Posted on May 14, 2012

“I Want to Be Like Jesus.”

Lisa Miller, Reader Supported News, May 6, 2012

In November 2007, Cornel West got onstage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and before a hollering crowd of more than a thousand people, with much arm-­waving and wrist-flapping, along with a certain amount of ass-wagging, introduced his candidate for president of the United States — ”my brother, my companion, and my comrade” — Barack Obama. “He’s an eloquent brother,” preached West. “He’s a good brother, he’s a decent brother.” Obama returned the sloppy kiss and pronounced West “an oracle.”

That compliment could not have been more apt, for West regards himself as a prophet more than a professor. He believes that he is called to teach God’s justice to a heedless nation. “There is a price to pay for speaking the truth,” reads the signature on e-mails coming from West’s office. “There is a bigger price for living a lie.” So when his view of the commander-in-chief changed from adoration to disappointment, West was moved to proclaim it out loud. He had already been lobbing rhetorical grenades in the direction of the Oval Office, calling the president “spineless” for his failure to make poor and working people a policy priority and “milquetoast” for kowtowing to corporate interests during the economic crisis. But in an interview with Truthdig, ­published last May, West went nuclear. He called Obama “the black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.” And then he said he wanted to “slap him,” as the article put it, “on the side of his head.”

In the white world of mainstream media, the interview made a few headlines. But in precincts of the left, and among certain African-American scholars, it unleashed a tide of anguish. West has been an intellectual celebrity for three decades, protected and cherished by his like-minded comrades, but the nasty tone of his Truthdig comments caused many of his closest colleagues to question their devotion, to suspect his motives, and to wonder whether West’s prominence had finally exceeded his merit. Their concerns were in part pragmatic: As the 2012 election approached, some thought West might make his case better if he weren’t quite so mean.

“When you say you want to slap the president upside the head, black people don’t cotton too easily to that,” says Michael Eric Dyson, who is a sociologist at Georgetown University and considers West a mentor (they studied together at Princeton). “Black people hear echoes of the assault on the body. Lynching. Castration.” The word slap, he says, “that’s violence.” Dyson says he has privately tried — and failed — to urge West toward a more moderate discourse.

The first time I traveled to Princeton University to meet with West, I heard him before I saw him; his familiar, gravelly, elongated vowels — ”Definite-leeee” — reached me as I waited by his office door. Once inside, I offered the argument I’d heard: that his assault on the president hurts poor and working people more than it helps them. By seeding the left with dissatisfaction, West risks suppressing that vote and jeopardizing the outcome of November’s election. Whatever his failings, this reasoning goes, Obama is bound to represent poor people better than Mitt Romney would.

West considered the objection for the smallest fraction of a second before casting it, witheringly, aside. What, he asked me, leaning across his desk and jabbing his long fingers downward, if the Jews had asked Amos to tone it down a notch? “ ’Well, Amos,’ ” West imagines the residents of the Kingdom of Judah, circa 750 B.C., saying in a sort of whiny white-­person voice, “Don’t talk about justice within the Jewish context, because that’s going to make Jewish people look bad.’

“Amos [would] say, ‘What?’ ” West thundered. “ ’Kiss my Jewish behind. My calling is to say, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ ”

He leaned back, satisfied.

West has said that his Christian beliefs form the most fundamental part of who he is. Earlier, I asked him which of Jesus’ ­disciples he most emulates. “Disciples?” he responded in a soft voice. “None of them, really. Nah. ‘Cause I want to be like Jesus, I don’t want to be like those disciples.”

This summer, West will leave Princeton, where he’s happily worked for a decade, to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. By conventional standards, this is a nutty career move. Princeton, with an endowment of $17 billion, trains the future’s titans in the rigors of rational thought. Union, whose financial health is not nearly so robust, trains future ministers to apply the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a broken world. But in 1977, West, who was then working on his philosophy Ph.D. at ­Princeton, started teaching at Union, and it was there that he first found himself, at 24, surrounded and supported by a cohort of black, Christian intellectuals who hoped, as he did, to change the world. West produced his most important work — Prophesy Deliverance! — at Union. It was a battle cry, an argument for including the literature and art, the joy and the suffering, of American blacks in the Western canon alongside Plato and Dante and Chekhov.

“Oh, it’s time to go home,” said West, explaining his move. “It’s about that time in your life where you begin to assess, what do you want the last stage to be in terms of your work and your witness. I have lived the most blessed of lives in the academy. Eight years at Union, three years when I first tenured at Yale, six years at Princeton, eight years at Harvard, back to Princeton ten years. It’s time to end that last stage where I started. Union is the institutional expression of my own prophetic Christian identity, and that identity is deeper than any identity I have.”

{snip} He nurses a personal beef with Obama, and he still smarts from the bruises inflicted upon his ego in a 2001 fracas with Larry Summers, in which the then-president of Harvard University queried West’s scholarly bona fides in public and West departed Cambridge in a red-hot rage for his second stint at Princeton. (“[Summers] needed to be the president of Harvard the way I need to be the president of the NHL,” he told me.) West is also a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed and treated for late-stage prostate disease just as the Summers debacle was unfolding. He is thrice-divorced and still pays alimony to his last ex-wife.


In 1993, with Race Matters, West established himself beyond the academy. Race Matters was a collection of essays directed at a mainstream audience that chided America for having failed to offer anything like a prospect of success or fulfillment to its citizens of African descent. “We have created rootless, dangling people with little link to the supportive networks — family, friends, and school — that sustain some sense of purpose in life,” he wrote. “Postmodern culture is more and more a market culture dominated by gangster mentalities and self-destructive wantonness.” {snip}

Fame begat more fame. After Race Matters, West produced about a dozen books, half of them written with someone else. He appeared in two movies in The Matrix series; he made three hip-hop/spoken-word albums; he gained a reputation as “C-span Man”; and he worked on the political campaigns of Al Sharpton, Bill Bradley, and Ralph Nader. In 2004, he published ­Democracy Matters, which hit No. 11 on the Times’ best-seller list. As his popularity grew, so too did the number of critics calling West shallow and self-serving. Kirkus ­Reviews called the book “a sermon written in a hurry and delivered to the choir.”


{snip} During the 2008 primaries, West stumped for Obama, making 65 appearances in half a dozen states, and he was in the room as Obama prepped to debate his Democratic rivals at Howard University. West had the candidate’s personal cell-phone number, and he left messages on it frequently. “I was calling him, not every day, but I did call him often, just prayed for him, prayed for his safety and that he’d do well in the debates and so on.”

But after Election Day, the man whose character and judgment West had so enthusiastically lauded at the Apollo never called to express his gratitude, and West found himself unable to procure tickets to the inauguration — something he desperately wanted to do for his mother. West was infuriated. Even now, when he talks about the break in their relations, West uses the language of a jilted lover. “One of the reasons I was personally upset is that I did not get a phone call, ever, after 65 events. It just struck me that it was not decent,” West says to me. “I don’t roll like that. People would say, ‘Oh, West, you’ve got the biggest ego in the world. He ain’t got time to say nothing to you.’ I say, ‘Weeell, I’m not like that. I’m not like that. If somebody does something for you, you take time to say thank you.’ ”

West speculates that something scared the president-elect off. Perhaps, he says, it was his long friendship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s problematical former pastor. “Jeremiah Wright is my brother,” says West, who was in the audience at the National Press Club, when Wright combusted in May 2008, refusing to repudiate the sermon in which he said “God damn America.” Or it might have been that Obama needed to distance himself from the “socialist” label that was dogging him. West himself suspects he was “too leftist.” He believes someone in Obama’s circle said, “We don’t want to get too close to this brother.” (A senior official from the 2008 campaign insists that no one had any intention of shutting West out of the proceedings. “If something dropped there, that’s unfortunate. But whatever happened, that isn’t President Obama’s fault.”)

Despite his lack of access, West arrived in Washington with his mother and brother on Inauguration Day, wanting to participate in the historic event. As they were checking into their hotel, the Wests were astonished to find that their bellhop was luckier than they. “We drive into the hotel, and the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel has a ticket to the inauguration,” he told Truthdig. “We had to watch the thing in the hotel.” {snip}

West continues to insist that it’s the president’s policies, and not what he perceives as ingratitude, that motivates his critique. He believes that when Obama chose Tim Geithner and especially Summers to design his economic-reform plan, he revealed that his election-year allegiances to the legacy of King were false. “He said, ‘I’m with these two. I’m not with you.’ He’s making it very clear. The working people are not a major priority, they are an afterthought. Now, during campaigns, it’s very different. Here comes the populist rhetoric again, here comes the concern about workers. The middle class is a major issue. Income inequality is now a fundamental issue. Please.”