Abstract of Cornel West's “Nihilism in Black America”
by Mike Peterson
West argues that the two current and polarized “camps” that discuss the plight of black America—the liberal structuralists and the conservative behaviorists—fail to grapple with and even add to the real threat: nihilism. West discusses how these camps focus too narrowly on structures (liberal structuralists) or on values, attitudes, and individualism (conservative behaviorists), and ignore the nihilistic threat: “the despair and dread that now flood the streets of America” (276).
West argues that nihilism in black America has existed since slavery, but that until the 1970’s the black community has erected powerful buffers against its effects: cultural structures of meaning and feeling, religious and civic institutions that embody values of service and sacrifice, love and care, discipline and excellence. But now the commodification of black life and the crisis of black leadership have resulted in the crumbling of those structures and a relapse of nihilism.
The solution is a politics of conversion, which treats the nihilistic threat as a disease that can be tamed but never cured. For this to happen, leadership needs to be strengthened at the local level. West argues that national leaders are often too charismatic with little programmatic follow-through, which leads black nationalists, with their myopic visions that cause fragmentation, to pick up the slack. This all leads to political cynicism, which hampers the efforts of local activists, on whom the progressive effort depends. West says the model of one black national leader must be shunned, and that local activists must work in conjunction with state, regional, and national networks to form the collective responsibility that can hold back the nihilistic threat to black America.
Nihilism: “…the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness” (277).
Politics of Conversion: Treating nihilism as a disease that can be tamed by love and care, but that can never by completely cured (279-280).
Liberal structuralists: Focus on structural constraints. “More government money, better bureaucrats, and an active citizenry” (275).
Conservative behaviorists: Focus on behavioral impediments. “There projects rest largely upon a cultural revival of the Protestant ethic in black America” (275).
Comments and Questions
I don’t disagree with anything West has to say, but as I read the essay I became a little wary of his writing style. He uses direct, colorful language that is borderline bombastic at times. Does this pathos help or hurt his argument?
A few examples:
“We must delve into the depths where neither liberals nor conservatives dare to tread, namely, into the murky waters of despair and dread that now flood the streets of black America” (276).
– I see the point he’s making, but he generalizes entire groups of people based on ideological affiliation, as if expressing a liberal standpoint makes you incapable of understanding or dealing with the threat of nihilism. Is there a way to talk about polarized ideologies without over-generalizing and exaggerating the “void” of the middle-ground?
“Many black folk now reside in a jungle with a cutthroat morality devoid of any faith in deliverance or hope for freedom” (278).
– I don’t have a critique of this. It’s very powerful language that carries his point well. It’s obvious that the author has a lot of emotional and cultural investment in this topic, which spills out in his language. Does this have the potential to hamper his argument? Could critics dismiss him as being too emotional or too enmeshed in the culture to be reliable?
“…ushering the humble freedom fighters…who have the audacity to take the nihilistic threat by the neck and turn back its deadly assaults” (280).
– Beautiful imagery, but how does one actually take an idea by the neck? Very motivational language, but it lacks concrete solutions or follow-through. I know this essay isn’t the place for West to lay out a direct plan of action, but it does leave me feeling a little let down—I clearly agree there is a problem, but I don’t walk away feeling empowered to do anything about it.
West critiques national leadership based on the current state of affairs (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, etc), and he uses these “failures” to justify his call for increased local activist efforts, collective responsibility, and an end to the one-black-national-leader model. Is West implying that the idea of national leadership is inherently defunct and irredeemable? Is he targeting these specific leaders, or is he saying it’s a plug-and-play model, and it doesn’t matter who you put in their place, the same problems will abound? Or is he saying that these same leaders (again, Jackson and Sharpton) have the potential be effective leaders if local progressive efforts improve and operate in conjunction with, rather than in subordination to, this national leadership?