is not meant to be. A commentary on a book by a prominent black academic is not necessarily a commentary on race in America. (Still less need it be an editorial on the state of African-American studies, which some people took my review to be.) Race matters, but it is not all that matters. The quality of the book as such also counts for something.

Nor did the column discuss West’s politics, which are more or less my own. It is not that I am uninterested in either race or politics, but they were not the focus of the piece. Rather, West’s book was. But people seem to want to discuss race and politics -- so let’s.

It is impossible to make any point so clearly that some portion of the audience will not grow wildly indignant because they think you are saying the exact opposite. You may repeat the point in various ways, hoping that the message will prevail. (Redundancy within a signal is what distinguishes it from the noise in a channel.) But there are limits to just how much good this will do. The will to misunderstand seems to be invincible, and some people enjoy indignation very much.

It would have been difficult to make any more explicit than I did that my disappointment with Brother West – and, yes, anger at West for perpetrating something comparable to the “book” that Sarah Palin “wrote” – followed from a deep admiration for his best work. It is a bad thing to see proof of someone’s talent and intellect being siphoned off by the entertainment industry. The corruption of the best is the worst. Such was the feeling my review expressed, more than once, and in more than one way.

Some readers did get the message. A few suggest that it matched their own impressions. “I read The American Evasion of Philosophy at the beginning of my graduate studies,” one person told me “and it changed my life, but now I look at the excerpt from this new book at MSNBC and it makes me feel despair.” Considering that Brother West was published by a prominent vendor of inspirational and self-help books, this seems like a bad sign on a number of levels.

But to a significant layer of the public, West is not someone whose actual work, as such, means anything at all. They celebrate it, or loathe it, but that does not mean they have ever given any part of his work five minutes of thought. For them, West is not neither an intellectual nor even an individual. He is a synecdoche. He stands for black academics in general, or hip hop, or the history of affirmative action, or the entire history of African-American writing beginning with Phyllis Wheatley. Or something.

This figure is an avatar in the video game of the culture wars. Depending on how the player has adjusted the settings, the character is (a) the relentless and noble freedom fighter whose every move on screen strikes a blow for human liberation or (b) Al Sharpton plus Cliff’s Notes.

Now, my own estimate of Cornel West shares nothing with either of those attitudes – nor do I have much time for video games, actual or metaphorical. But that did not keep lots of people from trying to enlist me in the fantasy.

One especially feverish player announced that the column was so racist that it had only just stopped short of sending West a box of fried chicken. It would be patently impossible to demonstrate this from anything the column actually said. But the statement, while lacking any correspondence to reality, could be regarded as at least coherent on its own terms, once the premises were unpacked.

The most important premise being that no white writer can say anything critical about a black writer without having vile and probably violent motives. This axiom is typically nested, in turn, within an assumption that American life is best understood as having two distinct cultural complexes. One is coded white and the other black. They are accessible via distinct (and well-guarded) entrances, and obey incommensurable zoning codes. You are supposed to stay in your proper matrix.

A system of internal colonies, between which a spirit of mutual disinterest prevails, is not my idea of a good society. As a basis for cultural criticism, “separate but equal” is not that appealing a principle. Nor do I feel deeply accountable to any “tolerance” found choking on its own stifled aggression. My sense of life owes a lot to the work of C.L.R. James, who thought that the multiracial crew of the Pequod was what made Moby Dick such a touchstone to understanding American possibilities.

We should leave racial essentialism to the stand-up comedians who finesse it best. This is a hybrid culture. That is perhaps the one good thing you can say about it. I don’t intend to give that up.

In any case, the notion that a white critic has no business assessing a black writer begs an important question. (And not just, "Does that apply vice versa too?")

One of the decisive early influences on my own writing was Anatole Broyard. For many years he was a critic at The New York Times; he died in 1990. Some time before that, I read a collection of his pieces called Aroused By Books, and looking it over again recently, it seems clear that my response was to steal everything about his style and method that wasn’t nailed down. A few years ago, the public learned that Broyard had taken considerable pains to conceal the fact that he came from an African-American family.

By the logic of old-fashioned, real-deal, no-doubt-about-it white supremacy, anybody who looks white but has a “single drop” of “black blood” is actually black. This is binary thinking gone berserk. But it creates a problem for anyone who wants to insist on criticizing the critic for wandering into someone else’s ethnic enclave.

To bring this down to the matter at hand: How do you know I am white? How, indeed, do I? This society tells me that I am. But then, this society tells me plenty of things that serve its own interests – usually in ways it wouldn’t want questioned too closely. Perhaps obsession with patrolling the perimeters of our gated communities is not a good thing. I’m just putting that out there.

In any case, I want to make clear that there is no way I would ever send Cornel West a box of fried chicken. If we’re going to indulge in identity politics, let me just mention that I come from a Southern working-class family. If I had a box of fried chicken, I would eat it myself. Cornel West earns more in a weekend of public speaking than I do from a year of writing. Let him buy his own food.

As to politics.... It is said that American universities are under the control of tenured radicals trying to continue the revolution by other means. This is constantly repeated but it is utter nonsense. A thin layer of such people do exist, but their power is limited. The prevailing culture of the institution seems far more responsive to the spirit of corporate governance than to any belief that “democracy is in the streets.”

On that score, my admiration for Cornel West remains very much alive. People criticizing him as a “typical” leftist professor could not be more mistaken. For many soi-disant radical academics, the policing of one another’s verbal behavior is as close to activism as they will ever get. By contrast, Brother West gives intriguing glimpses of his involvement with the Black Panther Party, the Social Text collective, and the Democratic Socialists of America. Although the book does not mention it, he also contributed to the socialist journal New Politics in the 1980s, when it was barely getting revived again after a long period of suspension. As a member of the current New Politics editorial board, I want to express thanks to him for that, and hope he got the copies sent as payment.

Cornel West's heart is in the right place. You can tell that it beats harder when there is a movement towards justice. He walks the walk. This cannot be taken for granted. But here, again, Brother West proves so terribly disappointing. It conveys nothing, absolutely nothing, of what it is like to work in a movement. Politics is not just exhortation. The ability to make a fiery speech is part of being an activist; that is true. But so is assessing your experience as part of a group of people trying to work together. Not a bit of that comes through in his writing.

“From each according to his abilities,” as the old spiritual says, “to each according to his needs.” The professor’s needs are being well met. It is how he is using his abilities that is in question. This is called taking someone seriously.

My review did so – but at the cost of violating certain norms of etiquette. This was explained to me, after the fact, by a tenured professor who is an admirer of West. A cardinal if unwritten rule of the academic world, it seems, is that one must never go on the record with a pointed criticism of anyone prominent or influential. This was not so much a moral principle as the wisdom required to survive in the marketplace. After all, they might retaliate.

Well, so much for speaking truth to power. You can’t please everyone. It would be pretty craven to try.

This column now approaches its fifth anniversary. At the risk of succumbing to the contagious influence of Brother West, I will say that it has had a mission. It has engaged with hundreds of books and authors with the simple intention of trying to communicate and assess their essences for as wide an audience as cares to pay attention – using a variety of formats and tones, and employing whatever degree of vigor, or earnestness, or broadness of humor, or allusive riffing, or explicit citation, or double-encrypted irony, as may seem necessary and appropriate at any given moment.

“Will it ever stop?” as the poet so memorably puts it,

Yo I don’t know.
Turn off the lights, and I’ll glow.
To the extreme, I rock the mic like a vandal,
Light up the stage and wax a chump like a candle.


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