One of my friends on facebook posted a brief snippet about Obama featuring Cornel West’s quote that he’d rather be in the crack house than the White House, accusing Obama of being at best oblivious to suffering and promoting neoliberal policies.
I responded by noting that I felt West’s comments were disingenuous and hypocritical. But a much longer response is warranted given that on the surface at least, West’s critique is accurate.
There are at least three different ways that scholars can participate in the public sphere. They can help articulate public policy solutions from within the White House. William Julius Wilson, a Harvard professor served as a Clinton advisor while welfare was in the process of being repealed reformed. Although it’s not clear that he would’ve served in this role had he not resigned there was hope that Van Jones would be able to promote policies that would both decrease black unemployment and transform the nation’s economy to one based on green-collar jobs. And they can do it from without–there are a plethora of thinktanks and public policy centers from which intellectuals routinely release white papers condemning/praising White House policy.
Now to be fair this isn’t West’s gig. On his best day, West is a philosopher. He is formally trained as a divinity scholar. To expect him to hold forth on the salient differences between workfare and individual development accounts isn’t right. This is not his training, this does not reflect the trajectory he established early in his career, this does not reflect his current interests.
The second dimension is that of intellectual engagement. Intellectuals and scholars can work from within the White House, taking various policy initiatives and explaining them to the wider public in ways they can understand, for the purpose of generating or crystalizing support. Or they can work from without–either giving support, or withholding it by means of trenchant critique. Turn on the television, read The Nation or The Huffington Post on any given day and you’ll see a variety of scholars and intellectuals poking holes in Obama’s policies and behaviors.
Now on the surface it seems as if this is what West was made for. In fact when he says he’d rather be in the crackhouse than the White House one read is that he’d rather be outside of the corridors of power critiquing them and reminding them of their responsibility to the least of these as opposed to being on the inside, seduced. But here’s the thing. There is critique…and there is critique.
This is an example of critique. Matt Taibbi roundly takes Obama to task for promoting both the persons and the policies responsible for our current economic situation. This type of work IS work, interviewing sources, reading policy papers, interviewing secondary sources, examining policy papers, pouring through timelines. Now granted, it is a bit sloppy. Perhaps more than a bit. Bit this is what real work looks like.
I would rather be in a crack house than a White House that promotes neoimperial policies abroad and neoliberal policies at home.” When asked to explain himself West said, “Because in a crack house, at least I’m in solidarity with folk who are sensitive to a pain. It’s just that they have the wrong response to their pain. Instead of being in a crack house, they ought to be organizing. But they’re dealing with their suffering. They’re just dealing with it in the wrong way. The White House is escaping from the suffering.
Not so much. It isn’t bad. There are a couple of interesting links…but there really isn’t much of a there there.