I’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.
The 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-
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.