Recently Michael Eric Dyson penned a strongly worded critique (severe understatement) of Cornel West in The New Republic, basically arguing West has become a thin shell of his former self. Dyson, who owes his career to West, is one of the many black intellectuals/media spokespersons who’ve fallen into disfavor with West over the past several years as a result of their relationship with President Obama.[foot]I’m not going to link to it, for reasons that should become apparent below. If you haven’t read it, then you should probably not read this piece.[/foot]
Reading it a day after I talked about black popular culture in my second semester Black Politics class, I’m reminded of the early 2001 furor over then Harvard President Larry Summers’ critique of West when West was at Harvard [foot]Summers argued that West should spend much more time on real scholarship and less time on the lecture circuit and non-academic projects like the 2001 spoken word project Sketches of My Culture. West left for Princeton soon after the dispute.[/foot], and much more recent discussions over whether Beyonce was a feminist, whether a New York Times article on Shonda Rhimes was racist, and whether Ava Duvernay should’ve received an Oscar for her movie Selma. Some might argue that I shouldn’t be so reminded. This is much more politically motivated than the others and should be read not just as an attack on West but as an attack on the anti-Obama tendency (such as it exists) among black intellectuals in general.
I don’t believe this piece was politically motivated. There are politics to consider–it isn’t a coincidence that one of the co-editors responsible for the piece used to work on The Melissa Harris-Perry Show, and of course there’s Dyson’s own political history with West to consider. But the politics at play here are not the politics of Obama’s War Room.
However, let’s say that it was. Would the stakes increase if Dyson’s piece weren’t written against West as much as written against the anti-Obama tendency (again, such as it exists)?
In the early nineties, when Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, bell hooks, Skip Gates, and Houston Baker became so well-known outside of the academy that the term “black public intellectual” was coined to describe them, Adolph Reed penned two insightful critiques of West and the black public intellectual phenomenon in general. The first (“What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?”) is here, written twenty years ago this month. The second (part of a broader discussion about the first piece) appeared in New Politics Vol 5, Issue 4.
Reed made a few claims.
He argued that scholars like West, Dyson, hooks, and Robin Kelley, were responsible for reproducing a deeply problematic conception of politics that in effect, found politics not only in “real politics” (that is, in voting, in running for office, in political movements, in legislative activity) but also in everyday life and popular culture. For Reed this was both empirically and politically problematic. It was empirically problematic in as much as it placed very very different activities (fast food workers spitting on food, labor unions attempting to organize those same workers) under the same broad general category. It was politically problematic because their conception of politics made the work of political organizing–work was mundane, painstaking, hard, and in some instances, dangerous–so much harder.
Second, he argued that West, Dyson, and hooks, were neither scholars nor activists, but were playing at both. One of the unique dynamics of this moment was that their increased access to public audiences enabled them to shuffle between them and their more academic audiences, enabling them to front like activists when they were around academics, and front like academics when they were in the broader public. This enabled them to basically dodge the fairly hard requirements of being a card-carrying scholar on the one hand, and being a card-carry organizer/activists on the other. Certainly we’ve seen both West and Dyson do this over the past two decades.
Third he argued that their work on black life was not only flat but often times deeply conservative. In Race Matters for instance, Cornel West argued that the most pressing problem black people faced was neither institutional racism nor structural economic dislocation, but rather black nihilism–a term that, when unpacked, functions a lot like the concept of a uniquely black “culture of poverty” in that it places the fault and burden of the black contemporary condition squarely on the shoulders of black folk. Because intellectuals like West were not only phenotypically black but embodied a certain type of black performance, these claims were far easier for them to make, particularly to the white audiences they generally spoke to.
People critiqued Reed’s piece for being acerbic, mean-spirited, and wrong on the facts. But even with the rise of something like #blacklivesmatter I think that over the past several decades we have lost our grip on the function of politics, the number of real political organizers in cities like Baltimore are dwindling, and the progeny of the first generation of black public intellectuals haven’t significantly contributed to our understanding of our contemporary condition, even as some of them claim to engage in politics (often looking to West as a mentor). Reed may have been an ass. But that ass was right.
Indeed reading Reed’s piece brings home to me how little something like Dyson’s attack on West should matter in the grand scheme of things. When West and Tavis Smiley were more prominent I used to routinely defend their attacks on Obama from my friends. I did so more to defend the idea that Obama should be critiqued than to defend West and Smiley per se.
While I applaud some of West’s activity (his support of Steven Salaita for instance), I think Reed’s critique is even more applicable today than it was twenty years ago. West’s understanding of what politics is, of how politics functions, of when, where, and how we should politically resist, is woefully inadequate, and his understanding pretty much dominates our contemporary intellectual landscape. While some might point to his participation in the #blacklivesmatter movement as positive proof of West’s relevancy, I see it as negative proof. Here are the most important facts about Ferguson:
- Ferguson uses their police force to collect revenue from black citizens through punitive enforcement.
- Black citizens constitute a strong majority of Ferguson residents.
- The vast majority of Ferguson’s elected officials are white.
- Black citizens don’t turn out in local elections.
Focusing on this last fact, it’s important to note that the reason black citizens don’t turn out is not because they are apathetic and aren’t registered. They are, as evidenced by their (enthusiastic) turnout for Obama. The reason black citizens don’t turn out is because Ferguson local elections are held during off-years–that is, they aren’t held the same year as presidential elections. This institutional rule dampens turnout in general, and in this case reinforces white political rule.
But this didn’t have to be the case this time around. That is to say that while Ferguson’s off-elections rule usually dampened turnout across the board, given that black people were already registered to vote, and massive energy was directed at Ferguson through #blacklivesmatter, it didn’t have to do so this time. Indeed because Ferguson was relatively small–meaning that running for office there probably didn’t require significant cash or labor–the entire city’s governing structure could drastically shift.
On April 7, Ferguson held elections for three seats–two contested by African Americans, one contested by a white Michael Brown supporter. The two seats ended up going to African Americans, but the white Brown supporter lost (to the former mayor responsible for the controversial “I Love Ferguson” counter-movement).
This suggests that at least some of the energy of #blacklivesmatter was directed to transforming local politics. But not enough. And while it’s unfair to suggest that West had something to do with this, it is fair to suggest that the idea that local politics matters, that mundane political organizing matters, might not be dead in black communities if black public intellectuals like West and Dyson hadn’t helped to kill it off.
So even if we were to think that Dyson’s piece was primarily inspired by West’s politics, I think we’d be better off focusing our energies elsewhere. Let The New Republic get its clicks from some other population. But particularly given the fact that Dyson’s piece is not primarily driven by politics I’m even more firm in my suggestion that we leave the dispute between Dyson and West to Dyson, West, and others who routinely speak for four or five figure checks, and that those of us with the capacity to do so, help to rebuild a more robust politics within black communities. As Reed suggests:
In a perverse revision of the old norm of labor solidarity, “an injury to one is an injury to all,” now it’s the black (haute) bourgeoisie that suffers injustice on behalf of the black masses. It’s prominent black individuals’ interests and aspirations that are asserted—under the flag of positive images, role models, equivalent vulnerability to racism, and other such class-inflected bullshit—as crucial concerns for the race as a whole.
The sooner we move away from the tendency of defending the relatively powerful black professional managerial class no matter what they suggest their politics are the better.