My Thoughts On Dr. Michael Eric Dyson’s Searing Critique Of Dr. Cornel West
If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then men and their egos know no bounds.
I say this because an essay, which begins with the most sexist of cliches used in a roundabout way to call another man a bitch, is nothing but petty, unadulterated pissing-in-the-snow, male ego.
And that is, in short, what I have to say about Michael Eric Dyson’s epic takedown of his former mentor, Dr. Cornel West. And when I say “epic,” I don’t mean in terms of content, but rather length. Seriously, the essay was longer than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, including The Hobbit. As always, I advise readers to pause my essays and take a look at the source material, but I’m afraid that if you go away, you may not have the time nor the energy left to come back and read my thoughts. So I’ll do my best to summarize it into more digestible portions.
Dyson begins by telling the readers about a personal conversation he had with his former mentor about the right way to critique the first Black president without sounding like a bitter man with a crabs-in-a-barrel mentality:
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.”
Setting the stage for what sets his criticism of President Obama apart from the no-holds-barred approach West has been known to take, he goes on to talk about West’s legacy among the Black intellectual elite:
If black American scholars are like prizefighters, then West is not the greatest ever; that title belongs to W.E.B. Du Bois. Not the most powerful ever; that’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. Not the most influential; that would include Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, Black History Week founder Carter G. Woodson, historian John Hope Franklin, feminist bell hooks, Afrocentricity pioneer Molefi Kete Asante—and undoubtedly William Julius Wilson, whose sociological research has profoundly shaped racial debate and the public policies of at least two presidents. West may be a heavyweight champ of controversy, but he has competition as the pound-for-pound greatest: sociologists Oliver Cox, E. Franklin Frazier, and Lawrence D. Bobo; historians Robin D.G. Kelley, Nell Irvin Painter, and David Levering Lewis; political scientists Cedric Robinson and Manning Marable; art historian Richard J. Powell; legal theorists Kimberlé Crenshaw and Randall Kennedy; cultural critic Tricia Rose; and the literary scholars Hortense Spillers and Farah Jasmine Griffin—all are worthy contenders.”
He eventually drops a line declaring West to be one of the country’s most exciting scholars, but after that sort of belittling of his legacy, it is hard to see the piece as anything other than a slight. If that is not bad enough, Dyson says that West basically peaked with his much-celebrated cultural critique Race Matters and that much of his work since then has been “paucity of serious and fresh intellectual work, a trend far longer in the making. West is still a Man of Ideas, but those ideas today are a vain and unimaginative repackaging of his earlier hits.” He also notes that West uses co-writers with many of his books and chides him for not taking his written works as serious as he used to.
According to Dyson, this lack of clarity in his writing is also reflected in West’s self-proclaimed title as a prophet, which he has mostly used to position himself against others who he feels dishonor the Black prophetic tradition. In particular, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, whom he calls head house Negros for seeking out camera time. Yet as Dyson points out, West has never missed an opportunity to be in front of the cameras or in the public eye, and that includes his involvement in The Matrix sequels as well as his choice to make some really bad rap/spoken word albums.
Dyson also calls out West’s connection to the Black prophetic tradition in the church, which he so admires and emulates. As he notes, West has done nothing to actually honor that tradition, one that includes ministers and pastors who have done righteous things to get themselves defrocked and excommunicated. Moreover, he adds:
West has a measure of responsibility as a professor, but he enjoys far greater freedom than most ministers or prophets. Professors have a lot of flexibility in teaching classes, advising students, writing books, and speaking their minds without worrying that a deacon board will censor them or trustees will boot them out. Prophets, as a rule, don’t have tenure. West gets the benefits of the association with prophecy while bearing none of its burdens. By refusing to take up the cross he urges prophetic Christians to carry, West is preaching courage while seeking to avoid reprisal or suffering. Playing it safe means that West doesn’t qualify for the prophetic role he espouses.
If that isn’t a tough enough pill to swallow, he continues on with his critique and eventually calls West “curmudgeonly”:
West remains an elite academic and can hardly be said to have ever been a true outsider, given his position in the academic elite and the upper reaches of the economy, but he hungers to be seen as rebellious. In truth, West is a scold, a curmudgeonly and bitter critic who has grown long in the tooth but sharp in the tongue when lashing one-time colleagues and allies.
And of course, there is the matter of that inauguration ticket, which has been beaten to death for the entirety of Obama’s presidency. In short, West didn’t get one, but the doorman at the hotel he and his mother were staying at in the nation’s capital received one. As Dyson notes of the incident:
Thus the left-wing critic found it unjust that the workingman and not the professor had a ticket to the inauguration. Only in a world where bankers and other fat cats greedily gobble rewards meant for everyday citizens would such a reversal appear unfair. J.P. Morgan might have been mad; Karl Marx would have been ecstatic.
He also accuses West of being enchanted by the same oligarchy and power that he claims to detest. West brags about his affiliation with celebrities more so than he does any affiliation with the very people he claims that he is a prophet for, the poor and the Black.
Dyson took West further to task for his often heavy-handed critique of the president, writing:
The odd thing is that Obama talks right—chiding personal irresponsibility in a way that presumes the pathology of many black families and neighborhoods—but veers left in his public policy. West, on the other hand, talks left but thinks right in his notion of nihilism and the factors that might reduce its peril. In Race Matters, West argued that the spiritual malady of “nihilism” is the greatest threat to black America—not racism, not class inequality, not material hardship or poverty or hyperincarceration. Steinberg rightly argues that it “takes hairsplitting distinctions, that do not bear close scrutiny, to maintain that West’s view of nihilism is different from the conservative view of ghetto culture as deeply pathological, and as the chief source of the problems that beset African Americans.” Steinberg says that despite “frequent caveats, West has succeeded in shifting the focus of blame onto the black community. The affliction is theirs—something we shall call ‘nihilism.’” West did as much to slam the poor with his stylish, postmodern update of ghetto pathology and blame-the-victim reasoning as any conservative thinker. He gave the notion ideological cover because it got a sexy upgrade from a prominent leftist. As much as West berates Obama’s neglect of the poor, his own writing brought them harsher visibility than they deserved.
Aside from the length and poor transitions between thoughts, I honestly can’t find much here that I disagree with. In fact, I’ve had some of these same thoughts about West for years and Dyson’s essay helped to provide clarity to other feelings, which I couldn’t fully articulate until now. In particular, West’s self-declaration that he’s a prophet, which always rubbed me the wrong way. It is no longer a rub, but rather a full-fledged feeling of disturbance. Also disturbing is the fact that one of the nation’s premier Black intellects was prank calling the first Black president of the got-damn free world from an anonymous number (as told by the president to Dyson and reprinted in his essay) over some inauguration tickets. It should be clear to all now that fighting the oligarchy on behalf of the poor is the furthest thing from West’s mind. I know it is a hard pill for Dr. West’s supporters to swallow, considering they too can be as fanatic in their support of him, as they often accuse those who are supporters of President Obama of being. But the truth is the truth.
Still, you have to wonder why Dyson chose to write this harsh critique of West. And there should be no doubt here that this essay was an “Ether.” As mentioned several times in his piece, West was a mentor, and not just in theory. Dr. West actually wrote a letter to help Dyson attend a graduate program at Princeton. Sure, West himself has taken several unnecessary shots at Dyson over the years for his close relationship with President Obama. And I too believe that those attacks against him “brought him great sorrow,” which Dyson admits in his piece. Yet when I read the way Dyson trashes West’s scholarly works and legacy, it makes me wonder how much respect for the professor he ever had to begin with. No, this doesn’t read like someone who was once dear friends with another. And if he felt that West had alienated himself and diminished his own legacy to the point where most do not take him serious, why the need to be the final nail in that coffin?
I would never in a million years speak like this in public about someone who helped give me a leg – even if they deserved it. This seems more personal, or maybe even opportunistic, but it’s definitely crafted for the white gaze (after all, why publish family business in a neo-liberal rag like The New Republic and not EBONY?). I don’t fully understand Dyson’s motivations, but the entire essay reads like a sleight of hand meant to refocus attention away from what at times is a disjointed but much needed criticism of the first Black president, and instead, put it on gossip meant to discredit his flawed critics, in this case, Dr. West and his character.
And if I could be more brazen, stuff like this is why I can’t stand what the activist community has become. As a former community organizer who actually worked in neighborhoods that many of these public academic activists speak so profoundly and for great pay about, my job was to take those ideas, which we read about in books including the scholarly ones, and put them into practice. As the truth is and always remains, there is no glory in community service work. Likewise, there are no platforms and very little ego. And there definitely are no prophets, brands, and no celebrity. Just long hours and lots of thankless work.
My point here is where would our communities be if we had more people willing to organize quietly instead of shouting to the heavens about their own genius and engaging in very public spats over who is more legitimate as an activist for the people?