Sean Wilentz Responds

Sean Wilentz Responds

The aim of my essay was not to measure reputations, as Martin Kilson claims The aim was to assess how reputations get measured these days. The essay grew from my dismay at how the conceits of celebrity journalism have increasingly garbled public presentation of ideas and politics. The garbling occurs on many fronts, but it has been especially damaging in the coverage of two overlapping areas: the new pop world of postmodern academia and the writings of the so-called “new black intellectuals.” I mentioned the first in passing, but concentrated on the second, where I believe the intellectual and political stakes are much greater.

Near the essay’s conclusion, I discussed the recent controversy over Cornet West’s writings, as an example of how, paradoxically, even toughminded critics who try to look beyond the celebrity hype can wind up getting misled. What Kilson describes, with some highly selective quotations, as my attempt to launch “a kind of assault on West’s reputation” was actually a defense of West’s efforts as a self-described “organic intellectual”—a sincere defense that applauded
what I thought were West’s main contentions about moral responsibility and the political situation of the black American poor. With some reservations, the essay likened West’s abilities and ambitions to those of Michael Harrington—the highest sort of praise of a politically engaged writer that I can imagine, especially coming in this magazine. Kilson records the reservations and ignores the rest; and he obscures
my basic point, which had to do with the state of current intellectual journalism and not with West’s status or achievements.

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