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The Character of Cornel West

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In a recent article in The Huffington Post, I argued that the debate over Cornel West's recent criticisms of President Obama should be redirected toward the important questions about domination that West has been raising all along. These are questions about the growing imbalance of power in American society and the Obama administration's failure to correct that imbalance.

Unfortunately, the blogosphere is still resounding with vitriolic denunciations of West. I cannot sit idly by while the personal attacks continue. That he has been my friend for more than three decades makes me a somewhat biased reporter on his character but also someone familiar with relevant facts.

I know, for example, that he owns only one car and has had it for many years. I also know that he spends a lot of time with his daughter in Germany. That these facts refute some things being posted on the Internet will give you some idea of how petty and hurtful the attacks have become, as well as how little concern for truth the most vicious attackers are exhibiting.

No one else I know has a stronger or steadier love of poor and working people than Cornel West. This love drives him. It explains nearly everything he does.

Hasn't he spent much of his adult life teaching in culturally elite universities and conversing with highbrow intellectuals? Yes. He does so for two good reasons. He takes joy in learning and he wants places like Princeton, Harvard and Yale to be as decent as they are wealthy.

Does his institutional location disqualify him from criticizing President Obama? No. It is because West has experienced the temptations of a career among the cultural elite that he understands the temptations the President faces while interacting with economic and political elites.

West knows, on the basis of his personal experience, that the temptations of such a setting are strong. One wants to be respected by the people one considers brilliant. And it is all too easy, when working with the privileged, to forget about the downtrodden. If the President knows this, he isn't showing it.

How does West deal with those temptations? He does not let a day pass without criticizing the divide between the Haves and the Have-Nots. He haunts the conscience of the Haves and brings hope to the Have-Nots. He would be the first to say that he has not always done so perfectly.

But let's be honest here. No one in my generation has more fully embodied the vocation of speaking truth to power, within the elite universities or without, than West. He has used his position to draw attention to the plight of the poor. There is no hypocrisy in that.

My books would have been very different had I not benefitted from West's encouragement, criticism and example. One is about threats to democratic discussion. Another is about the power of ordinary citizens. West never stops reminding me that I ought to use my influence to do what I can on democracy's behalf. He holds me to a high standard.

Teaching with West is one of the great benefits of my job. We have now taught at least half a dozen graduate seminars together, on topics ranging from Edmund Burke to analytic philosophy. One of them was on Hegel and his influence. I started off the first session by lecturing for an hour and a half on what a student needs to know about Kant in order to understand Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.

West then spoke on how trade routes in the north Atlantic affected the spread of Enlightenment ideas, on what Hegel learned from his roommates in seminary and on the meaning of key phrases in the preface of the Phenomenology. It was a breathtaking performance, the sort of thing that only a true intellectual who keeps up constantly with the relevant scholarship could do. I wonder how many of West's critics could have done what he did that afternoon.

One of the things I most appreciate about teaching with West is his deft way of ruling political correctness out of order. He insists that students come to terms with the full range of the Western canon, including the great conservatives. Everyone gets a fair hearing. When a student plays the race card, West hands it back.

West spends several days a week on the road, because he doesn't want his message to be confined to the academy. But I know of no instance in which he has missed a class. He doesn't merely attend dissertation defenses and public lectures, he often asks the best question. West's marathon office hours are legendary. He is more present to the Princeton campus during his three or four days a week than anyone else is in five.

For all of these reasons, I want to inform the public about the man I know. The picture of West's character now circulating on the Internet is false -- false in many of its details and false in the general impression it leaves. But what troubles me most about his critics is not the falsity of their claims. It is the delight they are taking in his pain. The German word for such delight is Schadenfreude. The English word for it should be poison.

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