Cornel West and Barack Obama: Prophet and President

cornel west barack obama“We may become the makers of our fate when we have ceased to pose as its prophets.” — Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies

Cornel West, who grew up in Sacramento before receiving degrees from Harvard and Princeton, is often described as one of America’s leading African American public intellectuals. Although he has long had his critics (e.g., an essay in The New Republic referred to his books as “almost completely worthless”), he is a man of impressive interests and accomplishments. But many people who respect him think it is now time for him to tone down his criticism of President Obama and strongly support his reelection effort. Others on this site have commented on West’s (and his friend media entrepreneur Tavis Smiley’s) fault-finding of Obama (see, e.g., “here and here). His criticism, symptomatic of the radical Left’s response to Obama, has important ramifications for this year’s presidential election and thus for the future of our country. Therefore, the present essay offers some additional reflections on the West-Obama relationship.

Until I saw West several years ago on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time, I knew little about him except that in 2001, while teaching at Harvard, he had had a serious confrontation with its president, Lawrence Summers (see below). A bit later, in 2010, while working on an essay about the wisdom of the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov I was surprised to come upon the following quote from West that had appeared earlier in The Cornel West Reader (CWR):

 I find the incomparable works of Anton Chekhov— the best singular body by a modern artist— to be the wisest and deepest interpretations of what human beings confront in their daily struggles. . . . I find inspiration in his refusal to escape from the pain and misery of life by indulging in dogmas, doctrines or dreams as well as abstract systems, philosophic theodicies or political utopias.

In short, Chekhov provides exemplary tragicomic dramas, subject to multiple interpretations, for serious thinking and wise living. . . . Yet his acute sense of the incongruity in our lives is grounded in a magnificent compassion for each of us. Chekhov understands what drives the cynic without himself succumbing to cynicism. . . .  Chekhov leads us through our contemporary inferno with love and sorrow, but no cheap pity or promise of ultimate happiness.

West also thought that Chekhov’s Three Sisters was the greatest twentieth century play, and wrote that “Chekhov for me is the great writer of compassion. . . . He understands the essence of the best of Russian orthodoxy: absolute condemnation of no one, forgiveness for all, compassion to all.” Further research revealed that his admiration for Chekhov has not diminished in the decade since his Reader first appeared.

West’s appreciation of Chekhov led me to examine West’s thinking more thoroughly. Especially impressive was the fact that West, a Christian who in 2000 was teaching religion and African American Studies at Harvard, thought so highly of the agnostic Chekhov. At first glance, West seemed to share many of the wisdom qualities possessed by Chekhov: compassion, courage, humility, tolerance, a sense of humor, hopefulness, a thirst for truth and justice, and an appreciation of both the comic and tragic aspects of existence.

In Cornel West: A Critical Reader (CWCR) an older professor (James Cone) at New York’s Union Theological Seminary recalled West when he came there to teach in 1977 at age 24. What impressed Core then and later was his “sheer intellectual brilliance. . . . his deep commitment to justice for all and his unconditional love and care for Black people,” and “his passion for play and humor, affirming life in all its complex and multifaceted dimensions.” Cone added, “To encounter West is to meet a Black man who loves to have fun and who can laugh at himself, acknowledging his own strengths and limitations. . . . He is self-critical, humble, and open to the truth no matter who speaks or lives it. He never stops reading, listening, and thinking, drawing upon intellectual and cultural resources from many disciplines and cultures.”

A brief look at the two readers mentioned above—the first containing mainly selections from West and the second essays primarily about his ideas—provides some indication of his respect for wisdom and the wide range of his thinking. In earlier writings (see e.g., here and here), I have indicated how important wisdom should be in today’s world, and a search of West’s selections in CWR indicates 29 mentions of the word “wisdom.” Among others, we find the following: “My painful quest for wisdom is an endless journey that tries to delve into the darkness of my soul to create a more mature and compassionate person.”  “One challenge for intellectuals today is to try to channel wisdom, both intellectual and practical, into the television culture.” West’s realization that wisdom is not something any of us has in abundance, but an “endless journey” and his stress on the importance of intellectuals reaching out to a broader mass audience are both laudable. In addition to his admiration for Chekhov’s wisdom, he also praises another person who is among the wisest of the past century, helper-of-the-poor Dorothy Day.

West’s main topics in CWR include the following: Modernity and Its Discontents, American Pragmatism, Progressive Marxist Theory, Radical Democratic Politics, Prophetic Christian Thought, the Arts, and Race and Difference. In CWCR, his ideas are analyzed under four categories: Pragmatism, Philosophy of Religion, Political Philosophy, and Cultural Studies. The dedication of his CWR also tells us something about him. It is “To the Memory and Legacy” of 13 “Artistic Soul Mates.” West places Chekhov “above all,” but the other dozen include 7 European writers, 3 U. S. writers (Tennessee Williams, poet Muriel Rukeyser, and Toni Morrison), and two musicians (John Coltrane and Sarah Vaughn). Many of his selections also display his love of literature and music, including black rap music. But the Readers appeared more than a decade ago, and what is most relevant here is his more recent political stance vis-à-vis President Obama.

Two 2012 essays on this topic are especially enlightening. The first, by Leslie Goffe, appeared in New African in February, and the second, by Lisa Miller, in New York Magazine in May. The essays retrace West’s enthusiastic support for Obama in the 2008 primaries—65 appearances in 6 states—and his words that Obama’s election would bring about “a new era in American history and a new epoch in American politics.” West possessed the candidate’s cell-phone number and frequently left messages on it. Both essays then relate the hurt that West felt at not being thanked by Obama for all his help and not being invited to the presidential inauguration. The authors insist that West still feels that pain.

West believes that Obama has distanced himself from him because “he didn’t want to be identified with a black leftist.” Considering fake charges that Obama is a socialist, it would not be surprising if this was true for West has belonged for decades to the Democratic Socialists of America.

From the inauguration to the present, West’s criticisms of Obama have escalated. Goffe writes that West rejects claims that he is being egotistic and is letting a private grievance against Obama influence his appraisal of his presidency. Miller states that “West continues to insist that it’s the president’s policies, and not what he perceives as ingratitude, that motivates his critique.”

What then is his critique? Goffe quotes him thus, “Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housings the [Obama] administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.” West has called the president “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs,” a “puppet of corporate plutocrats,” and “the head of the American killing machine,” and he adds that “the age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling [Martin Luther] King’s prophetic legacy.” According to Miller, West “believes that when Obama chose Tim Geithner and especially [Larry] Summers to design his economic-reform plan, he revealed that his election-year allegiances to the legacy of King were false,” that he stood with Geithner and Summers, and that “the working people are not a major priority, they are an afterthought.”

The appointment of Summers to the position of Director of the White House Economic Council might have been especially distasteful to West because of the major clash they had had when Summers was Harvard president in 2001. Mainly because of the dispute, in 2002 West returned to Princeton, where he had earlier taught and where he remained until returning in 2012 to Union Theological Seminary, where he had begun his teaching career (West also taught at Yale for several years in the 1980s).

Yet, to get to the heart of West’s criticisms we need to go beyond hurt feelings and his expressions of dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies. We need to examine a fundamental difference in how the two men approach politics. In his earlier writings West often dealt with “prophetic pragmatism,” and an essay in the 2001 CWCR about how West perceives it is entitled “Prophetic Pragmatism as Political Philosophy.” It suggests that such pragmatism was about as close as West got to a comprehensive political philosophy. At first glance, this would suggest common ground for West and Obama, about whom columnist Anthony Samad has  written on this site that he is “one of the most pragmatic presidents we’ve ever had.” But Obama’s political pragmatism contains significant differences from West’s prophetic pragmatism.

In Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (2011), Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg writes that “the philosophy of pragmatism that originated over a century ago in the writings of William James and John Dewey . . . has provided a sturdy base for Obama’s sensibility,” and “philosophical pragmatism informs Obama’s political outlook.” Kloppenberg characterizes this philosophy thus: “We should debate our differences, and test provisional interpretations of principle, not by measuring proposals against unchanging dogmas but through trial and error, by trying to solve problems creatively and then democratically deliberating, yet again, on the consequences of our experiments.” It “challenges the claims of absolutists—whether their dogmas are rooted in science or religion—and instead embraces uncertainty, provisionally, and the continuous testing of hypotheses through experimentation.” It is “a philosophy for those committed to democratic debate and the critical assessment of the results of political decisions, not for true believers convinced they know the right course of action in advance of inquiry and experimentation. Pragmatism stands for open-mindedness and ongoing debate.”

West is also heavily indebted to the pragmatic philosophy, especially to that of John Dewey and “his emphasis on social and political matters.” As a Ph.D. student at Princeton, West was heavily influenced by the neopragmatism of Richard Rorty and later wrote a book about American Pragmatism. In writing about jazz in his book Race Matters he refers to it as “a mode of being in the world, an improvisational mode of protean, fluid, and flexible dispositions toward reality suspicious of ‘either/or’ viewpoints, dogmatic pronouncements, or supremacist ideologies.”

Yet, despite his pragmatic distrust of dogmatism, West seems much more dogmatic and less open-minded than Obama. And it is partly because in his “prophetic pragmatism” the prophetic overwhelms the pragmatic. According to Miller, “West regards himself as a prophet,” i.e., one “called to teach God’s justice to a heedless nation.” Miller asked him about the following criticisms: “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.” Miller continues: “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 [the Jewish prophet] Amos to tone it down a notch?” West’s response is that Amos would have said, “My calling is to say, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Miller then adds that West then “leaned back, satisfied.”

In CWR West states, “I hold a religious conception of pragmatism. I have dubbed it ‘prophetic’ in that it harks back to the Jewish and Christian tradition of prophets who brought urgent and compassionate critique to bear on the evils of their day. The mark of the prophet is to speak the truth in love with courage—come what may.” Such a statement does not sound pragmatic. True pragmatists are concerned with consequences and do not adopt a come-what-may stance. In another section of CWR, West writes of the “rich prophetic legacies of . . . Dorothy Day . . . and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In earlier essays I have expressed my admiration for the pacifist Day and my realization that her ethical approach stressed more the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of an act than its consequences. In the 1960s, her friend the Catholic monk Thomas Merton wrote eloquently of the necessity of the prophetic function in our society, which he believed was “organized for profit and for marketing.” Such a function he said was needed to help bring about “the destruction of the inequalities and oppressions dividing rich and poor; conversion to justice and equity.” Like Day and Merton, Gandhi and King were also akin to the Biblical Jewish prophets who attacked the evils of their day.

Another individual greatly admired by West (and also by Obama) is the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (d. 1971), whom West places in the pragmatic tradition. Like West, Niebuhr realized the importance of placing pressure on political leaders: “Political strategy, therefore, always involves a combination of coercive and persuasive factors. . . . The welfare of society demands . . . enough social pressure be applied to force reluctant beneficiaries of social privilege to yield their privileges before injustice prompts to vehemence and violence.” For workers, Niebuhr advised pressure tactics because “the group which is able to wield the most economic and political power really determines its [the state’s] policies.” In 1932 he wrote “The Negro will never win his full rights in society merely by trusting the fairness and sense of justice of the white man. . . . If he is well advised he will use such forms of economic and political pressure as will be least likely to destroy the moral forces . . . but which will nevertheless exert coercion upon the white man’s life.”

Niebuhr would later be a strong influence on King. In his famous April 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King wrote: “We have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

Thus, West follows the noble tradition of exerting pressure when he asks in   “Prophetic Religion and the Future of Capitalist Civilization” (2009): “Can prophetic religion, in all of its various forms, mobilize people, generate levels of righteous indignation against injustice—not raw rage at persons, not ad hominem attacks—can we put pressure on President Obama?” In acting as he says prophetic religion should, West has served his country well—up to a point. But he has gone further than that. He has gone too far.

In late 2011 and 2012 he and Smiley went around the country on a Poverty Tour and then to promote their book  The Rich and the Rest of Us (published by SmileyBooks), which they labeled a “poverty manifesto.” In an August 2011 interview West stated, “It’s very clear that President Obama caves in over and over and over again.” West went on to speak of the need to “keep him accountable, especially when it comes to poor and working people.” In the interview West and Smiley also indicated they were looking for someone on the Left to challenge Obama in the 2012 presidential race, either in Democratic primaries or as a third-party candidate, someone like socialist Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont. In West’s words: “someone like that who’s got backbone and courage,” someone “who is fundamentally committed to the legacy of Martin King and . . . Dorothy Day, putting poor and working people at the center.” The two friends and co-hosts of the weekly radio program Smiley & West also indicated that primary challenges to Obama might help him refocus “on a more progressive agenda.”

Miller writes: “We need,” West told me, “a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to ordinary people, ordinary citizens. I don’t know how it happens. The central political system right now is decrepit, it’s broken. Congress legalized bribery and normalized corruption. Presidential candidates are basically bought off by big money. Both of them. In both parties, oligarchs rule. Mean-spirited Republicans, oligarchs rule. And milquetoast, spineless Democrats—oligarchs rule. Democrats [are] much better than Republicans but still caught within the oligarchy.” The revolution West proposes is “going to be fought less in the political system and in the courts than in the streets.”

In a recent Huffington Post interview, West admitted that Obama was “much much better than Mitt Romney, but added “Mitt Romney is a catastrophic response to a catastrophe, whereas Obama is a disastrous response to a catastrophe. Is disaster better than catastrophe? Yes it is. I wish we had a third candidate who could actually do something, but we don’t at the moment.”

What West fails to fully recognize is that Obama by necessity is a politician, not a prophet. As I have written elsewhere on several occasions, compromise is absolutely necessary in a democratic system. In the August 2011 interview mentioned above, West misses this point when he states about Obama, “If you’re in a foxhole with him, you’re in trouble, because he wants to compromise, you want to fight. He doesn’t have the kind of backbone he ought to have.” Politics is not war. If it is conducted as such, it will not work—as many House Republicans may eventually learn—it will not further the common good as politics should.

In CWR, West writes, “When it comes to abstract, theoretical reflection, I employ Marx, Weber, Frankfurt theorists, Foucault, and so on.” And indeed West seems to have read and been influenced by the German sociologist Max Weber. But if he has read Weber’s  Politics as a Vocation, perhaps he should reread it, for Weber makes clear that good politicians do not act like prophets. They cannot (in West’s words) just “speak the truth in love with courage—come what may.” They must be concerned with consequences. As Weber wrote, “We must be clear about the fact that all ethically oriented conduct may be guided by one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims: conduct can be oriented to an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ or to an ‘ethic of responsibility.’” Prophets may adhere to the first ethic and say “come what may,” presidents should not. It would be irresponsible to do so.

On this site, early this year, I argued that Leftists should support Obama and not third-party movements that might inadvertently help Republicans by siphoning off votes for Obama’s reelection. Also earlier (summer 2011) on this site, columnist Anthony Samad was just one of many prominent black leaders to criticize Smiley and West for their anti-Obama rhetoric, for “creating a pathway for the Republicans to miscast the President and impede his re-election.” About the same time, in an open letter to West, writer and media personality Playthell G. Benjamin wrote from Harlem: “Destructive criticism is the kind of loose and mindless diatribes that confuses and demoralizes people to the point where they decide that they cannot vote for either party and stay home. . . effectively turning the national government over to the Republicans.  I am afraid, Dr. West, that this will be the result of your misguided, overly-emotional and often irrational attacks on the President. Alas, I am increasingly hearing threats to remain at home on election day from your acolytes. . . . [Others] get it that the President was forced into certain compromises in order to get anything done and avoid disaster. But you, Dr. West, don’t get it! You talk in terms that suggest the President has betrayed the entire progressive legacy because he was forced to compromise!” Benjamin accuses West of being “in danger of hurting us all” with his folly,” and indicates that he means folly in the sense historian Barbara Tuchman used the term in her book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.

In that book Tuchman wrote “Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be.” Indeed, political wisdom is all too rare. President Obama, however, despite his failures, has often displayed it, but the closer we get to Election Day the more West’s disproportionate criticism of the president seems like political folly, and the less wise West appears.

A wiser course for West to follow would be that of Niebuhr. Despite his early socialist beliefs and the pressures he attempted to apply on presidents, from the 1936 election until his death he supported Democratic, not socialist or other third-party, presidential candidates.

All that I have read by and about West since first being impressed by his appreciation of Chekhov’s wisdom has led me to reassess West’s own wisdom. Although he remains a self-proclaimed wisdom seeker, many impediments block his path forward. His view of himself as a modern prophet undercuts the wisdom virtues of humility, tolerance, and open-mindedness by making him less inclined to see himself as a fallible human being with no easy answers to complex political problems. His emphasis on his own prophetic role has also lead him to prioritize it over his political responsibility as a citizen whose actions bear consequences that could lead to a Republican presidency that he himself realizes could be catastrophic.

Miller’s essay on West in New York Magazine is balanced, indicating both West’s strengths and weaknesses.  She writes of walking with him in Princeton: “He is recognizable, of course. Everyone wants to say hello. And he lingers with each as if he has all the time in the world: the colleague, the groundskeeper, the maître d’, the professor’s wife, the graduate student, the cook, the waitress. . . . He is the kind of teacher, students say, who doesn’t miss a class, who takes a personal interest in hometowns and musical tastes, who asks after ailing family members and will extend office hours until every last query is answered.”

She quotes Robert George, a prominent conservative Princeton professor of jurisprudence who co-taught a course with West.  “What you see [of West in the classroom] is a person who loves learning for its own sake. . . . Never once did I see him propagandize, or demonize a point of view, or engage in demagoguery.” And George added, “The world would be a much better world if everyone had the heart of Cornel West.”

Yet, Miller also notes his flaws. She writes of “a distance, sometimes very wide, between what West says and what he does.” He told her that he does “not give primary status to intellect,” but gives “much more to the centrality of love, and much more to where that love comes from—and that is family, faith, friends, and music.” Yet, she hints that his three marriages that each ended in divorce indicate a failure to live up to his words.  She sees the same discordance when it comes to another wisdom virtue—humility: “West may aspire to be like Jesus, but he talks like a man who won’t be disrespected in public and feels compelled to proclaim his own humility. ‘One thing is, I never fall in love with myself,’ he says. ‘No, no. Not at all.’” And she quotes one of his friends who states, “he does love to be loved.” She also writes that “people who have known West for decades believe the alliance with Smiley [which has greatly increased West’s celebrity status] plays to West’s greatest flaw: his hunger for adulation.”

What we see then of West is a modern-day prophet, an ethical scold if you like. As the Bible warns us there are true prophets and false prophets, and West is somewhere in between. He is a man who genuinely seeks greater wisdom, including political wisdom, but faces innumerable obstacles in advancing forward. What he wrote in CWR about “prophetic pragmatism” applies to his own quest: “[It] conceives of philosophy as a circumscribed quest for wisdom that puts forward new interpretations of the world based on past traditions in order to promote existential sustenance and political relevance. . . . It views truth as a species of the good, as that which enhances the flourishing of human progress.” For being such a seeker, West should be applauded. And we should sympathize with him as he faces the obstructions (some self-made) he needs to overcome to achieve greater wisdom, especially political wisdom. For is not such a struggle the common lot of all wisdom seekers? As Philo of Alexandria said long ago, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

walter mossAt the same time, however, those of us who appreciate West’s intelligence, love of justice, and basic human decency are justified in asking him: Are you not concerned that your continuing harsh criticism of President Obama in the months ahead will undermine support for him and help lead to a Romney victory?  Given all your values, many of them admirable, is that the wisest course for you to take? Regardless of the wisdom of your past relentless criticisms, is it now time to change course and do more to aid President Obama’s reelection?

Walter G. Moss
Posted: Monday, 6 August 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on August 6, 2012
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About Walter G. Moss

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here: http://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm