Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Black and Academic

Glenn Loury and John McWhorter are at it again on, this time taking Cornell West to task for simply not being serious enough.

I've had my share of problems with Loury and McWhorter (here, here, and especially here), although I suppose I've come to begrudging appreciation of at least Loury's particular eloquence (I did enjoy him here). The man can wax eloquent on a turd.

Which I guess leads to what is maybe my agreement: these two so often have so much to say, yet end up saying so little. The crutch they - especially McWhorter - have a habit of relying on is an oppositional schtick. They stake out an "unconventional position", yet then spend much time deriding what they have defined as "conventional". Yet much less is spent actually making a case for their unconventional position, allowing much of the argument to be assumed from the fact that it is merely in opposition.

I'm not sure if I heard either of them say this, and it may be a criticism beyond the pale for either of them to level, but I wonder to what extent their critique of West was about a sort of minstrelsy? They are both quite damning of what they refer to as his playing of some old-time civil-rightsy caricature. They both seem offended by this, and wish he wouldn't do it. They seem to think of it as a schtick, a performed routine that he puts on - no doubt to the benefit of a white audience.

Because, what about when he does it before a black audience (as he does)? What role is he playing there? In most academic settings, the form of expression is in sharp contrast to the the subdued, stiff-lipped, "serious", anal-retentive analysis we're accustomed to coming from "experts". And this is for the most part a white thing, right? (As most "experts" tend to be white). Interestingly, his last (first?) appearance on bloggingheads happened to be with a Robert George, southerner very interested in the Christian tradition, which especially in the south has a long history of just the sort of expressionistic style West demonstrates.

But before a black audience, his style is perfectly at home. What Loury and McWhorter seem to criticize as phony or contrived, suddenly becomes an exemplar of the great history of black ethnicity. In criticizing West, they too implicate black culture itself - something these two particular black men are no strangers to. In fact, the very conservative impulse that they have an affinity for has a long history of criticizing black culture, not just for the dysfunction disproportionately prevalent in its community, but for its expression of "otherness", and the way in which it seems to present a perpetual challenge to white European American cultural hegemony. In their quest to transcend race, they become susceptible to the conservative habit of downplaying its significance, having been made uncomfortable with the thornier issues it presents both at the micro and macro levels of social integration and political policy.

If one can say anything about West's core motivation, it is that it is a search for social fairness and human dignity. His academic career has been devoted to this question, specifically race, and how our society has struggled to "do right" by its citizens. I think it is fair to say that no small part of West's public persona has been as a charismatic champion, in the tradition of many great social leaders. No doubt this has meant a sacrifice in his thinking - there is little room for nuance in rallying the masses. In this regard, serious academic thought (not to mention the time required for heavy-duty scholarship), will inevitably suffer.

Yet in his quest to inspire the public, West no doubt has gained a spiritual eloquence. I don't mean this in any religious sense, but in that thought - we are discovering more and more - is not solely the domain of logic and reason. It is at least as motivated by emotion, informing things like empathy, conviction, ego, etc. The great efficacy of a leader is the way in which he or she is able to connect with an audience not only on an intellectual, but this "spiritual" level as well. And of course, doing so requires developing this skill within oneself.

The ultimate question then seems fair: to what extent are Loury and McWhorter offering up a "schtick" of their own? To what extent is any of us offering up a "schtick"? Sure, in the relative comfort of each of our established communities, it may not feel like so much of a schtick, and merely "natural" behavior. But one of the lessons of precisely the movement from which West is coming, not only civil rights but the profound self-reflection and deconstruction that peaked in the 60's, is that there really is no "natural". For what is "natural" about african-americans who took the names of their masters, were forced to live in oppression and cultural violence for centuries? What is "natural" about Barack Obama, who was raised in a relatively white family, yet is seen (and treated) as "black" by the rest of society? Many black radicals, along with many others, took this new relativistic understanding and then sought to upend things by explicitly creating what is "natural" for themselves - whether Kwanzaa, adopting African names or dress.

I think this was actually not so new. Because culture never really was "natural", especially when you live in the hostility of a white supremacist society that denies everything that is truly natural about you, and invents what is not. Despite this, the story of America is in no small part the story of black survival and cultural triumph. What happened in the sixties what largely a conscious discovery of what had already been going on since before the founding.

Loury and McWhorter make a reasonable enough case for the sixties "being over". But I think they strongly overplay their hand. There is a fundamental inertness and stubborn shamefulness to their critique. So what if West is a little over-the-top? The content of what he says, despite their protestations that it is not "deep enough" (ironic, coming from them), is as least as much strengthened as weakened by his emotional delivery. Because when he pulls into that "groove", so to speak, his torso rocking, his hands waving, his words falling into a rhythmic sync, he is tapping into a source of power and strength that finds its roots deep in the human soul, that which will never find expression in even the most complex and well-structured grammatical elocution. Combine this with a first-rate mind, capable of referencing the greatest of human works at the drop of a hat, from philosophy to poetry, to Judeo-Christian texts and historical events, you have a figure that anyone ought to be in awe of.

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