INTELLECTUALLY NEGLIGIBLE At about the same time as the love-train tour, the literary editor of The New Republic finally had enough of progressives’ growing love-fest with Cornel West. In a 5,500-word article trumpeted on the magazine’s cover as “The Decline of the Black Intellectual,” Leon Wieseltier punctured West’s intellectual balloon and challenged his overblown public reputation in a piece from which West never should have recovered.
Wieseltier, a liberal, began by describing West as “a good man, an enemy of enmity,” which was obviously not the case but which made Wieseltier’s testimony even more damning. “Since there is no crisis in America more urgent than the crisis of race, and since there is no intellectual in America more celebrated for his consideration of the crisis of race, I turned to West, and read his books. They are almost completely worthless. . . . West’s work is noisy, tedious, slippery, . . . sectarian, humorless, pedantic and self-endeared.”
Wieseltier described West’s judgment of ideas as “eccentric” (a kindness), and provided multiple examples of Westian absurdities to support his case: “[West] observes that ‘black America has yet to produce a great literate intellectual with the exception of Toni Morrison’; that ‘Marx and Emerson herald self-realization and promote democracy’; . . . that ‘Marxist thought becomes even more relevant after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe than it was before’; that ‘World War Two was a major setback for anti-imperialist struggles in black America’; that ‘inter-subjectivity is the go-cart of individuality’; . . . that ‘crack is the postmodern drug’; that ‘the classical Marxist critique of religion is not an a priori rejection of religion’; and so on.”
In his autobiography West admits that he was wounded by this attack but offers an anemic response. “Socratic questioning — and challenging — is at the very heart of my being,” he writes. “But Wieseltier had no interest in challenging or questioning. He was intent on demonstrating that my life’s work was a farce and I was a fraud. He was, in fact, not only dishonoring the tradition of honest exchange but corrupting it with ruthless character assassination.”
This was dismissal rather than self-defense, providing no comeback to the actual critique in which Wieseltier provided example after example of West’s intellectual vacuity and preposterous ideas. The fact that Wieseltier’s charges of incoherence went unanswered only underscored the degree to which they hit the bull’s-eye.
West survived the attack because even those intellectuals on the left who understood that Wieseltier had made a case did not want to see their champion taken out of the culture war. Writing in the Village Voice, feminist Ellen Willis conceded that West was someone who had been “lionized instead of engaged, over-praised and discreetly under-criticized,” but then defended him with this plaint: “The left is a small beleaguered world these days and Cornel is a friend.”
This notion of the Left’s being beleaguered was hardly an accurate description of reality in the Clinton era. In reality, progressives were an increasingly dominant force in the universities, enjoyed a sympathetic media, and had a friend in the White House. But the protection of someone who had become a symbol of their causes, from affirmative action through the litany of progressive grievance, took precedence over other considerations; they circled the wagons.
CONFRONTATION AT HARVARD Five years after the Wieseltier broadside, progressives made a last notable attempt to clean up the public embarrassment that West had become. This led to the famous confrontation with the president of Harvard. As one of Harvard’s 18 designated “University Professors” (out of a faculty of 2,000), West occupied a privileged height even at that elite school. He was attached to no department or program, able to teach whatever he wanted, and required to report only to the president himself. In October 2001, President Summers called West to his office to express concern that the professor was not meeting Harvard’s academic standards.