Part of Michael Eric Dyson's searing critique of former friend Cornel West was that his old mentor no longer had the intellectual chops to be taken seriously. Dyson wrote:
It is not only that West’s preoccupations with Obama’s perceived failures distracted him, though that is true; more accurate would be to say that the last several years revealed West’s 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 hasn’t published without aid of a co-writer a single scholarly book since Keeping Faith, 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.
As if trying to make Dyson's point for him, West took to facebook yesterday to pen a half hearted response that did virtually nothing to address Dyson's points. He wrote:
The escalating deaths and sufferings in Black and poor America and the marvelous new militancy in our Ferguson moment should compel us to focus on what really matters: The life and death issues of police murders, poverty, mass incarceration, drones, TPP (unjust trade policies), vast surveillance, decrepit schools, unemployment, Wall Street power, Israeli occupation of Palestinians, Dalit resistance in India, and ecological catastrophe.
Character assassination is the refuge of those who hide and conceal these issues in order to rationalize their own allegiance to the status quo. I am neither a saint nor prophet, but I am a Jesus-loving free Black man in a Great Tradition who intends to be faithful unto death in telling the truth and bearing witness to justice. I am not beholden to any administration, political party, TV channel or financial sponsor because loving suffering and struggling peoples is my point of reference. Deep integrity must trump cheap popularity. Nothing will stop or distract my work and witness, even as I learn from others and try not to hurt others.
But to pursue truth and justice is to live dangerously. In the spirit of John Coltrane’s LOVE SUPREME, let us focus on what really matters: the issues, policies, and realities that affect precious everyday people catching hell and how we can resist the lies and crimes of the status quo!
West is of course right that there are far more important issues than spats between intellectuals, and the issues he outlines really should compel us to focus on what really matters. Incredibly though, he has the gall to talk about character assassination - a truly breathtaking accusation from a man who has called those he disagrees with 'prostitutes', 'bootlickers', 'house negroes', and inferred that the president is akin to a slave owner. If West believes that these astonishingly offensive insults does anything to help us 'focus on what really matter's', he clearly hasn't studied the great leaders he so often speaks about. When did Jesus Christ or Martin Luther King engage in vicious name calling or use language to separate people instead of attempting reconciliation? Perhaps West sees himself as more of a Malcolm X figure, although he appears to be following Malcolm's spiritual evolution in reverse. As Malcolm aged, he became less divisive, less angry and less obsessed with race. West, it seems, has become more angry, more divisive and more obsessed with race.
If this is West's final response in the ugly war he started, it is a fitting one for a man who no longer takes himself seriously. To borrow Dyson's boxing analogy, West took on a fighter he had no business being in the ring with and is paying the price for his folly. After convincingly beating Muhammed Ali in Madison Square Garden in 1971, the great Joe Frazier said of his opponent: “His mouth made him feel like he was gonna win. Not his hands, I had my hand. He had his lips.”
Ali came back from his beating to recapture the heavyweight title and go on to be one of the greatest fighters of all time. Perhaps West can do the same and be done with this ugly manifestation of his ego. But for now we must wait for the once great thinker to return.