What's Behind Michael Dyson's Over-the-Top Takedown of Cornel West?

News & Politics

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, 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 high profile African-American intellectuals and activists who have served as Obama’s 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 issues 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 he failed to convey in detail. Before an audience of thousands, 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 quickly 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 the 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.

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