Preaching salvation, hugging strangers, rocking the fans
When Brother Cornel — also known as Dr. West, depending on the context — came to Britain, the Guardian newspaper, the daily Bible reading of Britain’s state-funded intelligentsia, reported that he “had rock star quality.” It is a measure of how thoroughly the 1960s did their work that this should be considered a compliment, possibly even the highest compliment, by the best- (or at any rate the longest-) educated section of the population.
Brother Cornel, it seems, was rather difficult for his hosts to keep to schedule:
As he saunters down the high street there are people to talk to, and no one can leave shortchanged. Everyone, “brother” or “sister,” is treated like a long lost family member.
It doesn’t occur to the writer of the piece that where everyone is treated like a long-lost family member, we are not in the presence of family feeling, indeed of feeling of any description, but rather of an act, a performance. This in effect is a presidential campaign with no election at its end.
It gets worse, at least for the brothers and sisters whom Brother Cornel selects as his interlocutors-cum-victims:
Then there is the hug; a bear-like pincer movement. There’s no escape. It happens in New York. . . . And now it’s the same in Cambridge.
I need hardly say that such conduct is not exactly de rigueur in our English climate, which is tepid in more than one sense. But one of the great things about being a multiculturalist is that you don’t have to adapt your conduct to the mores of others, for they have a duty to accept you as you are. Multiculturalism is never having to say you’re sorry; you were only misunderstood.
There is no disputing, however, that Brother Cornel has charisma. He exudes bonhomie in the street like a pheromone; no one of goodwill would misinterpret his hugs as the assaults that under English common law they could be mistaken for. Moreover, he has a good sense of humor, a pleasing smile, and a ready laugh.
You cannot help but admire the act. He is a wonderful visual mixed metaphor: the wild hair of the revolutionary combined with the ultra-conservative black three-piece suit, watch chain, and mourner’s black tie that make him look like a Victorian provincial undertaker. If it were not for the wild hair, you would not be surprised to see him following, in professional capacity, a horse-drawn hearse; if it were not for the suit (and possibly now his age and physique), you would not be surprised to see him giving the Black Power salute on the victors’ podium of some Olympic Games of the 1970s. A man, then, for all seasons.
Brother Cornel was invited to three colloquia at the oddly acronymed CRASSH (the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) in Cambridge. Here he was deferred to by staid British academics — some of them trying desperately to rid themselves of their deep inner staidness by the peculiarity of their attire — and addressed as Brother Cornel.
To English ears, at any rate, this sounds as stilted as old-fashioned Quaker language. To Brother Cornel, all men are not so much brothers as Brother; and, of course, all women are Sister. This universal Brotherhood and Sisterhood, at least in terms of address, has its comic as well as its bogus side. (It is astonishing to me, though perhaps it should not be, that so many clever people, like those at CRASSH, should have such a tin ear for obvious humbug.) For the Guardian reported that Brother Cornel had visited Brother Julian (Assange) in his monkish cell in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Said Brother Cornel: “He [Brother Julian] has this situation with the sisters in Sweden and that’s got to be resolved.”
This “situation” with the “sisters in Sweden” is the accusation of rape. Let us leave aside the fact that if all men are Brothers and all women are Sisters, then all sexual relations are incest; if the charge against Brother Julian is false, the Sisters in Sweden, at least those who have “this situation” with him, have not been very sisterly; if, on the other hand, it is true, it must be allowed that Brother Julian did not behave in a very fraternal manner toward the Sisters. Perhaps it was all a misunderstanding brought about by the different sexual codes of Swedish Sisters and Australian Brothers; but if so, it is all rather discouraging for the multicultural project. For if Australian Brothers and Swedish Sisters do not understand each other when it comes to matters of mutual consent, what hope is there of understanding between us and the Nuer, Azande, and Trobriand Island Brothers and Sisters?
I must say I rather warmed to Brother Cornel; he surely would be much better fun to spend an evening with than, say, the average congressman. Sometimes he even said things that were true (which is not quite the same thing as being authentic, of course). Brother Cornel spoke of the legalized corruption that is swamping our societies, and here, I am afraid, I agree with him. One does not have to subscribe to the idiocies of the 1 percent–versus–99 percent divide (I imagine that Brother Cornel is firmly in the former camp, financially speaking) to acknowledge that there is something deeply troubling about the vast differences in wealth that have opened up in the last few years in most Western societies, differences that are troubling not so much in themselves but in how they have come about.
Brother Cornel offered a few remarks on the country he was visiting. “You have,” he said, “a cold-hearted, mean-spirited budget.” No one can be blamed for failing to understand a country after a three-day visit, but it seems to have escaped Brother Cornel’s notice that government spending in Britain has increased by more than 25 percent since the crisis broke in 2007 — and that during a time when GDP has decreased and, not coincidentally, the national debt has more than doubled, as if we were fighting, once again, a cataclysmic war of survival. Moreover, public expenditure as a share of the GDP is considerably higher than it was during the most socialistic government in British history, that of Clement Attlee.
If Brother Cornel had researched a few figures, read a couple of newspaper articles, and indulged in some consecutive but imaginative thinking, he might not have uttered his stale cliché about privatizing’s being out of control: Something else is going on than mere privatization.
On two consecutive days, the Daily Mail, a newspaper that admittedly is not universally respected for its accuracy or balance, but that nevertheless has a good nose for scandals, had stories that explained the mystery of how government can simultaneously spend much more money and provide fewer and worse services to those from whom it collects the money.
The newspaper discovered that, despite the fact that the number of doctors working for our health service has more than doubled since 1997, as has their pay and as has expenditure on the service as a whole, there are now areas of the country completely uncovered by doctors at night: What you get is a nurse instead, something that never happened when the number of doctors and expenditure on the service were half what they are now. And on the following day, the newspaper revealed that it had found family doctors who were paid $3,000 a night to cover certain other areas of England.
Brother Cornel’s concept of legalized corruption might have helped him to understand. Then he would have been able to intuit the loss of individual probity, both of the governors and of the governed, in a dialectical relationship of reciprocal dependence, that has played a large part in the devastation of our society and economy in so short a time, and that is a symptom of real decadence. But if Brother Cornel acknowledged that the beneficiaries of this legalized corruption, this looting of other people’s money in return no doubt for votes, were by no means confined to the boardrooms of banks, but were actually quite widespread in the population, not among the poor but among the type of people to whom he appealed at CRASSH, he would not any longer be able to use the slogan “You can’t save the people if you won’t serve the people” on his website.
Brother Cornel’s salvationist pretensions are preposterous, but amiably preposterous, like those of the man who used to walk up and down Oxford Street with a sandwich board calling upon people to abjure the Seven Deadly Proteins. To judge by his performance in Britain, he is the kind of man with whom I would like to have a dinner or two (provided only that he did not call me Brother). Of course, some people in Cambridge took him seriously. Here is the beginning of an open letter to him written by some students and academics:
Dear Brother Cornel West,
We are writing to you as student and faculty members of Cambridge Defend Education, a group which has, over the last three years[,] taken a principled stance to defend the university against privatisation and increasing social exclusion, the retrograde forces about which you spoke so eloquently last week. Our vision of the university is that of a place of critical thinking and contestation [for which read “groupthink”]. . . . Perhaps you can guide us by addressing the question which you yourself posed last week; it is one that has troubled us in the face of our own struggles: “What does integrity do in the face of oppression?”
Yours in solidarity,
Students and academics of Cambridge Defend Education
– Mr. Daniels is the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Utopias Elsewhere and other books.