"Brother West" Reloaded

My review of Cornel West's autobiography last week provoked a lot of discussion, well beyond anything I ever expected. (And more, it seems, than anything I have written in almost five years of doing Intellectual Affairs.) In today's column, I consider some of this -- and address, among other things, the question of whether I have a secret desire to send West a box of fried chicken.

ISome of West's earlier and more substantive work will be considered in the article promised in my talk on "C.L.R. James and African-American Liberation" during the summer.

I need to get back to work on it and not be distracted by chatter -- let alone by the sort of "literary streetfighting" that involves a seedy guy bludgeoning his own head with a thesaurus (to make the voices stop) and then bleeding all over me.

What a weird week.
December 9, 2009 6:52 AM | | Comments (8)



I am beginning to suspect the blowback owes something to a sunk cost fallacy. Years, even careers, have been invested in the video game you describe of the race warrior. The faintest touch seems to bring out the most severe insecurity. Could they be embarrassed by a diminished relevance for their routine in our second Gilded Age, where corporate America extols the virtues of diversity?

Perhaps there's an autopsy to be written on how the left/progressive/whatever usage of "social construction" and "institutional racism" has been eviscerated. If these were the animating concerns, I would expect more attention given to the structure of today's social institutions, how they are reproduced, and how they function. I would expect them to be viewed as the product of cumulative change. I would not expect them to be treated as frozen in time, which several of these response seem to assume.

This may be the one comment in a week that has actually given me something to think about, rather than just respond to, or make me shudder in disgust.

Champion's criticism confused me: you aren't credentialed and are writing about a non-academic work, but you're an elitist who wins awards he's never heard of, and he's upset because someone without a degree fails to cite the substantial works that only elitists read when reviewing a book designed for people, like you, who don't hold degrees. Does that about cover it?

Plus I hang out at Borders, in the philosophy section, hoping people will notice what books I'm holding. Don't forget that. (Pretty revealing about someone's approach to accumulating cultural capital, anyway.)

Yeah, it's kind of like being a Bolshevik Freemason banker who does a little rabbinical work on the side. It is just as hard as it looks, and takes up an awful lot of your time.

I didn't like this one as much as your original column on the book, and I'm trying to figure out why. I think it's a case of really appreciating what you did and assuming that you did it for the reasons I would have, and then finding out you did it for other reasons I don't agree with quite so much.

What I really liked about your original review was that you treated both West and academia with a great deal of respect, perhaps with more respect than West's myriad followers often show. You showed that respect by treating West as a serious scholar (even though you argued that he didn't measure up to one any more) and by defining the bar for scholarship very high. To say that there are intellectual things one needs to do to justify the title of scholar is to venerate the profession as a whole. To judge an individual purely on his intellectual merits when it's difficult even to find the person inside the celebrity is to show a very special type of respect.

Beyond that, I felt that you used your review to tell the story of West's career better than he himself did in his book. That's something that I notice in the work of really excellent critics -- Roger Ebert is another who comes to mind: you spin an original creative work off of another original creative work, using the other as a framework for your own just as a spider uses a branch as a framework for a beautiful web. In this case, you took West's failed book and spun a beautiful paean to the scholar he once was, and a lamentation for what he's become. Your review reflected beautifully on the figure of West even as it condemned his recent scholarship, and it was for that reason that I said it was one of your best pieces.

Where I think you go wrong in this followup column is that you go beyond stating that your column was about West as a leftist scholar rather than as a black intellectual (which I think is true) and argue (seemingly) that race doesn't matter. Race is an extremely important component of who West is; it's just that your review was about another important and overlooked component. I read in your new column the Marxist impatience with race as a social category, and I don't agree with it; but more importantly, I don't think it's relevant or necessary. The beauty of your original column was that anyone could have written it, because it had nothing to do with race, even though West has everything to do with race. I don't think you conveyed that in your latest column.

Also, you seem to have been stung by some of the criticism you received. I can understand sensitivity to certain types of criticism -- there have been some bloggers over the years with the unique ability to get under my skin, particularly one who kept insisting that because I called myself a "historian" I was obligated to never ever make a mistake on a blog. I went off a couple of times on that guy, though I regretted it later. His comments were laughable to anyone who wasn't me, but for some reason I felt as if I was being objectified based on my chosen profession -- the way he used the word "historian" was like calling me a whore.

I think Champion may have gotten inside your head in a similar way. Rationally speaking, there's absolutely no reason you should pay any attention to a piece like that. Champion is merely making himself ridiculous -- he isn't arguing in good faith at all. I do get that he's tried to make it personal, but how does listing your triumphs and then sneering at them (I'm pretty sure it's harder to win an NBCC award without a college degree than with one) land any effective punches on you? It just seems to me that, if Champion is in fact inside your head, you should eject him without delay.

I'll stop rambling now -- I'm really too tired to be coherent, so hopefully some of this will make sense.

Thanks, Jeremy. I've heard variations of your argument about today's column from a number of people, if not in such detail. And I assume it is valid, though I still don't regret writing the piece, since it made some points that seem worth having made.

Your other observation, about being upset, is correct beyond any doubt.

Let me put it this way. Psychiatrists undergo training to deal with direct contact with raw and steaming craziness, which presumably gives them some protection. I don't have that. There was a reason I avoided this individual even when he was sucking up to me. It reflected a healthy impulse. Now, having been too much exposed to the open sewer of his mind, I've ended up carrying some of the stink around with me.

Again, it has been a weird week, and would have been even without that.

Keep fighting the good fight, Scott; though nitwits are armor-plated with a natural inability to grasp their own nitwittitude, the angels (and Joe Strummer) are with you. Ahem: but I *would* like to tweak your very excellent (and dead-center) "Rupert Pupkin" arrow with a pinch of "Norm Crosby" on its tip. Or "Leo Gorcey", perhaps? Maybe those references are too hoary. Though apt.

I get the Norm Crosby reference, but will have to google Leo Gorcey.

Alas, it seems possible that the poor fellow (whose very surname mocks him for inadequacy) may also become known as Special Ed. His diatribe exhibited a passion to seem smart, but he was not up to the challenge. His prose glistened with the perspiration of a man stimulating his prostate with a rolled-up paperback thesaurus.

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