It would have been nice if Dr. Cornel West never made the personal comments on Obama, but it was an interview by Chris Hedges of Truthdig.com entitled “The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic” and questions were asked to which West answered. It does seem petty on West’s part, but honestly, we all have an outsiders view on the relationship between West and Obama. Clearly West felt that he had enough of a personal relationship to feel betrayed by Obama. I’m more interested in why he felt betrayed beyond just getting his feelings hurt. For such an answer, I turn to the latter part of the interview where West discusses policy.
It’s abundant West’s political self-identification as a Democratic Socialist. By his staunch advocating for the poor and his new rhetoric against the “plutocrats and oligarchs” we see that West is in favor of much more socialist programs. I think West’s betrayal came when he felt that Obama was giving more audience to the status quo and mainline advisors and economic policymakers–and not him. Mind you, if I had shown up on stage with Obama while he was campaigning 65 times, I would have at least expected some inauguration tickets or a return phone call as well.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry’s response to West was childish and way beneath her standing as a public scholar and intellectual. She even accused West of undermining Obama’s candidacy in 2008 because of West’s outward criticism of him. But she’s long since had a problem with West and Tavis Smiley from back in 2008, and she’s been a water-carrier for Obama. Generally, I don’t hear her addressing Obama’s criticisms, but I hear her offering accomplishments on Obama’s behalf in order to combat criticisms. That’s fine, but to act as if Obama’s sh*t don’t stink is delusional at best and conciliatory to a fault at worse.
And understanding where Harris-Perry (formerly Harris-Lacewell) is coming from goes back to 2008 when she wrote the article “Who Died and Made Tavis King?” where she criticized Tavis Smiley (who we later found out endorsed Hillary Clinton prior to the Democratic National Convention) for being mad that Barack Obama didn’t attend the State of the Black Union that year. I think her later criticisms of Smiley and later West are disingenous because prior to 2008, most of Black Academia were tripping over each other to get a seat on that stage. By the same token, as an electorate we must hold our elected officials accountable. When Harris-Perry in more recent memory lambasted Smiley and West for a comment about the “Machiavellian politics” of Obama, it was clear there was no love lost between the Harris-Perry and the two.
Harris-Perry’s support of Obama reminds me of the strange relationship seen in [black] churches with an authoritarian pastor. The hope is for a benevolent dictatory, but dictator nonetheless. One who we support in public and mildly criticize behind closed doors. I am reminded of a quote from Ricky Jones’ What’s Wrong With Obamamania? Black America, Black Leadership and the Death of Political Imagination published prior to Obama’s victory. Jones says of the Black Church that
The black community, maybe more than any other, is affectively linked to churches and their pastors to the degree that criticism of either (no matter how rational) is often viewed as nothing short of an attack on God…Unfortunately, black ministers (be they emancipators or collaborators in oppression) are often protected from secular intellectual confrontation by the almost certain ire of their flocks, which is heaped upon any critic who questions their leaders’ decisions and/or motivations.”
If we supposed Obama as a pastor, and the black community, steeped in an ecclesiastical leadership mindset, as the congregation of a church, then we’d see some stark parallels. For many of us, anything that was seen as a detriment or a derailment to Obama as a candidate or as president was to be handled in house and as to not air dirty laundry.
As for Harris-Perry I can’t help but mention the tripe she spewed on Twitter comparing West’s criticisms to Donald Trump focusing entirely on the personal sensibilities of West and then said both of them had bad hair. I thought it was telling when after her piece on TheNation.com was published that her fellow colleague Dr. Eddie Glaude tweeted that he couldn’t take her seriously anymore. Certainly that was hyperbole on his part and a kneejerk reaction to her article and her tweets I’m sure, but it did speak a deeper level of critical thought that we lack in this country at times.
My major problem that I saw with the fallout was Black Twitter (yes, it does exist) and the Black Blogosphere’s innate inability to choose the provocative over the substantive thus choosing the path of least resistance. It was easier to talk about West being full of himself by seemingly lauding over the hotel worker who got inauguration tickets and he didn’t rather than discuss the effect of Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geitner controlling economic policy that disadvantages and ignores the poor, pays mere lip service to the middle class and protects the rights of big business and the rich in this country. Certainly West’s comment of Obama being afraid of a “free black man” added another level of complexity to the issue.
Was West playing the race card? Yes he was, but knowing West, it wasn’t without merit for the sake of being sensational and covering up hurt feelings. Yes, Obama is black by all accounts, but he did have a white mother and white grandparents who were much more fundamental in his upbringing. West said that Obama “feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want.” Certainly that’s a damning statement, but does it negate it’s veracity? There’s very little color in the persons that Obama has surrounded himself by. I don’t think that this is a nod toward wanting Obama to be the President of Black America as it is criticizing Obama for continuing business as usual–something that he more or less campaigned against.
West brings up the touchy issue of ontological blackness. Is it a nice and politically correct subject to talk about? No. Not by a long stretch. But by us not talking about it doesn’t make the issue vanish into thin air. It’s my opinion West brought it up in this instance because of what he observed: who Obama has surrounded himself with and how he was raised. These are fair and equal criteria that would be apropos for me, my parents, and West himself: we are products of the matrices from which we have experienced in our lives. That is to say, Obama’s Euro-American and international upbringing is just as important to his ontology as I am the product of a mother who was a part of the Great Migration and a father who was born and raised in rural Acadiana here in Louisiana. I’m not convinced that West is expecting Obama to be apologetic from whence he came so much so as he wants Obama to be cognizant of it, to let Obama knows that he knows and also to bring a wider knowledge to the masses about this.
Michael Eric Dyson termed it as one being intentionally black, incidentally black and accidentally black. West, is clearly and unapologetically, intentionally black. Obama obviously made the decision to be intentionally black as well–he married Michelle. But Obama has the privilege of being incidentally black when it suits him. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I think this proves bad for the likes of West when it disadvantages the poor citizenry at the expense of protecting the rights of the few and rich.
Above all, West and Harris-Perry just have different political outlooks. I’m a bit shocked that as learned as both of them are that neither of them took the time to acknowledge their different politcal vantage points. West is a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist. So am I, for the most part. I believe in the process of the many electing a few for the sake of governance, but I also believe that the goverment should provide some basic services for all of it’s citizens–clear emphasis on all. I think it would be safe to label Harris-Perry, based on what I know of her from her former blog “The Kitchen Table” and her articles and essays over the years, her commentary on MSNBC and her tweets that she’s a Democratic Populist. To me this means she’s much more interested in ideas and policy that effect the majority of the people positively. This doesn’t mean that I believe she’s in favor of the status quo, but such a political situation isn’t as iconoclastic as what West was presenting.
Cornel West, goes the path of the iconoclasts before him: political and social alienation. This was evidenced in the May 17th interview on the Ed Schultz show on MSNBC where Ed was more or less scratching his head at West’s comments. And naturally so, you can’t explain ontological blackness in 60 seconds or less to a national audience. When Harris-Perry came on, Ed was found nodding his head much more and smiling in agreeance with what she had to say. Below is the clip in case you missed it:
Despite my Twitter rants and my satirically alleging that “Harris-Perry had a #lovejones for Barack Obama,” I respect and validate Harris-Perry’s opinion on this issue. It’s just that I think she chose to highlight the provocative over the substantive issues, and for that, as a community and as citizens of this country, we’ve got to do better.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL
P.S. Happy 86th Birthday to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and better known as Malcolm X. May your #revolutionary spirit lives on my brother.