Cornel West Is Not Helping Himself

The standard criticism of Cornel West is that while he started his career as an excellent philosopher, he gave that up in favor of just being a celebrity (West left Harvard in a dispute with then-president Larry Summers over whether he was pulling his scholarly weight, and while he still teaches at Princeton, he hasn't produced scholarship in many years). West would probably counter that being a public intellectual is a worthy endeavor -- bringing a learned perspective to contemporary debates -- and perhaps more worthwhile than writing dusty tomes on arcane philosophical issues that won't be read by anyone apart from other philosophy professors.

That's a reasonable argument. But West doesn't help himself when he makes statements like this, in an interview
with The New York Times Magazine:

Q: You lament in your book "Race Matters" that there’s a lack of black leadership. You're smart, very charismatic — why did you never become what we would consider a black leader in the mold of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X?

West: Well, one, it's because we live in an age where there are no movements. But second, and most important, I have to be true to my calling. Martin King's calling was to be a Christian preacher. Mine is much more linked to the life of the mind and being able to move back and forth. This weekend I was with Bootsy Collins at B.B. King's. We wrote two songs together on his new album — that’s just one context where I try to play a very important role outside the academy. But my calling is still one of being an intellectual warrior and spiritual soldier.

The problem here is that he takes a perfectly reasonable argument -- not everybody ought to be a political leader, and he'll make more of a contribution as an intellectual -- and embeds within it something almost designed to make sure nobody takes him seriously. Apart from the name-dropping, you just can't describe the privileges of celebrity as "play[ing] a very important role outside the academy." I'd like to hang out at B.B. King's house and write songs with Bootsy Collins, too. It'd be awesome. But if you think that the fact that you got the chance to do that means you're making the world a better place, then you've been spending too much time with famous people. If I said, "Last weekend I was at Clooney's, and we ate sushi off Jessica Alba's naked body, then later I gave him some notes on a script he's working on. That's an important role I'm playing," you'd think I was just about the biggest jackass you'd ever met. And you'd be right.