Of the two antagonists, it was West who had the superior sense of his audience. In short order, faculty progressives rose to his defense while Larry Summers was down on his knees apologizing for his insensitivity and begging West not to leave. But it was already too late. Summers had previously provoked West’s progressive colleagues by decrying their campaign to divest in Israel and undermine the Jewish state as it confronted enemies dedicated to its destruction. “Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities,” Summers had impoliticly declared. “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect.” Cornel West was one of those people.
While West went on to Princeton, Summers continued on his way to becoming the first president in the history of the modern research university to be censured by his own faculty (or the 10 percent of it who bothered to vote) and then forced to resign from his post. The denouement came months later, after a second conflict with Harvard feminists who were outraged by his expression of the politically incorrect idea that men might have higher aptitudes in mathematics than women (arguably a scientific fact). In the battle over this faux pas
, ideologically driven (and anti-intellectual) members of the Harvard faculty were able to prevail, despite the support Summers received from a group of Harvard donors, headed by David Rockefeller, which withheld $400 million in pledged funds in a vain effort to save him.
West’s victory in this battle, as in others, was only possible because of his role as a symbol of progressive aspirations and amplifier of progressivism’s favorite clichés. These include his view of himself as a perennial racial victim, his opposition to America’s role as a defender of individual freedom, his support for Arab aggressors and portrayal of them as victims of the Jewish state, his condemnation of American society as racist, sexist, and unjust, and his resurrection of Marxist delusions about a socialist future. West’s tireless promotion of progressive shibboleths guaranteed him the support of Harvard’s radical faculty as well as cultural institutions like the New York Times, which swallowed hard at repeated examples of his intellectual vacuity and rallied to his cause. There is no other explanation for the ability of a shallow, vain, and trivial intellect, a comrade of anti-Semites and violent racists and a friend to America’s enemies, to attain the cultural eminence that Cornel West has achieved.
In the end, this disturbing saga cannot be viewed in isolation as though it were the story of a single individual. For it could not have taken place were it not also the story of what has happened to America’s culture — to the institutional standards that support its achievements and the intellectual skepticism that keeps it honest. It is the story of values and constraints that have been removed to make possible a career as morally and intellectually offensive as it is socially and politically influential. Therefore, it is the story of innumerable public careers that time and space will not allow us to review. It is what has happened to our nation since Cornel West was admitted to Harvard University nearly half a century ago.
In the intervening years, the progressive Left has mounted a relentless assault on America’s heritage and its institutional framework, and the society that both produced. The assault has been both historical — indicting the builders of this nation as agents of bigotry and oppression — and current, condemning America’s wars for freedom as imperial aggressions of greed and conquest. It is an assault powered by hatred of others — white people, successful people, males, Jews, Christians (if they are white), and businessmen — who are held accountable for the America that progressives despise.
Cornel West has been a potent pamphleteer in this corrosive cause. In 2004, he published a screed called Democracy Matters, which sold 100,000 copies and made it to the fifth slot on the New York Times bestseller list. Its subtitle explained its purpose: “Winning the Fight Against Imperialism,” namely America. Yet in a sign of the changed times, the book was hailed by the very establishment on which America has showered its many privileges — the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, which described West’s diatribe as written “in the vein of Socrates.”