Exchanges: On Cornel West, and Uncle Peter

Editor’s note: Due to staffing considerations, we cannot print a regular “letters to the editor” column. However, we are able to run mini-essays in response to various pieces we’ve run. Contact us at editorial@brooklynrail.org.

—T.H.

A Response to Norman Kelley: Cornel West and the Left

see Rail’s July/August 2004 issue: www.brooklynrail.org/express/july04/west.html

by Richard A. Greenwald

Norman Kelley’s essay “The Continuous Decline of the West” masquerades as a review of Cornel West’s most recent book, Democracy Matters. Kelley’s critical reading of a book that looks at democracy and the post-9/11 world offers some valid insight into the debates surrounding the Middle East, imperialism, and terrorism. But, in the end, Kelley’s review is nothing more than a vehicle for assassinating West’s character. On one hand it is nice to see some excitement and debates in intellectual circles. A good fight can be a cathartic thing. But this piece crosses the line from criticism to hatchet job.

Kelley uses his review as a singular opportunity to assault West both as an academic and as a public intellectual. In fact, one could properly call this review an intellectual mugging. Kelley calls West, Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, and many others “pseudo-intellectuals of the left,” who are not only ineffective but—even more important—just “market intellectuals who sell attitude.” West is depicted as a “one-note Johnny” who “has essentially produced no qualitative work in almost twenty years.” Kelley thus dismisses West’s important work on pragmatism in a sentence. Moreover, West is depicted as “the left’s ‘pet Negro’ much the same way that Condi Rice and Colin Powell serve as the Republicans’ pet Negroes.” West is “a man who has nothing to say in regard to either American foreign policy or this country’s democratic practices.” If West is really as insignificant as Kelley believes, one must wonder why he spends so much time discussing him.

First, I think it’s important to dismiss the comparison with Rice and Powell. To use the phrase “pet Negro” is uncalled for and insensitive. OK, the GOP may be using Rice as a token. But who would we say is using West? What institution is he beholden to? West has made no career of endorsing candidates. He is not a policy wonk. He has not served in any administrations (his involvement with Bill Bradley’s campaign is an exception). And he has not served as a token for any political causes that have done a disservice to the black community. Because he is a visible African-American, must he be someone’s device?

Kelley both misreads and misrepresents the intellectual project that Cornel West and others, such as Robin D.G. Kelley, have been concerned with for over twenty years. Black intellectuals have always been involved in political debates (think W.E.B. DuBois) precisely because of the nature of America’s racism. That a handful of black intellectuals are now household names does not mean that racism is a thing of the past. That a few have “made it” and are now academic superstars doesn’t hide the fact that American intellectual circles and college faculties are still mostly bastions of white privilege. What is most striking is that one almost never reads attacks of this nature on white intellectuals as a group. It would seem preposterous to most to lump Todd Gitlin and Norm Chomsky into a “project.” Why is that? West tells us why in his seminal book Race Matters. And the reason is that, for all the touting of this group of black intellectuals as successful intellectuals, too many people still see them as black intellectuals. Simply stated, their race matters.

West, however, is one of a handful of black intellectuals now writing about broader subjects, not just the black community; hence Democracy Matters. In addition, West has in some ways left behind the elitism of academia and started to write for a larger general audience. At a time when academics are writing for an increasingly small number of specialized readers, this is to be applauded. In the 1950s, scholars such as Richard Hofstadter and Lionel Trilling were doing the same, and they were equally criticized for not being academic enough. I believe the goal behind these efforts is to reach a larger audience, to have a larger impact. West’s book Race Matters reached a rather large audience and sparked a real debate both over race in American and the politics of nihilism.

Ultimately, the readers of The Brooklyn Rail are smart enough to read West and make up their own minds about this and his other books. They must also recognize the important work that West and other black left intellectuals have produced and place it within its proper context.

Richard A. Greenwald is a labor history and working-class studies professor. He is the co-editor of Sweatshop USA and the author of the forthcoming Law and Order in Industry.

Kelley responds:

It’s interesting to note that Greenwald doesn’t address my essential critique of West’s latest book: He has nothing of interest to say about U.S. foreign policy or America’s democratic practices. In effect, the Sage of Princeton doesn’t contribute anything new to the debate about the Middle East. As I said before, he says nothing about Sayyid Qutub’s profound influence in radical Islamic circles. West isn’t a genuinely significant thinker; he’s simply perceived as such because he’s been on TV and has become a pop celebrity (note his appearances in The Matrix). Can anyone truly recall a significant thought from Race Matters?

The whole black public intellectual “project” is a sham and is more about selling “attitude” than any real critical assessment about what is and isn’t going on in the world or with African Americans forty years after the passage of key civil rights legislation. What is West’s public project? Oh, yeah, some really bad spoken records that will enlighten the nihilistic Negroid masses. This is a joke.

Even some of West’s colleagues and students see him as a major disappointment. He’s warm, fuzzy, and friendly, but he is an intellectual minstrel who performs as an intellectual. He’s essentially a preacher in intellectual drag, a pseudo-intellectual in preacher’s garb. The Sage is like an old James Brown song: Like a dull knife, he “just ain’t cutting it/Just talkin’ loud but sayin’ nothin.’”

Norman Kelley’s latest book, The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome, is available from Nation Books.

Letter From Uncle Peter

This is in response to “Message to My Uncle Peter,” an Express piece that appeared in the May 2004 issue of the Rail (see www.brooklynrail.org/express/may04/unclepeter.html). In the piece I talk of the inevitable draw of politics, even for a surfer/lifeguard uncle whom I’ve met only a few times in my life and who a few years ago retired to a Costa Rican beach to surf, read, work out, and smoke weed. This is a strange journey for someone who went to the same prep school as John Kerry. Of course, the piece also expressed a certain amount of envy for his lifestyle; I offered to switch places with him, for a while at least.

—Williams Cole

To Williams:

I am flattered and impressed that you took my phone message & turned it into an “interesting” article. You are the type of person to be part of an alternative newspaper. Would you think me more responsible if I was a Bush activist for political & environmental issues?

Also, no way do I want to switch places. No, I will not save you “a patch of warm sand, a stoked bowl, some free weights & a pile of good books.” You state that it would bore you after a couple of weeks. Why should I waste some of my soul on a person who’s not really into it? I agree with you that after two weeks you would begin questioning everything. That is who you are & why your spot in life is where it is. Also I don’t get why you want to be a pain in my ass. I’ll just paddle away.

A wave is energy caused by energy—all natural—which travels thousands of miles to break on a reef or sandbar. The thrill is catching this energy & flowing with it until the ride is over. Also, particles move through the universe in waves; and of course you know we are made of stardust. Our bodies consist of particles that were formed in stars & then ejected into space when stars explode. Then they made it to this planet by asteroids, comets, etc. or on their own, or came in waves of energy. Without these particles we would not exist. This is based on the five books of the universe that I have.

I’m sure that doing what you are doing is & has opened the minds of some people in regards to the stuff you write & print. Very responsible actions on your part. How do you think saving “scores of inept tourists from the sea” measures up?

It’s hard for me to be bored with magic all around me. I feel no envy for your life—I’m happy. When I’m happy I don’t feel negative. If people are happy they don’t have the inclination to feel negative. So, for me, “the Dionysian pleasure-seeking vein” has always been the path.

About the sex-hound part, I’m sorry to report that there are no groupies for poor over-60 surfers. If you could use your talents to start young girls wanting to have older (grandfather-image) lovers, I would consider saving you the things you requested.

Now for the really important stuff: John Kerry was three years behind me at St. Paul’s. When I was a senior, a star on an undefeated ice hockey team, the young Johnny would have been cheering me & my teammates every time we were on the ice. We were heroes to everybody in the school and beyond.

I need to smoke pot now. This letter took me a long time to write…

Contributor

Stanley Morgan

Stanley Morgan is a writer based on Wall Street.

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