It is a sad truth that many beloved intellectuals decompose. It happened to Gore Vidal, and it happened to Christopher Hitchens. It has now happened to Cornel West.
Some event typically triggers this. For Vidal and Hitchens, it was 9/11 which thrust them into opposite corners of lunatic claptrap. It emboldened Vidal’s revulsion for American empire, leading him to dub Timothy McVeigh a “noble boy”; whereas it seduced Hitchens into slavish support for the senseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, over which he alienated true friends on the left to fraternize with Fox News fools and fanatics.
Though no less sad or pathetic, Cornel West has undergone a more gradual decay. From him, we have before seen symptoms of diseased reason, all born of his Rousseauian disdain for modern society. For instance, his presidential endorsement of Jill Stein over Hillary Clinton evinced demented disregard for human welfare in vain pursuit of political utopia. When asked why, West blew pure wind, babbling that although Trump would be a “catastrophe,” Clinton would be a “neoliberal disaster”; a braindead equivalence no thinking person could entertain.
The sheer stupidity of this political nihilism is that it helped elect the sick boy now responsible for accentuating the abuses of empire that West claims to find so foul. His irony is that as he lurched further left, his influence fell further right, with each psychotic screed growing more obstructive to liberal progress than the last. Now, either he knew what he was doing or he didn’t. I don’t know which is worse, but both disqualify him from any position of intellectual seriousness or moral respectability.
It seems that a slow seeping insanity has come to flood the mind of Cornel West, and Ta-Nehisi Coates forced the last drop. His new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, coaxed to surface the crackpot within Cornel. The book echoes nostalgia for Obama’s presidency and prizes him as one of the greatest leaders ever for people of color. At this West takes offense, demonstrating once more his deranged acrimony toward Barack Obama. West has slandered Obama as a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface” and “neoliberal opportunist,” and told Michael Eric Dyson—a brilliant writer who West would also smear—“I don’t respect the brother at all.” Once a hero for black ascension, Cornel now spews bile at our first black president and the brave black intellectuals who made that possible.
Thus it was perhaps to be expected that he would combat Coates’ sentiments, which suggests that West’s time as a soldier for black uplift has reached coda. He says that Coates’ perspective “fetishizes white supremacy” and winks to his being an Uncle Tom, offering no praise to a generational talent. This isn’t the first time West has deigned dumb criticism to Coates. In 2015, after Coates published Between the World and Me—winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction—West scoffed that it “avoids any critique of the Black president in power.”
Cornel scorns Coates because he operates under the delusion that Coates maintained sycophantic support for Obama despite drone strikes, a warm relationship with Wall Street, and anti-poor politics. It’s hard to say which is more breathtaking—the demonstrably false assertion that Coates never criticized Obama, or the cruel lie that Obama was insouciant to civilian casualties or the plight of the poor.
West forgets that, like any president, Obama was no king. He did about the best he could facing rabid Republican obstructionism. Moreover, if West were president, what would he do that Obama could have done yet did not do? Does West really think he could convince Republican congressmen to cripple carbon-based capitalism? Support single-payer healthcare? Provide deliverance to the poor? Or pass any progressive reform, for that matter? He refuses to even work with Democrats, his ideological allies; and they too would not support such an uncompromising political pugilist. If West thinks he could contrive these changes through the Republican chokehold, he’s just as delusional as those creatures that think the South will…ryse agayn.
The problem, of course, is not that West voices concerns about Obama, Coates, or others, but that he lets minor problems get in the way of major ones. He pits the perfect against the good—even the great—and helps perpetuate injustices as a result. Like his demands to destroy capitalism and eradicate American empire, he calls for unrealistic change then tackles those taking realistic steps. He paints grand pictures of better political organization, but provides no realistic blueprint to pursue these pipe-dreams. He criticizes everything yet proffers nothing. Children do this. And indeed, his unprompted attacks on every black intellectual more talented and syndicated than him likely have more to do with puerile jealousy than logical disagreement.
These futile crusades against friends offer clear evidence of cognitive surrender. There was a time when Cornel West was a great mind and force for justice—a time when I admired him. That time has passed. He has devolved down to some sniveling gadfly preaching prattle. Such pests do not belong in serious discourse. But a special stool awaits him where he does belong: on a city sidewalk—croaking through a megaphone, scaring children, and selling pencils from a cup.