Professors Cornel West (right) and Henry Louis Gates Jr. listen during the 368th Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., May 30, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Cornel West is an esteemed leftist academic who has taught at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. He’s a prolific Christian author and a socialist who has rejected Marxism. He’s willing to appear on Fox News and debate the Right. West backed Senator Bernie Sanders (D., Vt.) in the 2020 race, hoping to bring his racial and religious knowledge to the Sanders campaign. While he’s certainly a progressive, to West’s credit, he’s avoided the frothing-at-the-mouth activism that much of the Left has descended to. He’s willing to have his ideas challenged and refuses to blindly get behind whatever new bit of insanity critical theorists endorse.
It’s a shame that he was revealed to be so utterly entitled.
At the end of June, West submitted a rambling, raving resignation letter to Harvard University. Peppered with exclamation points and various accusations, the letter declared that Harvard as an institution is deplorable, to the extent that he could no longer work there in good conscience. At the outset, this shouldn’t be particularly objectionable. Harvard, much like many other elite universities, is “spiritually bankrupt,” he wrote. West’s reasoning, however, is in desperate need of critique.
The true root of West’s indignation lies in Harvard’s refusal to grant him tenure. Bafflingly, he has convinced himself that the reason for this lies in the “shadow of Jim Crow” that engulfs the school. For the record, he held tenure at Harvard before, but he quit in 2002 after feeling insulted by then-president Lawrence Summers. Does he honestly mean to suggest that Harvard has grown more prone to discriminate against black people over the past two decades?
He went on to claim that Harvard mistreated him due to his pro-Palestine stance during the recent upheaval. But Harvard is nothing if not a safe space for anti-Israel sentiment. Eighty faculty members denounced Israel’s use of force as recently as May — many of them tenured. It’s hard to believe that Harvard would punish a professor for an opinion that’s relatively mainstream among staff members and immensely popular with the student body.
Yet the letter amazingly becomes more ridiculous. The spiritual rot West pointed to has nothing to do with, say, Harvard’s pandemic policies. No, Harvard’s initial plans to furlough staff to cut costs and its acceptance of millions of dollars from a coronavirus relief package, despite the school’s $40 billion endowment, were perfectly tolerable to the socialist West. What was unacceptable was that he received only “two public replies” in response to his announcement of the death of his mother. The qualification, “public,” is particularly fascinating. Are private condolences not as valuable as messages posted for all the world to see? But aside from that, accusations of irreligiosity based on an absence of public sympathy are disproportionate, to say the least.
West’s letter has received more than 100,000 likes on Twitter. On the one hand, this can be written off as typical-social media insanity. But, more important, it exemplifies the attitude that has begun to grip our society. West is supposed to be one of the intellectual heavyweights of the Left. Even so, he has still succumbed to the impulse to make everything political. His career troubles, the death of his mother — everything undesirable in West’s life — can somehow be tied to victimhood.
The Left’s continued dominance of institutions across the country, from corporations to universities, should have destroyed the countercultural, rebellious narrative that spurred progressive movements in the latter half of the 20th century. But, instead of acknowledging that, activists have taken to inventing enemies. Much like the Knight of the Sorrowful Face, Leftists lash out at imaginary opponents to manufacture the struggles and notoriety they think their predecessors possessed.
Dr. West, maybe, just maybe, you were denied tenure because you no longer are a suitable candidate.
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