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On Cornel West

January 27, 2010

Cornel West—Princeton professor, recording artist, motion picture staradvertises himself as one of the world’s most influential intellectuals–and it’s almost certainly true.  But what kind of intellectual is he and why is he important? I don’t mean to ask “are his views correct?”, “is his net effect positive?”, or “does he deserve his success?”. Many think no; I’m inclined to think yes.  But whatever; important as they are, those aren’t the issues I’m interested in.  What I’m interested in is taxonomy, not assessment—less evaluation than finding appropriate criteria for evaluation.

The urgency of this project comes from the fact that intellectual is not a unified phylum. It’s a catch-all, a more or less arbitrary classification useful for tax purposes but little else: call someone an intellectual and all you’ve really said is that he or she has a byline but no real job. Intellectuals as a class share neither a common ancestor nor a common morphology nor a common niche. There are, in Isaiah Berlin’s famous (and intentionally silly) cartoon, hedgehogs who know one big thing and foxes who know many little things. In addition, there are entrepreneurs and professionals and laborers; there are artists and artisans; there are builders, renovators, and demolition men; there are judges and advocates.  Some are showmen, some are collectors, some are priests, some are scribes, and some are guerrillas.  All of these roles have places (not necessarily equal) in the universe of public discourse, and each comes with its own criteria for success.  To tag someone with one of these labels isn’t automatically to appraise him or her.  It’s simply to set the criteria by which he or she should be appraised.

So what kind of intellectual is Cornel West?

Going by his book Democracy Matters, he’s a pedagogue, a PR man, a mediator, a guru, a synthesizer, a traditionalist, and a true believer. Whether he therefore belongs to an existing genus or whether a new one should be invented for him, it’s unclear.  What is clear, I think, is that he’s not what people sometimes mistake him for. He’s not an innovator or a very substantive thinker. He’s neither a radical, a scholar, nor an activist. He’s more an umpire than a player.

As the title suggests, the fountainhead of West’s thought is the idea of democracy.  But this is less a political concept than a moral one. If anything, the legitimacy of political democracy is merely the reflected glory of moral democracy. Moral democracy is less an institution than a fact: that we are all moral equals, equally deserving of justice and respect regardless of class, color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

This egalitarianism leads West into an admirable but unexceptional political agenda. He’s against unchecked capitalism (Enron), militarism (the Iraq war), and authoritarianism (the Patriot Act). Each violates our underlying moral equality, and politically each is the result of the concentration of power in the hands of elites.

Fortunately, West also has a plan for how to rid ourselves of these elitist evils. In a word: dialogue.

There is certainly something democratic about dialogue. Conversing with a partner is in some way treating her as an equal: you need recognize her right to speak, listen with an open mind, and be willing to work toward mutual understanding. If you don’t at least make an effort to do these things, you aren’t having a conversation. West takes this parallel and runs with it: dialogue is inherently democratic and democracy is dialogue is the solution to democracy’s political problems. It gets us to open up to the moral equality of others, to see them as equally deserving of justice. From this meeting of the minds a just political consensus is supposed to emerge.

Dialogue can be hard, but again West has an answer: we need to hone our skills through liberal education focused on a canon of “democratic” artists. Reading Emerson, Melville, Chekhov, Baldwin, and Morrison is both an exercise in dialogue and an instruction manual for it.

West has an expansive, unified vision.  It stretches almost the full breadth of American life, from popular music to religion.  It enshrines a single value, democracy, as the guide to politics, art, education, and moral life. This gives it a sort of Manichaean simplicity. There is a primordial struggle with democratic ethics, politics, art and education presenting a unified front against their elitist counterparts. Nevertheless, it’s a welcoming vision. Democratic dialogue has no ideological preconditions; the only people who are excluded are those nihilists who refuse to join in and so exclude themselves.

If West’s vision is grand, it’s also airy. There are no concrete policy proposals. He’s more concerned with changing hearts than minds. His analysis of the Israel-Palestine conflict is basically this: both sides need to put dogma aside and embrace democratic dialogue with one another. This won’t offend anyone. It may inspire some, and that’s valuable, but it doesn’t address the question at the heart of the conflict, namely “Whom does Palestine belong to?”.

West says some controversial things, but nothing remotely incendiary. Sometimes he even comes across as timid. Reagan, for example, gets off lightly in comparison with his acolytes. He is “a masterful conservative communicator and true believer in the rightness of America’s might.” West never condemns the Iraq War; he just advises cultural sensitivity: “We will likely stoke more resentment in the Middle East than fires of democratic passion if we are not sensitive to the special characteristics out of which democracy must evolve there.” Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic “in its effect, not in his intention.” For all the talk about the importance of prophetic utterance, there’s precious little of it.

You get the sense that he sees himself primarily as an evangelist for dialogue and not so much as a participant in the dialogue, unless of course it’s a dialogue about dialogue. He stays above the fray and doesn’t dirty his hands with details. He’s more or less content to point out cases where the dialogue’s grounds rules have been violated. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, for example, are insufficiently honest: they “cannot manage to speak with full candor or attack the corruptions of the system at their heart.” West sometimes casts himself in the role of Socratic gadfly, but nowhere is there anything as detailed as Plato’s plan for ideal Republic.

Faith in the power of dialogue to resolve political problems is reassuring, but there’s also something worrying about it. Honesty, openness, and good faith are important, but surely they’re just the first step. The hard work begins only after such preconditions have been met. Two equally honest, open, and faithful sides can still disagree, and then what do we do? Surely part of politics, though certainly not the prettiest or most inspiring part, is a matter of managing cases where there are no sanitary moral options.

Forget this and you risk making conflicts worse. If you think that dialogue alone is enough to resolve any conflict, then behind every intractable conflict you’ll find a treacherous interlocutor. That’s often the case. Indeed, West is at his best when calling out policies and institutions that are transparently corrupt. But often it’s not.

West sees himself as a spiritual warrior for the soul of America. He’s a sober and openhearted warrior, but ultimately politics happens in the realm of things, not spirit.

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