Cornel West – prophet or turncoat?

Prof Cornel West

Cornel West was once considered part of a triptych including  Skip Gates, and Anthony Appiah, representing the Black Academy. This triptych can be viewed as  either the leading edge of the Black Academy or a rogue’s gallery.

Let us put this in context so as to understand the connection with Trump.  We need to understand the historical dynamics that generated this context.  For several decades ‘the conservative moment’  involved suppressing dissent of both left and right  by denying it a platform.  Charles Sykes, a cheerleader for that period  speaks nostalgically of those days.

Charles  Sykes has argued that in the past there were conservative gatekeepers who set limits and excluded people either from actual membership of the Republican Party or from  actual public platforms. But unknown to him, these people who had been excluded got together  to deal with their systematic exclusion and generated Breitbart and alt.right. Rather than dealing with ‘the extremists’ (dissenters) Sykes  admits they rigged the  public environment to exclude persons considered beyond the pale  rather than addressing their issues. Since his views were ‘main stream’ he would always expect to have access but once the Trump revolution took hold he experienced an estrangement which he found shocking. It never occurred to him that his estrangement mirrored the estrangement he supported for others. Leaving ‘the extremists’ to grow in the dark was one of the dumbest elite moves of that period. But this gatekeeping applied to  many ends of the political debate. Stranger still is that Sykes previously complained that the American academy had been taken over by the extreme left. From a European perspective this  would seem a somewhat McCarthy like statement.

While the ‘conservative moment’ was coming to an end  there were  movements from the left and from Black studies that began to seriously undermine the credibility of the Western academy in respect to its treatment of race in its canon. Peter Park in his 2013  book ‘Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy’’ showed how racist Kant actually was and how the Western academy concealed it.

Another scholar wrote that Western philosophy departments were whitewashing  the history of philosophy:

‘In his book « Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto », he writes, « mainstream philosophy in the so-called West is narrow-minded, unimaginative, and even xenophobic’.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-10/modern-philosophical-canon-has-always-been-pretty-whitewashed/11678314

 It is in this context that Cornel West enters the scene rehabilitated at Havard and proclaiming the cleanliness of Western academy in general and of Harvard philosophy in particular.

Cornel West plays the protestor and prophet  and appears to be a voice of the dispossessed and the oppressed. In his talk at Dartmouth on 17 May 2017 on ‘Intellectual Vocation and Political Struggle in the Trump Moment’ he refers to his apprenticeship  with Rawls, Putnam, Nozik, Kitson, Schlarr et al … in the same breath as he mentions his devotion to the Black Panthers

What is the problem? It is simple ..he has implied that the academic establishment is beyond and above  the racism of the streets and the world. So for a young  listener the lesson he brings is that the fight against racism does not involve questioning the Rawls, Putnams et al  According to the presentation the deep racism of US does not reside in Harvard but worse cannot reside in the work of Rawls, Putnams et al. How does he know this? Because he was welcomed and trained by them. It appears that he is oblivious to the possibility of  adoption, co option and entrapment and the risk of collusion and complicity. We know that the racism in the work of Kant  ( see https://african-century.org/june-2019-issue/ Charles Mills and Kant Part 2 ) and Adam Smith has been hidden by the established western academia. If that is the case should we ever suggest to a younger generation to trust their teachers in the establishment academy rather than being critical and self aware?

There is a great issue here. In the 60’s the rise of public protest  led to challenges of the presentation of the Western establishment academy  and the increasing protest of Black people could lead to serious questioning and challenges of the Western academy. But with Cornel West telling his audience how deeply  indebted he is to the Western academy, its canon and its leading figures he endorses them and gives them political cover. No white scholar could get up and assert that the Western academy had no questions to answer and be taken seriously. We know that Harvard and the Western academy is complicit in the  concealing of the depth of racism in Western philosophical canon  and this is something that scholars are starting to openly  challenge …and then enters  Cornel West to provide political  cover and diversion while overtly protesting against prejudice and injustice.  If much of the present racism and injustice  originates and is protected by the Western academy and its canon, his  speech is a complicit defence. No wonder Harvard welcomed him back. There are  those who buy the  image of Cornel West, the prophet. I for one don’t buy it.