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Who's Afraid of Cornel West? | The Nation

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Who's Afraid of Cornel West?

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Writing in a forthcoming issue of The Journal of Israeli History about Israeli revisionism, Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought makes the observation that while American neoconservatives like to present themselves as people who "care deeply about ideas," in truth "they are engaged in intellectual life...not out of curiosity or natural inclination, but out of a purely political passion to challenge 'the intellectuals,' conceived as a class whose political tactics must be combated in kind." Hence, the "quasi-militaristic rhetoric," the "cavalier use of sources and quotations," and the frequent "insinuations of intellectual bad faith and cowardice, even treason." This style marks them, Lilla notes, as a new breed: the "counter-intellectual."

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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A former editor of the neocon policy journal The Public Interest and author of The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, Lilla observes that among his older friends, some "had once been genuine intellectuals who made important contributions to history and criticism." Their obsessive hatred of the culture of the sixties, however, induced them to renounce "any intellectual ambitions that did not serve the cause of restoring the cultural status quo ante. As for the young people they inspired and frequently sired, they became counter-intellectuals without ever having been intellectuals--a unique American phenomenon." Neocon history, Lilla explains, is one of "political success and intellectual failure." He laments, "To judge by the kinds of articles published in magazines like Commentary and even Partisan Review in this period, it was hard to imagine that writers like Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg, and Delmore Schwartz had ever graced their pages."

The mass media never noticed this transformation. If you look, for instance, at the reviews of David Brock's book Blinded by the Right--wherein Brock laments the moral and intellectual decline from Norman Podhoretz to homo-hating son John--even die-hard liberals take the old guys on their own self-flattering terms, as if the neocon parents were men and women of profound idealism while the "minicon" children can muster only attitude. Well, as John Lennon used to say, "The dream is over." The neocons have shown their true intellectual colors, and they are not pretty.

As The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported, Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hilton Kramer and the intellectual historian John Patrick Diggins have all withdrawn from a conference honoring the work of Sidney Hook, to be held at the City University of New York. Diggins, according to conference organizer Robert Talisse, went so far as to threaten not only to convince others to stay away but also to convince certain funding institutions to withdraw their money (and hence, destroy the conference). The alleged crime: Somebody invited Cornel West to replace Richard Rorty as a featured guest.

Now whatever one may think of Brother West's recent political activities--and I think very little of them--he is a recognized scholar of both Hook and the pragmatist tradition in which the latter labored. Rorty, for instance, whose authority on pragmatism nobody dares to question, praises West's The American Evasion of Philosophy as "a novel piece of intellectual history." The book contains a long and thoughtful discussion of Hook.

The Chronicle reports that this Gang of Four felt West to be "not enough of a scholar" to justify their presence. This is a bit like a little league coach claiming Barry Bonds is "not enough of a hitter" to play a game of sandlot ball. Kristol and Kramer have made careers as ideological entrepreneurs and polemical publicists. They cannot boast a single work of lasting scholarly significance between them. Gertrude Himmelfarb and John Patrick Diggins are both serious, albeit unusually combative and ideology-minded, historians. Both have shamed themselves with this act of combined intellectual cowardice and conservative political correctness.

Harvard president Larry Summers, a neocon hero, lost West to Princeton at least in part because of his willingness to confront him with unfounded rumors that the deeply committed teacher was stiffing his students. West saw his name dragged through the mud in conservative and some not-so-conservative publications due to his willingness to take his scholarship and inspirational personal presence beyond the territories traditionally traversed by Harvard's University Professors. The great irony of the CUNY conference on Sidney Hook is that it finds West doing just what Summers and his critics complained he had neglected: participating in the scholarly life of the academy.

One wonders just what is so frightening. Perhaps it is a sense of being outgunned. I have seen West debate the elder Podhoretz at a conference sponsored by the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale, and the two proved so mismatched I left feeling a little sorry for Norman. Equally likely, however, is the fear that a leftist like West will remind audiences that their putative hero died a proud socialist. He may have been a fanatical anti-Communist, but his passions derived from an honest engagement in the life of the mind, something the neocons long ago forfeited in their love affair with power.

Ironically, West told Sam Tanenhaus that he didn't know he had been invited to the conference and was wholly unaware of having caused a conservative boycott. He explained, however, that he had been planning to go anyway--as a spectator. He saw a notice about it in The New York Review of Books and looked forward to catching up on the recent scholarship on Hook. West recalled that back in 1985 he had flown from California to Washington, DC, to be present for Hook's Jefferson Lecture and had the opportunity to tell the then-83-year-old philosopher how important his work had been to him.

Hook never succeeded in fusing Marx with Dewey, just as West, in this view, is still quite a distance from combining Gramsci with Sly Stone. They agreed on virtually nothing about the cold war or the culture wars. But they did share a commitment to follow their ideas wherever they might lead, and to take on all comers in a spirit of good faith and honest engagement. We can all learn from that.

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