Michael Eric Dyson penned what can only be described as a devastating takedown of his former friend and mentor Cornel West in the New Republic this week – a takedown so painfully accurate that it should rightly put a nail in the coffin of a once great thinker who has become a sad parody of his former self.
Dyson’s critique of West stems from a bitter falling out over West’s vicious assaults on prominent African Americans who have supported President Obama. West has accused MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry and Dyson himself of “prostituting themselves” and called them “bootlickers for the President” for daring to support Obama, going as far as to call Jesse Jackson “the head house Negro on the Clinton plantation,” and Al Sharpton, “the head house Negro on the Obama plantation.” West’s disdain for Obama – whom he calls a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface”, a “brown-faced Clinton” and likens him to a slave master – is well known, and part of Dyson’s critique zeroes in on this irrational hate that has now morphed into a bizarre jihad against anyone and everyone who dares disagrees with West.
For Dyson, West’s war against Obama began when he was not invited to Obama’s inauguration in 2008. He writes:
In a 2011 interview with Chris Hedges on Truthdig that appeared under the headline “The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic,” West recalled his indignation during the Inauguration, when he arrived at his Washington hotel with his mother, and she noted that the bellman had a ticket to the event but not her son. “I couldn’t get a ticket for my mother and my brother,” West said. “We drive into the hotel and the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel has a ticket to the inauguration. My mom says, ‘That’s something that this dear brother can get a ticket and you can’t get one, honey, all the work you did for him from Iowa.’” 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.
Dyson’s major thesis is that although West has some valid criticisms of Obama, the extraordinarily personal nature of his attacks makes it impossible to take him seriously any more. Dyson lambasts West for cashing in on his name and the good work he once did, producing lazily written books with no substantive scholarship, and likening himself to a prophet (West has compared himself to Jesus on many occasions). Dyson likens West to an aged prize fighter who has lost his instincts and lurches from one ill fated fight to the next:
Once great, once dominant, once feared, he is now a faint echo of himself. Like Iron Mike [Tyson], West is given to biting our ears with personal attacks rather than bending our minds with fresh and powerful scholarship. Like Tyson, he is given to making cameos—in West’s case, appearing as himself in scripted social unrest, or playing a prophet on television in the latest protest. He has squandered his intellectual gift in exchange for celebrity. He’s grown flabby with disinterest in the work needed to stay aloft: the readiness to read, think, and recast thought in the crucible of written words.
As British white person, I don’t have much of a place to speak about African American issues, but I saw Cornel West speak live in DC on Martin Luther King back in late 2013 and could not help but notice just how self absorbed, egotistical and frankly lazy he was when addressing the crowd. I wrote about it back then in article titled “Why I Didn’t Interview Cornel West” after feeling completely depressed at what I had seen. The great orator who once spoke in a language accessible to people of all color was now a bitter race warrior, hurling the nastiest of insults at other black leaders with whom he disagreed with.
I had wanted to speak with him about Martin Luther King but couldn’t bring myself to approach him after listening to an incoherent ramble about injustice filled with much rhetorical flair and next to no substance. West was truly exposed by the other brilliant speakers that day, and after speaking to a group of African American ladies I was sitting with, I discovered I wasn’t the only one who thought that way. On the way out of the event, I spoke with Guardian journalist Gary Younge who talked at the event about the book he had written on Dr King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, but could barely get to him given the excitement West was generating around him, selling and signing a book that was several years old. I wondered why Dr West had showed up at the event – he clearly hadn’t prepared for it, yet never wasted an opportunity to direct attention to himself despite not having any real reason to be there.
It is fine to disagree with Obama and anyone else who supports him. Personally, I agree with much of West’s criticisms pertaining to Obama’s relationship with Wall St, his timidness in dealing with racially sensitive issues and many of his foreign policy decisions. I also agree with him on much though, and try to maintain a sense of balance when looking at his Presidency as a whole. And of course, I don’t take anything he does personally – he’s a politician running the most powerful nation on earth with responsibilities and problems I could not begin to comprehend. Sure, many of his decisions infuriate me, but I can never fully understand the power dynamics at play that lead to them. West though, believes Obama owes him personally and has made it his mission to let the world know that he is the sole arbiter of righteous blackness. As Dyson writes:
West’s narcissism in this matter is not exemplified by his sense of being jilted but in the way he has personalized his grief. And the longer West has nursed his resentment, the more he has revealed parts of himself that even he may not understand or be able to explain, since political disappointment in a politician’s behavior rarely provokes such torrents of passion, such protracted, dastardly, and sadly, such self-destructive hate.
It is truly a shame that a great American thinker who spoke so eloquently to so many people has allowed his ego and narcism to override his formidable brain. West could once control those impulses and channel them for good, his frenetic energy manifesting itself in remarkable rhetorical skill and a blazing passion for justice. Sure West was always a flamboyant performer, but he was a good one. What remains now though, is an embittered self promoter struggling to come to terms with lost relevance. West’s viciousness is not a sign of passion, rather a symbol of sad desperation and the decline of his once great intellect.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.