Last week, the Washington Post published an editorial about the Naomi Wolf business that drew a contrast between Al Gore’s and Bill Bradley’s uses of advisers. The editors noted that while Gore is a sucker for trendy gurus peddling magical elixirs, Bradley relies only on trusted long-term advisers (“who think nothing of sharing hotel rooms in order to save money”).
But as Wolf quite reasonably pointed out in TV appearances last week, Bradley has a guru too, a Harvard professor by the name of Cornel West. While West is not being paid by the Bradley campaign, as Wolf is by Gore’s campaign, he plays an analogous role as affiliated intellectual. Where Wolf advises Gore about how to score with women voters, West is helping Bradley appeal to blacks. And as in the Gore-Wolf case, the benefits of the Bradley-West relationship are clearly reciprocal. As a result of his association with a leading presidential candidate, West can expect to see his fame and his already formidable lecture fees rise. I don’t think he shares hotel rooms.
I must admit to being poorly disposed toward West, mainly on the basis of a devastating critique in the New Republic by Leon Wieseltier that appeared in year 1995. In a long review-essay, Wieseltier demolished West’s stature as a “public intellectual,” portraying him as a pretentious egomaniac, a mass of contradictions, and a superficial thinker who dresses up diluted Marxism in incomprehensible phraseology. An obvious column idea suggested itself: Bradley’s guru is much wackier than Gore’s.
Then I read some of West’s writings. While he certainly can be eccentric, solipsistic, and turgid, at his best moments West is shrewd, courageous, and inspirational. I remain ambivalent about his work, but it is certainly not, as Wieseltier asserts “almost completely worthless.” It doesn’t trouble me at all that West is advising Bradley. In fact, it makes me respect Bradley, for openly engaging a self-described socialist who may prove a big political liability to his campaign, mainly because he finds him insightful and stimulating.
Let’s get some of West’s obvious faults out of the way. His vanity is indeed considerable. West’s picture invariably appears on the cover of his books, and their interiors contain nearly as many self-references as those of that other Bradley mentor, Pat Moynihan. West goes on tremendous name-dropping riffs. The just-published Cornel West Reader is dedicated to John Coltrane, Frederico Garcia Lorca, Franz Kafka, Paul Celan, Tennessee Williams, Giacomo Leopardi, Samuel Beckett, Sarah Vaughn, Muriel Rukeyser, Thomas Hardy, Nikos Kazantzakis, Toni Morrison, “and above all,” Anton Chekhov. It’s that “above all” that really cinches it. West has an unfortunate tendency to refer to his utterances as “prophetic”–a judgment best left to others. But like West’s taste for three-piece suits (after another of his idols, W.E.B. DuBois), this is a more a matter of style than of substance. West cultivates a distinctively black mode of academic discourse, improvisational in tone and containing a stronger element of showmanship and braggadocio than most of his white colleagues are comfortable with.
Another annoyance is West’s love affair with labels. In the early pages of The Cornel West Reader, he describes himself “a Chekhovian Christian with deep democratic commitments,” “a Gramscian democratic socialist,” a “non-Marxist socialist,” and a “prophetic, Christian pragmatist freedom fighter.” These stickers accumulate, as on a steamer trunk, without pointing to any definitive destination. This habit, too, makes West easy to mock, but I think it serves a purpose. West wants to communicate the intensity of his effort to reconcile his various influences: religious, political, philosophic, and artistic. Wieseltier may be right that West’s efforts at synthesis lack rigor. But I don’t think West’s intention is so much to work out a system as it is to put his own personal journey forward as an example. West is self-made intellectual who found Kierkegaard in a bookmobile, was influenced by the Black Panthers as a teen-ager, and found his way to Karl Barth and John Dewey. His promiscuous use of slogans is a way of personalizing the philosophical, of telling you where he’s been.
So what is it that I find appealing about West? I think his main strengths are his thoughtfulness about America’s racial divide and his charismatic enthusiasm about bridging it. West has a reputation as something of an angry revolutionary. I would describe him as a blunt-spoken moderate with a radical self-image slightly at odds with the substance of his views. In Race Matters, he blasts Jesse Jackson for trying to monopolize black political leadership and for lacking programmatic follow-through. He defends affirmative action, but notes that it “is not the most important issue for black progress in America.” His basic stance is a rejection of both the conservative view that racism is no longer a big problem and the liberal view that it’s the whole problem.
Instead, West opts for a multi-causal explanation of black America’s problems. He thinks racism remains pervasive and destructive, a truth that Bradley alone among this season’s presidential candidates seems comfortable uttering, and one that West has helped him articulate more pointedly. Yet West doesn’t exonerate victims of racism for irresponsibility or criminality (something for which his critics on the conventional academic left, like Adolph Reed, can’t forgive him). West is blunt about what he calls black “nihilism”–what he defines as “a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world.” West in fact takes a position that is close to that of many conservatives on the importance of family structure and religious values. He is also a relentless and insightful enemy of black anti-Semitism, black homophobia, and anti-white racism. “The very ethical character of the black freedom struggle largely depends on the open condemnation by its spokespersons of any racist attitude or action,” he writes in Race Matters.
Despite his emphasis on how bad things are, West is hopeful–as opposed to naively optimistic–about America’s racial future. As a believer in what he calls “politics of conversion,” he considers no one beyond the possibility of redemption and no problem utterly intractable. West is among the toughest and most trenchant critics of black nationalism and Afrocentrism. But he seldom concludes a diatribe with a condemnation. His religious sensibility tells him to try to find what is useful in views that he deplores, and to try to pull moral reprobates in a more positive direction. West is scathing on the subject of Louis Farrakhan. Yet he has embarked on a quixotic effort to engage Farrakhan and change his mind.
West’s writing lacks the lucidity and panache of his Harvard colleague and sometime collaborator Henry Louis Gates. He has said many things that I wouldn’t try to defend, and that I doubt Bill Bradley would want to defend either, such as his formulaic, p.c. denunciations of American “imperialism.” Where he tries to lay out a policy agenda, as in his recent book The Future of American Progressivism (co-written with Roberto Mangabeira Unger), I think he oscillates between dreary, conventional ideas (public financing of campaigns, class-based rather race-based affirmative action, a consumption tax) and utterly impractical ones (a modified parliamentary system, explicit economic redistribution, mandatory voting). I’d be alarmed if West were drafting Bradley’s policy positions. But for the role of spiritual guru to a candidate with a charisma deficit, he seems like just the guy.