Volume > Issue > Drowning in Ideology

Drowning in Ideology

Race Matters

By Cornell West

Publisher: Beacon Press

Pages: 105

Price: $15.95

Review Author: J.L.A. Garcia

J.L.A. Garcia teaches philosophy at Rutgers.

Cornel West personifies the radical “cultural hybridity” he faults today’s Afrocentrists for fearing. This African American from Shiloh Baptist Church in Sacramento worked in Black Panther commu­nity programs and studied philoso­phy at Harvard and Princeton. He emerged a formidable scholar who has taught at Columbia (Union Theological Seminary), Yale, Princeton, and Harvard. For all the heady academic heights, West re­tains the “common touch.” His rapport with the “brothers and sis­ters on the street” is the envy of black academics, and for a time he preached regularly in a prison. A political activist, West has chaired the Democratic Socialists of America and of late he has become a media celebrity, with profiles in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine complementing TV appearances with David Brinkley, Bill Moyers, and William F. Buckley Jr. Listening to West lecture can be both fascinating and maddening, as he moves between the rhetorical styles of the cultural Left and the black church, from the jargon of the intellectual historian to that of the rap music fan. Race Matters is a slender volume collecting eight of West’s brief, nonscholarly writings on racial top­ics (most of them previously pub­lished), adding some new introduc­tory material. The work begins on a personal, almost narcissistic note. In the preface, we learn the name and age of West’s son, his wife’s na­tionality, how often he drives to New York City, his favorite restaurant there and what he likes about it, even his preferred radio station. It’s West’s world, and welcome to it!

More important to us than West’s personal world is his under­standing of our shared world. The book’s principal contention is that “nihilism” among blacks is our “major enemy.” This nihilism consists of “meaninglessness,” “hopelessness,” and “lovelessness,” and results from market-driven “hedonism.” His prescriptions are a “love ethic” and a “politics of conver­sion.” These aim to affirm self-love, which, West thinks, is itself fulfilled by love of others.

How did some of us become immersed in “nihilism”? West identifies two lines of response to the question. “Liberal structuralists” blame nihilism on “slavery, Jim Crowism,…discrimination, [high unemployment,] inadequate healthcare, and poor education”; their hopes rest on “a new, more sober version of the best of the New Deal and the Great Society: more government money, better bureaucrats, and an active citizenry.” In contrast, “conservative behavior­ists” blame “the waning of the Prot­estant work ethic — hard work, de­ferred gratification, frugality, and responsibility — in much of black America”; they look to “a cultural renewal of the Protestant ethic in black America” through self-help programs. West’s “politics of con­version” favors the first camp, at­tributing nihilism chiefly to “the market way of life.”

There are problems here. The claim that what is good about car­ing for others is that it fuels self-affirmation seems rather self-cen­tered. To praise loving others chiefly for facilitating ever higher self-estimation is especially crass, and it is baffling coming from an avowed socialist and a Christian minister. I suspect that West’s ea­gerness to be “progressive” lures him into the merely trendy. Of course, there is something appealing about seeing oneself as progres­sive. But, given the direction the world seems headed, there is also something attractive in envisioning oneself astride the track shout­ing “Stop!” before the onrushing engine of Progress. West has his reservations about much of what is new, but he apparently refuses to count the bad things as progress. What justifies this? Which things count as “progressive,” and why?

Some of us think recent liber­alism — the liberalism of unfet­tered abortion, assisted suicide, and sexual licentiousness — has run amok. Where older liberalisms ex­pressed a just respect for others’ principled convictions and needs, the new appears to waste itself on witless obsequies before disordered appetites and shameful quirks. How does West’s program of “meaningful coalition with white progressives” and “broadly-based alliances to effect social change” determine which changes to effect? That may depend on who levels the critique. When the new liberal will-­to-power demands “autonomy” over life and death, perhaps West will listen to those feminists who worry that its victims will be women pressured to seek assisted suicide when they find themselves unable to discharge the services they have been socialized to see as their lives’ point. Perhaps, too, he can heed those advocates for the disabled who protest the motives and effects of a claimed right to ter­minate “defectives” before or shortly after birth. West will likely be able to hear these voices because they come from acknowledged progressives. But he seems deaf to the larger opposition to the agenda of today’s mutant liberalism, sim­ply because others have declared it outside the “progressive” camp.

There is another difficulty. Even if market culture and poverty are what caused nihilism, it does not follow that eliminating them would eliminate it. (Removing a charred newspaper from the fire that burned it does not restore it to its former condition, nor did re­moving the kidnapped Africans from slavery end the freed slaves’ problems.) Nor does West offer any reason to think it would. Market culture is not plausibly seen as theonly hedonistic force; the tempta­tion to hedonism goes deeper than that.

So, even if West’s structural­ist claims about the etiology of the current plight of blacks are better than those of the conservative be­haviorists, he still needs to argue for the superiority of his prescrip­tions to theirs. Notice, however, that even this would not be enough to rebut the conservatives. For the liberals’ governmental pro­posals do not necessarily exclude the conservatives’ behavioral ones. Indeed, the two may complement each other. This is important be­cause West gives no quarter to the conservatives’ cultural critique and suggestions. How, then, does West aim to limit the influence of consumerist/hedonist culture? What steps do we take to delegiti­mize hedonism and obsession with “lifestyle”? How does he pro­pose to build a culture that heeds religion, strengthens family, privi­leges spiritual yearnings over ma­terial appetites, and cultivates the virtues of sacrifice and self-con­trol? It is doubtful he can do all this without some coalition with cul­tural conservatives. To do that, of course, West would have to disso­ciate himself from the Left’s knee-jerk disparagement of sexual re­straint, contempt for the tradi­tional family, and uncritical pic­ture of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Not likely to happen.

West doesn’t seem to realize that hedonism doesn’t originate in markets. Even if it did, it would be foolish to lay nihilism solely at the feet of market culture without criticizing all involved. One cannot consistently condemn recording industry executives for marketing CDs with misogynist messages without also blaming the “artists” who write and perform them. Nor can one exempt preferred, “progressive” profiteers: One cannot reasonably criticize those who hawk pornography while exoner­ating the peddlers of condoms, contraceptives, and abortions, who profit from sexual promiscu­ity and perversion. West paints a rosy picture of the sexual revolu­tion as “putting whites in closer contact with their own bodies,” without commenting on the car­nage, disease, immiseration, and social degeneration wrought by ir­responsible “contact.” Nowadays, the urgent business is for both white and black teens to reduce body contact. West stresses that “market forces…thrive on sexual and military images.” But it’s un­realistic to think that lust and ag­gression can be combated without the sort of virtues cultural conservatives espouse, virtues that re­quire individual cultivation and that do not just magically appear when social disadvantages disap­pear. In this context, West’s sneer that when black churchpeople “Shunned the streets, clubs, and dance-halls” they confined blacks to “white ‘respectability'” reveals how these churchpeople were more clear-eyed than he is.

Some of West’s sexual pre­scriptions are goofy and simplistic. “Anytime two human beings find genuine pleasure, joy, and love, the stars smile and the universe is en­riched.” This claim puts enormous burden on the term “genuine,” for it must be so defined that it can ex­plain why the stars do not smile on adultery, fornication, perversion, or other lustful or degrading acts — however pleasurable, joyful, and misguidedly loving — even within marriage. To be sure, there are those who smile on these phe­nomena, but the fault for that lies with West’s progressive intellectu­als, whose theories sunder sex from marriage, marriage from children, and all three from perma­nent commitment. Without the narrowly defined concept of “genuine” love that he needs, West’s idealization of sexual plea­sure is merely part of the problem of hedonism, but seemingly he will not allow himself to see that.

Moreover, West believes that black males, trapped into ma­chismo self-definition, would do well to seek a greater plurality of images, specifically, from black male homosexuals. In a way, there’s good sense in this advice. Insofar as gay men, chastened by AIDS, have repudiated licentious lifestyles, they can help other men imagine alternate self-images to that of the “black stud.” However, we must remember that there is great diversity among gays. Some have not themselves escaped the image of the “stud”: They too have fantasies of ravenous appetite and legendary prowess, and have a predatory approach to sexual part­ners. The black gay man is unlikely to provide the needed model of sexual restraint — or the necessary message that sexual expression is sin without permanent commit­ment and a willingness to beget and children.

West’s emphasis on “coalitions” limited to those advocating what the media certify as “progres­sive causes” hinders him here. Un­fortunately, West tends to articu­late his thinking in political slogans and catchwords. For example, he smears churchpeople rightly re­pelled by the demands of those who take pride in perverted sex as “homophobic.” This tendency of West’s offers little hope that he will do the needed intellectual work of challenging and transcending ex­isting ideological categories to offer possibilities for truly interesting coalitions. West decries “the highly limited alternatives available in contemporary American politics,” but seems unable to imagine new, alternative views that mix leftist ideas with rightist ones.

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