I used to enjoy listening to Cornel West. Now he just frustrates me, and I’m trying to figure out exactly why. I watched Obama’s comments on the Zimmerman case and was fairly moved by them. Come to find out, I was just taken in. I watched West’s interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now where she asked him to reflect on the President’s comments a few days prior. West’s response, in sum, was that Obama was a hypocrite. Though his comments sounded good, according to West, they were invalid for a few reasons. First, Obama is the drone president, and he does not seem overwhelmingly concerned with children who are indirect targets of foreign strikes. Second, he supports both the mayor and police chief of New York City, who have both been proponents of “Stop and Frisk” laws that have disproportionally targeted young black males. There were other reasons as well, but the gist is expressed at the beginning, where West says “Obama has very little moral authority.” (There’s the other side as well, that criticizes Obama for pandering to black folks when the white poor just make better choices, but that’s not worth further comment.)
While the interview served primarily for West to discredit each point of Obama’s speech that was praised by other segments of the media, he never clearly stated the method by which he discounted Obama’s words. But it follows a familiar logic, one that we have likely all used at one time or another in judging others. In this case, it goes something like this:
- Obama says he cares about the fate of children such as Trayvon Martin.
- Obama approves drone strikes in foreign countries, some of which kill children.
- Obama doesn’t really care about children.
Or this one:
- Obama says he cares about black people.
- Obama has given vocal praise to people who support practices that unfairly target black people.
- Obama doesn’t really care about black people.
Of course, our own logical processes don’t live up to this method. Take the following, for example:
- I am an animal-lover.
- Love means not wanting the object of love to suffer.
- I eat animals.
- I don’t really love animals.
Or this one:
- I don’t want people around me to die from guns.
- I own a gun.
- I support the right to own guns.
- I don’t really care if people around me die from guns.
Note that these follow a similar logic. The first statement is a sort of identity claim. They all say, in some form or another, “I am a person who is this,” or “If I had my way, the world would operate like this.” These are not factual statements that can be proven or disproven, although it is true that in many contexts they purport to reflect the way things are or the way the speaker wants them to be. Because they are not fact-based, they are open to the broadest interpretation. In this case, West extended Obama’s comments to encompass the broadest categories, found points that seem to contradict his statements, and implied his insincerity because of it.
The problem with this type of critique is not that the points West makes are invalid. Drone strikes are a huge problem. Even the larger lesson that rhetoric can often mask practices directly contradictory to stated aims is well taken. The problem is that no living person, including West, submits all areas of their life to the categorical logic he is using. Right or not, animal lovers might not agree that they don’t love animals because they also eat them. Others might not agree that gun ownership negates a desire to see less gun violence. Yet if one was playing to best possible scenarios, animal lovers would enact a world where no animals died, and people lovers would enact a world that eliminated guns.
So how helpful is this critique? Not very. People that hold unflinchingly to these high and inviolable standards die, because they are incompatible with the world. Anything less is a form of compromise, and we all compromise to stay alive and comfortable. This is not a negative value judgement but a statement. West is a Christian, as he pointed out at least twice in the course of the interview, and thus his model for the world is Jesus Christ, and more recently, leaders such as Martin Luther King. Both were killed. So is West doing everything that he can to enact the world that he claims he wants? Could we look at the scope of his life and find inconsistencies that would seem to invalidate his rhetoric? I’m certain.
Of course, it’s not West that has changed. It’s me. For many years, I lived in a world where I found little logical tension in holding the world and others within it to a high standard, indeed a standard it could not meet. Enter Jesus, who bridges the gap and reconciles the world with God because it cannot live up to the impossible standards. From the inside, that looks like a good place to be. From the outside, it is simply a different form of hypocrisy.
Now when I consider a critique, I also consider very carefully how I measure up to the same standard. Do I think that the government/institutional complex doesn’t “do enough” about race? Well, what am I doing? Is it “enough?” I have been reticent to invest emotionally in the Martin case, because I feel like the relative privilege from which I might spout platitudes invalidates my position.
I know that some speak with sincerity, including West (although he does appear pretty enamored with himself at times). My critique is that compromise should not be sufficient cause to discount one’s position. This is not the same as dismissing all critique because we all fail. I think the president should be held accountable to the extent that he is responsible for actions we deem wrong. But we should be clear about what those standards are and be willing to question our own relation to them. More specifically, I think that idealism about enacting a sort of heaven-on-earth has a place, but the Christian version of such idealism falls short because it also requires allegiance to a narrowly conceived deity that has an arbitrary relationship to the idealism expressed.
The accurate portion of the Christian message, as I mentioned, is that unwillingness to compromise will result in persecution, and if uncorrected, death. The intensity of that commitment, in and of itself, is morally neutral, but it is often valued highly by those who follow. However, we can look through history and see how few have followed that path. While these people have been visionaries, and have often inspired movements, they were also, quite literally, not easy to live with, a fact we all know as we choose not to rock the boat or do so only in safe ways. Obama have little “moral authority” from a Christian or other idealist perspective, but show me a person who does with the same amount of power and influence. It’s much easier to be uncompromising from the sidelines.
How much discrepancy, if any, is allowable between sentiment and action? What amount of action verifies rhetoric? I’m still wrestling with the question.