Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

“I Want to Be Like Jesus.”

ShareThis

West continues to insist that it’s the president’s policies, and not what he perceives as ingratitude, that motivates his critique. He believes that when Obama chose Tim Geithner and especially Summers to design his economic-reform plan, he revealed that his election-year allegiances to the legacy of King were false. “He said, ‘I’m with these two. I’m not with you.’ He’s making it very clear. The working people are not a major priority, they are an afterthought. Now, during campaigns, it’s very different. Here comes the populist rhetoric again, here comes the concern about workers. The middle class is a major issue. Income inequality is now a fundamental issue. Please.”

West appeared at the Brooklyn ­Academy of Music one winter evening, in an upstairs room that was packed to bursting—evidence that in certain spheres West’s cult status is healthy and well. The occasion was a repartee ­between West and the New School philosopher Simon Critchley, and West gave a vintage performance, careering through George Santayana, Mark Twain, Nathanael West, and William James, before he glanced briefly off Christopher Hitchens, to consider Martin Luther King Jr. and ­Desmond Tutu, and came to rest, finally, on the subject of Hamlet and his ability to love. When West talks about love, he often invokes the Hebrew word chesed, which in the Jewish tradition means ­“loving-kindness.” “Hamlet suffers from the incapacity to love,” West said at bam. “There’s not a lot of chesed there. He’s not connected to that at all.”

With this remark, West came dangerously close to self-perception, for love is at the very crux of his current confusion. “You say ‘Love, love,’ ” observes Dyson, “but you practice ‘venom, venom.’ ” Love, for West, is an ideal, found in Scripture and in art, and it’s in the classroom that he most clearly strives for it. At Union, he has agreed to teach a full load of courses at half his ­Princeton salary. He is the kind of teacher, students say, who doesn’t miss a class, who takes a personal interest in hometowns and musical tastes, who asks after ailing family members and will extend office hours until every last query is answered.

At Princeton, West regularly taught an undergraduate philosophy course with Robert George, a prominent conservative and an architect of the pro-life movement. “West’s reputation is as a firebrand, as an activist, and as a rhetorician,” says George, a professor of jurisprudence. “But what you see in the classroom is not that. What you see is a person who loves learning for its own sake. Who believes in the project of what he himself always calls paedeia [“education” in Greek]. Not to get a better career, social mobility, to get ahead. But in the inherent enrichment of the human being by engaging with Shakespeare or the music of Mozart. Or the music of the Carter Family. What’s so beautiful to see, and Cornel draws it out of the students, is turning them on to non-­instrumentalized education. You’re pursuing knowledge for the sake of truth itself.”

In the classroom, George adds, West is no showman. He listens. He considers all sides of an argument. “Never once did I see him propagandize, or demonize a point of view, or engage in demagoguery,” says George. “The world would be a much better world if everyone had the heart of Cornel West.”

Union is a deeply liberal place, and George worries that West’s wide-ranging intellect will suffer from lack of exposure to thinkers (like himself) who can oppose and challenge him. Smiley, though, has another concern: West’s diminished salary. “I know that Union is up against the wall,” says Smiley. “It is as good a deal as Serene Jones could get.” But “I wish the deal had been better, because over the next few years, he’s going to have to take care of his bills.”

Indeed, West is a worry to all those who love him—those who fear he does too much and those concerned that he’s ­compromising his legacy. West is aware of the anxiety, but he doesn’t seem to care. “A lot of people are worried that I’m going to drop dead because I can’t sustain the intensity of this pace for a long time,” he says. “I think they have a good point. All the things I’ve been blessed to do—they do not lend themselves to a long life, and that’s fine with me.”

And so the frenzy continues. West just finished his book tour for The Rich and the Rest of Us, making fifteen stops in as many days and paying calls not just on Hannity but on Stephen Colbert and Tina Brown as well. Nor have the tongue lashings abated. Last month, in an interview with Diverse magazine, West attacked Harris-Perry for her critique of him. “She’s become the momentary darling of liberals, but I pray for her because she’s in over her head,” he said. “She’s a fake and a fraud. I was surprised how treacherous the sister was.” Harris-Perry declined to comment on West’s remarks. “I am definitely not interested in weighing in on Professor West,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Only he can know what ­motivates his opinions about me.”

West may aspire to be like Jesus, but he talks like a man who won’t be disrespected in public and feels compelled to proclaim his own humility. “One thing is, I never fall in love with myself,” he says. “No, no. Not at all.”


Related:

Advertising
Current Issue
Subscribe to New York
Subscribe

Give a Gift

Advertising