I have been trying to avoid the particulars of the smear campaign professional Democrats are running against Cornel West, because, as I said before, the Michael Dyson piece that kicked it off is really a by-the-numbers smear, mostly unexceptional but for its self-serious bloat. Far too many people — like the status-conscious phony Dave Zirin, for example — are taking it more seriously than it deserves — or pretending to — by framing it as a heartfelt and even erudite essay instead of nakedly obvious, score-settling, power-serving hatchet job. To pull apart various elements is to wrongly suggest that any part of Dyson’s piece isn’t rife with malicious dishonesty.
However, the frequency with which Dyson and his fellow careerist vermin are deliberately mischaracterizing and exaggerating West’s alleged excoriation of Melissa Harris-Perry is more than I can bear. It pops up everywhere. In Dyson’s recent Salon interview with the revoltingly disingenuous Joan Walsh, Dyson calls West’s insults “deeply entrenched in sexist language and belief.” Walsh naturally concurs: “It was disturbing. It felt very gendered and very personal.”
Zirin, wrote that West’s comments about Harris-Perry were so “vicious” they “anger [his] blood” and compared them to Muhammad Ali’s extended campaign of racialized insults against Joe Frazier in the 60s. Jamil Smith, Dyson’s editor at The New Republic, called West’s comments against Harris-Perry “hyperbolic vitriol.”
While reading this stuff, you might think you’d heard the story wrong. That West hadn’t simply said that Harris-Perry had become “the momentary darling of liberals…in over her head…a fake and a fraud.” Strong stuff, certainly, but entrenched in sexist language and belief? Disturbingly gendered and personal? Hyperbolic? So vicious that your blood boils?
Amidst all this, um, hyperbole, you might also forget that Dyson himself disclosed in his hit piece that West was reacting to two extremely unflattering articles Harris-Perry had written about West and his colleague Tavis Smiley, one in 2008 and another in 2011. In other words, Harris-Perry started this fight, and brutally so.
In the 2011 piece for The Nation, Perry called West’s remarks about Obama in a Truthdig article, “a self-aggrandizing, victimology sermon deceptively wrapped in the discourse of prophetic witness” that provides “stunning insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed black leadership class that has been largely supplanted.” In the same essay, she introduces talking points that would find themselves in The New Republic four years later — West’s acrimony owes to a grudge over Obama’s failure to provide him with tickets to the first inauguration; “the tiresome repetitiveness with which West invokes the name of his erstwhile Harvard nemesis Lawrence Summers as indicative of President Obama’s failed economic vision;” that West is a privileged elitist whose claimed affinity for the common people is misleading. She calls him “dishonest” and several times suggests he and Smiley are unintentionally hilarious.
The implication is that West is a bitter, anachronistic, increasingly irrelevant hypocrite, whose objections to Obama are rooted less in political conviction than a fragile ego. All of this of course foreshadows Dyson’s “Ghost” theme. I can’t imagine that any objective person could look at the gleeful nastiness and length of Harris-Perry’s piece and conclude that West’s reply, which came several months later, was in any way disproportional. If anything, it’s muted by comparison. But then we’re not dealing with objective people. We’re not even dealing with subjective people. Or hypocrites. We’re dealing with liars. Professional liars. The worst kind.