Today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed ucation reports that four distinguished neoconservatives are boycotting a panel discussion marking the 100th birthday of the political philosopher Sidney Hook, one of the authentic giants of American intellectual life. The four—Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, John Patrick Diggins, and Hilton Kramer—are backing out of the event, which is to be held at City University in Manhattan, because the organizers, looking to replace the philosopher Richard Rorty (he canceled), had the temerity to invite Cornel West.
Diggins, who’s leading the protest, apparently objects to West on the grounds that he isn’t a qualified scholar. Really? In fact West is a protégé and close colleague of Rorty, not to mention the author of a book, The American Evasion of Philosophy, which includes an informed reading of Hook’s oeuvre. “It’s a novel piece of intellectual history,” Rorty said of the survey when I interviewed him last winter for a profile of West. “It’s a book I tell my students to read. It’s not the kind of book that philosophers think they have to read. But they think they don’t have to read my books either.” Perhaps they’re too busy parsing the Wittgensteinian nuances of Kristol’s Wall Street Journal op-eds or Kramer’s art reviews in the New York Observer.
This is not to denigrate these writers, or the other two. They’re all very smart and have much to say, about Hook and many other matters, too. But so does West, who has something else to offer that several of these critics pointedly lack: a thorough grounding in American philosophy. West has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton, and his work has been explicated by, among others, Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam. Diggins and Himmelfarb, by contrast, are historians. Kramer, a journalist and art critic. Kristol is a magazine editor and political essayist.
West is, moreover, a master of intellectual exchange, at his best when debating those he disagrees with. In the ‘90s he was a favorite guest of William F. Buckley Jr. on Firing Line. His spirited, amiable debate on affirmative action with the conservative philosopher Harvey Mansfield packed Sanders Theatre, Harvard’s biggest venue, in 1997. Sounds like good panelist material to me.
So, what are the neocons afraid of? West’s politics? I hope not, because the last time I checked West was the one member of the group who remains a social Democrat—as Hook himself was until his death. Perhaps they think that West, who sometimes favors Marxist terminology, doesn’t grasp Hook’s anti-communism. In fact West, a longtime friend of the anti-Communists Irving Howe and Michael Harrington, is thoroughly steeped in that milieu. His study of pragmatism includes a lengthy treatment of Hook’s contemporary and friend Lionel Trilling.
West, of course, was recently in the news when he tangled with Harvard’s president, Larry Summers, after Summers suggested he produce a new scholarly work. His neoconservative critics seem to be urging the opposite—implicitly suggesting that his views or his unconventional style disqualify him from participating in scholarly discussion. They want to shut West out of the intellectual circle. These are the same intellectuals who for a quarter-century now have been exposing the smug pieties and suffocating groupthink of the academic left, particularly in the New Criterion, Kramer’s magazine (to which I have contributed). So, why are they now enforcing a rigid orthodoxy and unspoken agenda of their own? “When I saw that Cornel West was a participant,” Kramer told the Chronicle, “I decided that it wouldn’t be appropriate [to attend himself].” Appropriate, Hilton? It’s the kind of word you used to roar at.