Civil War on the Left: Decline of the West?

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Cornel West

I have to confess to having a soft spot for Cornel West, the radical chair of black studies at Princeton (formerly of Harvard, before Larry Summers kicked him out). West team-teaches a great books course with conservative Robert P. George at Princeton, and goes around doing joint events with George at other campuses, rather than demanding that Robbie shut up or something like the rest of the trigger(warning)-happy left. He also turns up sometimes at conservative panels at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, not to heckle or get into gratuitous arguments, but because there’s a part of him that appears to sympathize with the conservative critique of modern nihilism. He typically asks serious questions, and takes in the answers.

West’s openness to the destructive effects of nihilism is one of the reasons some on the left are turning against him right now, though the real reason is that Brother West has been attacking Brother Obama from the far left (he’s called Obama “a Rockefeller Republican in blackface”), and this is simply not allowed. Michael Eric Dyson has a ponderous piece in the latest issue of The New Republic (the one without editors, apparently, as Dyson’s 10,000-word piece really cries out for some sensible editing):

Cornel West’s rage against President Barack Obama evokes that kind of venom. He has accused Obama of political minstrelsy, calling him a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface”; taunted him as a “brown-faced Clinton”; and derided him as a “neoliberal opportunist.” In 2011, West and I were both speakers at a black newspaper conference in Chicago. During a private conversation, West asked how I escaped being dubbed an “Obama hater” when I was just as critical of the president as he was. I shared my three-part formula for discussing Obama before black audiences: Start with love for the man and pride in his epic achievement; focus on the unprecedented acrimony he faces as the nation’s first black executive; and target his missteps and failures. No matter how vehemently I disagree with Obama, I respect him as a man wrestling with an incredibly difficult opportunity to shape history. West looked into my eyes, sighed, and said: “Well, I guess that’s the difference between me and you. I don’t respect the brother at all.”

I don’t recommend reading the whole thing (as I say, it’s 10,000 words!), which boils down to complaining that West dissed Dyson, and that West is a narcissist. Well, knock me over with a feather—an academic narcissist!? Whoever heard of such a thing, especially of an academic who had a cameo in The Matrix sequels. Along the way, Dyson compares West to Mike Tyson, a young talent gone bad, now just biting off the ears of fellow black thinkers. Here’s the conclusion:

West’s narcissism in this matter is not exemplified by his sense of being jilted but in the way he has personalized his grief. And the longer West has nursed his resentment, the more he has revealed parts of himself that even he may not understand or be able to explain, since political disappointment in a politician’s behavior rarely provokes such torrents of passion, such protracted, dastardly, and sadly, such self-destructive hate. The volatility that West said roils his personal relations may also mar his political ones. Now he lumbers into his future, punch-drunk from too many fights unwisely undertaken, facing a cruel reality: His greatest opponent isn’t Obama, Sharpton, Harris-Perry, or me. It is the ghost of a self that spits at him from his own mirror.

Sportwriter Dave Zirin begs to differ in The Nation:

West is not Mike Tyson: he’s Muhammad Ali. Not the Muhammad Ali of ESPN hagiographies or Hollywood films starring Will Smith. But the real Muhammad Ali: effortlessly provocative, undeniably narcissistic, and unquestionably brilliant. The deeply hurtful quotes that West has aimed at Dyson (he has “prostituted himself intellectually”) and Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry (“she is a liar and a fraud”) are 21st-century iterations of Ali’s regrettable, and for many unforgivable, questioning of the blackness of the great Joe Frazier, comparing the proud fighter to an ugly gorilla, all in the name of hyping up fights and throwing Frazier off of his game.

These comments are vicious, and as someone who has benefited from the kindness offered me by both Dyson and Dr. Harris-Perry, they anger my blood. The restraint that Dyson has shown over the last several years as West has thrown out his assorted rabbit-punches should be acknowledged. But the sight of Dyson escalating what was a one-sided series of verbal taunts into a written treatise, and marshaling his intellectual powers toward a polarizing 10,000-word New Republic essay is to see nothing less—I suppose based upon your perspective—than the academic version of either George Foreman punching himself out in Zaire or “Smokin’ Joe” sending the champ to the canvas of Madison Square Garden. . .

[T]here are several holes in Dyson’s piece that are glaring. To read the article, one would think that West’s anger toward Obama is solely rooted in snubbed invitations and unanswered phone calls. This ignores a series of key political criticisms that West has been raising for years.

And someone named Elliot Ratzman comes to West’s defense at

If West has spoken intemperately of his fellow public intellectuals, it is in part a symptom of curdled disappointment over Obama’s missed opportunities. If the Icarus wings of proximity to power have wobbled some of his judgments, so be it. Naysayers belittle West’s scholarly output, but he has—in speaking to thousands, each month—touched the lives of ordinary folks in loving ways more often than than any public intellectual in recent history.

I admire Michael Eric Dyson, but Dyson is human, all too human and has his own shortcomings. In my circles, we could have cobbled an equally ugly piece about Dyson, yet I would not wish that on him. Certainly, we need to hold each other accountable, but Dyson’s piece was poor form, only serving to give West’s feral critics more fodder for dismissing him as a charlatan. Do white conservative intellectuals disagree so disagreeably in public? West deserves better.

I don’t know which boxing metaphor is best for West, but I’m enjoying the spectacle of this fight.


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