This piece is right on the money….Thanks Max…PASS THE WORD...
News & Politics
What's Behind Michael Dyson's Over the Top Take Down of Cornel West?
Hoping to salvage Obama’s legacy and his own reputation, Michael Eric Dyson is lashing out at their most relentless African-American critic
by Max Blumenthal
April 24, 2015
As the Obama era sputters to an end, new social movements are erupting in rebellion against a bankrupted bipartisan order that has doomed Americans to record levels of economic inequality, warehoused black bodies in a rapidly privatizing prison system, torn thousands of migrant families apart, outsourced unionized jobs to China and spread a dystopian assassination program across the far reaches of the globe. Activists confronting militarization on the US-Mexico border and organizers protesting lethal police violence under the banner of Black Lives Matter are sharing tactics with their counterparts from the Palestinian-led BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) movement challenging Israeli apartheid on university campuses. The personal and intellectual cross-pollination between these variegated struggles is producing the most exciting surge of grassroots mobilization I have witnessed in my adult life. Not everyone is happy about it, however, and it’s not hard to understand why.
The structure under-girding movements like Black Lives Matter is intentionally non-hierarchical, making them difficult for institutional liberal political entities to co-opt or control. Organizers eschew a programmatic agenda that demands alliances of convenience with entrenched power, resorting instead to divestment drives, civil disobedience and Situationist-style urban disruptions. With their populist sensibility, they are capturing the sense of betrayal that is mounting among millenials, and they show little appetite for electoral contests that fail to answer the crisis. “I decided it is possible I’ll never vote for another American president for as long as I live,” the Ferguson-based rapper and activist Tef Poe has said about his past support for Obama.
Organized with little regard for the imperatives of the Democratic Party, and often aligned against them, the wave of grassroots mobilization is increasingly viewed as a wild beast that must be tamed. The condescending rants delivered against Black Lives Matter activists by Oprah Winfrey and Al Sharpton are salutary examples of the irritation spreading within established Democratic circles.
Few public intellectuals have positioned themselves at the nexus of these emerging movements as firmly Cornel West has. Earlier this month, I joined him on a panel at Princeton University to support a group of students and faculty seeking to pressure the school into divesting from companies involved in human rights abuses in occupied Palestinian territory. His presence boosted the morale of the young student activists who had suddenly fallen under attack by powerful pro-Israel forces. Days later, West joined veteran human rights activist Larry Hamm at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark for a discussion on local efforts against police brutality. It was in places like this, away from the national limelight, where West gathered his vital energy — and his righteous anger.
West’s investment in grassroots struggles ignored and even undermined by the Democratic Party has thrown him in direct conflict with the president and his supporters. He has been particularly withering in his criticisms of the of high profile African-American intellectuals and activists who have served as Obama’s most loyal defenders. In an August 2013 episode of the radio show he hosted at the time with Tavis Smiley, West mocked Sharpton as “the bonafide house negro of the Obama plantation.” He then let loose on his former friend and understudy, Michael Eric Dyson, describing him and Sharpton as White House tools “who’ve really prostituted themselves intellectually in a very ugly and vicious way.”
The stage was set for an epic response from Dyson, the Georgetown University professor of sociology, frequent MSNBC contributor, and committed Obama ally. Dyson’s counter-attack arrived on April 19 in The New Republic with an essay that read more like a diatribe, and which seemed unusually disproportionate, not only because it clocked in at 9309 words. Repurposing attacks on West by Leon Wieseltier and by Larry Summers, Dyson excoriated his one-time mentor as “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.” (He would later accuse West of "assaulting Black people.") The malevolent thrust of the piece was encapsulated in its title: “The Ghost of Cornel West.” Dyson had condemned West as politically irrelevant and intellectually exhausted — a dead man walking. Back in the early 1990's, West served on Dyson’s dissertation committee, helping earn him admission to Princeton’s school of religion. Two decades later, Dyson authored West's obituary.
Much of Dyson’s harangue was comprised of complaints about West’s unnecessarily ornery tone. Dyson went to great lengths to demonstrate that West’s experiments in spoken word poetry and acting were cringeworthy, and he wrote miles to prove that West was not, in fact, a Biblical prophet. But these details of what Dyson described as West’s “rise and fall” were at best peripheral to his real grievances. The fact is, if West had not taken on Obama so forcefully, Dyson would not have tried so hard to take him out.
Having spent much of the past seven years slathering praise on Obama to an almost embarrassing degree, Dyson was unable to find any space in TNR to acknowledge the president’s shortcomings. Refusing to concede the sincerity of West’s criticisms, he dismissed them instead as the product of personal pathology, casting West as a jilted lover who “felt spurned and was embittered” by Obama. Dyson went on to belittle West’s arrest in Ferguson alongside 49 others at a Moral Monday protest as a “highly staged and camera-ready gesture of civil disobedience.” At no point did Dyson recognize West’s outspoken opposition to the Obama-backed decimation of the Gaza Strip, his rejection of Obama’s drive to pass the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, or his condemnation of the administration’s embrace of drone warfare. According to Dyson, West’s opposition to the president’s agenda could only be guided by an irrational madness.
While West engages with a panoply of urgent, interconnected human rights causes driving activism around the country, from mass incarceration (he authored the foreword to Michelle Alexander's groundbreaking "The New Jim Crow") to Palestine, Dyson has kept at a convenient arm's length from any cause that might conflict with White House imperatives. BDS might be sweeping American campuses, but Dyson has been largely silent on Israel's endless occupation. Dyson carps about character assassination, but he is reticent on drone assassinations. Since Obama entered the Oval Office, Dyson has had much more to say about Nas than the NSA.
There was a fleeting moment when Dyson’s language on Obama tracked closely with West’s. It was back in March 2010, at Tavis Smiley’s “We Count!” convention, an experience he briefly alluded to in TNR, but which failed to convey in detail. Before an audience of thousands and at a roundtable filled with civil rights icons from Jesse Jackson to Louis Farrakhan to West, Dyson launched into an impassioned sermon accusing Obama of abandoning black America. “Why is it that to deal with black folk, we are persona non grata?..” Dyson boomed. “You bailed out the notorious AIG, you bailed them out. You bailed out General Motors but you can’t bail out African American people who put together dimes and nickels…to make sure that you could get up in the White House?” As West gestured his enthusiastic approval and the crowd roared, Dyson ratcheted up his rhetoric: “You think Obama is Moses. He is not Moses, he is Pharaoh!” All of a sudden, Dyson’s audience turned against him, groaning its disapproval. With his confidence visibly shaken, he qualified his comments: “I’m not doggin’ [Obama], I’m talking about his office!”
In the months and years that followed his dramatic We Count! appearance, Dyson registered at least 19 visits to the White House. He became a fixture on MSNBC, delivering regular punditry on the Comcast-owned network that was functioning as the outsourced public relations arm of the Obama administration. By Obama’s second term, Dyson was filling in for MSNBC host Ed Schultz, rattling off teleprompted scripts about Republican wingnuttery while hailing Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice as “one of the most brilliant minds alive.” Following the publication of his TNR essay on West, he has begun trumpeting a book he is writing on Obama.
"You know, I got like 17 books in," Dyson boasted to Ebony. "I gotta make my first like my last and my last like my first."
In the twilight of the Obama era, Dyson has become a political prisoner trapped within the stultifying confines set by the president, his party, and network executives with little patience for dissent. He has linked his reputation to Obama’s legacy to an inextricable degree, prompting him to defend them both against their most relentless critic. Dressed up as a high-minded scholarly critique, his attack on West was ultimately an exercise in self-justification.
Max Blumenthal is a senior writer for AlterNet, and the award-winning author of Goliath and Republican Gomorrah. Find him on Twitter at @MaxBlumenthal.
Leading black philosophers fall out in print while young activists struggle to keep #BlackLivesMatter alive
by Mensah Demary
Topics: Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, The New Republic, Editor's Picks, black lives matter, Media News
The career assassination of Cornel West: A messy intellectual divorce reveals layers of broken heart -- and to what end? Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson (Credit: AP/Richard Drew/Evan Vucci)
Independent of one’s stance on the rift between Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West — a rift years in the making and now clearly delineated in the form of Dyson’s essay on West in the New Republic, “The Ghost of Cornel West” — this has all the hallmarks of a messy divorce between two public, black intellectuals who were, perhaps, better served keeping things offline. Maybe try to squash their beef in the privacy of an on-campus office or in a cozy, warm living room with beer or tea shared. Rather, what we have is this: the proverbial tea spilt online, on social media, and I keep asking myself, “Why now? And to what end?”
The essay in question, a veritable bomb lobbed online this past Sunday amid the “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men” tweets, makes no attempts to hide its intent: The title itself, “The Ghost of Cornel West,” suggests that West, an intellectual powerhouse and elder to many young policymakers, thinkers and writers, is not only in the twilight of his career, but has already passed away, reduced to walking carrion with his relevance trapped squarely in the past. A relic to be remembered and lamented and examined with the white heat of a spotlight meant to sear whatever living, breathing pieces remain of West’s legacy. Dyson — whom West mentored for more than 30 years — wields his pen with career assassination in mind, looking to finish off the man who, once upon a time, Dyson considered to be his friend and, perhaps, much more.
As I said, the very title of the essay foretold ill intent, but before reading it, I had my doubts — or hopes, maybe. I knew in passing of the connection between Dyson and West, and I knew there was a falling out between the two, centered around the rise and eventual inauguration of President Barack Obama. Still, I had my hopes. Maybe the essay—harsh title notwithstanding—would be an open letter of love to Cornel West, last seen being hauled off to a jail cell in Ferguson, Missouri, this past fall. “It could be a plea,” I thought, “for the power and penetrating rhetoric, buoyed by a once-in-a-generation intellect, to return now, now, when we, black Americans, and the nation in whole, need it the most.”
Still, I couldn’t shake the title. “The Ghost of Cornel West” dredged up dread; it evoked the image of dead bodies piling up at the hands of police; it brought to mind the fear that another black life can be easily cast aside; it reminded me of the hashtagged names of black men and women killed by senseless violence, their very names uttered in veneration as an antithesis to the media-dragging these victims receive, with police records and criminal proceedings placed on display for judgment.
My hopes waned—then scattered completely—as the essay opened with a YouTube video of Cornel West speaking on his issues concerning President Obama’s use of Martin Luther King’s Bible for his second inauguration. The video, which appears later on the actual webpage containing the essay, showed up first, before the text, when I saved the article to my Pocket app. I had no intentions of reading the essay Sunday night. I wanted to save it for another time. I knew I had to read it, but I didn’t want to. I wished it didn’t exist at all.
I have no personal stake in this breakup, for lack of a better word. I don’t claim to be a “public intellectual” and any rhapsodizing I do is rare, and often confined to my Twitter timeline, and any vitriol is stepped on by snark. In other words, I offer opinions when I have one to share, and in this case I have some thoughts, but I need to make something clear before we continue. To put it colloquially, I neither ride nor die for Dyson or West. I’m familiar with their work, but not deeply entrenched. I have watched both of them deliver stunning, poignant ideas, as well as ridiculous and tired truisms, on many panels aired primarily on C-SPAN or BET back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. My thoughts on race, on politics, on pop culture, and my place within this world in general, all have been influenced, albeit partly, by West and Dyson, both. In that sense, watching all of this unfold is like watching two senior family members—more distant cousins to me than uncles, maybe—attempt to wound each other. And while blades are brandished and blood is shed, I’m still left asking, “Why now? And to what end?”
“To what end?” seems clearer, or maybe easier to pinpoint. There are layers to Dyson’s essay; to pull them back reveals not so much the flaws and failures of the essay’s subject, but rather the pain and betrayal felt by the essayist himself. Dyson shows his hand, but first tries to hide it with fair, if uncomfortable, criticisms of West from a scholarly point of view. “[West] hasn’t published without aid of a co-writer a single scholarly book since Keeping Faith,” Dyson writes, “which appeared in 1993, the same year as Race Matters. West has repeatedly tried to recapture the glory of that slim classic by imitating the 1960s-era rhythm and blues singers he loves so much: Make another song that sounds just like the one that topped the charts. In 2004, West published Democracy Matters, an obvious recycling of both the title and themes of his work a decade earlier. It was his biggest seller since Race Matters.”
Dyson continues to dissect West’s output, more oratory than written at this point in his career, and raises salient points regarding the “ecstasies of the spoken word, when scholarship is at stake, leave the deep reader and the long listener hungry for more.” Dyson continues, “Writing is an often-painful task that can feel like the death of one’s past. Equally discomfiting is seeing one’s present commitments to truths crumble once one begins to tap away at the keyboard or scar the page with ink.”
And while these points are fair and worthy of further discussion, Dyson—the hurt, perhaps rightfully so, and jilted pupil of West—drives the narrative toward the petty. Accusing West of “highly staged and camera-ready gestures of civil disobedience, such as in Ferguson last fall,” Dyson goes further, writing, “West likewise hungers for the studio, and conspicuously so. There he is on CNN, extolling his prophetic pedigree. There he is on MSNBC, discussing his arrest in Ferguson while footage of the event rolls. There he is in the recording booth making not spoken word or hip-hop, but a grimly earnest sonic hybrid of speech and music […] There he is in The Matrix sequels, doing something he’s become tragicomically good at—playing an unintentional caricature of his identity.”
In all, the essay—north of 9,000 words long—is a grueling, disquieting tome so dedicated to the annihilation of West, one can see the splashes of tears that presumably fell from Dyson’s eyes. In my experience, hate does not generate this kind of deadly prose; hateful text tends to expose the author’s ignorance and no matter how anyone feels about Dyson, before and after this publication, he appears to be anything but ignorant. Rather, this is an angry exposé powered by love, and there is no doubt in my mind that a broken heart fueled this essay, part-takedown, part-memoir.
That love is why, more than anything else, I wish that this was handled privately, delicately and with some modicum of grace. For all I know, there were words exchanged between the two: Dyson might’ve sent the essay to West, or West said a word or two that forced Dyson’s hands. I don’t know. I know that two highly publicized members of the black intelligentsia have severed ties and, whether they know it or not, placed the younger generation—my generation—in an awkward position. People are choosing sides, or choosing to abstain (a side all the same), and the divisiveness in the current climate, when Black Lives Matter needs to remain in the public eye, is unfortunate, and possibly the real casualty. Still, what’s done is done. Dyson’s essay is the kind that can never be walked back, and he knew that going into the endeavor. Still—why now?
When Black Academia Attacks: Michael Eric Dyson vs Cornel West
Michael Eric Dyson has a bone to pick with Cornel West. But some think that 10,000 words was a bit much and overkill. In a post for The New Republic, Dyson aired his grievances against his former friend, Cornel West. Dyson basically labeled West angry and although once a great academic, has let his bitterness towards President Obama destroy him.
From The New Republic:
West’s aggressions brought me great sorrow. In his anger toward me I was forced, for the first time, to entertain seriously the wild accusations levied against him: that he was consumed with jealousy of Obama, that he simply couldn’t abide the rise of a figure who eclipsed most other black personalities for the time being and who, for many, even competed with King for recognition as the “greatest black man in American history.” I still don’t buy those theories, but I do think West’s deep loathing of Obama draws on some profoundly personal energy that is ultimately irrational—it’s a species of antipathy that no political difference could ever explain. It is sad to think that West aimed at me because my criticism failed to comport with his shrill and manic dispute with the president; our lost friendship is the collateral damage of his war on Obama.West has sacrificed friendships and cut ties with former comrades because he insists that only outright denunciation of Obama will do. It is a colossal loss for such a gifted man to surrender to unheroic truculence: If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, then the loss of a brilliant black mind is more terrible, more wasteful. At precisely the moment when we could use the old West’s formidable analytical skills to grapple with the myriad polarities that glut the political horizon, the new West, already in the clutches of a fateful denouement, has instead sought the empty solace of emotional catharsis. If West was once Tyson in his glory, he is Tyson, too, in his infamy. Once great, once dominant, once feared, he is now a faint echo of himself. Like Iron Mike, West is given to biting our ears with personal attacks rather than bending our minds with fresh and powerful scholarship.Some people took issue to the airing of Dyson’s dirty laundry on The New Republic and how shouldn’t have the need to take jabs at a former friend.
Clutchettes, what do you think about Dyson’s essay?
BSuga G • a day ago
What is the root of the schism? The president. You are a prime example of why REAL TRUE Black leftists never got anywhere with this administration. Anyone Black who challenged Obama by advocating for a Black agenda are lumped in with racist white Republican. I must say it has been very effective in shouting down Black activists. I guess the 100 Black Men of America who called out Obama's My Brother's Keeper for creating guidelines that excluded most Black grassroots groups from participating. People like you have help undermined Black political power by using accusing any Black person who disagrees with Obama as some kind of uncover Fox News supporter. How politically immature. Nothing I have said would be supported by anybody in the GOP or Fox New and you know it. Black people have ALWAYS advocated to EVERY president. This is the first time that I have seen other Black people undermine that effort. Shameful.
Watching people castigating West for insults to Obama while ignoring Obama insults to Black community must be called out. You are quite fine with not getting to the root of the schism. If you cared, you would find Obama behavior at the core. If it makes you feel better you can act like all this started because West took Dyson's ball.
I have never carried water for any President and won't do it now. Unlike you I have no interest in protecting polticains in power. Here's the hard truth. When all is said and done, Obama and family will leave the white house, make tons of money at speaking engagements and live a long and happy life. Black people will still be out here still dying in the streetshaving wasted 8 years of political capital mesmerized by Black success over Black substance,
I agree with this for the most part. It's our fault that this administration hasn't directly addressed our issues. Too many of us saw Obama as the messiah when he's just like any other politician. You have to demand what you want. That includes organizing, advocacy, and fundraising. I can do without paternalistic tone towards the Black community. He can keep that Black elitist crap to himself. I don't see anyone telling White America to get their raggedy sh*t together.
Michael Eric Dyson Deems His Public Critique Of Cornel West 'Vital And Necessary'
Dyson defended his choice of venue to air his grievances, telling host Marc Lamont Hill he hopes others can learn from the debate. He explained:
You know what the old people used to say? "Where you did it is where you get it." So people say, "Why don't you do it in private?" Because [West's comments were] done in public. And the public character of what we're doing here is vital and necessary because the lessons that can be learned, either from my mistakes, either from my flaws, either from my failures and professor West's are instructive to other people, who will then learn. I'm not saying that therefore we have to mess up in order to clean up, so that we can have object lessons. I'm saying that in the engagement of these ideas, whether it's Langston Hughes, whether it's W.E.B. Du Bois, there's a long tradition.
Dyson also acknowledged that the rocky relationship between himself and his mentor has not been easy.
"Of course it's painful. Of course blood was shed," he said. "Of course there is unnecessary, undue harm that may be the consequence of this, for which I have to be held accountable. But at the same time, the issues are so deep and profound, and the negotiations of those tensions and conflicts and contradictions, I think, have to be grappled with in a public way that at least has some sheer or veneer of integrity."
Dyson said he has "always been willing" to hash out the issues in a sit-down conversation with West, but thus far West has "refused."
"But I don't fault him for that. That's his choice. My public expression was not rooted in [wanting to] get back at you,'" he said. "My public expression was, I've seen you doing some damaging stuff and I have to say it in public because that's where you're doing it."
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Racial Terror, Fast and Slowby Michael Eric Dyson
New York Times
Yet the glory of the past runs up against the gory details of the present.
The killing this month of Walter L. Scott by Officer Michael T. Slager highlights two interlocking truths: Social protest forces us to see realities we would rather avoid, and blacks live in mortal fear for our lives in a manner that most whites don’t see or understand.
Americans are bad at viewing race in real time; we prefer rose-tinted lenses and slow-motion replays in which we can control the narrative and minimize our complicity in the horrors of our history. The racial present is messy, and upends bland racial optimism about how far we’ve come.
Protests calling for police reform took place this week in New York, and in Mr. Scott’s home, North Charleston, S.C., where some participants came from Ferguson, Mo., to remind anyone in earshot, in their familiar chant, that “Black Lives Matter.” These actions echo a past when blacks and their allies forced the nation to grapple with its racist legacy through acts of civil disobedience that were heavily criticized and resisted.
In our not-so-distant history, many Americans conceded the legitimacy of black struggle only because its leaders brilliantly staged protests for the world to see. White citizens struggled to digest their meals in peace as scenes from Selma’s blood bath, for instance, flashed on their television screens.
But the optics of race are tricky. Today, the proliferation of social media may allow us to see more, but it doesn’t necessarily allow us to see more clearly. For example, with the exception of interracial dating, polls show that millennials hold many of the same racially warped views as generation Xers and baby boomers do. Stereotypical representations of blackness, some authored by blacks and disseminated on reality TV, are still accepted as the norm.
Problems arise when images of blackness contradict a received racial script. That’s why it was easier for some to believe that the video footage of Michael Brown stealing cigarillos before he died in Ferguson more accurately communicated his character as a “thug” than to believe that the last gasps of Eric Garner were the pleas of an unjustly assaulted man. We can’t believe what we see because it contradicts what we’ve been led to believe is true.
Another truth lies in plain sight, echoing through videos of the last moments of a man’s life and hashtags of protest: The lived experience of race often feels like terror for black folk, whether that terror is fast or slow. Fast terror is explosive and explicit; it is the spectacle of unwarranted black death at the hands of the state, or displays of violence directed against defenseless bodies.
Slow terror is masked yet malignant; it stalks black people in denied opportunities that others take for granted. Slow terror seeps into every nook and cranny of black existence: black boys and girls being expelled from school at higher rates than their white peers; being harassed by unjust fines by local municipalities; having billions of dollars of black wealth drained off because of shady financial instruments sold to blacks during the mortgage crisis; and being imprisoned out of proportion to our percentage in the population.
The last moments of Mr. Scott’s life, captured on video and widely watched, are classic fast terror. Watching the video made me sick; it was, perhaps, the breathtaking indifference to moral consequence that seemed to grip Officer Slager as he fired at an unarmed black man in broad daylight. A frozen frame from the video shows a police officer, gun drawn, in pursuit. Fifty years earlier, a lawman, in pursuit, pulled his gun and shot dead the Selma protester Jimmie Lee Jackson, whom the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “a martyred hero of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”
The failure to be seen as human unites black people across time in a fellowship of fear as we share black terror, at both speeds, in common.
The way we see race plays a role in these terrors: Fast terror is often seen and serves as a warning; slow terror is often not seen and reinforces the invisibility of black suffering. Fast terror scares us; slow terror scars us.
Michael Eric Dyson, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of sociology at Georgetown and is writing a book on President Obama and race.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 17, 2015, on page A31 of the New York edition with the headline: Racial Terror, Fast and Slow.
Cornel West: “The state of Black America in the age of Obama has been one of desperation, confusion and capitulation”
The leading scholar indicts the president -- and Black leadership and the media for not calling out his failures
by Cornel West
Topics: Cornel West, Barack Obama, Editor's Picks, Books, excerpts, Race, Race Relations, Income inequality, Politics News
The great irony of our time is that in the age of Obama the grand Black prophetic tradition is weak and feeble. Obama’s Black face of the American empire has made it more difficult for Black courageous and radical voices to bring critique to bear on the U.S. empire. On the empirical or lived level of Black experience, Black people have suffered more in this age than in the recent past. Empirical indices of infant mortality rates, mass incarceration rates, mass unemployment and dramatic declines in household wealth reveal this sad reality. How do we account for this irony? It goes far beyond the individual figure of President Obama himself, though he is complicit; he is a symptom, not a primary cause. Although he is a symbol for some of either a postracial condition or incredible Black progress, his presidency conceals the escalating levels of social misery in poor and Black America.
The leading causes of the decline of the Black prophetic tradition are threefold. First, there is the shift of Black leadership from the voices of social movements to those of elected officials in the mainstream political system. This shift produces voices that are rarely if ever critical of this system. How could we expect the Black caretakers and gatekeepers of the system to be critical of it? This shift is part of a larger structural transformation in the history of mid-twentieth-century capitalism in which neoliberal elites marginalize social movements and prophetic voices in the name of consolidating a rising oligarchy at the top, leaving a devastated working class in the middle, and desperate poor people whose labor is no longer necessary for the system at the bottom.
Second, this neoliberal shift produces a culture of raw ambition and instant success that is seductive to most potential leaders and intellectuals, thereby incorporating them into the neoliberal regime. This culture of superficial spectacle and hyper-visible celebrities highlights the legitimacy of an unjust system that prides itself on upward mobility of the downtrodden. Yet, the truth is that we live in a country that has the least upward mobility of any other modern nation!
Third, the U.S. neoliberal regime contains a vicious repressive apparatus that targets those strong and sacrificial leaders, activists, and prophetic intellectuals who are easily discredited, delegitimated, or even assassinated, including through character assassination. Character assassination becomes systemic and chronic, and it is preferable to literal assassination because dead martyrs tend to command the attention of the sleepwalking masses and thereby elevate the threat to the status quo.
The central role of mass media, especially a corporate media beholden to the U.S. neoliberal regime, is to keep public discourse narrow and deodorized. By “narrow” I mean confining the conversation to conservative Republican and neoliberal Democrats who shut out prophetic voices or radical visions. This fundamental power to define the political terrain and categories attempts to render prophetic voices invisible. The discourse is deodorized because the issues that prophetic voices highlight, such as mass incarceration, wealth inequality, and war crimes such as imperial drones murdering innocent people, are ignored.
The age of Obama was predicated on three pillars: Wall Street crimes in the financial catastrophe of 2008; imperial crimes in the form of the USA PATRIOT Act and National Defense Authorization Act, which give the president sweeping and arbitrary power that resembles a police or neofascist state; and social crimes principally manifest in a criminal justice system that is in itself criminal (where torturers, wire tappers, and Wall Street violators of the law go free yet poor criminals, such as drug offenders, go to prison). This kind of clear and direct language is rare in political discourse precisely because we are accustomed to be so polite in the face of crimes against humanity. The role of the Black prophetic tradition has always been to shatter the narrow and deodorized discourse in the name of the funky humanity and precious individuality of poor people. How rarely this takes place today! The profound failings of President Obama can be seen in his Wall Street government, his indifference to the new Jim Crow (or prison-industrial complex) and his expansion of imperial criminality in terms of the vast increase of the number of drones since the Bush years. In other words, the Obama presidency has been primarily a Wall Street presidency, drone presidency, mass surveillance presidency unwilling to concretely target the new Jim Crow, massive unemployment, and other forms of poor and Black social misery. His major effort to focus on poor Black men was charity and philanthropy—not justice or public policy.
The state of Black America in the age of Obama has been one of desperation, confusion, and capitulation. The desperation is rooted in the escalating suffering on every front. The confusion arises from a conflation of symbol and substance. The capitulation rests on an obsessive need to protect the first Black president against all forms of criticism. Black desperation is part of a broader desperation among poor and working people during the age of Obama. The bailout of Wall Street by the Obama administration, rather than the bailout of homeowners, hurt millions of working people. The refusal of the Obama administration to place a priority on jobs with a living wage reinforced massive unemployment, and the sheer invisibility of poor people’s plight in public policy has produced more social despair among weak and vulnerable citizens. The unprecedented historical symbolism of the first Black president has misled many if not most Black people to downplay his substantial neoliberal policies and elevate his (and his family’s) brilliant and charismatic presence. Needless to say, the presence of his brilliant and charismatic wife, Michelle—a descendent of enslaved and Jim-Crowed people, unlike himself—even more deeply legitimates his symbolic status, a status that easily substitutes for substantial achievement. The cowardly capitulation of Black leadership to Obama’s neoliberal policies in the name of the Black prophetic tradition is pathetic. The role of the NAACP, National Urban League, and Black corporate media pundits, who so quickly became Obama apologists, constitutes a fundamental betrayal of the Black prophetic tradition. The very idea of Black prophetic voices as an extension of a neoliberal and imperial U.S. regime is a violation of what the Black prophetic tradition has been and is. This violation enrages me when I think of the blood, sweat, and tears of the people who created and sustained this precious tradition. The righteous indignation of the Black prophetic tradition targets not only the oppressive system that dominates us but also the fraudulent figures who pose and posture as prophetic ones while the suffering of the people is hidden and concealed. To sell one’s soul for a mess of Obama pottage is to trash the priceless Black prophetic tradition. Is it not hypocritical to raise one’s voice when the pharaoh is white but have no critical word to say when the pharaoh is Black? If the boot is on our neck, does it make any difference what color the foot is in the boot? Moral integrity, political consistency, and systemic analysis sit at the center of the Black prophetic tradition.
Since the rise of the neoliberal regime, the Black struggle for freedom has been cast or reduced to an interest group, one among other such groups in American politics. Even the motto of the Black Congressional Caucus, the apex of Black elected officials, is “We have no permanent friends or permanent enemies—only permanent interests.” How morally empty and ethically deficient this motto is— no reference to moral principles, ethical standards, or grand vision of justice for all; just permanent interests, like the Business Roundtable for Wall Street oligarchs, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for the security of Israel, or the National Rifle Association for gun ownership. The Black prophetic tradition indeed includes interests but goes far beyond such narrow calculations and stresses a moral high ground of fairness and justice for all. The Black prophetic tradition surely begins on the chocolate side of town, but like the blues and jazz, it has a universal message for all human beings concerned about justice and freedom.
It is no accident that the “permanent interests” of the Black Congressional Caucus so quickly became Black middle-class interests given the neoliberal regime to which they were accommodating. To be a highly successful Black professional or politician is too often to be well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference toward poor people, including Black poor people. The Black prophetic tradition is fundamentally committed to the priority of poor and working people, thus pitting it against the neoliberal regime, capitalist system, and imperial policies of the U.S. government. The Black prophetic tradition has never been confined to the interests and situations of Black people. It is rooted in principles and visions that embrace these interests and confront the situations, but its message is for the country and world. The Black prophetic tradition has been the leaven in the American democratic loaf. When the Black prophetic tradition is strong, poor and working people of all colors benefit. When the Black prophetic tradition is weak, poor and working class people are overlooked. On the international level, when the Black prophetic tradition is vital and vibrant, anti-imperial critiques are intense, and the plight of the wretched of the earth is elevated. What does it profit a people for a symbolic figure to gain presidential power if we turn our backs from the suffering of poor and working people, and thereby lose our souls? The Black prophetic tradition has tried to redeem the soul of our fragile democratic experiment. Is it redeemable?
Excerpted from “Black Prophetic Fire” by Cornel West in Dialogue with and Edited by Christa Buschendorf. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press. All rights reserved.
Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. A current professor at Union Theological Seminary, he has also taught at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. The recipient of more than twenty honorary degrees, he has written many important books, including Race Matters and Democracy Matters. He appears frequently on Real Time with Bill Maher, The Colbert Report, Democracy Now, CNN, C-SPAN, and other national and international media. He lives in New York City.