Doth We Protest Too Much?

Focusing on the negative can become destructive. Is there a little Cornel West in all of us?


It's all about this business of "contesting." And it's about all of us.

One thing we all know is that if Cornel West actually met Barack Obama alone in a room -- and we can be sure this will happen one day, and likely more than once -- he would embrace him and call him brother.

That's what he does with everybody, and I doubt he truly thinks Obama has a "fear of free black men." West was thinking of himself as a prophet, as so many of us encourage him to do. He was telling, thus, a truth that many are uncomfortable with. Except that this time, the truth wasn't true.

Why tell it, then? Because what West was doing was contesting for the sake of it, out of a sense that this is the noble thing for smart, engaged people to do.

You have to watch out for that stuff.

Contesting is good, solid post-Enlightenment behavior to a point. But West was displaying a tic that has spread too far and deep into our society, including into notions of black authenticity. Of course we contest when we think something is wrong. But must we contest just because it's fun?

I think of a young woman I saw recently, listening to her iPod. She was scrunching up her face, pointing this way and that, nodding tersely -- all very pissed off, but with rhythm. One assumes she was listening to rap, and quite caught up in the "message" of whatever the music was, encouraging her to join into extended charismatic complaint.

Likely, the complaint was about something valid in itself. But think historically for a second. We forget how very, very modern the idea of contesting is as an entire way of life, seeping into the way you move and gesticulate 24-7 to your favorite music. When, in the history of humanity, have human beings ever taken their folk music as an occasion for frowning and for dwelling, at open-ended length, on indicting society?

Freedom songs, protest songs, yes. But the music that wallpapers your whole life? The music you associate also with joy? That you spend money on? That you pump into your ears all day, every day? Of course, until recently there was no way to experience music that consistently at all. But here we are, and we do. Imagine: We are humans who can have contesting in our ears during, basically, our whole lives. One points, nods, sneers to the beat. One gets off on this. All the time.

But how likely is contesting that's that endless -- virtually subconscious -- to be focused enough to help anybody? We are dealing with contesting as commodity, contesting as congealed into attitude.