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.