APRIL 21, 2015
Ignoring the Political for the Personal
by BEN NORTON
In her 1987 autobiography, Assata Shakur characterized liberalism as a politically and morally bankrupt ideology, writing
I have never really understood exactly what a ‘liberal’ is, since I have heard ‘liberals’ express every conceivable opinion on every conceivable subject. As far as I can tell, you have the extreme right, who are fascist racist capitalist dogs like Ronald Reagan, who come right out and let you know where they’re coming from. And on the opposite end, you have the left, who are supposed to be committed to justice, equality, and human rights. And somewhere between those two points is the liberal.
As far as I’m concerned, ‘liberal’ is the most meaningless word in the dictionary.
Liberals’ constant attacks on Cornel West—one of the most important leaders in the US anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and economic, social, and environmental justice movements of today—serve as a reminder as to just how accurate Assata was in her assessment, made almost three decades ago. The Democratic commentariat seem to take pleasure in heaping scorn on the principled iconoclast, never failing to include as a header image on their articles a photo of the professor scowling, in a cheap attempt to portray the amiable, peace-seeking public intellectual as angry and impetuous.
In the latest of such shameless attacks, MSNBC analyst and avowed Obama defender Michael Eric Dyson published a 9,600-word article excoriating Dr. West. Instead of attacking white supremacy, the Georgetown University professor invested a great deal of time and energy in carrying out a public attack on one of the few leaders on the contemporary American Left.
In a parenthetical statement in the essay, Dyson recalls a private discussion he had with Obama in the White House. Later on, he writes that, “Throughout his presidency I have offered what I consider principled support and sustained criticism of Obama,” and states he has “expressed love for Obama and criticized him for not always loving us back.” A quick look at the White House visitor records helps paint a picture of this cozy relationship.
Dyson’s affection for Obama certainly shines through the work; even the scantest of criticisms is hard to come by. In perhaps the most ludicrous, topsy-turvy moment in the extended work, Dyson claims “Obama talks right … but veers left public policy,” whereas “West, on the other hand, talks left but thinks right.” In the real world, the exact contrary is true: Obama talks center-right and veers decidedly right on policy. Obama is and has always been a conservative. The Obama the Conservative project meticulously detailed his right-wing policies for years.
The evidence overwhelmingly shows that Cornel West is absolutely correct in his insistence that Obama “posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency.” This presidency is also built upon the expansion of murderous imperialism in the Middle East, upon the adoption of neoliberal trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (often described as “NAFTA on steroids”), upon the mass deportation and inhumane and illegal internment of millions of Latin@ immigrants and refugees, upon the privatization of prisons, upon the McCarthyist crackdown on whistleblowers, and more.
According to Dyson, West “derides” Obama as a “neoliberal opportunist.” This is not derision. This is an objective fact. Obama is a neoliberal through and through. He has made it his singular mission to pass the TPP and gut regulatory and labor laws, using secretive, anti-democratic methods in order to do so.
In the words of Chris Hedges:
The Democratic Party in Europe would be a far-right party. It’s pro-war, it’s anti-union, it’s anti-civil liberties. I mean, Obama’s assault on civil liberties is worse than Bush. It’s an enemy of the press. It’s used the Espionage Act to shut down whistle-blowers, which are the lifeblood of a free press. It has assassinated American citizens. I mean, at what point do you say enough?
Obama’s actions are what matter, not his rhetoric. Dyson concedes this, averring that it “is a sad truth that most politicians are serial rhetorical lovers and promiscuous ideological mates.” And, yet, Dyson dabbles mostly in rhetoric, utterly failing to engage in these serious political concerns.
In the overture to the protracted piece, Dyson claims he is “just as critical of the president as” West, yet proof of such an assertion is certainly hard to come by—and he spends the next several thousand words detailing why exactly the opposite is true.
Defending Corporate Civil Rights Figures
While shielding Obama from West’s criticisms, Dyson elevates corporate civil rights figures Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, among others. The two men’s names appear constantly (Sharpton 16 times and Jackson eight).
Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford describes Al Sharpton as “a crook who is always for sale,” with strident “amorality and infinite capacity for corruption.” Sharpton, Ford says, is a “celebrity locked in the embrace of the rich and powerful.”
Sharpton’s ostensible civil rights organization the National Action Network is sponsored by the world’s largest corporations, including Walmart, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, AT&T, Verizon, and more. He clearly seeks real, systemic change and justice with those kinds of progressive backers.
Jackson is a reactionary pro-imperialist proponent of “black capitalism” who destroyed the Rainbow Coalition, co-opting its legacy as an internationalist, multi-cultural revolutionary organization created by the socialist Black Panthers and turning it into a neoliberal nationalist “coalition.”
Young black Americans recognize that Sharpton and Jackson are not fighters for liberation. When the two reactionary public figures tried to exploit the Black Lives Matter uprisings in Ferguson and elsewhere, they were booed off stage. Cornel West, however, unlike these corrupt corporate celebrities, has been at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, getting arrested at demonstrations, constantly attending and speaking at rallies, tirelessly working from the bottom up, in true grassroots fashion.
Dyson essentially writes off the import of these actions as mere “highly staged and camera-ready gestures.” In Dyson’s view, West “hungers for the studio, and conspicuously so.” It is implied that his civil disobedience is part of a façade for attention. Dyson even admits he, at least for a time, entertained the preposterous notion that West is motivated to do so because he is “consumed with jealousy of Obama” and firmly maintains that “West’s deep loathing of Obama draws on some profoundly personal energy that is ultimately irrational.” In a similarly superficial moment, Dyson speculates that West may “hate” Obama because he was unable to get a ticket to the president’s inauguration.
For starters, the idea that West loathes Obama is incredibly misguided. West is the polar opposite of a hate-filled person; he constantly speaks of love, and firmly opposes Obama’s reactionary policies, not his being. In a 2014 interview on Democracy Now, West in fact remarked of Obama, “when I say when I love the brother, it means we have to tell the truth about him.”
The fact that West does not hold any kind of deep hatred of Obama aside, this is the kind of puerile argument liberals regularly construct to defend their untenable positions. They personalize critiques of political figures, turning political argumentation into apolitical beauty pageants that are fueled on “irrational personal energy,” not substantive material concerns about existing systems of oppression.
Ignoring the Political for the Personal
Dyson makes no serious critiques of West’s actual political positions. His entire essay reads primarily as a very long-winded ad hominem (which is all the more ironic considering Dyson accuses West of “biting our ears with personal attacks”). Dyson focuses almost entirely on how West speaks and presents himself, but largely glosses over West’s political criticisms of society.
He harshly writes “West is 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,” yet fails to enunciate why this is purportedly the case. He furthermore claims West has become “an unintentional caricature of his identity” and accuses the scholar of “delusion and exegetical corruption.”
Borrowing from what one might hear in a high school breakup scene in a John Hughes film, Dyson pillories West for being “crushed that Obama had ideologically cheated on him”—as if it were a petty thing to be frustrated at a president who campaigned on promises of progressive “change” but turned out to be just another neoliberal warmonger.
Much of the article is devoted to dissecting West’s characterization of himself as a prophet, which one gets the impression is overstated. Dyson also writes extensively about “West’s diminished scholarly output” and what he feels to be a “paucity of serious and fresh intellectual work,” then proceeding to conflate these criticisms with West’s activism and criticisms of the status quo, implying the latter are equally “vain and unimaginative.” In a problematic selective reading of West’s work, Dyson accuses the professor of propagating a “conservative view of ghetto culture as deeply pathological, and as the chief source of the problems that beset African Americans.” Again, however, he does not spend a single sentence acknowledging West’s politics. No mention whatsoever is made of West’s work on Marxism, nor is his involvement with the Democratic Socialists of America ever brought up.
Absent from the essay—in spite of its prolixity—is any attempt to engage with, let alone refute, West’s critiques of Obama and the US political establishment. Dyson does raise warranted concerns about gaps in West’s scholarship, noting, for instance, that the professor failed to clearly define what exactly makes a person a prophet, yet, to a large extent, Dyson avoids the political. He illustrates the liberal tendency to emphasize that the personal is political to such a degree that the non-personal, systemic political is ignored.
Dyson even goes so far as to write off West’s critiques of Obama as “a species of antipathy that no political difference could ever explain.” Instead of engaging in the political, Dyson reduces it to a mere “shrill and manic dispute.” He classifies West’s denunciation of Obama as the sign of “the loss of a brilliant black mind,” as if criticizing a president who won an election thanks to the financial backing of some of the world’s most powerful banks and corporations were only something a “maniac” would do.
In a bout of full liberalism, Dyson concludes the essay averring that West’s problem ultimately lies with his own self, not with any politician or political system. This is the kind of vacuous political perspective that dominates the intelligentsia today.
One wishes that Dyson would get as worked up about the victims of Obama’s drone war, which Chomsky calls “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times”; about Obama’s steadfast support for Israel during its summer 2014 massacre of over 2,300 Gazans, in which itintentionally targeted civilians; or about Obama’s mass deportations of over two million people—to name just a few of his positively reactionary policies—as he is about West’s supposed hatred of Obama.
The fact of the matter is West’s heated criticisms of Obama are the logical result of a morally consistent human being seeing the horrors for which the Obama administration has been responsible. The problem does not lie with West’s admittedly provocative denunciations of Obama, but rather with the fact that more self-identifying progressives are not standing up for their values and opposing their government’s obscene crimes.
Siding with Larry Summers, the ‘Toxic Colonialist’
In his criticisms of West, it should be pointed out that Dyson favorably cites neoliberal economist Lawrence Summers, former Chief Economist at the World Bank and President of Harvard University, a figure who has occupied many important positions in the Clinton and Obama administrations and has a long history frequenting the corporate elevator and revolving doors between powerful economic and political institutions, including hedge funds like D. E. Shaw & Co. Summers, who has come under attack for blatant misogyny, is the kind of liberal who helped former Soviet countries privatize their economies—leading to enormous increases in poverty—and oversaw the deregulation of the US financial system.
Summers, on whose authority Dyson relies without trepidation, signed an internal World Bank memo in 1991 that called for Western countries to dump toxic waste in the Global South, because, in his view, from a capitalist economics perspective, the value of the lives of people in Africa, Asia, and more is less than the value of the lives of people in North America and Europe. Summers’ defense of “toxic colonialism” was of little importance to liberals like Obama himself, who relied on the former World Bank economist as the White House United States National Economic Council and the principle economic decision-maker during the Great Recession.
The ultimate irony lies in the sharp contrast between Summers’ belief that (presumably white) Western lives are more valuable than black and brown ones in the so-called Third World and Cornel West’s antithetical adamant insistence that all lives are equal. In his condemnation of killer drone strikes, West often implores listeners to consider whether they truly do consider all lives to be equal, whether they truly care about the young Pakistani children killed in Obama’s drone program—which Amnesty International has accused of war crimes.
As is common among the liberal intelligentsia, Dyson also exploits the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to defend and lionize the war criminal (according to Amnesty International) Obama.
The irony is that many of the criticisms Dyson levies against West were equally true for MLK—a “prophetic” leader who, like West, was not a “moderate” toer of the party line, but was rather a radical, a relentless critic of not just racism but also of imperialism and capitalism, someone who alienated many supposed allies in his indefatigable and intersectional quest for justice.
Dyson predictably whitewashes MLK’s radical legacy, claiming the civil rights icon “was arguably more beneficial to the folk he loved when he swayed power with his influence and vision”—that is to say, when he worked within the system and did not step on the toes of the powerful.
Throwing Progressive Leaders Under the Bus
Do West’s claims of prophethood go overboard? Yes. Does Dyson exaggerate these claims? Also yes. Is Cornel West immune from criticism? Absolutely not. He is not perfect. And I concur with Dyson; he is not a prophet.
Yet, by siding with a criminal presidential administration over one of the leading purveyors of justice in the world today, figures like Michael Eric Dyson demonstrate, once again, how politically and morally bankrupt liberalism is.
The MSNBC analyst’s essay “The Ghost of Cornel West” exemplifies what is precisely the problem with liberals. They will side (and gleefully, at that) with neoliberal leaders who consider the lives of people in the Global South less valuable than those of Westerners, who wage genocidal wars, and who destroy economies with structural adjustment programs and odious debt, over radical justice-seekers because, in their myopic, ahistorical, and frankly ignorant view, it is “arguably more beneficial” to do so.
Liberals should be much more concerned about the innumerable ghosts of the victims of their leader’s policies than they are about the ghost of one of his most strident critics.
Cornel West is a hero—absolutely, unequivocally a hero. And he is one of the few heroes the Left has today. Unfortunately, that has never stopped liberals from throwing them under the bus.
Ben Norton is a freelance writer and journalist. His website can be found at http://BenNorton.com/.