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Activist Cornel West is knocked over during a scuffle with police during a protest at the Ferguson Police Department in FergusonI’ve been following the Cornel West/Michael Eric Dyson brouhaha, so I might as well say something about it. A lot of the reactions, especially from commenters on assorted web sites, dwell on imputed motives. That’s a bankrupt line of criticism. Nobody’s a mind-reader. Stated words and deeds are the sources of evidence, not suspicions that somebody is self-serving. Everybody is self-serving; the questions are how, and to what effect.

091812-politics-bet-townhall-voting-rights-rev-al-sharpton-tj-holmesThe reactions of others I usually follow include: Jeet Heer, Glen Ford, Gary Younge, Dave Zirin, Max Blumenthal, and Scott McLemee. For historical background, and also because it is one of the most wicked funny essays ever, there is also this from Adolph Reed Jr. (sample from Reed: ” . . . Dyson, as usual, is bringing his best Pigmeat-Markham-Meets-Baudrillard act along behind.”).

My initial reaction on Twitter to the Dyson hit, because that’s what it is, was a qualified positive. As a friend notes, it’s “a mix of excellent and terrible.” Scott had a similar reaction.

At the same time, like Glen Ford (and Scott, I imagine), I am most sympathetic to West’s political stance. By contrast, Dyson as MSNBC talker is for all practical purposes an apologist for the president. He subs occasionally for FBI informer Al Sharpton, who has elevated Probama hackery to an art form. Dyson’s claims to a critical stance are unconvincing. In his New Republic article (side note: TNR, although they’ve lost some people I like and some I don’t, has gotten better lately), he lets the cat out of the bag himself, describing his own rhetorical contortions before African-American audiences. His priority is self-protection, not forthright commentary.

West’s own response to Dyson on Facebook was brief and utterly lame. People are dying, why talk about me. Oh please. Nobody is above criticism. West is an important figure. He is fair game. But what’s the criticism?

Dyson’s chief claim is the devolution of West’s scholarly output. I am not well-situated to render any verdicts on this question. I’ve read exactly one scholarly essay by West, written a long time ago, on populism. I thought it was excellent. I don’t actually think that’s the real issue here. West has passed any reasonable threshold for noteworthy scholarly output. There’s no law that he can’t switch gears. Noam Chomsky doesn’t write about linguistics any longer, as far as I know.

What’s really in question is the proper progressive stance in Politics, the Correct Line, as we used to say (ironically). Dyson wants some radical cred, but he can’t get any on his present path. From that standpoint, his attack on West is a distraction. Like the other Democratic Party cheerleaders on MSNBC, MED has become part of the problem. West for his part has been doing all the right radical things, offering blistering criticism of the Administration and getting busted. I am apprehensive about his dalliances with the likes of Bob Avakian and the so-called Revolutionary Communist Party (which, like the joke goes, is neither revolutionary, communist, nor a party). But Cornel is mostly right. Obama’s MSNBC supporters have every right to be Democrats, but they have to surrender their radical cards. That’s what they’re fighting to keep, the better to guard the Administration’s left flank. No.

Come the  2016 election campaign, I’ll be gritting my teeth like everyone else. I have no problem with the cottage industry of constant attack on the G.O.P. You go, Daily Kos. Right on, Media Matters for America. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. I will be joining in myself when the time comes. But until then we shouldn’t leave our brains behind in considering the limits of the Democratic Party’s contribution to Humanity.

 


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Wild West Show — 6 Comments

  1. I have limited tolerance for two of the intellectual
    games on display:

    no longer a serious scholar! I am tired of Deans who say this in order to justify no more raises. I don’t want my allies to parrot this line.

    the radical/liberal dance. I have been in a PTSD cycle since the 1990s, always wondering whether this is the moment to finally break with Clinton or Obama. Obama presents more of a dilemma because his DOL is doing good work just as he threatens to destroy any progress with a new trade deal. The liberal who papers over TPP is making a big mistake. So is the radical who says Obama is entirely an instrument of Wall Street. Wall Street would not put David Weil in the DOL.

    Maybe a tool of the socially liberal anti-McDonalds cadre on Wall Street. How big is that?

  2. Hi David. I’m not sure what break w/Obama means. We have to support him vs. the crazies, but we don’t have to promote everything he does indefinitely. There is no lack of resources to do that. Anybody with a glimmer of radical sensibility should be devoting it to criticism.

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  4. I liked West’s lame response. Dyson’s piece was just politics as dueling celebrities. There is way too much of this. Note the recent clash between Chomsky and Harris–the really interesting point ( to me) is how Americans think our good intentions excuse all the harm we do, but in the comments at Salon people tended to make it about who “won” the debate. That would depend on what issues you think are important, and so people should focus on that, not on the personalities

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