Thursday, May 19, 2011
The Washington Post reports that Cornel West has come under severe attack from supporters of President Obama for his criticisms of the President and his advisors and policies. See here:
Of course, Professor West is criticizing Obama from the left, not the right. He believes the President is failing to make good on his promises to progressives to prioritize the needs of poor and working class people. He is also deeply critical of Obama's foreign and military policies, including the use of military drones. (Although drones were used during the Bush years, their use, as West has noted, has massively increased under Obama.)
Professor West's comments about President Obama's attitudes towards his own racial identity have drawn the fire of conservatives, such as my good friend Pete Wehner and Rush Limbaugh, as well as from President Obama's liberal defenders. There have also been accusations, coming from both the conservative and liberal sides, that West's comments stem from racist attitudes of his own. Likewise, there have been insinuations that West merely pretends to care about the poor, while personally living in luxury in upscale places like Cambridge, Massachusetts and Princeton, New Jersey.
It goes without saying that Cornel West and I disagree on many important questions, so I will not labor that point. But I do know Professor West, and know him very well. He and I regularly teach together and we have frequently traveled together for discussions and debates. I have had the opportunity to observe his interactions with people of every race, class, and social condition. I have been with him in meetings with billionaires in their private mansions, and I have been with him in meetings with children of impoverished, often drug-addicted single mothers at a school in an inner city neighborhood that was so dangerous that I was frightened to be there. I have criticized some of his ideas and received from him criticism of some of mine. The two of us have sat up late together exploring important existential questions to which neither of us pretend to have answers.
I say all this to make the following points. (1) Whether Cornel West is right or wrong to advocate progressive policies as the solution to the problems of poor and working class people, there can be absolutely no doubt that his advocacy of those policies stems entirely from his profound concern for the least, the last, and the lost. He is a man of deep compassion. There is an old joke about liberals loving poor people in theory while caring not at all for actual, flesh and blood poor people. The joke does not apply to Cornel West. I have witnessed him giving money to poor people---big bills, not small ones. I have witnessed him giving his time and attention to poor people--ungrudgingly. I have watched as he listened to them, thoughtfully and compassionately. When he and I were invited to that school in a dangerous neighborhood, I gulped before agreeing to go. He went unhesitatingly. This was not an event that was going to draw publicity. He was not there to "look good," or to look like a "good progressive." He was there, and he wanted me to be with him there, because he thought we could do something, model something worthwhile, for those precious, deeply vulnerable young people.
Which brings me to point (2). What he wanted to model was a discussion for poor black children between a black scholar and a white scholar, a liberal (or, as he would prefer, progressive) and a conservative. He wanted the children to hear from a white scholar who happened to be a conservative whose ideas about social and economic policy, personal responsibility, affirmative action, and morality should be thoughfully and fairly considered. From the outset, he made it clear to the students that his views were not to be favored over mine because he was black and I was white. He acknowledged in the most forthright manner that our motivations were the same---to lift people out of poverty, to uphold their dignity, to honor their supreme worth as creatures made in the image and likeness of God---though our ideas about public policy differed. My arguments and his were to be assessed on the merits, not on the basis of race. He did not want the young people to persist in believing, as some---perhaps many---did, that conservatives believe what they believe because they are mean, or racist, or uncaring.
This is the Cornel West I know. This is the Cornel West with whom I teach and work. This is my dear friend. Is he a fierce critic of many of the positions I and other conservatives hold? Sure he is. But he is also someone who is willing to consider the possibility that his own views are in need of revising. He worries that certain positions that have become established orthodoxies on the left may in fact be wrong---even profoundly unjust. Moreover, not once in the classroom, or in our many, many intense discussions, public annd private, or for that matter in any of my dealings with him, has he played the race card. Never has he tried to win an argument by stigmatizing his opponent as a racist or bigot. When others have resorted to such tactics in his presence, he has called "foul." What is more, never have I seen him treat a student or anyone favorably or unfavorably because of his race. Rather, I have seen an unfailing and impressive generosity of spirit toward all.
As for Professor West's criticisms of Barack Obama's policies and his remarks about the President's sense of his own racial identity, readers will have to judge for themselves. I hope that MoJ readers, conservatives and liberals alike, will consider those criticisms and remarks in light of what I have reported from direct personal experience about Cornel West as a human being. As my friend gets attacked from both sides of the political spectrum, I suspect that some who know what kind of man he truly is will go suddenly silent as he is accused of all sorts of bad things, fearing that they might be tarred with the brush if they speak up. I hope I'm wrong about that. In any event, it seems to me that this is a moment when it is my duty to state the truth about the Cornel West I know.