Cornel West for prophet! (Not president.)

(RNS) — I could’ve sworn that — years ago — Cornel West told an interviewer he’d never run for president of the United States, because his role as a self-styled prophet was to speak truth to state power, not wield it himself.

Nevertheless, on Monday (June 5), the 70-year-old scholar-activist posted a video announcement to social media announcing his bid for the presidency as the candidate for The People’s Party.

“I enter for the quest for truth. I enter for the quest of justice. And the presidency is just one vehicle we pursue that truth and justice,” West explained, punctuating each line by digging into the air with his index finger, as he’s known to do.

West should know better. He should know that, if he stays true to the prophetic tradition he’s long publicly claimed, he’ll fail spectacularly at getting elected. Or, if he succeeds, he’ll have to trade in the prophet’s camel hair tunic for the king’s crown. 

I say West should know these things because he knows the Hebrew prophetic tradition, American politics, and is one of the greatest minds of our lifetime. 

Since he knows the Hebrew prophetic tradition, he also knows that the prophets were often peripheral to politics, if not complete outsiders. Some worked within the system as priests or advisers to the king, but the prophet West invokes most often, Amos, was a poor farmer who was suddenly compelled to decry the economic injustice of his day.

When colleagues asked West to temper his scathing critiques of Barack Obama — when he publicly wished he could “slap” the former president upside the head — West defended his strident tone, saying: “If the Jews had asked Amos to tone it down a notch? … Amos [would] say, ‘Kiss my Jewish behind. My calling is to say, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”

There’s only one biblical character who took on the roles of prophet and king: David, and the plot resembles that of “Macbeth” or “Breaking Bad.” The crown turns David from a humble, earnest shepherd boy into a man capable of the kind of treachery and abuse his younger self probably could’ve never imagined: a man willing to murder and manipulate to get what he wants.

I’m not saying all presidents are destined to moral failure. I am saying what so many have already said: Prophets don’t make good kings.

West has had a front-row seat to American politics, having campaigned as a surrogate for Obama and Bernie Sanders. West knows that institutions discipline newcomers into existing norms. (For all the talk about norms under Donald Trump, little has actually changed.) An individual doesn’t enter an institution and change it from the inside out. The far more common story is the police cadet who thinks they’ll be the good cop and act outside the gang culture of police departments, only to find themselves corrupted. 

As a prophet, West regularly and rightly critiqued President Obama for expanding illegal drone strikes in the Middle East, for not doing enough to address police brutality and for being beholden to Wall Street oligarchs. If Obama’s presidency, and West’s critiques, taught us anything about Black liberation, it’s that Black faces in high places are not enough to revolutionize America. Let’s say the presidency is a city bus. It can do everything a bus can do. But if we need it to fly, no amount of changing drivers will make a difference.

If the political system is racist and imperialist, a military-industrial complex owned by Wall Street oligarchs, if presidents in recent memory have been war criminals, persecuted migrants, have kept Guantanamo open, done little to lift Black people out of our racial suffering, kowtowed to corporate interests — what makes West think his presidency would be so remarkably different? He himself chided Obama as the “Black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and the Black puppet or corporate plutocrats.”

Now he’s applying for the job. It really makes one scratch their head.

One can only hope West’s bid is a publicity stunt, an act of symbolic political theater to make some type of point yet to be revealed.

To be sure, it matters who is president. We need better choices than authoritarian fascists on the right and a “milquetoast neoliberal” (as West called our current president and presumed Democratic nominee). 

But we don’t need West in the Oval Office. We need him the classroom. We need him on the streets. I fear that as a politician he will either lose his prophetic fire or his head. 

Title: Cornel West for prophet! (Not president.)
Source: Religion News Service
Source URL:
Date: June 8, 2023 at 03:06AM
Feedly Board(s): Religion