No one will ever know what exactly was said at the fateful October meeting between our new president, Lawrence Summers, and the Fletcher University Professor. Did Summers question West’s scholarship? His political activism? His recent decision to record a rap CD while taking a year-long medical leave? Whatever the substance of their discussion, it left West feeling flummoxed and disrespected and led him to consider taking the drastic step of abandoning Harvard for Princeton.
Since then, there have been apologies galore and repeated declarations from the University that the controversy has been “resolved.” But rumors continue to swirl that Brother West, as he likes to be called, may be taking his three-piece suits and unmatched eloquence south to the greener pastures of New Jersey.
Perhaps that dark day will never come. But in case it does, let us pause for a moment and consider the greatness of the man who Lawrence Summers, in a moment that will haunt his presidency for years to come, may have driven from our ivory tower.
Cornel West is prolific, first and foremost—the author, according to his web site (www.cornelwest.com, for the curious), of “the best-seller Race Matters as well as many as 15 other published texts.” True, the “as many as” line obliquely nods to the fact that West’s curriculum vitae often lists books that he only co-wrote or contributed to (1991’s Breaking Bread with bell hooks, 1995’s Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin with Michael Lerner, and several more), or books made up of previously published materials (Race Matters, the recent The Cornel West Reader), or compilations of interviews and conversations (1997’s Restoring Hope). And there may be a kernel of truth in President Summers’ supposed claim that since coming to Harvard, West has focused more on polemics and personal ruminations than on serious scholarship—in fact, the last book that West published through a university press was The American Evasion of Philosophy, way back in 1989.
But what of it? Surely we can forgive the professor’s preference for working on projects like cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal’s prison meditations (1997’s Death Blossoms). After all, Cornel West is a genius—“one of the most preeminent minds of our time,” according to cornelwest.com, with a “deep grasp of a multitude of subject matter.” True, his writings, like those of any great man, occasionally inspire carping from West’s political enemies (jealous fellow professors, the scoundrels of the troglodyte Right, and so on) who suggest that the Fletcher University Professor’s work may have more soul than substance. And sometimes even his fellow liberals sell out to The Man, as The New Republic did in 1995 when its Leon Wieseltier famously called West’s work “almost completely worthless...noisy, tedious, slippery, sectarian, humorless, pedantic, and self-endeared.”
Cornel West is above such pettiness, though—he is shielded not only by his manifest brilliance, but by what an essay in The Cornel West Reader calls his “ego-deflating humility.” This humility is on prominent display at (where else?) cornelwest.com, which introduces the professor’s CD, Sketches of My Culture, with the announcement that “in all modesty, this project constitutes a watershed moment in musical history.” A lesser man, having produced such a watershed work, might have been tempted to caper and preen, to indulge in self-congratulation. But Cornel West, modest genius that he is, does everything with “ego-deflating humility.”
Such modesty is rare—but rarer still is West’s political genius, which sets him apart from Harvard’s dusty academic scribblers and dreary pedants. Who but Cornel West would have seen the possibilities inherent in Bill Bradley’s noble, tragic 2000 presidential campaign, which failed to win a single primary only thanks to the machinations of America’s misogynist, homophobic, racist power elite? And who but Cornel West, having tasted the bitter cup of failure, would return to the political arena so quickly, laboring in the vineyards for the as-yet-unannounced presidential campaign of the Rev. Al Sharpton? In fact, who but Professor West would see that Al Sharpton—regarded by many lesser minds as an anti-Semitic and unrepentantly dishonest demagogue—might “fuse the best of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.,” and thus be the key to racial reconcialiation in America?
We should expect nothing less, though, because Cornel West is above all a prophet—offering a “prophetic Christian perspective,” as he frequently puts it, on the evils of the contemporary world. Racism, homophobia, capitalist oppression of all stripes—these are the objects of West’s Isaiah-like wrath, which he calls down not only on the usual round of suspects, but on the black middle class, which he condemns for being “paid off” and castigates for their “conspicuous consumption and hedonistic indulgence.” Is there a slight contradiction between West’s prophetic contempt for material gain and his exquisitely tailored suits, comfortably tenured lifestyle, lucrative speaking gigs and fancy cars? Perhaps. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson (another outspoken Harvard man) once said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Cornel West, great mind that he is, can contain a multitude of contradictions with ease.
Alas, President Summers apparently has no such breadth of mind and spirit. And so, with his petty, narrow-minded focus on ideologically constructed concepts like “academic output” and “grade inflation” (some have dared to suggest that a genius like West should stoop to supervise the A-heavy grading of Af-Am 10!), our president may have cost Harvard one of the most remarkable intellectuals of the age.
As West said in a recent interview, “I weep for Harvard.” If this great man packs his bags for Princeton, so should we all.
Ross G. Douthat ’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears regularly.