Not many Ivy League professors have books on the bestseller lists, alongside "Confessions of an Heiress" by Paris Hilton and "My Life" by Bill Clinton.
But Princeton's Cornel West -- the most public kind of intellectual -- does. The author of "Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism" (Penguin Press), which recently hit No. 11 on the New York Times chart and is currently at No. 20, chuckles at the notion of book-list democracy in action.
"You find genius in ordinary folk," he says, in an office that is floor-to-ceiling full of books, mainly biographies, including Ella Fitzgerald and Socrates. On West's desk sits a framed photo of him with a recent guest lecturer -- Andre 3000 of OutKast.
"You find the majestic and the sublime in the ordinary and the everyday," West says. "Once those voices come together, they start to sing a destiny, and elites have to be accountable to that."
What about those who would never crack a book but could benefit from his insights?
"I got a CD for 'em."
"Street Knowledge," his new double-disc set, offers his musings and teachings over R&B and hip-hop beats. "They got a danceable education with the CD and a readable education with the book. I'm hittin' 'em on every front."
West, 51, a professor of religion, has transcended the ivory tower in which he has spent a career as scholar and teacher. The father of two -- and sometime movie actor -- speaks in churches, jails and jazz clubs.
Democracy is something that he hopes for "in my heart and soul." But he's afraid that it's a deteriorating ideal in post-Sept. 11 America. Which is why he wrote "Democracy Matters," published Sept. 2.
The book, a follow-up to the best-selling "Race Matters" (1994), analyzes what he sees as the arrested development of American democracy due to "free-market fundamentalism," militarism and authoritarianism. It calls for a revival of our "better democratic nature," citing inspirations from the self-reliance philosophy of Emerson to the civil rights movement.
His current national book tour is just one example of the way he lives out his public-intellectual agenda. Last year, thousands paid $50 a pop to see him "perform" with University of Pennsylvania humanities professor Michael Eric Dyson and PBS commentator Tavis Smiley on their six-city Pass the Mic tour, in which the trio held town-hall-style dialogues with audiences.
Dyson shares West's desire to drop knowledge on the masses.
"I think we do have an obligation to translate whatever insight we have into public spaces and apply it to people's lives in ways that make a difference," says Dyson, West's friend and author of "Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves & Demons of Marvin Gaye." "What we do in the classroom is critical, and what we do beyond it is critical. . . . I don't think that the two are mutually exclusive."
West has even played to type on the silver screen, as Councillor West, the all-knowing adviser in 2003's "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions."
"Good God, we had a time in Australia!" West recalls. "The Wachowski brothers called me and told me that my writings were influential in the writing of the first 'Matrix,' which I didn't know. They told me they wrote the role for me. . . . I told them they had to make sure the role had dignity, because I'm not the kind of brother who can be up on the screen acting a fool."
It was precisely his forays into mainstream culture -- the films, the CDs (including the 2002 "Sketches of My Culture"), the time spent advising Democratic presidential candidates Bill Bradley and later Al Sharpton -- that got West in trouble at Harvard University, his alma mater and the place where he spent nine years teaching religion and African American studies.
West discusses the conflict in his book. In a chapter titled "The Necessary Engagement With Youth Culture," the author explains that his interconnections "between the academy, mass media, prisons, churches and the street did not fit in the narrow technocratic vision" of Harvard President Lawrence Summers. Rather than have his scholarship monitored, West returned in 2002 to Princeton, where he had earned his master's degree and doctorate, and taught from 1988 to 1993.
Summers could not be reached for comment.
In a recent session of his class "Introductory Research Methods in African American Studies," West -- always sartorially correct, today in a black three-piece suit and well-shined shoes -- opens with an overview of the Royal African Trading Co., the British-based monopoly that made mega-profits on the 17th-century transatlantic slave trade.
Many insurance companies and banks were founded by industrialists "with ties to the A-T-C," says West, almost spitting out each letter. Ivy League universities, too, the polemical professor adds. He lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Somebody needs to check out Princeton's Presbyterians."
Universities like to have high-profile scholars such as West "because the students like them and they give publicity" to the schools, says Richard A. Posner, a University of Chicago law lecturer and author of "Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline."
The notion of the public intellectual goes back to the Greek philosophers, and continues with the literary giants of the Western canon, notes Ralph McInerny, the professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame who authored the Father Dowling mysteries, which were adapted into a TV series that aired from 1989 to 1991.
Explaining his dual roles as intellectual and mystery writer, McInerny says: "If you look at the greatest writers -- Shakespeare, Dante, Milton -- one of the strangest things about them is how popular they were. There wasn't a condescension toward the reader. There's a kind of snobbery and elitism [among academics] that I don't think is healthy. You don't have to live as long as I have to see the differences in people are not as diverse as you'd think."
Among African American scholars, West and Dyson have established 21st-century models of how public intellectuals should operate, says Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English, comparative literature and African American studies at Columbia University.
"I don't know that [African Americans] have had an intellectual representative that had this kind of pop-culture reach," says Griffin, author of "If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery," an examination of jazz singer Billie Holiday. "Our kids can identify a singer, athlete or rapper, but to identify somebody who thinks?"
West, who knows a bit of history, insists he's just following tradition.
"It's like Louis Armstrong playing in Harlem and now Wynton Marsalis is running the Lincoln Center" jazz program, he says. "It's the same tradition. It's just that the Lincoln Center wasn't open for Louis.
"You get a certain visibility and you ask yourself, 'How can I use this status for service, for struggle, for justice?' That's what it's all about. That's what democracy is all about."