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“I Want to Be Like Jesus.”

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West’s media exposure, together with his brutal attacks on the president and others, “has cumulatively led to the perception that he’s squandered his gift and his birthright,” says Dyson. “West has sadly exchanged the unsexy tedium of sustained scholarship to the siren call of public gestures.”

West shrugs off the criticism that he’s failed to live up to his intellectual promise. “As much as I love the life of the mind, I do not give primary status to intellect,” he told me. “I give much more to the centrality of love, and much more to where that love comes from—and that is family, faith, friends, and music. That is fundamentally who I am. Smartness is not some kind of value that I put a whole lot of weight on. There are smart Nazis and smart xenophobes and smart patriarchs and so forth.”

One of West’s most defining characteristics is a near-total lack of interest in his own psychological archaeology. “I’ve never taken the time to focus on the inner dynamics of the dark precincts of my soul. Like St. Augustine once said, I’m a mystery to myself,” West wrote in his autobiography, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. Even when pressed, he refuses to engage in self-analysis, protesting that 21st-century confessional narcissism isn’t his thing. The result is a distance, sometimes very wide, between what West says and what he does, without any anxiety from West himself that such inconsistency might diminish his credibility. He preaches humility, but Brother West reads like a catalogue of encounters with the famous and fabulous, among them Sean Combs, Kathleen Battle (whom West dated), Jerome Groopman, Carly Simon, Johnnie Cochran, Luther Vandross, and Sarah Vaughan. “How well does he know himself in the shadow places?” muses his friend Reverend James Forbes, who after eighteen years as senior minister of Riverside Church is also returning to Union this year. “The intellectual gifts become a kind of armor to self-disclosure.”

As a leftist activist, West opposes sexism and patriarchy. As a student of American culture, he has been an advocate of marriage and, especially, of two-parent families. “Liberals are … destroying the parental role,” he wrote in The War Against Parents, co-authored in 1998 with Sylvia Ann Hewlett. “Many on the left fail to understand that we need to rein in untrammeled individualism if we are to re-create the values that nurture family life.” Yet Cornel West is no traditional family man. The protagonist of Brother West seems a puppyish and self-important nerd who chases women until he wears them down and conquers them. (“Marry me,” he begged the woman who became his last wife, “and become the First Lady of Black America.”) Then, when the realities of mundane domesticity set in, he leaves. His third marriage fell apart around the time Zeytun was born, and in the memoir West complains, with very little empathy toward the injured parties, about the legal and ­financial squeeze he felt from both his ex-wife and Zeytun’s mother. “How blue,” he wrote, “can a brother get?”

“I’m not sure I fall out of love,” he ­explained in his office. “I discover that I’m unable to stay. But it’s not as if I don’t still love them. I think in the end they recognize they were probably better off without me. Look, this brother’s doing tons of lectures every year. He’s forever on the run, like a bluesman or a jazzman. How in the world can he be a husband anyway?”

West says he abhors racism and nationalism, yet in a public spat that made headlines in 1999, he refused to concur with Michael Lerner that Louis Farrakhan’s anti-­Semitic views made him “a racist dog,” preferring instead to call him “a xenophobic spokesperson when it comes to dealing with Jewish humanity.” West hates what he would call corporate oligarchs, yet Tavis Smiley’s talk show is underwritten by Wal-Mart, infamous for allegations of discriminatory and unfair labor practices, and West has never raised an objection. I asked him about this, and he offered a boilerplate response: “We have to stand on principle and make sure institutions are accountable.”

Melissa Harris-Perry, a former Princeton colleague of West’s who is now a political scientist at Tulane University, has become one of his most outspoken opponents. She observed in The Nation last year that even West’s critique of Obama is hypocritical. In the Truthdig interview, West implied that the president, having been raised by whites, is uneasy in his black skin, and he accused Obama of being “most comfortable with upper-­middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart.” Harris-Perry pointed out that the same might be said of West, who has spent the largest portion of his career “comfortably ensconced” at Harvard and Princeton. These are “not places,” she adds, “that have a particularly liberating history for black men.”


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