"[Cornel] West and Cone did a Q&A at a Princeton bookstore last winter, and afterward, they and a handful of friends and colleagues—including the journalist Chris Hedges, who wrote the Truthdig piece; Carl Dix, a local communist organizer; Brother Ali, an albino rapper; and a few professors—went to dinner. There, West was in his element. He had no one to provoke, and it was clear to see why some might compare West to Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B. DuBois, or even Mark Twain. The conversation started with an appreciation of the works of novelist James Baldwin. “At Baldwin’s funeral,” said West, “I sat next to Stokely Carmichael. He’s a hard brother, and he cried like a baby.” West regarded Baldwin in the light of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Amiri Baraka, and his friend Toni Morrison. Then the conversation took a turn, touching briefly on the works of the slavery historians David Brion Davis and Leon Litwack, and the civil-rights historian Howard Zinn, before resting for a time on Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, the definers of twentieth-century Christian theology—both of whom taught at Union. About the literary critic Harold Bloom, West pronounced, “He’s not always right, but he’s always got something to say,” and then he veered straight through Martin Heidegger to praise his lesser-known disciple, Hans-Georg Gadamer."
- This week's profile of Cornel West titled - I'm not kidding - "I Want To Be Like Jesus", by Lisa Miller.
Miller does manage the neat trick of being both fawning and dismayed in profiling West, apparently going with "how could such a great mind have so many personal problems," but none of West's admirers can outdo West himself. If you can get past the Jesus part - it's an actual quote that West says he doesn't see himeself as any of Jesus' disciples, but rather as Jesus, himself - there's still West polishing his resume over a string of appointments at Ivy League schools (the hook for the story, ostensibly, is that West is leaving Princeton for Union Theological Seminary), and name dropping like mad. It's not West's celebrity that gets me, or the self satisfaction; his Jesus complex is no doubt helped by the sycophants he's trained to follow him and who shower him with accolades and praise. Miller does a nice job, really, of highlighting the fact that all this mass love is no substitute for the fact that he has few friends, three bad marriages and even a fairly checkered set of professional connections (and really, when forced to choose between Larry Summers or Professor West, who's really worse?).
No, the thing that got me to throw down the artcle was the paragraph above, which to me laid bare the intellectual pomposity that annoys me when West talks in most interviews and appearances (I can only imagine what his classes would be like), the scattershot deployment of Big Intellectual Names You Must Know, the smattering of celebrity names and inside gossip that make you feel like an intimate (why else name drop of Stokely Carmichael?) , but the considered lack of thought about the ideas that are supposed to drive these big thinkers and their works. I feel very lucky to have had college professors who challenged me not to just read the assignments, but to think about what I read, synthesize my own ideas and apply the learnings to all sorts of aspects of life in general. It's not who you know, or how fabulously well read you are, I think it's what you do with the ideas that you discover along the way, and the life you put together as a result. Otherwise, why bother learning anything along the way?
West, the article suggests, is suffering now because he's one of the few major black intellectuals to have soured on President Obama, but that, of course, is of a piece with West's general approach: his over-the-top praise for Obama initially was both too much and too intended to get attention for himself, and his new contrarianism is just as self aggrandizing and just as poorly thought through (if you can stay long enough, Melissa Harris-Perry takes it apart in the article, with her usual combination of smarts and class). Maybe it's my life spent around collegiate types, and faculty in particular; but the best teachers, and the best friends, I find, carry less pretension and look more to share ideas rather than win the contest of Obscure References, because it's a better world when we all know a little bit more. West can probably win the name game... but that doesn't make you Christ. Or even Christ-like.