Why They Hate Cornel West

Michael Eric Dyson's attack on Cornel West signals the bankruptcy of the black political class.

Barack Obama / Flickr

As the clock unwinds on the nation’s first black presidency, much of the black political class is scrambling to rewrite the history of their own behavior over the past six or seven years. Suddenly, all of them claim to have been “constructive critics” of the Obama administration, despite the absence of any public record of such criticism when it might have made a difference.

In twenty-one months, the first black president will leave office having overseen a federal retrenchment more brutal than under Ronald Reagan, a “bipartisan” austerity regime forged in 2010 as Obama pursued his long-sought “grand bargain” with the GOP.

Before even taking office, back in early January 2009, Obama had loudly proclaimed his intentions to plunge directly into austerity mode, once the banks had been rescued from insolvency, by putting all entitlement programs “on the table” for chopping, including Social Security. He spent his first two years in office, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, creating a model for austerity through his hand-picked deficit reduction commission, which recommended $4 trillion in cuts — virtually the same as demanded by the Republicans.

When the GOP won control of the House in 2010, Obama bragged that he had already reduced domestic discretionary spending to “its lowest level since Dwight Eisenhower was president. That level of spending is lower than it was under the last three administrations, and it will be lower than it was under Ronald Reagan.”

In 2011, Obama outdid George W. Bush in unilateral war making, claiming the War Powers Act did not apply to the US/NATO bombing campaign against Libya because no Americans were killed and, therefore, no war — or even “hostilities” — had existed. A new era of proliferating “humanitarian” and proxy wars was inaugurated under the man who ran as a peace candidate in 2008.

Black America has plummeted to such economic depths under Obama’s watch that there is no possibility of ever reaching economic parity with whites absent a social revolution, the beginnings of which we may be witnessing in the growing mobilization against brutal police enforcement of the oppressive social order.

It is no wonder that so many members of the black political class, especially those that style themselves as progressives, are now anxious to revise their Obama-era political histories to put a false distance between themselves and the outgoing administration.

Which is why I found it curious that Georgetown University professor and preacher Michael Eric Dyson thinks this is an auspicious time to unleash a bloated, mean-spirited, and politically flatulent assault on Dr Cornel West, a black public intellectual who risked his “icon” status by breaking with Obama early in the president’s first term, when the center-right nature of his corporation-serving administration became manifest.

Dyson is clearly haunted by “The Ghost of Cornel West,” as the New Republic article is titled. In Georgia, the older country folks used to say that when a “haint” (a ghost) got on top of you in your sleep, you became temporarily paralyzed — a condition sometimes called “being rode by a witch.” Dyson’s obsession with West seems to have paralyzed those parts of his brain that process political facts and issues.

In almost ten thousand words, Dyson makes no reference to any substantive political issues that divide him and West, and offers only the slimmest assessment of Obama’s stance on the burning issues of the day. Given such a dearth of actual political analysis of either the Obama presidency or West’s critique of that presidency, the article is a soaring testament to Dyson’s enormous capacity for bloviation.

But, of course, there is method to Dyson’s meanness. The true purpose of his elongated smear of Dr West is to demonstrate to Hillary Clinton’s camp that Dyson remains a loyal Democratic Party operative who is available for service to the new regime. Having observed how hugely Al Sharpton prospered as President Obama’s pit bull against black dissent, Dyson offers unto Caesarius Hillarius (“We came, we saw, he died,” as she said of Gaddafi) the iconic head of the nation’s best known black dissident.

Dyson’s article is as dishonest as it is long and draining. Dyson is not mad at West because the Union Theological Seminary professor has supposedly turned out a “paucity of serious and fresh intellectual work” over the last several years. He was not driven to write a hit piece because his former friend is “not quite up to the high scholarly standard West set for himself long ago.”

Dyson has resorted to icon assassination because West’s highly visible critique of Obama’s domestic and foreign policy is an embarrassment to the administration, to the Democratic Party as an institution, and to the sycophantic black political elite that has been more loyal to Obama than to black people as a group.

Mostly, Dyson is mad because Dr West called him out, personally. Dyson writes:

It was during an appearance with Tavis Smiley on Democracy Now, shortly after Obama’s reelection. “I love Brother Mike Dyson,” West said. “But we’re living in a society where everybody is up for sale. Everything is up for sale. And he and Brother Sharpton and Sister Melissa and others, they have sold their souls for a mess of Obama pottage. And we invite them back to the black prophetic tradition after Obama leaves.

But at the moment, they want insider access, and they want to tell those kinds of lies. They want to turn their back to poor and working people. And it’s a sad thing to see them as apologists for the Obama administration in that way, given the kind of critical background that all of them have had at some point.”

Dyson attempts to draw the reader into a discussion of the definition of a “prophet,” and who is, or is not, one. But that’s just a long-winded way of asserting that West has no right to criticize Dyson, Harris, Sharpton, and the other black-notables-for-hire.

Dyson attempts to turn the “access” tables on West, noting that West was known to hang with celebrities like Warren Beatty, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Johnny Cochran, Snoop Dogg, and Salma Hayek. As if Warren Beatty has ever maintained a “kill list,” Sean Combs has plans to bomb Africa, or Snoop Dogg is actively engaged in turning the US government over to Wall Street.

Dyson claims West lives by a double standard. Attempting sarcasm, Dyson writes: “West offers himself a benefit that he refuses to extend to others: He can go to the White House without becoming a presidential apologist or losing his prophetic cool. He can spend an evening with the president, the first of many such evenings, without selling his soul.”

Well, apparently, West can. And, just as clearly, after nineteen or more visits to the White House, Dyson cannot. He not only sells himself, he tries to defame Dr Martin Luther King Jr as a sell-out access-monger, too. Without shame, honor, or a logical leg to stand on, Dyson writes: “King was arguably more beneficial to the folk he loved when he swayed power with his influence and vision. When West begrudges Sharpton his closeness to Obama, he ignores the fact that King had similar access.”

Dyson continues:

Sharpton and Jackson moved in the opposite prophetic direction of King. While King kissed the periphery with courageous vigor after enjoying his role as a central prophet, Jackson, and especially Sharpton, started on the periphery before coming into their own on the inside. Jackson’s transition was smoothed by the gulf left by King’s assassination, and while forging alliances with other outsiders on the black left, he easily adapted to the role of the inside-outsider who identified with the downcast while making his way to the heart of the Democratic Party.

Dr King and other members of the so-called “Big Six” organizations enjoyed some access to Lyndon Johnson’s White House because of the power of the movements they led. Dr King did not become influential because he got invitations to the White House; he got invited to the White House because he was influential among millions of black people.

King made the principled, and possibly fatal, decision to break with Johnson on April 4, 1967, with his “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” speech. He effectively severed ties with an administration that had, at times, been an ally in the civil-rights struggle. Singling out the US as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, today,” Dr King said:

I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Obscenely, Dyson attempts to depict Dr King as of his own ilk in his attack on West, who made his own break with Obama’s wars at home and abroad, early on.

Dyson has for years peppered his talks with references to his nonexistent substantive critiques of Obama, and does the same in the New Republic. “No matter how vehemently I disagree with Obama, I respect him as a man wrestling with an incredibly difficult opportunity to shape history,” he writes. “Throughout his presidency I have offered what I consider principled support and sustained criticism of Obama, a posture that didn’t mirror West’s black-or-white views — nor satisfy the Obama administration’s expectation of unqualified support.”

Yet there is no evidence of “sustained criticism,” in his current attack piece or anywhere else — only sustained opportunism. The only paragraph in the entire 9,600-word piece with any substantive statement on Obama policies, is a boilerplate pitch straight from the White House:

Obama believes the blessed should care for the unfortunate, a hallmark of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. West and Obama both advocate intervention for our most vulnerable citizens, but while West focuses on combating market forces that “edge out nonmarket values — love, care, service to others — handed down by preceding generations,” Obama, as Alter contends, is more practical, offering Pell grants; stimulus money that saved the jobs of hundreds of thousands of black state and local workers; the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity of sentences for powdered and crack cocaine; the extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which kept millions of working poor blacks from sliding into poverty; and the extension of unemployment insurance and food stamps, which helped millions of blacks.

In my own two debates with Dyson on Democracy Now! in January 2008, and September 2012, I found it best to ignore the bulk of his “wall of words.” The torrent of syllables is mostly show, much of it pure nonsense designed to dazzle churchgoers. In cold print, Dyson is revealed as a rank careerist in the army of personal upward mobility.

Dr West has nothing to worry about from such quarters. But Dyson’s bosses will kill you.