I’ve gone back and forth on whether to write an additional post (or additional posts) on my reading of West’s Prophetic Fragments. The first three posts have dealt with the tone of West’s writing, yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of the breadth of subject matter he covers. With so many short essays, it’s impossible to do West justice.
There are a few areas I still want to cover, however.
First is West’s aggressive dealings with black conservatives. As black conservatives emerged as a political force (albeit a minor one) in the early 1980s, West’s response is consistent into the present-day, and his observations remain relevant. West criticizes black conservatives for being fueled by wealthy, white, conservative political think-tanks. While recognizing and affirming the desire among black conservatives to be recognized for the quality of their work, not the affirmative-action-fueled identification by race, West argues, “they overlook the fact that affirmative action policies were political responses to the pervasive refusal of most white Americans to judge black Americans by the quality of their skills rather than the color of their skin.” (57) Basically articulating that it’s admirable to want to be judged on a level playing field, but American history demonstrates that privileged whites haven’t been interested in that level field: “The new black conservatives assume that without affirmative action programs white Americans will make meritorious choices rather than race-biased ones. Yet they have adduced absolutely no evidence for this.”
West acknowledges that racial discrimination is not the sole cause of black marginalization and poverty, and he openly criticizes black liberals for positing an incomplete approach to the American black predicament. West addresses the social and spiritual needs of black communities, and the failure of government programs to provide vision forward. This failure, however, does not refute the role of government in addressing social disparity, and black conservatives highlight it as a means of delegitimize liberal black leadership and civil rights progress in general. Although racism may not be the only cause of the contemporary black predicament, it is certainly one of them – and an important one. Black conservatism rejects this as an excuse, to which West concludes: “Black liberalism indeed is inadequate, but black conservatism is unacceptable.”
Next, West delivers an impassioned treatise on the intellectual, spiritual and imaginative failure of contemporary theology in Christian Theological Mediocrity. He writes, “The distinctive feature of Christian thought in our postmodern times is its mediocrity.” (195)
West argues that such mediocrity stems from two realities. First, Euro-American Christianity has experienced a “failure of nerve,” in which American and European theologians demonstrate an inability to respond to the eclipse of American dominance, the upheaval of the 1960s, and the failure to adequately address patriarchy, racism and imperialism.
The superficiality of liberation theology’s success resides in its own ideological inevitability. It fills an “intellectual vacuum.” Beyond Cone, Moltmann and a few others, West argues that the theological effort toward constructing a fully realized liberation theology has been inadequate. Within this inadequacy is a refusal to engage the difficult questions of western theologians’ own experience of power and dominance.
There is as much talent around today as there has ever been. The question is whether the postmodern realities of education, culture, and politics will permit this talent to flourish. Without this cultivated talent, the Christian presence in this country will not only remain mediocre; this presence also will become, more than it already is, a menace to the Christian faith. (196)
Cornel West is a fascinating figure, primarily because of his personal commitment to “organic intellectualism.” By his own definition, an organic intellectualism is actively involved in the world, making pragmatism out of theory. By contrast, “traditional intellectualism” resides in academia, theoretical and detached from everyday life. This pragmatic commitment leads to a strategic engagement with popular culture. How does one engage and change minds if they aren’t listening? While West’s academic work is challenging and potentially controversial in a right-leaning, white-dominated society, his sound-bytes are carefully constructed and self-aware.
West’s most recent Twitter Tweet is:
There’s too much poverty and not enough self-love. If you don’t love yourself, you’re in a world of trouble. @cornelwest
Not exactly militant neo-Marxism or radical black liberation, but West knows how to engage the world and keep ears and eyes open, whether they be viewers of Fox News, CNN and Bill Maher, or readers of Playboy and New York Magazine.