By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The same dynamic emerged in the recent skirmish at Harvard, when new president Lawrence Summers reportedly chastised professor Cornel West for ignoring his scholarly duties and making a jazzy, hip-hoppy music CD called Sketches of My Culture. Taken as a sign of disrespect for the whole African-American Studies Department, Summers’ rebuke prompted talk of a migration to Princeton by the program‘s so-called “Dream Team,” which includes West, the fine poverty scholar William Julius Wilson and Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is at once black culture’s Ken Burns and its George Steinbrenner. Such an exodus would naturally cause a humiliating loss of face for Harvard, which needs a high-profile African-American Studies program to salve its own liberal conscience and persuade the outside world that the university‘s not the training ground for white elites it so obviously is.
Almost instantly, the controversy became a mudslinging jamboree. The Economist mocked cornelwest.com for dubbing West “one of the most preeminent minds of our time” while misspelling the name of Nietzsche. The New Republic Web site dredged up an old Leon Wieseltier piece that called West’s writing “almost completely worthless.” The Wall Street Journal ran an article sneering at West‘s scholarship and accusing the Dream Team of using white guilt to achieve black power. By the time Al Sharpton started talking about lawsuits, a writer in Slate had termed the whole thing “a feast of victimization.”
It was equally a smorgasbord of high-octane careerism. In fact, the West kerfuffle said as much about changing academic mores as it did about race. We’re long past the days (if they ever existed) when modest, donnish souls spent their whole lives Mr. Chipsing their way around the university quad. Today‘s high-profile professors are marquee names, who jump around like baseball free agents, sometimes package themselves together like Hollywood “talent” and get away with all this because their names serve as drawing cards for any university that has them. Offend them at your peril. West is one of Harvard’s undeniable stars, which makes it odd that Summers so thoroughly missed the point of what he does. I don‘t know anyone who thinks West is a great thinker, but he’s a mesmerizing speaker, whose rhetoric blends Jesus and Marx with the riffing, improvisational exuberance of a Muddy Waters or John Coltrane. Hearing him in full flight, you‘re reminded of Albert Murray’s line about the blues: What counts isn‘t verbal precision but musical precision. It doesn’t really matter that his books are mediocre because, like so many legendary teachers, he‘s there to inspire his listeners to action, to fill them with intellectual excitement. And this he does. He opens up the world for them, one of the classic functions of a university professor.
The problem with Sketches of My Culture is not that it’s insufficiently academic. The problem is, it sounds bad. If anyone should be maligning this excruciating CD (which West‘s Web site modestly labels “a watershed in musical history”), it’s not the president of Harvard, but Ornette Coleman and Chuck D.
I once interviewed former Reagan-Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan and found her as nice as can be, but put her at a keyboard and, man, she turns as nasty as Goofy behind his steering wheel. After seeing Black Hawk Down, she wrote a column rhapsodizing about the scene in which a sergeant who‘s been ordered to drive a jeep tells his colonel, “But I’m shot.” The colonel snaps, “Everybody‘s shot. Get in and drive.”
Declaring “everybody’s shot” to be “great metaphoric words,” Noonan takes aim at her ideological enemies:
“Just after the movie, I picked up Ellis Cose‘s latest book, The Envy of the World, about the ’daunting challenges‘ that face black men in 21st-century America. I read and thought, Earth to Ellis: Everyone faces daunting challenges in 21st-century America. Because everybody’s been shot.”
Earth to Peggy: For millions of Americans, many of them black men, the idea of being shot isn‘t simply a metaphor.