It’s been almost ten years since Larry Summers, then-president of Harvard, suggested that Cornel West get a little more serious about his academic career. He advised Professor West to spend a little less time making rap albums and inflating student grades and do a little more in the way of publishing in academic journals and teaching real classes. Rather than have to put up with any more such advice from a mere college president, West left for Princeton and threatened to take Henry Louis Gates Jr. with him. The black-studies scholar K. Anthony Appiah had already announced he was heading to Princeton.
This week brought news that Professor West has directed a bizarre string of insults at the President. West called Obama a “white man with black skin” and “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and . . . corporate plutocrats.” And he told MSNBC’s Ed Schultz that Obama’s upbringing inevitably means he “has a predilection much more towards upper and middle class white brothers and Jewish brothers and a certain distance from free black men who will tell him the truth.”
This is a man who has spent decades in the Ivy League, and when he disagrees with a man’s politics, the first thing he resorts to is ad hominem attacks. Does this say something about the state of our intellectual discourse?
The kind of psychologizing that goes on here is just a more extreme version of what happens all the time the academy. One black person disagrees with another and it must be because one is not black enough. Any disagreement by racial minorities or women or gays or lesbians with the academic left is a sign they must be “self-hating” or out of touch with the interests of their own community.
Apparently West thought that when Obama got into office he would just do whatever his black elders told him to. According to The Washington Post, even Al Sharpton has figured this out. “This is the first time in this country that we have an African American president. He is not the president of African Americans,” Sharpton said. “The problem we’re seeing with too many older-minded people is you don’t want the next generation. You want clones. And people don’t have to be your clone to validate your sacrifice.”
So Cornel West makes Al Sharpton sound like Clarence Thomas.
I’d like to think that Shirley M. Tilghman, the current president of Princeton, will be having a Summers-like chat with Professor West about his behavior, suggesting that he behave a little more, ahem, professorially. She probably won’t, but who knows. Maybe she will and then Yale will be stuck with him.