New York’s public-school principals have generally felt it their duty to protect, not strain, relations between their schools and the DOE bosses at Tweed. Accordingly, principals have mostly not been among the critics of the system’s growing emphasis on standardized testing. But this year, a small group of them began to speak out. Among the dissidents: Zipporiah Mills of P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill, who’s refused to have her diverse school branded a C, no matter what its last two progress reports from the city might indicate. “No one knows that our kindergartners are taking Arabic classes or that we have Carmelo the Science Fellow [a renowned teacher]. No one knows that because all anyone sees is the C,” she says. In April, Mills permitted anti-testing activists to speak at her school and then later film a video titled “I Could Have Been.” In it, students state what they might have been doing had they not been drilling for exams. “Writing my latest masterpiece,” says one. “Reading my favorite book,” says another. Those are the kinds of things classrooms are really for, says Mills. “We didn’t get into education,” she says, “to be the givers of tests.”
As the calls for Mitt Romney to release his tax returns grow louder, and concerns about his undisclosed millions in offshore accounts increase, I wonder how the presumptive Republican nominee reconciles his great, secret stores of wealth with the principles of his Mormon faith. For Mormonism, as much as conventional Christianity, decries the hoarding of riches. ‘Wo unto the rich,” says the Book of Mormon. ‘Their hearts are upon their treasures.’
One possible explanation is that in faith, as in business, Romney is a bean counter, a charts and graphs guy, whose search for the right answer blinds him to the nuances of the big picture. “Wealth is a moral dilemma in Mormonism,” Vanderbilt religion professor Kathleen Flake says. “And it’s left to the individual member to navigate that.” Conveniently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers its members guidebooks and pamphlets that lay down, point by point, recommendations on how they should live. Think of them as PowerPoints to faith. They might grant a literal-minded person, such as Romney, a reprieve from having to struggle with his conscience over the consequences of his great wealth.
A guide called “Provident Living” describes the church’s preferred approach to money matters. Mormons should be frugal, industrious, debt-free and self-reliant. They should keep three months of food and water in storage and have a family-emergency-action plan in place in order to be prepared for any eventuality.
In addition, according to “Provident Living” and other materials, LDS members should tithe. They should use credit cards sparingly and to buy used goods until they can afford quality new ones.
“Purchasing poor-quality merchandise always ends up being very expensive,” Mormon elder Marvin Ashton writes in a 2006 LDS publication called “One for the Money.”
To live providently means to save money, according to LDS materials. Members should have at least three months’ cash in reserve in their bank accounts. “Set your houses in order. If you have paid your debts, if you have a reserve, even though it be small, then should storms howl about your head, you will have shelter for your wives and children and peace in your hearts,” then-LDS President Gordon Hinckley said in 1998.
Along with being fiscally responsible, Mormons should care for the poor and serve others, according to the tenets of “Provident Living.”
In one sense, Romney seems to have followed the tenets of “Provident Living” to the letter. He tithes. He is frugal. According to news reports, he delights in scoring the lowest-price airfare, and he drives his own U-Haul. Obviously, he has a financial reserve far beyond what he and his family need for a rainy day.
But Romney, it seems, has missed the spirit of his faith — or, as evidenced by his offshore stash, is selectively interpreting it. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism, taught that there is no shame in money earned through industry – “the riches of the Earth are God’s to give, but beware of pride.” But Smith, like Jesus, had a profound loathing of income inequality. The earliest LDS communities, in fact, embarked on an experiment they called The United Order, in which they shared all goods, property and profits, according to their needs. So radical was this approach that for generations Mormons were thought to be socialists. “The Saints were organized to be equal in all things,” an LDS scriptural text says.
Caring for the poor is a primary obligation of every good Mormon. You “will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish,” says Mosiah 4.
Romney’s supporters, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, undoubtedly believe that his willingness to forgo a salary to organize the Olympics and then run for president – twice – is evidence that he is living out his faith’s commandment to serve his fellow humans. Clearly, Romney is committed to public service. But his career at Bain suggests a lack of concern for people affected by his actions. And the tax returns he has released reveal a disinclination to share his wealth with his fellow citizens.
If he is elected president, how can reconciling his tax and spending policies with his faith be anything less than challenging?
Whatever the dictates of “Provident Living” might be in the White House, the Book of Mormon is clear in its warning: “The people began to be proud because of riches.”
Never mind what the tabloids say. Celebrities are not “just like us.” We don’t have our first date over sushi on a private jet, as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are rumored to have done, and we don’t appear together publicly for the first time, as they did, in Rome. We don’t have the opportunity to rave about our new romance on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” and Jennifer Lopez doesn’t come to our wedding.
And when things fall apart, we don’t fire our bodyguards and hire new ones.
In one way, however, Cruise and Holmes are exactly like us. Like a growing number of American couples — almost half — they come from different religious backgrounds. He is a zealous Scientologist. She was raised Roman Catholic in Toledo.
When things fall apart, these differences are amplified. “In divorce,” says Sanford Ain, a Washington divorce lawyer at Ain & Bank, “people who have very strongly held beliefs are moved to the extreme. The polarization is so great as to cause wars.”
It’s not clear whether Holmes will return to her childhood faith. Last week, rumors circulated that she had joined Church of St. Francis Xavier, near New York’s Greenwich Village. But the church’s pastor, the Rev. Joe Costantino, said that although the actress would be welcomed, she is not yet a member.
Religious belief in America is becoming increasingly individualistic. As people stray from religious institutions and follow a plurality of spiritual paths, their tolerance for interfaith marriage increases. (According to “American Grace,” a 2010 book by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, only about a third of people born in the 1960s believe that shared religious beliefs are “very important” for a successful marriage, and that percentage is shrinking.)
Perhaps, like so many couples, Cruise and Holmes believed that with mutual goodwill and respect (and possibly even love), they could work through their religious differences. Or maybe they convinced themselves that their differences weren’t so great after all. “I really like it,” Holmes said optimistically of Scientology in an interview with W magazine in 2005 and added that she was learning about Scientology. “I feel it’s really helping. What I like about it is that, you know, I was raised Catholic, and you can be a Catholic and a Scientologist, Jewish and a Scientologist.”
But as with most interfaith couples, there’s one person who exerts more influence in the area of religion, and from the beginning, that person was Cruise. In 2006, Cruise told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that the baby he was about to have with Holmes would not have a Catholic baptism. “I mean you can be Catholic and be a Scientologist. You can be Jewish and be a Scientologist. But we’re just Scientologists,” he said. And although Holmes’s devout parents apparently hoped for a Catholic wedding (and were rumored to be considering a wedding boycott), Cruise again prevailed. The sunset ceremony was reportedly performed by a Scientology minister.
The sensationalistic tabloid coverage of the TomKat split suggests that Holmes hopes to rescue Suri from the influence of Scientology by divorcing her dad. But divorce enables unilateral religious enthusiasms, it doesn’t quash them. So unless the settlement stipulates otherwise, Ain says, Cruise can take his daughter to whatever religious service he wishes on the days that he’s in charge, and Holmes can do the same. Thus the stage could be set for a perpetual clash of beliefs with the child in the middle. In some cases, a divorced parent will take a child to be baptized — one father even tried to have his son circumcised — without the other parent’s consent. (Two recent cases went to court where a judge ruled in favor of the parent who objected.)
Interfaith marriage can be harder than couples imagine as they walk down the aisle, but interfaith divorce is even harder. Holmes may now be at liberty to reconnect with her childhood religion, but she can never undo the fact that her daughter’s father is the world’s most-famous Scientologist — or that she knew it going in.
New research suggests that more money makes people act less human. Or at least less humane.
In a windowless room on the University of California, Berkeley, campus, two undergrads are playing a Monopoly game that one of them has no chance of winning. A team of psychologists has rigged it so that skill, brains, savvy, and luck—those ingredients that ineffably combine to create success in games as in life—have been made immaterial. Here, the only thing that matters is money.
One of the players, a brown-haired guy in a striped T-shirt, has been made “rich.” He got $2,000 from the Monopoly bank at the start of the game and receives $200 each time he passes Go. The second player, a chubby young man in glasses, is comparatively impoverished. He was given $1,000 at the start and collects $100 for passing Go. T-Shirt can roll two dice, but Glasses can only roll one, limiting how fast he can advance. The students play for fifteen minutes under the watchful eye of two video cameras, while down the hall in another windowless room, the researchers huddle around a computer screen, later recording in a giant spreadsheet the subjects’ every facial twitch and hand gesture.
T-Shirt isn’t just winning; he’s crushing Glasses. Initially, he reacted to the inequality between him and his opponent with a series of smirks, an acknowledgment, perhaps, of the inherent awkwardness of the situation. “Hey,” his expression seemed to say, “this is weird and unfair, but whatever.” Soon, though, as he whizzes around the board, purchasing properties and collecting rent, whatever discomfort he feels seems to dissipate. He’s a skinny kid, but he balloons in size, spreading his limbs toward the far ends of the table. He smacks his playing piece (in the experiment, the wealthy player gets the Rolls-Royce) as he makes the circuit—smack, smack, smack—ending his turns with a board-shuddering bang! Four minutes in, he picks up Glasses’s piece, the little elf shoe, and moves it for him. As the game nears its finish, T-Shirt moves his Rolls faster. The taunting is over now: He’s all efficiency. He refuses to meet Glasses’s gaze. His expression is stone cold as he takes the loser’s cash.
For a long time, primatologists have known that chimpanzees will act out social dominance with a special ferociousness, slapping hands, stamping feet, or “charging back and forth and dragging huge branches,” as Jane Goodall once wrote. And sociologists and anthropologists have explored the effects of hierarchy in tribes and groups. But psychology has only recently begun seriously investigating how having money, that major marker of status in the modern world, affects psychosocial behavior in the species Homo sapiens.By making real people temporarily very affluent, without regard to their actual economic circumstances and within the controlled environment of a psych lab, the Berkeley researchers aim to demonstrate the potency of that one variable. “Putting someone in a role where they’re more privileged and have more power in a game makes them behave like people who actually do have more power, more money, and more status,” says Paul Piff, the psychologist who designed the experiment. The Monopoly results, based on a year of watching inequitable games between pairs like Glasses and T-Shirt, have not yet been released. But Piff believes that they will support and amplify his previous provocative research.
Earlier this year, Piff, who is 30, published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that made him semi-famous. Titled “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” it showed through quizzes, online games, questionnaires, in-lab manipulations, and field studies that living high on the socioeconomic ladder can, colloquially speaking, dehumanize people. It can make them less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people. It can make them more likely, as Piff demonstrated in one of his experiments, to take candy from a bowl of sweets designated for children. “While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything,” Piff says, “the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”
These findings, in combination with a researcher eager to promote them, reverberated online. On message boards, detractors accused Piff of using his lab to promote a leftist agenda; that his home base was Berkeley only fueled those suspicions. Piff’s e-mail box filled with messages calling him a “liberal idiot” and his work “junk science.” “I would wager,” says Wharton business-school psychologist Philip Tetlock, “that a congressional committee chair who favors redistribution of wealth would be far more likely to call these experts in as witnesses than would a committee chair who opposes redistribution.”
It is easy to see Piff’s research as ideologically motivated. The point is to “shed light on some of the consequences of social class,” he says. But whatever his goal, the “results are apolitical,” he says, and the data point in a clear direction. “Would I be less excited if we found that higher-status people were more generous?” he asks. “I’d probably be less excited, but that’s not what we found.”
When was the last time, as Piff puts it, that you prioritized your own interests above the interests of other people? Was it yesterday, when you barked at the waitress for not delivering your cappuccino with sufficient promptness? Perhaps it was last week, when, late to work, you zoomed past a mom struggling with a stroller on the subway stairs and justified your heedlessness with a ruthless but inarguable arithmetic: Today, the 9 a.m. meeting has got to come first; that lady’s stroller can’t be my problem. Piff is one of a new generation of scientists—psychologists, economists, marketing professors, and neurobiologists—who are exploiting this moment of unprecedented income inequality to explore behaviors like those. As Piff’s colleague Michael Kraus explains in a forthcoming article co-authored with Piff and three other scientists in Psychological Review, their focus is on “predictable social cognitive thought patterns and world views” of the people familiarly known as “the haves.” Their field is less than ten years old, and its conclusions are thus “incomplete,” says John Dovidio, a social psychologist at Yale. Money has a million symbolic meanings and reflects as many human yearnings; wanting it, getting it, having it, using it, and abusing it are entirely different impulses with entirely different effects on personality, behavior, and interpersonal relationships, and no single researcher has yet captured all of that nuance. But in a country that likes to think that class doesn’t matter, these social scientists are beginning to prove just how determinative money is.
This research is not intended to prosecute the one percent, those families with an average net worth of $14 million. Nor does it attempt to apply its conclusions about the selfishness and solipsism of a broad social stratum to every member within it: Gateses and Carnegies have obviously saved lives and edified generations, and one of the biggest predictors of a person’s inclination to donate to charity is how much money he has. But when the top fifth of American families have seen their incomes rise by 45 percent since 1979, whereas the bottom fifth has seen a decline of almost 11 percent, these researchers want to explore a timely question: How does living in an environment defined by individual achievement—measured by money, privilege, and status—alter a person’s mental machinery to the point where he begins to see the people around him only as aids or obstacles to his own ambitions? Piff won’t name a tipping point after which the personality transformation kicks in, only that his studies of ethical behavior indicate a strong correlation between high socioeconomic status and interpersonal disregard. It’s an “additive” effect; the fever line points straight up. “People higher up on the socioeconomic ladder are about three times more likely to cheat than people on the lower rungs,” he says. Piff’s research also suggests that people who yearn to be richer or more prominent make different choices than those more content with their present level of material comfort. No matter how much money you actually have, you’re likelier to behave unethically if you check the “agree” box next to the following statement: “In order to be a successful person in this society, it is important to make use of every opportunity.”
Unlike the discovery that the Earth is round or that lifesaving medicine can be made from mold, the results of this new field of inquiry hardly challenge human intuition. Philosophers and writers going back at least to Aristotle have had something to say about the potentially corrupting influence of wealth. Jesus warned that one might more easily push a camel through the eye of a needle than encounter a rich man in Heaven, and Dante designed the fourth ring of his Inferno for the greedy. Scrooge, Lily Bart, and Sherman McCoy are modernity’s Virgils, guides to the hell of living too much in money’s thrall. But science looks for solutions, and though affluence has been held up as a potential hazard to the soul, it has not in the United States been, empirically speaking, a problem. (The health and fortunes of the poor, by contrast, have been abundantly studied.) Rich people are thinner than poor people and have better cardiovascular health. They live longer. They’re better educated. They score higher on standardized tests. “They have more money,” as Ernest Hemingway was said to have quipped. Experiments over the past three years have shown that wealthier people suffer less from mood disorders than poorer people and that they have less cortisol in their saliva, a sign that they feel more impervious to threat.
But as the 2012 election approaches—an election framed more than most as a referendum on how much prosperity should be shared—those on opposite sides of the income spectrum appear not just different, but as alien tribes who have accidentally washed up on the same beach. The economic data are well known: The top 20 percent of Americans own about 87 percent of the wealth; the bottom 80 percent splits the rest. Social mobility, never as attainable as imagined, is stagnant. Forty percent of Americans inhabit the same social class as their grandparents, making the United States less socially mobile than Japan or France.
Political divisions mirror the economic chasm. The solution to America’s $15 trillion debt is either “cut spending” or “raise taxes,” a polarity of world views that has led social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt to seek out the roots of those moral prejudices. When Mitt Romney, one of the richest men ever to run for president, fails to convincingly relish his “cheesy grits,” it is taken by critics as evidence that he is too out of touch to steward the economy to all citizens’ benefit—just as the fortune he amassed in private equity is proof to his supporters of his acumen as a leader of men.
Americans across the board can have a high tolerance for inequality if they believe it is meritocratic. The research by Piff and his colleagues points to a different possible explanation for the income gap: that it may be at least in part psychologically destined. This in turn raises the ancient conundrum of chicken and egg. If getting or having money can make you hard-hearted, do you also have to be hard-hearted to become well-off in the first place? The bulk of the new research points decisively in the direction of the former, says Kraus, who now works at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. “Just the idea of holding money can make people selfish.” Data on the temperament factor lag far behind, partly because temperament is an even more slippery variable than money when it comes to designing a sound study. “It has something to do with how you grew up; it has something to do with your genes too. It has something to with the behaviors that lead you to get raises,” Kraus says. (It also has something to do with social status. The biggest predictor of personal prosperity is your parents’ income level, and only 16 percent of people in the lowest income bracket move to the middle or above in ten years, according to the Economic Policy Institute.)
T. Byram Karasu, a psychiatrist at Albert Einstein/Montefiore Medical Center who treats wealthy clients, believes all very successful people share certain fundamental character traits. They have above-average intelligence, street smarts, and a high tolerance for anxiety. “They are sexual and aggressive,” he says. “They are also competitive with anyone and have no fear of confrontations; in fact, they thrive on them. And in contrast to their image, they are not extroverted. They become charmingly engaging when needed, but in their private world, they are private people.” They are, in the parlance, all business.
Earlier this year, researchers led by Timothy Judge at Notre Dame went some way toward proving Karasu’s observation when they published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychologytitled “Do Nice Guys—And Gals—Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income.” The paper explored, in part, the financial penalties that women suffer in the workplace for being perceived as pushovers. But it also found a strong correlation, especially dramatic in men, between disagreeableness and income. Subjects were asked to assess whether they had a forgiving nature or found fault with others, whether they were trusting, cold, considerate, or cooperative. Then they were given an agreeableness score. Men with the lowest agreeableness earned $42,113 in a given year; those with the highest agreeableness earned $31,259. Disagreeableness was also correlated to job responsibility and recommendations for the management track. This seeming correlation between money and insensitivity perpetuates itself, says Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. “You’re reminded of money, and you act like a jerk. People don’t like you, and you’re reminded of money more.”
Piff’s most notorious research seemed to demonstrate the extent to which people with money behave as if the world revolves around them. Last year, he spent three months hanging out at the intersection of Interstate 80 and Lincoln Highway, near the Berkeley Marina. It’s a gritty, busy corner with a four-way stop that might be anywhere, if “anywhere” were in Northern California. On the brilliant day that I visited this spring, purple wildflowers were clustered along the highway’s shoulder, and a bike path meandered through them. Piff and his research team would stake out the intersection at rush hour, crouching behind a bank of shrubs near the Sea Breeze Market and Deli, and catalogue the cars that came by, giving each vehicle a grade from one to five. (Five would be a new-model Mercedes, say, and one would be an old, battered Honda like the one Piff drives.) Then the researchers would observe the drivers’ behavior. A third of people who drove grade-five cars, Piff found, rolled into the intersection without first coming to a complete stop—a violation, he reminds readers in his PNAS study, of the California Vehicle Code. “Upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex, and amount of traffic.” When Piff designed a similar experiment to test drivers’ regard for pedestrians, in which a researcher would enter a zebra crossing as a car approached it, the results were more staggering. Like New Yorkers rushing past that stroller mom on their way to work, fully half the grade-five cars cruised right into the crosswalk. “It’s like they didn’t even see them,” Piff told me.
Two thousand miles away, in her lab at the University of Minnesota, Vohs does experiments indicating that merely thinking about money can decrease empathy. Vohs is a 38-year-old psychologist who was inspired to study the effects of money on social behavior nine years ago, when she left a junior faculty position where she was making $32,000 a year, and started working at a Canadian business school, where she earned five times that much. Suddenly she was no longer asking her friends for rides to the airport. She hired a personal shopper. “I was becoming more independent and less interdependent,” she says. This led her to the next thought: “We need to understand at a theoretical level what happens to people’s minds in the context of wealth.”
In experiments she published in the journal Science in 2006, Vohs “primed” her subjects to think about money, which is to say she planted the idea of money in their minds without their knowledge before observing their social interactions compared with a control group. In one case, she asked participants to wait alone in a room at a big table, which happened to be strewn with gold, green, and burnt-orange Monopoly bills. After ten minutes, she’d get the subject, take him to a different room, and ask him to fill out piles of questionnaires seeking detailed psychological information. The point was to muddle the subject’s mind: He knew he was participating in an experiment but had no idea what he was being tested for.
Vohs got her result only after the subject believed the session was over. Heading for the door, he would bump into a person whose arms were piled precariously high with books and office supplies. That person (who worked for Vohs) would drop 27 tiny yellow pencils, like those you get at a mini-golf course. Every subject in the study bent down to pick up the mess. But the money-primed subjects picked up 15 percent fewer pencils than the control group. In a conversation in her office in May, Vohs stressed that money-priming did not make her subjects malicious—just disinterested. “It’s not a bad analogy to think of them as a little autistic,” she said. “I don’t think they mean any harm, but picking up pencils just isn’t their problem.”
Over and over, Vohs has found that money can make people antisocial. She primes subjects by seating them near a screen-saver showing currency floating like fish in a tank or asking them to descramble sentences, some of which include words like bill, check, or cash. Then she tests their sensitivity to other people. In her Science article, Vohs showed that money-primed subjects gave less time to a colleague in need of assistance and less money to a hypothetical charity. When asked to pull up a chair so a stranger might join a meeting, money-primed subjects placed the chair at a greater distance from themselves than those in a control group. When asked how they’d prefer to spend their leisure time, money-primed people chose a personal cooking lesson over a catered group dinner. Given a choice between working collaboratively or alone, they opted to go solo. Vohs even found that money-primed people described feeling less emotional and physical pain: They can keep their hand under burning-hot water longer and feel less emotional distress when excluded from a ball-tossing game. “Money,” says Vohs, “brings you into functionality mode. When that gets applied to other people, things get mucked up. You can get things done, but it does come at the expense of people’s feelings or caring about them as individuals.”
Critics of Vohs’s work complain that her priming technique confuses more than it clarifies, for how is one to know whether it replicates a real-life mental state of needing money, getting it, or having it? Vohs counters that she measures her subjects for anxiety and usually finds none. Therefore she isn’t creating a condition of stress—of need—but of something more like material comfort. I know a man who made a lot of money very quickly who might agree with Vohs’s findings. Wealth is “very isolating,” he says. You work like a dog to make the best widgets, and when you look up, 20 or 30 years later, you’ve succeeded. But your high-school buddies can’t relate to you anymore and you’ve lost touch with your wife. “You’re dealing with your problems. You’re sitting in your class,” he says. “It’s hard to know the problems of the other.”
Public-health research has long shown that poverty can have devastating effects on the brain. At 3 years old, poor kids have vocabularies that are three times smaller than their better-off peers. Their memories do not work as well. In poor children, executive function is not as developed as it is in more affluent children, which means they have a harder time sorting and organizing information, planning ahead, and coping in the event of changed circumstances. Research by Robert Knight at Berkeley has shown that kids raised in a poor neighborhood are more likely to have frontal lobes—the area in the brain that enables attention and focus—that appear damaged. A psychologist at Oregon’s Willamette University has discovered that when very young children are given headphones that play two different stories simultaneously, one in each ear, and are told to reiterate the story heard in the right ear, affluent and poor children perform equally well. But EEGs taken of the poor kids show that they have a harder time filtering out the extraneous stimulus.
The corollaries to this poverty work are potentially explosive: Wealth may give you a better brain. It may make you a more strategic thinker, a savvier planner. (Research has shown that the more a person is able to imagine himself in the future, the more cash he is likely to have in his savings account.) And the cognitive benefits of affluence may accrue incrementally, speculates Dovidio, so that very rich people have better brain functioning than moderately rich people. These hypotheses are at the untested frontier of the new science: “I think in ten years we’ll have a compelling story on this,” says Dacher Keltner, the psychologist who oversees the work of Piff and his colleagues. But already the outline is becoming clear. Princeton University psychologist Eldar Shafir has shown that in environments of abundance, people make better financial decisions—it’s not that rich people tend to be better educated and can afford better advice, but that people living paycheck to paycheck don’t have the mental space to make the smartest long-term moves. The efficiencies of the affluent brain may trigger the shutting down of what the researchers call “pro-social” impulses and lead people toward the kinds of behaviors that a hedge-fund manager I spoke to characterized as “ruthless.” “They’re more willing to hurt others in their quest for money,” he said. “When you look at people who’ve done exceptionally well, it tends to be the difficult people.”
Last fall, another of Keltner’s students, a 27-year-old named Jennifer Stellar, made headlines. She tested the correlation between social class and compassion, using physiology, not behavior, as her measure. First, Stellar asked 65 Berkeley undergraduates to fill out questionnaires describing their family education and income levels. Then she hooked up each subject to a heart-rate monitor and showed him a pair of short videos: an instructional clip about how to build a backyard deck (this was the control) and an advertisement for St. Jude’s hospital, a facility that specializes in treating children with cancer. The ad shows young kids with chemotherapy-bald heads submitting to medical tests as if they were everyday occurrences, while their devastated parents try to be brave. It is, in nontechnical terms, a tearjerker.
In postscreening interviews, all the subjects said they found the St. Jude’s video moving. But compassion can also be empirically measured, because it manifests in facial expressions and a slowing of the heart rate. Looking at the data from the heart monitors, Stellar found a direct, negative correlation in biological terms between class and compassion. “Lower-class individuals showed greater heart-rate deceleration in response to the suffering of others,” Stellar wrote. The heart rates of the upper-class subjects generally did not change. When I met her, Stellar was careful, like Vohs, to stress that this upper-class numbness was not intentional. “It’s not, ‘I can see you’re suffering. I can tell. But I don’t care,’ ” she explains. “They’re just not attuned to it.”
The aforementioned research seems to show that getting money and having money makes people selfish and antisocial. But it also appears to be true that selfish, antisocial people are the ones that ascend. And that is, in part, because rich or striving people tend to pass on their values and priorities to their children, as all parents do. Members of the lower and upper classes usually date and marry within their own ranks and “live in neighborhoods and attend schools and work with individuals who share similar levels of educational training and income,” write Kraus and his co-authors in their forthcoming article. And so the values of each group become both more and more clearly entrenched and incomprehensible to the other. “Parents in working-class contexts are relatively more likely to stress to their children that ‘It’s not just about you’ and to emphasize that although it is important to be strong and to stand up for oneself, it is also essential to be aware of the needs of others and to adhere to socially accepted rules and standards for behavior,” wrote a team led by Nicole Stephens, with Stanford University psychologist Hazel Markus, in 2007 in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Parents with higher incomes “more often tell their children that ‘It’s your world’ and emphasize the value of promoting oneself and developing one’s own interests.” The cries of “Go get ’em!” you hear in the playgrounds and on the baseball diamonds of America’s best neighborhoods reflect not just concern for children’s self-esteem but a worldview that emphasizes looking out for No. 1.
This is Markus’s main research interest: the mind-sets of class. She and her colleagues have found, broadly speaking, that the affluent value individuality—uniqueness, differentiation, achievement—whereas people lower down on the ladder tend to stress homogeneity, harmonious interpersonal relationships, and group affiliation. In 2005, Markus co-authored a paper that showed those with only a high-school education like country music for its message of group coherence, while those with college educations like indie music because it emphasizes personal uniqueness. In her 2007 paper, Stephens found this same variance in self-image by testing people’s preferences in ballpoint pens. She divided her subjects into two groups of lower and higher incomes and showed each subject five pens and asked him to choose one. The pens were identical and were widely considered to be good, even desirable. The only difference among them was their color. Three pens in the handful would be one color (say, green); two would be another (orange). In the test, lower-class people overwhelmingly chose the green pens, whereas higher-class people picked the less common color. Lower-class people wanted to be the same as their peers, whereas better-off subjects showed, Stephens wrote, “a preference for uniqueness and individuation.”
In another experiment, Stephens presented firefighters and MBA students with the following hypothetical situation: “You just bought a new car, and then you find that your friend has purchased the exact same car. How do you feel?” The firefighters were overwhelmingly pleased and said things like, “Fantastic. He gets a great car.” The MBA students were negative or ambivalent. “I would feel slightly irritated,” one said. “It spoils my differentiation,” said another. (Madison Avenue discovered and manipulated this bifurcation in the American self-image long ago: When it sells trucks, the ads might show a parking lot full, pulled up at a multigenerational picnic, with slogans like “Take Family Time Further.” When it sells sports cars, the commercials show a car zooming down the highway alone. The slogan for the BMW M3 even nods in the direction of Piff’s discovery about the drivers of high-end cars and traffic rules: “Street Legal. Pretty Much.”)
The American Dream is really two dreams. There’s the Horatio Alger myth, in which a person with grit, ingenuity, and hard work succeeds and prospers. And there’s the firehouse dinner, the Fourth of July picnic, the common green, in which everyone gives a little so the group can get a lot. Markus’s work seems to suggest the emergence of a dream apartheid, wherein the upper class continues to chase a vision of personal success and everyone else lingers at a potluck complaining that the system is broken. (Research shows that the rich tend to blame individuals for their own failure and likewise credit themselves for their own success, whereas those in the lower classes find explanations for inequality in circumstances and events outside their control.) But the truth is much more nuanced. Every American, rich and poor, bounces back and forth between these two ideals of self, calibrating ambitions and adjusting behaviors accordingly. Nearly half of Americans between 18 and 29 believe that it’s “likely” they’ll get rich, according to Gallup—in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Those who have already gotten wealthy wrestle openly and with real anguish over how to raise children who are productive, community-minded, and hardworking. Jamie Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, made a documentary in 2003 called Born Rich and, since then, has become a kind of confessor to the anxious wealthy. “Everyone says, ‘I don’t want my kids to turn out to be the next Paris Hilton,’ ” says Johnson, “It’s weird. You know they want their kids to be superior. They want their kids’ lives to reflect the wealth and the position they have in society. But they don’t want their kids to be elitist and arrogant.”
Across the income and class spectrum, people confront these competing impulses day to day and even minute by minute. A friend of mine feels the conflict each time he’s heading home to downtown Manhattan after a weekend away. He’s an environmentally conscious, left-leaning thirtysomething who drives a 2008 diesel Volkswagen. (That’s a three on the Piff scale.) When he confronts the inevitable, mile-long backup on the FDR, near the exit by the Brooklyn Bridge, his first instinct, supported by his conscientious values learned over long years by parents who preached the Golden Rule, is to wait in line. He believes in traffic rules and in waiting one’s turn. He supports all the small, civic formalities that help to hold the community’s interest and general order over the chaos of every man for himself. But sometimes, he admits, he can’t help himself. “I think, What the hell? And I cut the line.”
At the funeral of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in August 2009, Boston’s Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley pulled President Obama aside for a quiet word. It was a sign of things to come: the first failure of the president to understand the moral dimensions of his health-care proposal.
The bill that has become known by its opponents as “Obamacare” had not yet been passed into law, but O’Malley said the American bishops were eager to support it. There was just one teeny problem. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would be unwilling to throw its weight behind anything that would make abortions easier to get, a hint of the war the bishops would soon wage over the place of abortion and contraception coverage in the new law.
“Listening patiently, Obama had no idea how actively the Church was about to flex its muscles,” my former Newsweek colleague Jonathan Alter writes in his book “The Promise.”
Now the Supreme Court has upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, including the individual mandate that requires every American to purchase insurance, but the furious popular and religious antipathy against the law continues. Its opponents’ main argument boils down to this: You can’t make me.
Obama has long personally believed that health-care reform was a moral imperative. He campaigned on the issue. His close friendship with Sen. Kennedy — for whom health care was the mission of a lifetime — heightened his commitment. The president pushed the issue in the summer of 2009 despite the political counsel of his closest advisers. As he said in his speech this week, Obama didn’t promote health-care reform because it was “good politics.” He did it because it was the right thing to do.
This week’s high court decision represents a political and personal win. But on the level of stating unifying moral principles for the country, of conveying his deep feeling about our responsibility to care for the least of these, which knows no party, the president has failed.
He has failed to create alliances with conservative religious leaders on health care, and he has failed to convince Americans that the uninsured deserve the protection of the government. (More than half of Americans still believe the law should be repealed.) As the O’Malley anecdote shows, Obama may have listened to his principled foes in the religious sphere — certainly he knew they were out there — but he did not hear them. Among conservative Christian believers, the president “failed to create a climate of confidence that would enable him to see this through,” says David Neff, the editor of Christianity Today.
The Supreme Court win won’t dampen conservative opposition. It will amplify it. Conservative religious groups will continue to cry that their liberties are being trampled, Last week, the evangelical Alliance Defense Fund called the Obama Administration a “dictator of conscience.” The bishops will continue their Fortnight for Freedom campaign through next week, and two dozen lawsuits, mostly by Catholic groups, are pending against the administration.
Obama might have deflected some of this assault by having deep and careful conversations with religious opponents, many of whom would have been inclined to support it, ahead of the public debate over the health-care bill.
Part of the problem, says a person who works as an informal adviser to the administration, is that although Obama maintains a faith-based office, most of his top advisors do not take the concerns of religious believers seriously. “The president does not have a lot of people around him that understand religious institutions,” he says. Referring to the work of the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, this person characterizes the president’s staff as instinctively liberal, prioritizing values such as equality and fairness above more conservative values of tradition, group affiliation, or sanctity. What if the president had used words like these to sell his health plan? Might he have triggered the same kind of rage?
The president’s “secular ‘all or nothing’ strategy failed in engaging a natural constituency,” says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “Wherever the president frames the moral imperative, he stands poised to attract support across the political spectrum.”
Of course, the president is loathed by the folks in Washington formerly known as the religious right. And he is pro-choice, a line he will not cross. In those very real circumstances, the president might only have made so much headway. But it would have been worth it to try, the White House insider says. “As hard as these guys are on the right, they would still tell anybody what they think, and what to be careful of,” he says. They might have helped him strategize.
In an election season, it’s a president’s job not just to win, but to rise above. He might start by calling on Americans’ consciences. As he has on immigration, he might find a moderate or conservative religious leader to remind voters that they shalt not put self-interest above the suffering of their neighbors.
Americans believe there’s too much religion talk in the public sphere, and these days, it’s especially easy to be cynical. Scratch the surface of any passionately held faith-based position between April and November of an election year, and find a political agenda. That’s because issues like gay marriage and religious liberty motivate voters in the right and left base who might otherwise be lackadaisical or unmoved by their choice of candidates.
Too often politically motivated religious leaders say “souls” when they really mean “votes.”
What is one to make, then, of the “Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform,” a document signed last week by 150 prominent evangelical Christian leaders from across the conservative-liberal spectrum?
Often, these “bipartisan” religious efforts lack heft. They either take a position that no one can argue with — “civility,” for instance — or their self-proclaimed diversity looks to outsiders like homogeneity. Moderates from both parties can always find reasons to agree.
This statement, though, is a document of exceptional accord among groups that rarely find themselves on the same side of anything. The signatories are calling for comprehensive immigration reform that respects human dignity and the rule of law, protects family unity, is fair to taxpayers, and ensures both secure borders and a path to citizenship. Jim Wallis, founder of the left-leaning evangelical group Sojourners, signed it, of course. But so did Jim Daly, president of the socially conservative group Focus on the Family, as did the heads of many of the country’s most conservative Christian denominations: the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention and various Nazarene churches.
“I signed on to this statement because immigration reform is more than an ‘issue’ to families,” Daly said last week. “It profoundly affects their stability, structure and quality of life.
With their signatures, the aforementioned folks – most of whom are white – stand in direct opposition to the politicians who usually represent their interests in Congress. Many of those were elected in a wave of tea party fervor in 2010, when anti-immigrant sentiment was at a height.
The Statement of Principles, in other words, creates a fault line among white conservatives over immigration. “Individual legislators are going to have to decide whether they cater to the tea party, non-faith, non-evangelical activist and ignore the evangelical base or whether they’re going to compromise,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who helped broker the agreement.
The question is why? Why would white evangelicals, historically so coherent a voting bloc, splinter in this way?
A big part of the answer, in the bluntest terms, is religious market share. Hispanics go to church; non-Hispanic white people increasingly don’t. When Spanish-speaking immigrants arrive in America, they are, for the most part, Catholic. But in the second and third generations, as they prosper, they are drawn to evangelicalism. According to a 2007 Pew report, 15 percent of all Hispanics in the United States are evangelical, and among native-born Hispanics, the number is as high as 30 percent. White evangelicals, concerned about their institutional future in a country where religious affiliation is declining, see that Hispanics are sitting in their pews, taking communion and worrying about their families’ safety as anti-immigration laws like Arizona’s go into effect. (The Roman Catholic bishops also call for comprehensive immigration reform, but notice that in this case, Catholics and Evangelicals did not work together as they so often do on abortion and other social issues. That’s because competition for Hispanic souls in America is so fierce. “We call it strategic recruitment,” Rodriguez said.)
Rodriguez convinced Focus on the Family to sign the letter only after many years of meetings, he says. When he traveled to Colorado Springs to speak to the leadership there, “I spoke about the need. I talked about the possibility of deporting the very salvation of the evangelical community in the 21st century.”
Rodriguez didn’t talk about leftist priorities, like social justice. He spoke about religious self-interest. “We’re talking about the future of American Christianity.”
But make no mistake. On this issue, as on so many others, the fight for souls is also a fight for votes. But unlike abortion and gay marriage, this one is subtler.
Will Romney, who took a hard anti-immigrant stance in the primary, be able to convince Hispanics that he cares about them as much as Obama does? (He tried to Thursday — in a speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials — by appealing to their pocketbooks.)
The nation’s evangelicals are pointing the way: As America evolves into a majority-non-white country, Hispanic voters are becoming as important to electing a president as they are to filling American church pews.
It surprises me a little that the men who run things at the Vatican did not use their most favorite recent pejorative – “feminist” — when they rapped the knuckles of Margaret Farley, a nun who has long been a professor at Yale, for having written a book about sex and love that condones masturbation (and as of Thursday morning was in Amazon’s top 20). In a million other ways, it doesn’t uphold their view of Christian sexual morality.
Because, unlike the other nuns the Vatican has been reprimanding recently, Sister Farley is, in fact, a feminist. An ethicist who has worked on the problem of HIV/AIDS, Farley was commended in 2005 by her Yale colleagues for her contributions to feminist theory.
Members of the Vatican hierarchy are using the word “feminist” and even “radical feminist” the way third-graders use the word “cooties.” In April, the Vatican accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 57,000 nuns nationwide, of allowing “radical feminist” ideas to flow unchecked in their communities. In 2008, after launching an investigation against American nuns (the results of which have not yet been released), Cardinal Franc Rode told a radio interviewer that the nuns are suspected of “certain irregularities,” a “secular mentality” and “perhaps also a certain feminist spirit.”
The authors of these rebukes never define “feminism” or “radicalism.” In their hands, these words, which can carry legitimate intellectual meanings, appear to signify something like: “Yucky women who fail to heed our instructions and, anyway, don’t meet our standards of womanhood.” In other words, the sisters aren’t behaving as girls should.
Their casual use of these terms convinces me that the cardinals, in their vast experience, have never actually met a radical feminist theologian. Such creatures do exist, although American religious orders are hardly their breeding ground. What the Vatican hierarchy sees as a “radical feminist” is a woman who dares to believe that she’s equal to a man.
“Even large sectors of the church itself have legitimate concern and want to continue to talk about the place of women in the church, and rightful equality between men and women,” Sister Pat Farrell, a member of the LCWR, told the New York Times last week. “So if that is called radical feminism, then a lot of men and women in the church, far beyond us, are guilty of that.”
Lisa Isherwood is a real-life radical feminist theologian. She is editor of the journal Feminist Theology and a professor at Winchester University in England. She believes that the men at the Vatican are using the term “radical feminist” as a right-wing scare tactic, for it evokes other enemies far more dangerous than nuns. Their thinking, she says, goes like this: “We hear the word radical Islam, and everyone panics, so let’s chuck that at them.”
The mother of radical feminist theology was the late Mary Daly, who started life as a committed Roman Catholic and spent most of her career teaching at Boston College, a Catholic institution.
She was driven to criticize her beloved church after she sat in on sessions of the Second Vatican Council in Rome and felt that women had no meaningful part in the proceedings. She was, she wrote later, appalled by “the contrast between the arrogant bearing and colorful attire of the ‘princes of the church,’ ” she wrote later, “and the humble, self-deprecating manner and somber clothing of the very few women. . . . Watching the veiled nuns shuffle to the altar rail to receive Holy Communion from the hands of a priest was like observing a string of lowly ants at some bizarre picnic.”
In her breakthrough 1974 book, “Beyond God the Father,” Daly wrote, “If God is male, then the male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination.” Now that’s a radical feminist for you. Daly’s work gave voice to generations of feminist scholars.
Isherwood, for one, wears the labels “feminist” and “radical” with pride. She is a Catholic — “in as far as anyone’s trying to hang in there” – she says.
She deeply loves her church and believes that at its core, Roman Catholicism has a radical feminist message. “The church should be radical. It should be saying, ‘More inclusion, more equality.’ An abundance of life is a fundamental Catholic value. The idea of ordination of women and so on is just one very small, very significant point. Radical feminism would want the church to be more proactive in terms of working for a life of abundance for the marginalized.”
Now that’s a threatening idea.
Sikhs don’t make much religion news. They don’t go on TV announcing their intention to burn Korans; they don’t loudly forecast apocalypse; and they have not had to defend their faith as one of them races to be president of the United States. But the Sikh community caught my attention recently with the announcement of its FlyRight app, which, when installed on a smartphone, allows Sikhs to advise one another about airport security staff members who may be predisposed to harass or detain fellow Sikhs. FlyRight advertises itself as a “personal empowerment app.”
Information technology means the end of organized religion — or, at least, that’s what the opinion-makers say. The existence of Google, argued the atheist Hemant Mehta on the Web site of this newspaper, “is a death knell for religion as we know it,” because it enables people to instantly discover verifiable truths about the universe (evolution, the sex lives of clergy). In a pre-Internet world, they could have been kept in the dark. Last month, 40,000 Orthodox Jews met in a New York baseball stadium to bemoan the erosion of values in their communities thanks to the Internet. “It brings out the worst in us!” a spokesman for the event told reporters.
I would argue that the opposite is true. Technology can greatly enhance religious practice. Groups that restrict and fear it participate in their own demise.
Take the Sikh app, for instance. It’s cool on a practical level. It distributes pertinent information to a specific group in need of that information. But it also has perhaps unintended spiritual and religious consequences. It encourages among users a broad sense of community and mutual support, which is what good religion does. It abets religious affiliation, promotes action in the face of injustice or oppression, and welcomes outsiders, or anyone who experiences discrimination at airports, to use the app and see themselves, in some way, as Sikhs.
All the best religion apps do this: They support religious practice rather than substituting for it. Michael McBride, an economist at the University of California at Irvine, teaches a freshman course called the Economics of Religion. Understanding that religion is always about people making choices, he asks students to research the coolest religion apps. He also showcases some of his favorites, including Insight Timer, which announces the start and end of Zen meditation sessions with the chiming of bells: “Crystal clear, with extra long fade-outs.”
“Most of these apps do not replace community groups,” he says. “But they do enhance them. Technology creates new opportunities, new choices. It changes the way that people can interact. It can change things.”
People with personal practice of faith know this better than the pundits. When I asked Twitter followers to tell me which religion apps they liked best, the point came home. One person said she liked Carry Your Faith, designed by a group within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which allows business travelers, busy people and shut-ins to “go” to Mass every morning at 9:30 (and if they can’t make it live, to see it rebroadcast throughout the day). Also very popular are digital versions of Scripture, which can be loaded onto an iPhone or Android phone and toted in a pocket or purse: Half a million people “like” the Bible app called Youversion in the Google store. For Muslims, there’s Quran Android and iQuran Pro.
Luddites insist that nothing can replace the human touch of a faith community: receiving communion, reading from the Torah and practicing yoga — these are physical, individual acts, but their meaning comes, in part, from being performed in the company of others. And this, of course, is true.
But Heidi Campbell, an associate professor of communications at Texas A&M University, points out that religious authorities have long wanted the faithful to behave in ways that they do not behave. To insist that new ways of relating are not good or Godly ones is backward looking. As Campbell argues in an article she published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion last year, social media are dramatically changing ideas of authority, hierarchy and community. When new generations bring their values to religion, religion will have to adapt.
“If you don’t pay attention to digital technology, you’re going to be out of touch with the assumptions and values of your synagogue or church, which is more than just not having a Web site,” she told me. If religious groups don’t embrace and encourage the practice of faith online, the faithful might go shopping instead.
People always ask, “What would Jesus do?,” but in America today, it’s impossible to know. And that’s because there are (at least) two prevailing views of God at work in our public and political conversation. It would not be an exaggeration to say that when you pull the lever this November, you will not just be voting for president. You will be saying what you believe about God.
Do you believe in a God who protects the individual’s freedoms against the encroachments of the state? Who answers personal prayers and who intervenes, as he did for Paul on the Road to Damascus, to make believers out of skeptics and heretics? This God rewards his favorite sons and daughters with prosperity, and he bestows blessings, to paraphrase the aphorism, on those who help themselves.
Or do you believe in a God whose first priority is to care for the weak and the helpless, who teaches people to do unto others as they would have others do unto them? This is the collectivist God of the Hebrew Bible, who sees humanity organized into tribes and families of “brothers and sisters” who must work together to discern and follow his will.
With their rhetoric, Mitt Romney and President Obama are forcing voters to consider this choice. And as Occupy movement activists prepare to protest income inequality, among other issues, at the Group of 8 summit in Camp David, Md., and the NATO gathering in Chicago this weekend, the dilemma is far from academic.
Romney stands for the individualistic version of American success; Obama for the collectivist. “It’s the classic American dilemma — it’s liberty versus community — and it’s always there,” says my friend, the Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero, who in 2004 published a book called “American Jesus.”
In his speech last weekend at Liberty University, Romney pushed all the right buttons, hoping to inspire evangelical Christians, who believe that faith is about a personal encounter with Jesus, to vote for him. “Someone once observed that the great drama of Christianity is not a crowd shot, following the movements of collectives or even nations. The drama is always personal, individual, unfolding in one’s own life. We’re not alone in sensing this. Men and women of every faith, and good people with none at all, sincerely strive to do right and lead a purpose-driven life.”
Romney’s religious values, he says, are rooted in his belief that God gave individual Americans the ability to conquer and withstand difficulty. What’s implied here is that the state doesn’t need to impose higher taxes on the wealthy or to curb executive pay to ameliorate the effects of the economic crisis. With hard work, personal responsibility, “devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the preeminence of the family,” Americans will prevail.
Obama is saying something else entirely. Over and over, in every recent speech, he reminds Americans that we’re all in this together, that everyone must make sacrifices — including tax hikes for the rich — and that the failure of one means the failure of all. He said it most distinctly when he expressed approval of gay marriage: at the heart of his decision, he said, was “the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.”
And when he appeared this week on “The View,” Obama described a shared destiny for all Americans. “What’s going to determine the election is the economy and whether everybody — gay, straight, black, white, Hispanic, Latino, Native American, disabled, you name it — whether people feel as if America continues to be this extraordinary land of opportunity.” And he said it especially strongly when he gave the commencement address at Barnard College. “We know that our challenges are eminently solvable,” he said. “The question is whether together, we can muster the will — in our own lives, in our common institutions, in our politics — to bring about the changes we need.”
The earliest Christians weren’t thinking much about retirement savings or college bills, their personal happiness or the cost of filling their gas tank. But they may have been torn between their identity as “we,” that of Jesus and the Hebrew Bible and their identity of “I,” that of Paul and the Greeks. Fast-forward 2,000 years and the dilemma is the same. Romney is promoting the God of “I”: individual accomplishment and personal success. Obama is promoting the God of “we,” in which the fates of all are intertwined.
Cornel West is a self-proclaimed prophet who believes in the virtues of love and justice. But in his own life, he can’t seem to find either.
In November 2007, Cornel West got onstage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and before a hollering crowd of more than a thousand people, with much arm-waving and wrist-flapping, along with a certain amount of ass-wagging, introduced his candidate for president of the United States—“my brother, my companion, and my comrade”—Barack Obama. “He’s an eloquent brother,” preached West. “He’s a good brother, he’s a decent brother.” Obama returned the sloppy kiss and pronounced West “an oracle.”
That compliment could not have been more apt, for West regards himself as a prophet more than a professor. He believes that he is called to teach God’s justice to a heedless nation. “There is a price to pay for speaking the truth,” reads the signature on e-mails coming from West’s office. “There is a bigger price for living a lie.” So when his view of the commander-in-chief changed from adoration to disappointment, West was moved to proclaim it out loud. He had already been lobbing rhetorical grenades in the direction of the Oval Office, calling the president “spineless” for his failure to make poor and working people a policy priority and “milquetoast” for kowtowing to corporate interests during the economic crisis. But in an interview with Truthdig, published last May, West went nuclear. He called Obama “the black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.” And then he said he wanted to “slap him,” as the article put it, “on the side of his head.”
In the white world of mainstream media, the interview made a few headlines. But in precincts of the left, and among certain African-American scholars, it unleashed a tide of anguish. West has been an intellectual celebrity for three decades, protected and cherished by his like-minded comrades, but the nasty tone of his Truthdig comments caused many of his closest colleagues to question their devotion, to suspect his motives, and to wonder whether West’s prominence had finally exceeded his merit. Their concerns were in part pragmatic: As the 2012 election approached, some thought West might make his case better if he weren’t quite so mean.
“When you say you want to slap the president upside the head, black people don’t cotton too easily to that,” says Michael Eric Dyson, who is a sociologist at Georgetown University and considers West a mentor (they studied together at Princeton). “Black people hear echoes of the assault on the body. Lynching. Castration.” The word slap, he says, “that’s violence.” Dyson says he has privately tried—and failed—to urge West toward a more moderate discourse.
The first time I traveled to Princeton University to meet with West, I heard him before I saw him; his familiar, gravelly, elongated vowels—“Definite-leeee”—reached me as I waited by his office door. Once inside, I offered the argument I’d heard: that his assault on the president hurts poor and working people more than it helps them. By seeding the left with dissatisfaction, West risks suppressing that vote and jeopardizing the outcome of November’s election. Whatever his failings, this reasoning goes, Obama is bound to represent poor people better than Mitt Romney would.
West considered the objection for the smallest fraction of a second before casting it, witheringly, aside. What, he asked me, leaning across his desk and jabbing his long fingers downward, if the Jews had asked Amos to tone it down a notch? “ ‘Well, Amos,’ ” West imagines the residents of the Kingdom of Judah, circa 750 B.C., saying in a sort of whiny white-person voice, “Don’t talk about justice within the Jewish context, because that’s going to make Jewish people look bad.’
“Amos [would] say, ‘What?’ ” West thundered. “ ‘Kiss my Jewish behind. My calling is to say, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ ”
He leaned back, satisfied.
West has said that his Christian beliefs form the most fundamental part of who he is. Earlier, I asked him which of Jesus’ disciples he most emulates. “Disciples?” he responded in a soft voice. “None of them, really. Nah. ’Cause I want to be like Jesus, I don’t want to be like those disciples.”
This summer, West will leave Princeton, where he’s happily worked for a decade, to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. By conventional standards, this is a nutty career move. Princeton, with an endowment of $17 billion, trains the future’s titans in the rigors of rational thought. Union, whose financial health is not nearly so robust, trains future ministers to apply the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a broken world. But in 1977, West, who was then working on his philosophy Ph.D. at Princeton, started teaching at Union, and it was there that he first found himself, at 24, surrounded and supported by a cohort of black, Christian intellectuals who hoped, as he did, to change the world. West produced his most important work—Prophesy Deliverance!—at Union. It was a battle cry, an argument for including the literature and art, the joy and the suffering, of American blacks in the Western canon alongside Plato and Dante and Chekhov.
“Oh, it’s time to go home,” said West, explaining his move. “It’s about that time in your life where you begin to assess, what do you want the last stage to be in terms of your work and your witness. I have lived the most blessed of lives in the academy. Eight years at Union, three years when I first tenured at Yale, six years at Princeton, eight years at Harvard, back to Princeton ten years. It’s time to end that last stage where I started. Union is the institutional expression of my own prophetic Christian identity, and that identity is deeper than any identity I have.”
What West doesn’t say is that for the past decade, he has been wandering in an emotional and spiritual wilderness. At 58 years old, he has let old wounds fester. He nurses a personal beef with Obama, and he still smarts from the bruises inflicted upon his ego in a 2001 fracas with Larry Summers, in which the then-president of Harvard University queried West’s scholarly bona fides in public and West departed Cambridge in a red-hot rage for his second stint at Princeton. (“[Summers] needed to be the president of Harvard the way I need to be the president of the NHL,” he told me.) West is also a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed and treated for late-stage prostate disease just as the Summers debacle was unfolding. He is thrice-divorced and still pays alimony to his last ex-wife.
In addition, West supports a young daughter named Zeytun, who lives in Germany. Zeytun was born in 2000, the result of a “love relationship,” as he calls it, with a Kurdish journalist who was at Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship. West visits Zeytun every six weeks, he says. He calls her every day, and keeps a lock of her hair, tied with a faded ribbon, in his wallet. (West also has a son from his first marriage and a 16-year-old grandson.)
West talks a lot about love, but he doesn’t have many close friends. Rabbi Michael Lerner, the founder of Tikkun magazine, worked with West on a book in 1995. “Cornel is a very lonely person,” he told Rolling Stone magazine several years ago. “For a long time, I thought I was his best friend … But he had probably about 1,000 best friends. He was best friends with everybody. That made him more isolated.” West’s inner circle consists of three people: his mother, Irene, who is 80 (his father is deceased); his older brother, Clifton; and the media entrepreneur Tavis Smiley, who is also his business manager and de facto publicist. Smiley talks to West almost every day; he publishes his books; he keeps in close touch with West’s mother. When West wore out his shoes on a trip to New Orleans, Smiley bought him a new pair of Cole Haans. “He is the older brother I never had, and I am the younger brother he never had,” says Smiley. “There is nothing I enjoy more than sitting at his feet, listening, and laughing on him because I love him so deeply.”
The friendship with Smiley has exponentially increased West’s visibility. West has always done more than 100 lectures a year and has long been a regular on cable news and Bill Maher’s show. Now he co-hosts a weekly public-radio show with Smiley, and over the past month the two men have been touring the country promoting their new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us, which they call a “poverty manifesto.” With Smiley’s help, West is flogging the book through his 350,000 Twitter followers. West, a technophobe, “doesn’t punch the button,” Smiley told me. “He quotes his tweets” to a graduate student Smiley knows at the University of Southern California, who posts them on the live feed. “But Doc says push the send button more than I do.”
People who have known West for decades believe the alliance with Smiley plays to West’s greatest flaw: his hunger for adulation. (In interviews, more than one person compared West to a precocious child, clamoring to be seen. “Look at me! Look at me!”) These friends hope the move to Union will help him get back to the purity of purpose that marked earlier phases of his career. West “needs to be part of a community, not part of a couple,” says one. “You can’t separate [Smiley and West]. There’s no public separation where one begins and one ends.”
An unofficial welcoming committee is already assembled at Union, waiting to embrace West when he returns home. His new boss, Union president Serene Jones, is a 52-year-old feminist theologian who was once West’s teaching assistant at Yale. James Cone, the eminent conceptualizer of black-liberation theology, was part of West’s original brotherhood and remains on the faculty there. “I love Cornel West. He is a major, major intellectual of our time,” he says. Cone hopes Union will have a rehabilitative effect. “Cornel tries to do too much,” he told me one morning in his sunny apartment in Morningside Heights. But as he expresses his wish, he sees how unlikely it is to come true. “He loves talking to people. He does love to be loved. I love it, too, but I have enough inner strength to be able to resist because I know God loves me.”
I asked West whether he believed Union would finally give him something like the quiet fulfillment his marital life has so far failed to provide. “Last month I did seventeen lectures,” he conceded. “That’s too much for a brother almost 60 years old. At the same time, if I’m able to touch a whole lot of lives and get them to rethink, organize, mobilize, is that better than sitting in the library and writing a magnum opus twelve years from now? That’s an open question. That’s an open question, it really is.”
West and Cone did a Q&A at a Princeton bookstore last winter, and afterward, they and a handful of friends and colleagues—including the journalist Chris Hedges, who wrote the Truthdig piece; Carl Dix, a local communist organizer; Brother Ali, an albino rapper; and a few professors—went to dinner. There, West was in his element. He had no one to provoke, and it was clear to see why some might compare West to Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B. DuBois, or even Mark Twain. The conversation started with an appreciation of the works of novelist James Baldwin. “At Baldwin’s funeral,” said West, “I sat next to Stokely Carmichael. He’s a hard brother, and he cried like a baby.” West regarded Baldwin in the light of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Amiri Baraka, and his friend Toni Morrison. Then the conversation took a turn, touching briefly on the works of the slavery historians David Brion Davis and Leon Litwack, and the civil-rights historian Howard Zinn, before resting for a time on Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, the definers of twentieth-century Christian theology—both of whom taught at Union. About the literary critic Harold Bloom, West pronounced, “He’s not always right, but he’s always got something to say,” and then he veered straight through Martin Heidegger to praise his lesser-known disciple, Hans-Georg Gadamer.
West was performing that night for an uncritical audience, but even so, it was hard not to appreciate his mind. He famously reads for two or three hours before bed, and he has astonishing recall. Even in casual conversation, he uses “every intellectual resource at hand,” says Obery Hendricks, who is now a visiting Bible scholar at Columbia University. In private-study sessions with West at Princeton, Hendricks remembers, “He was able to seamlessly incorporate black vernacular, black music, with the deepest Western philosophical thinkers. Once we were talking about jazz, and he extemporaneously wanted to talk about the similarities between bebop and a particular moment in the Italian renaissance. I thought, What kind of mind is this? I couldn’t believe it.” West’s protégés describe seeing themselves, under the tutelage of their mentor, not as intellectual piece workers, toiling in small antechambers, but as heirs to a great, broad tradition.
“There’s pre–Cornel West, and there’s post–Cornel West,” says Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion at Princeton. “I can tell you, generations of African-American intellectuals have been trained on the footnotes of Prophesy!”
In 1993, with Race Matters, West established himself beyond the academy. Race Matters was a collection of essays directed at a mainstream audience that chided America for having failed to offer anything like a prospect of success or fulfillment to its citizens of African descent. “We have created rootless, dangling people with little link to the supportive networks—family, friends, and school—that sustain some sense of purpose in life,” he wrote. “Postmodern culture is more and more a market culture dominated by gangster mentalities and self-destructive wantonness.” At the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani praised the volume for its “ferocious moral vision and astute intellect.” The next year, after a long courtship, Henry Louis Gates Jr. lured West away from Princeton to Harvard, where he was building a first-rate African-American-studies department. The hire was widely seen as a coup for Gates and for Harvard, and West became the forward of what Gates called his “dream team.” West, long a cult figure on campus, was famous.
Fame begat more fame. After Race Matters, West produced about a dozen books, half of them written with someone else. He appeared in two movies in The Matrix series; he made three hip-hop/spoken-word albums; he gained a reputation as “C-span Man”; and he worked on the political campaigns of Al Sharpton, Bill Bradley, and Ralph Nader. In 2004, he published Democracy Matters, which hit No. 11 on the Times’ best-seller list. As his popularity grew, so too did the number of critics calling West shallow and self-serving. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a sermon written in a hurry and delivered to the choir.”
In 2006, West fired his speaker’s bureau and put Smiley in charge. Smiley says his involvement in West’s career is for West’s own good, because West is too prone to donate his talents for free. “As his friend, I have to protect him and his earning potential,” says Smiley. “I am considerably younger than Dr. West, and at some point, someone’s got to take care of Zeytun, his daughter. I help him with his finances, my accountants are his accountants, my lawyers are his lawyers.” When West speaks in public, he now earns as much as $25,000, and his travel schedule is bruising. He’s on the road four days out of seven and boasts that in ten years at Princeton, he’s never spent a weekend at home. His last three books have been published by Smiley’s publishing house, and he got an assist on his 2009 memoir from Smiley’s ghost writer David Ritz.
West’s media exposure, together with his brutal attacks on the president and others, “has cumulatively led to the perception that he’s squandered his gift and his birthright,” says Dyson. “West has sadly exchanged the unsexy tedium of sustained scholarship to the siren call of public gestures.”
West shrugs off the criticism that he’s failed to live up to his intellectual promise. “As much as I love the life of the mind, I do not give primary status to intellect,” he told me. “I give much more to the centrality of love, and much more to where that love comes from—and that is family, faith, friends, and music. That is fundamentally who I am. Smartness is not some kind of value that I put a whole lot of weight on. There are smart Nazis and smart xenophobes and smart patriarchs and so forth.”
One of West’s most defining characteristics is a near-total lack of interest in his own psychological archaeology. “I’ve never taken the time to focus on the inner dynamics of the dark precincts of my soul. Like St. Augustine once said, I’m a mystery to myself,” West wrote in his autobiography, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. Even when pressed, he refuses to engage in self-analysis, protesting that 21st-century confessional narcissism isn’t his thing. The result is a distance, sometimes very wide, between what West says and what he does, without any anxiety from West himself that such inconsistency might diminish his credibility. He preaches humility, but Brother West reads like a catalogue of encounters with the famous and fabulous, among them Sean Combs, Kathleen Battle (whom West dated), Jerome Groopman, Carly Simon, Johnnie Cochran, Luther Vandross, and Sarah Vaughan. “How well does he know himself in the shadow places?” muses his friend Reverend James Forbes, who after eighteen years as senior minister of Riverside Church is also returning to Union this year. “The intellectual gifts become a kind of armor to self-disclosure.”
As a leftist activist, West opposes sexism and patriarchy. As a student of American culture, he has been an advocate of marriage and, especially, of two-parent families. “Liberals are … destroying the parental role,” he wrote in The War Against Parents, co-authored in 1998 with Sylvia Ann Hewlett. “Many on the left fail to understand that we need to rein in untrammeled individualism if we are to re-create the values that nurture family life.” Yet Cornel West is no traditional family man. The protagonist of Brother West seems a puppyish and self-important nerd who chases women until he wears them down and conquers them. (“Marry me,” he begged the woman who became his last wife, “and become the First Lady of Black America.”) Then, when the realities of mundane domesticity set in, he leaves. His third marriage fell apart around the time Zeytun was born, and in the memoir West complains, with very little empathy toward the injured parties, about the legal and financial squeeze he felt from both his ex-wife and Zeytun’s mother. “How blue,” he wrote, “can a brother get?”
“I’m not sure I fall out of love,” he explained in his office. “I discover that I’m unable to stay. But it’s not as if I don’t still love them. I think in the end they recognize they were probably better off without me. Look, this brother’s doing tons of lectures every year. He’s forever on the run, like a bluesman or a jazzman. How in the world can he be a husband anyway?”
West says he abhors racism and nationalism, yet in a public spat that made headlines in 1999, he refused to concur with Michael Lerner that Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic views made him “a racist dog,” preferring instead to call him “a xenophobic spokesperson when it comes to dealing with Jewish humanity.” West hates what he would call corporate oligarchs, yet Tavis Smiley’s talk show is underwritten by Wal-Mart, infamous for allegations of discriminatory and unfair labor practices, and West has never raised an objection. I asked him about this, and he offered a boilerplate response: “We have to stand on principle and make sure institutions are accountable.”
Melissa Harris-Perry, a former Princeton colleague of West’s who is now a political scientist at Tulane University, has become one of his most outspoken opponents. She observed in The Nation last year that even West’s critique of Obama is hypocritical. In the Truthdig interview, West implied that the president, having been raised by whites, is uneasy in his black skin, and he accused Obama of being “most comfortable with upper-middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart.” Harris-Perry pointed out that the same might be said of West, who has spent the largest portion of his career “comfortably ensconced” at Harvard and Princeton. These are “not places,” she adds, “that have a particularly liberating history for black men.”
West grew up in Sacramento, California, the second of four children, in a middle-class family. His mother was a schoolteacher, his father worked as a civilian on the local Air Force base. West was a prodigious reader—the kind of kid who read all the books in the Bookmobile. He was also a track star and a violinist. But the childhood stories that most predict West’s present position in life are those that feature a young Cornel beating up kids whom he perceived as bullies—and one time, smacking a pregnant teacher for insisting that he pledge allegiance to the flag. I asked West whether I might talk to his mother, and he instantly dialed the speakerphone on his desk. Irene West picked up after two rings.
“Mom, how you doing there?”
“Fine, how you doing?”
“Aw, loving you, loving you.”
As a boy, Irene remembered, Cornel “was definitely a handful. He kept his dad busy.”
West cackled at the memory. His mother continued. “I never spanked him. I never spanked him in my life, but I told his dad, and his dad—”
“Dad straightened me out in love. He straightened me out. Lord, lord.”
“The things he was involved in, he meant well. His daddy would tell him, ‘You can’t fight other people’s battles.’ He would take things from somebody who he thought had too much and give it to somebody who didn’t have as much. Such as their lunch money or their whatever. He shouldn’t have been involved in that kind of situation, and that’s the kind of calls we’d get from school. Where he was trying to help one kid by taking from another kid and so forth.”
He may have been a “little gangsta” by his own description, but West was no heathen. One Christmas, when Cornel was 7 and his brother was 10, the two boys decided to accept Jesus. His was a churchgoing family, but in the Baptist tradition, a commitment to Jesus is not something that happens to you by birth or christening. It’s something you decide to undertake when you are old enough—and 7 is a precocious age. “We were choosing the kind of love represented by a Palestinian Jew named Jesus, whose hypersensitivity to sufferings of others felt real and right,” writes West in his memoir. The two boys were dunked under water as their parents beamed from the pews.
West calls himself a “Christian revolutionary,” for the Jesus in whom he believes is no anodyne role model but a social radical who predicted a total reversal of the status quo. West’s Jesus cared most of all for those the Gospel of Matthew calls “the least of these.” He said the poor would gain heaven before the rich, and he especially invited society’s outcasts—the lepers and the prostitutes—into his circle. West’s youthful rage on behalf of the have-nots led him to Black Panther meetings in high school. For his Ph.D. thesis, he wrote about the ultimate social revolutionary—Karl Marx—and his ethical motivations. He joined Democratic Socialists of America in 1982 and has been a member ever since.
This connection between Christianity and social revolution makes West a “liberation theologian,” a person who, as James Cone explained it to me, “attempts to understand the Christian Gospel from the perspective of people who are marginalized and poor and who have been excluded from mainstream society.” Liberation theology does not always have a Marxist or socialist flavor, but in West’s hands, it does. Poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, the self-loathing and passivity of marginalized groups—these are problems rooted in an entrenched, hierarchical capitalist system that perpetuates and thrives on oppression.
“We need,” West told me, “a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to ordinary people, ordinary citizens. I don’t know how it happens. The central political system right now is decrepit, it’s broken. Congress legalized bribery and normalized corruption. Presidential candidates are basically bought off by big money. Both of them. In both parties, oligarchs rule. Mean-spirited Republicans, oligarchs rule. And milquetoast, spineless Democrats—oligarchs rule. Democrats [are] much better than Republicans but still caught within the oligarchy.” The revolution West proposes is “going to be fought less in the political system and in the courts than in the streets.”
West was first arrested for social protest in college and has been arrested about nine times since, most recently last year as part of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. He wouldn’t put it this bluntly, but it is his idea of Christian justice that inspires him to civil disobedience—and to protest, as he did last week, against stop-and-frisk in New York City. When West appears on Fox News and calls the right-wing pundit Sean Hannity his “dear brother,” he is making a show of his Christian faith, for Jesus told his followers to love their enemies.
West’s look—indeed his whole affect—is curated to refer to America’s black Christian past. The dark suit, reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr. and the itinerant preachers and blues performers of previous centuries, is “cemetery clothing,” West told me, a reminder of the inevitability of death. A cynical person might regard these sartorial and rhetorical affectations as further evidence of grandstanding. But as I walked down the street with him, as I did in Princeton one evening, West’s pose grew intimate. He is recognizable, of course. Everyone wants to say hello. And he lingers with each as if he has all the time in the world: the colleague, the groundskeeper, the maître d’, the professor’s wife, the graduate student, the cook, the waitress. “He touches people because he knows it matters. He hugs everyone. He lifts everyone up,” says Hendricks. Whenever you see Cornel West, he asks this question: “Hanging on? Staying strong?”
Barack Obama and Cornel West first crossed paths in 2004, after Obama, then a senator from Illinois, spoke at the Democratic National Convention. In that speech, Obama called the United States of America “a magical place, a beacon of freedom and opportunity,” and West went on television to debate the point. Americans have fought hard to earn and protect their freedoms, he said; magic has nothing to do with it. The senator phoned West, and the two men talked for four hours, especially about their mutual commitment to the dreams of Dr. King—“It was a wonderful conversation,” West says. During the 2008 primaries, West stumped for Obama, making 65 appearances in half a dozen states, and he was in the room as Obama prepped to debate his Democratic rivals at Howard University. West had the candidate’s personal cell-phone number, and he left messages on it frequently. “I was calling him, not every day, but I did call him often, just prayed for him, prayed for his safety and that he’d do well in the debates and so on.”
But after Election Day, the man whose character and judgment West had so enthusiastically lauded at the Apollo never called to express his gratitude, and West found himself unable to procure tickets to the inauguration—something he desperately wanted to do for his mother. West was infuriated. Even now, when he talks about the break in their relations, West uses the language of a jilted lover. “One of the reasons I was personally upset is that I did not get a phone call, ever, after 65 events. It just struck me that it was not decent,” West says to me. “I don’t roll like that. People would say, ‘Oh, West, you’ve got the biggest ego in the world. He ain’t got time to say nothing to you.’ I say, ‘Weeell, I’m not like that. I’m not like that. If somebody does something for you, you take time to say thank you.’ ”
West speculates that something scared the president-elect off. Perhaps, he says, it was his long friendship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s problematical former pastor. “Jeremiah Wright is my brother,” says West, who was in the audience at the National Press Club, when Wright combusted in May 2008, refusing to repudiate the sermon in which he said “God damn America.” Or it might have been that Obama needed to distance himself from the “socialist” label that was dogging him. West himself suspects he was “too leftist.” He believes someone in Obama’s circle said, “We don’t want to get too close to this brother.” (A senior official from the 2008 campaign insists that no one had any intention of shutting West out of the proceedings. “If something dropped there, that’s unfortunate. But whatever happened, that isn’t President Obama’s fault.”)
Despite his lack of access, West arrived in Washington with his mother and brother on Inauguration Day, wanting to participate in the historic event. As they were checking into their hotel, the Wests were astonished to find that their bellhop was luckier than they. “We drive into the hotel, and the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel has a ticket to the inauguration,” he told Truthdig. “We had to watch the thing in the hotel.” Later that day, West’s ruffled feathers were smoothed when he ran into Arianna Huffington and she invited the West brothers to join her at the Huffington Post party. Of all the celebrations that night, “that turned out to be the best one,” says West. Arianna let him pick a few people from the rope line, he says: friend of Obama’s John Rogers, and Michelle Obama’s brother Craig Robinson. Inside, West ran into his nemesis, Larry Summers. “I shook his hand. He looked like a skeleton. I said, ‘Congratulations, my brother.’ ”
West continues to insist that it’s the president’s policies, and not what he perceives as ingratitude, that motivates his critique. He believes that when Obama chose Tim Geithner and especially Summers to design his economic-reform plan, he revealed that his election-year allegiances to the legacy of King were false. “He said, ‘I’m with these two. I’m not with you.’ He’s making it very clear. The working people are not a major priority, they are an afterthought. Now, during campaigns, it’s very different. Here comes the populist rhetoric again, here comes the concern about workers. The middle class is a major issue. Income inequality is now a fundamental issue. Please.”
West appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music one winter evening, in an upstairs room that was packed to bursting—evidence that in certain spheres West’s cult status is healthy and well. The occasion was a repartee between West and the New School philosopher Simon Critchley, and West gave a vintage performance, careering through George Santayana, Mark Twain, Nathanael West, and William James, before he glanced briefly off Christopher Hitchens, to consider Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu, and came to rest, finally, on the subject of Hamlet and his ability to love. When West talks about love, he often invokes the Hebrew word chesed, which in the Jewish tradition means “loving-kindness.” “Hamlet suffers from the incapacity to love,” West said at bam. “There’s not a lot of chesedthere. He’s not connected to that at all.”
With this remark, West came dangerously close to self-perception, for love is at the very crux of his current confusion. “You say ‘Love, love,’ ” observes Dyson, “but you practice ‘venom, venom.’ ” Love, for West, is an ideal, found in Scripture and in art, and it’s in the classroom that he most clearly strives for it. At Union, he has agreed to teach a full load of courses at half his Princeton salary. He is the kind of teacher, students say, who doesn’t miss a class, who takes a personal interest in hometowns and musical tastes, who asks after ailing family members and will extend office hours until every last query is answered.
At Princeton, West regularly taught an undergraduate philosophy course with Robert George, a prominent conservative and an architect of the pro-life movement. “West’s reputation is as a firebrand, as an activist, and as a rhetorician,” says George, a professor of jurisprudence. “But what you see in the classroom is not that. What you see is a person who loves learning for its own sake. Who believes in the project of what he himself always calls paedeia [“education” in Greek]. Not to get a better career, social mobility, to get ahead. But in the inherent enrichment of the human being by engaging with Shakespeare or the music of Mozart. Or the music of the Carter Family. What’s so beautiful to see, and Cornel draws it out of the students, is turning them on to non-instrumentalized education. You’re pursuing knowledge for the sake of truth itself.”
In the classroom, George adds, West is no showman. He listens. He considers all sides of an argument. “Never once did I see him propagandize, or demonize a point of view, or engage in demagoguery,” says George. “The world would be a much better world if everyone had the heart of Cornel West.”
Union is a deeply liberal place, and George worries that West’s wide-ranging intellect will suffer from lack of exposure to thinkers (like himself) who can oppose and challenge him. Smiley, though, has another concern: West’s diminished salary. “I know that Union is up against the wall,” says Smiley. “It is as good a deal as Serene Jones could get.” But “I wish the deal had been better, because over the next few years, he’s going to have to take care of his bills.”
Indeed, West is a worry to all those who love him—those who fear he does too much and those concerned that he’s compromising his legacy. West is aware of the anxiety, but he doesn’t seem to care. “A lot of people are worried that I’m going to drop dead because I can’t sustain the intensity of this pace for a long time,” he says. “I think they have a good point. All the things I’ve been blessed to do—they do not lend themselves to a long life, and that’s fine with me.”
And so the frenzy continues. West just finished his book tour for The Rich and the Rest of Us, making fifteen stops in as many days and paying calls not just on Hannity but on Stephen Colbert and Tina Brown as well. Nor have the tongue lashings abated. Last month, in an interview with Diverse magazine, West attacked Harris-Perry for her critique of him. “She’s become the momentary darling of liberals, but I pray for her because she’s in over her head,” he said. “She’s a fake and a fraud. I was surprised how treacherous the sister was.” Harris-Perry declined to comment on West’s remarks. “I am definitely not interested in weighing in on Professor West,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Only he can know what motivates his opinions about me.”
West may aspire to be like Jesus, but he talks like a man who won’t be disrespected in public and feels compelled to proclaim his own humility. One thing is, I never fall in love with myself,” he says. “No, no. Not at all.”