Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) May 22, 2011: Cornel West of Princeton University has been disrespected by Barack Obama, President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. From Cornel West's published account of events, it sounds like he was indeed disrespected by President Obama.
The Republicans will love, love, love Cornel West for criticizing President Obama. They will hug, hug, hug him for criticizing President Obama. They will kiss, kiss, kiss him for criticizing President Obama. They will respect, respect, respect him for criticizing President Obama. They will be grateful, grateful, grateful to him for criticizing President Obama.
I can understand that Cornel West is pissed off at President Obama. If we believe Cornel West, President Obama is an ungrateful lout. He has not been suitably grateful to Cornel West for all that he has done for him in campaigning for him in 2008.
But we have not heard President Obama's side of the story. In a similar way, we have not heard Lawrence Summers' side of the events at which Cornel West took umbrage when Summers was president of Harvard University, the upshot of which was that Cornel West moved to Princeton University. From what Cornel West has revealed about the exchange between Summers and him, it might be fair to say that Cornel West felt that he had been disrespected in that exchange.
But Cornel West's terminology about being disrespected by President Obama suggests that Cornel West lives in an honor-shame thought-world. Cornel West is of course an African American product of the Old South with its Jim Crow laws and customs.
In his wonderful book READING FAULKNERIAN TRAGEDY (1987), Warwick Wadlington notes that the white culture of the Old South was basically an honor-shame culture. Wadlington says nothing about African American culture in the Old South. However, when Cornel West says that he has been disrespected, he is using terminology that calls to mind the honor-shame culture of the Old South.
I don't want to press the likeness too hard, but my impression is that Barack Obama's unflappable demeanor makes him kind of like the old black man in William Faulkner's novel INTRUDER IN THE DUST. But did Faulkner just create the old black man out of his imagination, with no help from real-life examples of such black men who were self-respecting and dignified and unflappable? Or did Faulkner draw on real-life examples of white men to create the characteristics of the old black man? Put differently, is there perhaps another viable and living African American tradition of self-respecting men besides the African American tradition of living and loving out loud that Cornel West and Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged from?
Cornel West himself uses the expression "living and loving out loud" as the subtitle of his book BROTHER WEST: LIVING AND LOVING OUT LOUD, A MEMOIR (2009). But the expression "living and loving out loud" suggests a strongly oral-aural orientation, akin to oral-aural orientation that the American cultural historian Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) associates with oral cultures and with residual forms of oral cultures. See, for example, Ong's book ORALITY AND LITERACY: THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD (1982; 2nd ed. 2002).
In terms of literary works about an honor-shame culture, Faulkner's novels about the honor-shame culture of the Old South come in far behind the Homeric epics about ancient honor-shame culture, the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY. In the opening episode of the Homeric epic the ILIAD, King Achilles, the most formidable warrior around, is disrespected by King Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the thousand ships that set sail to retrieve Helen from Troy. Agamemnon's disrespect for Achilles triggers the wrath of Achilles. The ILIAD in its entirety is devoted to telling the lengthy story of the wrath of Achilles. Because of his sheer power as a warrior, Achilles could have dispatched Agamemnon. Indeed, Achilles starts to draw his sword to dispatch Agamemnon on the spot when the goddess Athena intervenes, unseen, and forcibly stops Achilles by grabbing his long hair and pulling him back. She tell Achilles not to dispatch Agamemnon, but to give him a sound tongue lashing. Achilles complies and gives Agamemnon a sound tongue lashing instead of killing him on the spot. As a result, Agamemnon gets to have his way. But Achilles in his wrath withdraws from the war.
Nowhere in the ILIAD is there a hint that Achilles was wrong. His anger is justified anger. By the standards of the time, Agamemnon had misbehaved when he disrespected Achilles. Athena does not tell him that he is wrong to get angry at Agamemnon. Nor does Achilles' mother, the goddess Thetis, tell him that he is wrong. Nor does any other character in the story, except of course Agamemnon. Nor does the omniscient narrator tell us that Achilles is wrong to get angry at the way in which Agamemnon disrespected him.
Of course Agamemnon had first disrespected the priest of Apollo. For this, Apollo intervenes and Agamemnon pays a price. Eventually, Agamemnon comes to recognize that he was wrong in disrespecting the priest of Apollo and wrong in disrespecting Achilles. The priest of Apollo accepts Agamemnon's gifts of repentance. But Achilles continues to hold out and refuses to accept the gifts of repentance that Agamemnon offers him.
Next, for the sake of discussion, let's say that Barack Obama does not come from the African American tradition of living and loving out loud that Cornel West comes from. But President Obama does have an unflappable demeanor, as does the old black man in Faulkner's INTRUDER IN THE DUST. So what will likely happen when a fellow who is used to living and loving out loud interacts with a fellow who has such an unflappable demeanor? Isn't it likely that the fellow who is used to living and loving out loud will be nonplussed, to say the least, by the fellow who has such an unflappable demeanor? Conversely, isn't it likely that the fellow who has such an unflappable demeanor will be nonplussed, to say the least, by the fellow who is used to living and loving out loud?
In any event, Melissa Harris-Perry of Princeton University has accused Cornel West in print of engaging in a pissing match with President Obama. In my 1998 essay "Faulkner and Male Agonism," I have discussed male agonistic (contesting) behavior. A pissing match is a kind of male agonistic (contesting) behavior. My essay was published in the book TIME, MEMORY, AND THE VERBAL ARTS: ESSAYS ON THE THOUGHT OF WALTER ONG, edited by Dennis L. Weeks and Jane Hoogestraat (1998, pages 203-221).
If we believe Cornel West, he is not in the wrong. President Obama has evidently acted like an ungrateful lout toward him. In revenge, he could sit out his 2012 re-election campaign, just as Achilles sits out the war for a long time.
However, in the end, Achilles does re-join the war, even though he has been told by his mother-goddess that doing so will lead to his death in the war. Incidentally, the anonymous author of the Gospel of Mark constructed his fictional story about Jesus to portray him as a hero on a par with Achilles by constructing three fictional scenes in which Jesus predicts in advance his death in Jerusalem. Jesus is portrayed as knowing in advance that he will die in Jerusalem, just as Achilles knows in advance from his goddess-mother that he will die if he returns to the war. Understood figuratively, we often do need to die to an old version of ourselves in order to rise to a new version of ourselves. I hope that Cornel West will die, figuratively speaking, to Cornel West who has published his criticisms of President Obama (with the collaboration of Chris Hedges) and rise to campaign for him in his re-election campaign. In short, Cornel West may have been disrespected by President Obama. But this gives Cornel West the opportunity to forgive President Obama. However, Cornel West might want to make sure that President Obama does not forget that he has wronged him. Forgive, but don't forget, eh?