June 10, 2023
Democratic Party Woke Hacks Out to Stop Cornel West’s Presidential Bid
I commented yesterday on Amy Goodman’s aggressive interview of Cornel West. It now appears to be open season on Cornel from the Democratic Party’s woke hacks. To defend the Party from a radical insurgency: this is their designated task and that’s why these sub-mediocrities are generously rewarded. The latest entrant is The Nation’s Joan Walsh. Walsh was one of Hillary Clinton’s attack dogs in 2016 going after Bernie Sanders. Now she’s got Cornel in her crosshairs. In the current issue of the Nation she attacks Cornel for agreeing with Ron DeSantis that the Western canon should be taught in schools. Cornel knows the classics, which he cites with impressive range and precision; it’s doubtful Walsh would know a classic if it bit her in the thigh. In my book I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It, I discuss the woke assault on the canon and parenthetically note Cornel’s reverence for it. Here’s an excerpt (footnotes deleted):
The impact of identity politics on culture has been no less baleful. It is no shame to be illiterate; but it is shameful when veritable illiterates arbitrate cultural norms. An “Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum” in California thus defines its field of intellectual inquiry:
Ethnic Studies is xdisciplinary, in that it variously takes the forms of being interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, undisciplinary, and intradisciplinary. As such, it can grow its original language to serve these needs with purposeful respellings of terms, including history as herstory and women as womxn, connecting with a gender and sexuality lens, along with a socioeconomic class lens at three of its intersections…. Ethnic Studies also examines borders, borderlands, mixtures, hybridities, nepantlas, double consciousness, and reconfigured articulations, even within and beyond the various names and categories associated with our identities…. The foundational values of Ethnic Studies are housed in the conceptual model of the “double helix” which interweaves holistic humanization and critical consciousness…. Ethnic Studies courses, teaching, and learning will … critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society.
“Ethnic Studies,” it goes on to boldly proclaim, “is a literate discipline.” But this is not English, or any other language known to wo/x/man. It is the deranged, gobbledygook concoction of a woke machine gone bonkers. The proposal calls, naturally, for diversifying the curriculum to be more inclusive of historically marginalized groups. Who can quarrel with this? But it ought to be remembered that Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, they all took great pride in having mastered the Western canon. (So does Cornel West.) It ought also to be remembered that—contrary to woke wisdom—the classics of Western civilization have often shined a bright light on its underside and been visionary of an enlightened future. Rousseau’s Emile is beyond execrable on the female sex. But Plato’s Republic isn’t half bad; Thomas More favorably compares the full, humane use which his Utopia makes of its labor force with the state of affairs in Europe, where women, “which be half of the whole number,” are either under-utilized or over-exploited; while Mill’s Subjection of Women endures as a foundational defense of female equality. Although the canon typically takes for granted the superiority of European civilization, one also encounters oases of skepticism. In his Essays, Montaigne both ridicules the moral pretensions of Europeans and extols the civilizations in the New World before European conquest. Indeed, according to him, it was their unmatched virtues that made the New World’s inhabitants easy prey to the “treachery, lust, covetousness, and to every kind of inhumanity and cruelty” of Europeans who, for the sake of commerce, committed every imaginable atrocity. Rousseau, in his Discourse on Inequality, famously rates non-European, non-technological societies morally superior. Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, judges that, in “their magnanimity and self-command,” the “savage nations of North America” are “almost beyond the conception of Europeans,” and the “negro from the coast of Africa” possesses “a degree of magnanimity which the soul of his sordid master is scarce capable of conceiving.” Of the fate of Africans at the hands of our white forebears in the New World, Smith concludes that “fortune never exerted more cruelly her empire over mankind, than when she subjected those… heroes to the refuse of the jails of Europe, to wretches who possess the virtues neither of the countries which they come from, nor of those which they go to, and whose levity, brutality, and baseness, so justly expose them to the contempt of the vanquished.” It’s a close call whether Hegel’s lofty contempt of non-European peoples in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History should be reckoned odious or just plain ignorant. Yet, his fellow countryman Kant, in his sketch Toward Perpetual Peace, rues that “when discovered, America, the lands occupied by blacks, the Spice Islands, the Cape, etc., were regarded as lands belonging to no one because their inhabitants were counted for nothing.” He recalls the “terrifying” infamies inflicted by Europe in the course of its conquest, and ridicules the hypocrisy “of powers who, while imbibing injustice like water, make much of their piety.”
It might surprise how much of the canon deeply subverts the status quo, then and now. One would be hard-pressed to name a single Western classic that rates highly acquisitiveness, the accumulation of things, as life’s purpose, while it’s not difficult to draw up a lengthy list scorning it. Even as he posits a “natural right” to property, Locke puts stringent limits on this right: “enough and as good” must be “left in common for others,” and property left to “spoil … is more than his [the owner’s] share and belongs to others.” The class each semester in which I tested Locke’s caveats was always memorable. If five persons stranded on a desert island race to a lone apple tree, and the first one there picks all the apples, doesn’t she, per Locke, still have to share them with the others? If Oprah makes no use of 25 rooms in her mansion, don’t the homeless have a right to them? If a C.E.O. builds a pool in Harlem but never uses it, don’t neighborhood children on a swelteringly hot day have a right to jump in? If a grocer intends at the end of the day to trash his leftover bagels, don’t the hungry have a right to them? When the diehard capitalists in the class still stood fast on the unconditional right to one’s property, I presented this hypothetical: If a famine breaks out while there’s a glut on the milk market, does a dairy farmer have the right to his milk that will spoil, or do the mothers of starving babes have a right to seize it from him? At this point a frustrated student would invariably whine, “Why are you defending communism?” Indeed, I could even tease out from Locke a defense of the civil insurrection that ensued in Los Angeles after the police were acquitted of brutalizing Rodney King.
It cannot be disputed that space must be allocated for additions to the Western canon. But time is finite: only so much can be taught in our schools. So for each addition, there will inevitably be a subtraction. The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum recommends inclusion of “significant figures” such as Assata Shakur and Bobby Seale. Should we then ditch W. E. B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King? Ibram X. Kendi acclaims Alex Haley’s Roots as “one of the most influential works of the twentieth century.” 1 Should we then scratch Kafka’s The Trial? Indeed, maybe we should substitute Kendi for Thucydides, DiAngelo for Marx, Crenshaw for Mill. Rich in insight, brilliant in exposition, rebellious in spirit: on the whole, there’s good reason why the classics have endured. It would be prudent to hesitate before discarding the venerable in favor of the latest hip fads of cancel culture.