Drowning in Ideology
By Cornell West
Publisher: Beacon Press
Review Author: J.L.A. Garcia
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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