As you probably know, sociology professor, radio host, MSNBC contributor and frequent visitor to the White House, Michael Eric Dyson, has seized the spotlight with a disgraceful hatchet job on Cornel West in The New Republic. Its title, The Ghost of Cornel West, gives its aim away. Dyson and, no doubt, a whole lot of others want West dead, at least in social and political terms, and Dyson’s screed draws quite a lot of blood.
In most respects, it’s very much a by-the-numbers smear, which credits West’s increasingly vocal antipathy to Obama to personal and professional decline, and the usual array of pathologies and character defects that prevent public figures from staying within the boundaries of permissible dissent: narcissism, envy, insincerity, hypocrisy, bitterness and grudges. Y’know, Ralph Nader syndrome.
Having situated West’s objections to Obama in pathology, Dyson feels no need to address them with any seriousness, while extolling Obama’s virtues at length. Dyson also deftly attempts to foreclose on redemption, by insisting that, on reflection, West was never all that much to begin with. “Exciting” but not much else. Kind of a spotlight-loving showman in the end. Dyson recites a catalog of Black scholars and public figures who, by Dyson’s lights, exceed West in every meaningful respect except “controversy,” the one area where West is “a heavyweight champ.” TNR accompanies this with an illustration of the oft-smiling West looking uncharacteristically ranty as well as a number of shades darker than he actually is.
As hatchet jobs go, Dyson’s assassination cum eulogy is unique only in how overwrought it is. Clocking in at a hefty 9400+ words and richly festooned with concern troll anguish and “think piece” signifiers, Dyson’s essay provides cover for people who want to publicly drink West’s blood without looking like that’s what they’re doing. Dyson’s revolting performance on Twitter complements this perfectly, lightly salting giddiness with grief, as he rebroadcasts every compliment, less like the author of a conformist hit piece, than a man who has published the equivalent of War and Peace and taken his ailing father off life support on the same day. This tweet sums up the mood.
It was a dirty job but someone had to do it, Dyson seems to be saying, and he is not wrong to see it that way, whatever his motives were. For all we know, Dyson may think he’s just working off a grudge West created when he took Dyson and other subservient Black careerists to the woodshed. This is, after all, not the first time Dyson has taken a swing; nor is it the first time TNR has raked West over the coals. But a respected Black public figure declaring another one finished, metaphorically dead, via a widely touted think piece, is a different ball of wax altogether, one requiring a fair amount of sign-off from people with clout. Those who regard this as another salvo in a petty feud are really missing the point. A grudge doesn’t automatically get you 10,000 words in The New Republic, a mouthpiece of neoliberalism with a notoriously racist history. Dyson’s piece does not have the conventional timely hook. There is no evidence that West has recently hit some ostensible new low that provoked Dyson to get to work. So why now?
As I’ve said in the past, there are no accidents in mainstream media, which is nothing less than a one way conversation in which the ruling class does all the talking and doesn’t take chances. To answer “why now?” it’s important to understand that despite all of his public handwringing over Obama, West has been a good partisan soldier when it counted. He counseled people to vote for the president, not simply the first time around, but in 2012, a year after he’d concluded the president was “a Black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a Black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” Of course, anguished support is the bread and butter of the Democratic Party, without which it would cease to exist. So people like West, who qualify their tactical support with a blistering critique from the left, are uniquely useful to legitimizing the process and suckering the people most likely to sit out the election back into the booth.
The problem is, when they’re not acting as role models of irrational compliance, people like West are simply a pain in the ass and a risk, ungratefully injecting things like class, oligarchy, imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy into the insipid national “debate.” This is tolerable to the extent that they can be counted upon to perform compliance when circumstances require it, and to the extent that their popularity and exposure can be kept to suitable limits. As lefts that function like this go, West is much more of a wildcard than say, Chomsky, a quadrennial Punxsutawney Phil that emerges from his hole to always see the shadow of Republican calamity.
West, on the other hand, seems to be getting genuinely less compliant as the years go on — signifying decline, as Dyson would have it — and if Obama could run for a third term, I wouldn’t hazard a guess about what West would do. I am even less confident that he’ll be anything but a wedge between Clinton and the leftier elements of the Black community. That West is more and more identified with Black Lives Matter — something that is surely giving people in high places hives — only adds to the risk he poses as a Black public figure potentially sitting out Hillary’s coronation. History shows that there is nothing more terrifying to the ruling class than resistance to racism tethered to left rather than liberal politics. From a ruling class perspective, Black Lives Matter goes from skin rash to cancer the moment liberals and libertarians lose control of it. The widely respected West challenges that control in ways that thoroughly marginalized ANSWER and RCP members don’t, especially given his unwillingness to overlook liberal opportunists on the grounds of solidarity.
If it seems I’m overthinking this, you really don’t understand how few risks the political establishment takes, the extent to which it fears Black radicalism, the importance it places on elections, nor the extent to which marginalizing genuine lefts is the primary function of liberal Democrats and the thing they do best. Every presidential campaign cycle features at least one heavily signal-boosted attack on recalcitrant lefts that comes from an ostensible ally. In 2012, Rebecca Solnit did the honors with her famous, and widely reproduced, Letter to My Dismal Allies of the US Left, which provided the talking points for hippie-punching that year. Dyson’s offal goes well beyond that, by viciously singling out a widely venerated individual for ostracism. Since this person happens to be Black, it is a twofer of ruthless political discipline, instruction to both the media establishment and the rank and file, that resistance from Black people and radicals must not be tolerated.
UPDATE (link to this update)
In a piece I wrote on Gary Webb I said, “pointedly even-handed, ‘both sides are wrong’, analyses…are as much a part of defamation campaigns as outright hatchet jobs.” Liberal sportswriter Dave Zirin helpfully demonstrates this in The Nation with respect to the Dyson/West dustup, deploying a kinder, gentler concern trolling.
Before at last getting around to noting that Dyson has, in a 10,000 word piece, addressed not one of West’s complaints against Obama, he commends Dyson for his “panoramic, painfully personal, deeply researched” essay ; helpfully summarizes Dyson’s view of West as a celebrity-obsessed, “faint shadow of himself”, and “ear-biting sideshow;” laments West’s “deeply hurtful”, “vicious” aspersions against Dyson and “Dr. [Melissa] Harris – Perry” which “anger [Zirin’s] blood”; and likens West to the “undeniably narcissistic”, Muhammad Ali, and his jabs at Black careerists to Ali’s “regrettable, and for many unforgivable, questioning of the blackness of the great Joe Frazier, comparing the proud fighter to an ugly gorilla, all in the name of hyping up fights and throwing Frazier off of his game.”
Later on, after Zirin has finally addressed West’s political objections, he returns to the comparison with Ali, noting that the boxer had “two careers” and in the second of these “he was slower but… possessing a new strategy: one where he chose to take punch after punch after punch to the chin, until he either fell down or his opponent tired from exhaustion.” This is West now, we’re to believe, and we’re to understand his jabs at Dyson not as genuine frustration with a thoroughly subservient Black political establishment, but as deliberate goading, a trap into which Dyson has fallen by taking to the pages of The New Republic.
This essay is far too flimsy and dull to take too seriously, but it is instructive from the standpoint of understanding the division of labor in smear campaigns and how their talking points get recapitulated in different wrappers. Apart from validating some of West’s complaints against Obama, Zirin clearly concurs with Dyson’s hit piece in broad strokes: that West is in decline and compensating for it; that he’s a narcissist; that his paltry few aspersions against the Dysons and Perrys are a really big deal; and that these aspersions are rooted in something other than political convictions.
That’s quite lot of concurring, don’t you think?, and all wrapped up in the compassion and even-handedness sorely missing from Dyson’s screed. But this is to be expected based on what Zirin candidly tells us up front: “Dyson wrote the intro to [his] book Game Over and has been a friend to [him] on numerous occasions.” Additionally, Zirin notes he has “benefitted from the kindness offered him” by Harris-Perry. Zirin is also a Democrat writing in The Nation, which, of course, explains quite a lot, all by itself.