One of the most talented, moving, and inspirational singers in American music is the phenomenal Ruthie Foster. More than nearly any other contemporary American singer, she expresses, exercises, and exemplifies what Craig Werner calls the “gospel impulse.” In my new essay for Splice Today, I write about the importance of Ruthie Foster’s music, and the deficit American culture suffers for not giving her a bigger platform to share with the world her unique and powerful voice and vision. Read it here. Ruthie Foster’s new single, “Singing The Blues.”
I recently had the pleasure and honor of spending Jesse Jackson’s birthday with the civil rights leader and his staff.
Following him from event to event at Chicago’s poor public schools, and discussing a wide variety of issues, gave a perfect demonstration of the layers of discrimination and obstruction that exist in American culture.
Jackson said that “we must have the courage to reimagine our struggle.” The reimagining requires that we see the layers at the lowest level, but also the highest level in corporate America and the world of high tech.
Easily, my most read and controversial essay is criticism of how idolatry of the military prevents American culture and politics from acknowledging and addressing the important issues of sexual assault within the military and a war friendly foreign policy.
Calling every troop and veteran a “hero”, and ending the conversation there, is inaccurate – even though some are heroes – but also irresponsible. The conversation must continue to include questions about the culture within the military that allows for one third of all women serving to suffer sexual assault, and the politics of the American government that, in the words of Gore Vidal, a World War II veteran, keeps us at “perpetual war.”
Thousands of people who sent me hate mail and death threats, along with the commentators of Fox News, attacked me, without actually reading the article, for “hating the troops.” Such a slander is pure nonsense.
For many years, one of the most important influences in the development of my thinking and writing was Cornel West. Many of his early books, along with the experiences I had watching him deliver moving and provocative lectures, were essential to the cultivation of my own political perspective, sense of cultural engagement, and philosophical framework.
Over the past few years, however, West has transformed from an intellectual into a celebrity, and in doing so, he has fallen into the American media trap of relying on slogans, recycling soundbites, and regurgitating a greatest hits of his analytic history. He’s also told obvious lies about major figures. For example, claiming that President Obama “cussed him out” in front of dozens of witnesses, none of whom have ever come forward to confirm West’s account. West claims the incident happened after Obama’s address to the National Urban League a few years ago. It seems that if the President of the United States cussed out a public intellectual in front of journalists and witnesses, someone besides West would have noticed.
My latest essay for the Daily Beast tracks West’s decline, focusing primarily on his new book. Black Prophetic Fire, West’s new collection of interviews, is a strange and sad culmination of his metamorphosis from philosopher to television personality. He offers little depth on any subject he tackles in the book, often criticizes people without supporting his critique with evidence, and praises people because he knows them personally. The concept of the book is brilliant, and if it were better, it would serve as a wonderful introduction to one of the world’s most important traditions – the radical African American improvement of American democracy, resulting in immeasurably important contributions in politics, law, literature, theology, sociology, art, and philosophy. Unfortunately, West doesn’t seem to take the project seriously.
My essay gives a detailed account and analysis, and you can read it here.
The response to my essay has been fascinating. First, I know West has gained great popularity, but I had no idea that, as he acquired fame, he has become a secular god. Staggering amounts of people sent me emails of such anger, I could almost picture them foaming at the mouth as they hit the “send” button. Most interesting about these emails, is that none of them actually mounted a defense of West against the reasonable points I make in my essay. Many resorted to attacking me personally, and many others offered only vague arguments for West’s activism, which I myself praise in the article.
I’ve long suspected that most of the people who comment on essays on the internet do not actually read the essays. NPR has conducted experiments that confirm my suspicion, but my essay on West offers pretty devastating evidence. Many people who leave comments make statements that are directly refuted by my article. Space and time don’t permit me to leave every example, but I’ve selected a few comments that represent dozens more of their kind, and I’ll show how quotes taken from my essay contradict the comments.
So you’ve bought into the “How dare anyone criticize Obama!!” silliness, eh? Please, tell me how his criticism of Obama’s increasingly center-right, non-transparent, dishonest, flip-flopping administration lessens in any way Dr. West’s “intellectual chops?”
“Black Prophetic Fire aims to serve an important purpose in an era when there is increasing pressure and lucrative rewards for black leaders to follow the Barack Obama-Deval Patrick-Cory Booker model by moderating, moving to the center, and after gaining power, governing as a soft Democrat…The ascendancy of black leaders to the White House, the Senate, and governors’ mansions, contrary to the assumptions of conservatives and moderate Democrats, does not nullify the need for a Black freedom movement that furthers the march of icons West identifies in his new book. Mass incarceration, vicious educational disparities and segregation along racial lines, police brutality, and lack of opportunity for economic mobility among the black poor do not cause less pain, break fewer hearts, or magically vanish because Barack Obama became president. Critical and radical thinkers like Cornel West are necessary to confront an America too quick to fall into the cultural blindness and political complacency of “post-racial” mythmaking.”
In other words. The author likes West when West agrees with the author.
“For historical and political reasons, the concept of Black Prophetic Fire is excellent. It’s the delivery that’s awful.”
This is a stupid attempt to smear a great scholar.
“The publication of West’s most popular book, Race Matters, in 1993 demonstrated that he was one of the best cultural critics in American political debate. He could combine compelling elements from sociology, philosophy, and economics to present a challenging, but fascinating account of American race relations, democracy, and popular culture. During the height of the hideous Bush years, West brewed the same intoxicating tonic with Democracy Matters, and in doing so, gave beleaguered leftists the intellectual space to make sense of the Bush-Cheney nightmare of international aggression and domestic regression, and enough spiritual nourishment to inspire hope for a better day in American politics. West has also offered essential examinations of the essence and importance of African-American Christianity in Prophesy Deliverance!, his first book, and Prophetic Fragments.”
I could go on like this with several more examples. Disagreement with my ideas and analysis does not bother me. I welcome debate and discussion, but comment sections on websites seem to empower the insane, shallow, and overly emotional. It is for this reason that I applaud Ta-Nehisi Coates for often forbidding comments on his essays. If people are going to angrily attack writers for their written work, the least they can do is read that work.
My publisher, Bloomsbury, recently interviewed me about my upcoming 33 1/3 book on Metallica’s self-titled record, more commonly known as The Black Album.
In a new essay for the Daily Beast, I use the release of a new retrospective of Chomsky’s work as an opportunity to appraise his intellectual contributions and political activism. It is impossible to overstate the importance of Chomsky as a public intellectual, and his importance in my own development. The few criticisms I have of his analysis fall under the sizable shadow of his brilliance and bravery.
Recently, I wrote some critical essays for the Daily Beast. The first was on the comeback tour of Garth Brooks. I had the opportunity to interview Brooks for the essay. We discussed his music, his evolving role in country music, and music culture in America. Brooks was a boyhood idol of mine – my first musical love. While I still respect and admire him, I don’t have the same love for his music. That being said, I enjoyed his concert, and was thrilled to meet him. Read the essay here.
Shortly after interviewing Brooks, I had spoke with Sean Jablonski, the creator of the USA series, Satisfaction. Satisfaction, unlike much of American entertainment, intelligently and maturely deals with the complexities of adult sexuality. Jablonski and I had an interesting conversation about his show, sexuality, American culture, happiness, and his own Buddhist inspiration. Read the essay here.
I recently had the pleasure and privilege of enjoying a two hour conversation with a hero of mine, Jesse Jackson.
I told Jackson that the work he did, along with Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, and others, not only freed black people in the United States from a brutal system of apartheid, oppression, and exploitation (work that continues), but also saved me – a white man born in 1985 – from inheriting the role of occupier, oppressor, and executioner. Albert Camus wrote that people must aspire to live as “neither victims or executioners.” The “Parks-King-Jackson” injection of freedom and justice into American democracy empowered all people to enjoy such aspiration.
In my new essay for the Daily Beast, however, I do not write about the civil rights movement, but the electoral extension of the civil rights movement – the Presidential Campaigns of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and ’88.
Important and liberating, Jackson’s campaigns deserve much more attention and celebration than the Democratic Party – often ungrateful – and the mainline media – often stupid and destructive – gives them.
In my new essay, I’m happy to, I hope, begin the reversal of such an ignorant trend.
The website Music Tomes – an interesting online journal dedicated to covering books on music – recently interviewed me on my forthcoming book, Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky).
In my new essay for the Daily Beast, I defend English Departments against the boneheaded belief that college students have no need to read narrative prose. In doing so, I also write about the techno-buffoonery and anti-intellectualism sweeping the country. The lowering cultural standards are particularly visible when major journals defend them.
As I begin the essay:
It is easy to observe the sad and sickly decline of American intellectual life, through the cultural and institutional lowering of standards, when prestigious publications promote the defense, if not the celebration, of lower standards.
Writing recently in TheNew Republic on the seemingly inevitable death of the college English department, James Pulizzi represents the shortsighted techno-boosterism and foolish progressivism that is rendering American culture increasingly superficial and frivolous.
“Within a few decades, contemporary literature departments will be largely extinct,” Pulizzi submits before predicting that “communications, composition, and media studies will take English’s place.”
Rather than expressing anxiety, or at least, worry over the impending destruction of one of the only mechanisms for introducing young Americans to a pillar of art, human history, and the Western tradition, Pulizzi credulously asks, “Why should college students read narrative prose when they get their fill of stories from television, cinema, and interactive video games?”
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously indicted the cultural condition of “defining deviancy down.” As standards migrate from the mountain to the basement, the formerly vulgar, indecent, and stupid becomes the norm. One can easily see how eventually thinkers like Pulizzi will delete a few words from their rhetorical question to simply ask, “Why should college students read?”