My ears have been burning: Michael Eric Dyson’s philippic directed at Cornel West, published a few days ago at the website of The New Republic, echoes much of my grumbling and gnashing of teeth in this column back in late 2009, following the publication of Brother West, an “as told to” autobiography. Dyson now calls that volume “an embarrassing farrago of scholarly aspiration and breathless self-congratulation” -- quite an astute characterization, if I say so myself.
The New Republic article is the most public and substantial (or at least sustained) phase of a conflict that began late in President Obama’s first term. Until then, the West-Dyson relationship was close -- practically symbiotic. A professor of philosophy at Union Theological Seminary, West is also an emeritus professor at Princeton University, where in the early 1990s he served on the dissertation committee for Dyson, who is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University. In 1995 -- when a string of articles appearing in The Atlantic, The New Yorker and other high-profile venues identified them as members of a new cohort of black public intellectuals -- West and Dyson still had what was clearly a mentor-protégé relationship, and their dialogue tended to be, as Adolph Reed Jr. put it in a blistering essay at the time, “a publicist’s delight, a hyperbolically log-rolling love fest.”
The mutual-admiration arrangement lasted until sometime near the end of the first Obama administration, when West turned up the heat on his criticisms of the president as (among other things) a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs” and “the head of the American killing machine.” A number of black liberals took issue with West’s hard left turn. But it was Dyson’s defenses of the president that seemed especially to rankle West. In August 2013, West singled out Dyson by name as one of the people “who’ve really prostituted themselves intellectually in a very ugly and vicious way.”
Similar pleasantries followed. Dyson’s response was muted until earlier this month, when he made some not very subtle allusions to West at a meeting of the National Action Network, the civil rights organization founded by Al Sharpton. “Be honest and humble in genuine terms,” Dyson said, “not the public performance of humility masquerading a huge ego. No amount of hair can cover that.” His more expansive remarks in print run to more than 9,000 words, accompanied by a drawing in which West appears to have a very bad case of dandruff.
One assessment now making the rounds is that it’s a lamentable case of the white establishment turning two formidable African-American minds against one another when otherwise they might be uniting against all that merits ruthless critique. I doubt a more inane judgment is possible. A pretty thoroughgoing ignorance of African-American intellectual history would be required to assume that black thinkers can’t or won’t do battle without there being some Caucasian fight promoter involved. Richard Wright never entirely recovered from James Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” The great but long-neglected black sociologist Oliver C. Cox was scathing about the work of his colleague E. Franklin Frazier.
Such conflicts can be psychobabbled into meaninglessness, of course. Cox’s remarks were attributed to jealousy (Frazier became the first African-American president of the American Sociological Association in 1948, the same year Cox published his overlooked masterpiece Class, Caste, and Race) while Baldwin’s critique of Wright seems like a perfect example of the Oedipal conflict between authors that Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence.” And yes, the ego will take its revenge, given a chance. But real differences in understanding of American society or the role of the artist were involved in those disputes. Those who profess to favor a vigorous intellectual life, and yet deprecate polemic, want crops without plowing up the ground.
But in moving from Baldwin/Wright and Cox/Frazier to Dyson/West, we descend a hundred miles in conceptual altitude. The earlier debates are still interesting to revisit, while the sooner we forget this one, the better. For at issue here are not ideas or principles but questions of demeanor and attributions of motive. It is the way celebrities feud.
My complaint of a few years ago was that Brother West treated intellect as little more than grounds to earn a backstage pass to meet famous people. It was frustrating and dismaying, and the passing of time has not made anything better: I find myself in the awkward and disagreeable position of agreeing with West’s opinions about Obama (and so concurring with Dave Zirin’s criticism of the New Republic article) while growing even more disappointed with West’s sense of priorities.
He hasn’t returned to philosophy or social analysis. He appears content with what I’ve come to think of as “that speech Cornel West always gives.” It is a set list of standard references, sparkling and variously arranged, like the bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope:
“Coltrane and Chekhov, Foucault and Funkadelic. Du Bois wore a three-piece suit like this one. Structural inequality; the Panthers sold their paper near Yale when I was a student there; applause-winning mention of Larry Summers and/or Spike Lee. Quotation(s) from my dear brother _______ [famous philosopher or performer]. Nihilism is bad, bluesman of the mind; keep hope alive.”
It is never the same speech, yet it is always the same speech. In it are occasional riffs from West’s early writings, but they go undeveloped. Circa 1990, the prospect of seeing him work out the deep links between Chekhov and Coltrane was intriguing. Now it’s just a shiny piece of glass, pretty enough but not going anywhere.
Dyson’s essay is for the most part a chronicle of a friendship betrayed, but it does make a telling point. The issue is West’s constant references to the Judeo-Christian idea of prophecy, understood not as prognostication but as advocacy for justice and righteousness. The word “prophetic” appears in a number of West’s titles, in ways that suggest it applies to the author himself, or at least the book. But he has never offered “detailed comparative analyses of prophets in Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Zoroastrianism,” Dyson says. “…He hasn’t explored the differences between social and political prophecy, examined the fruitful connections between the biblical gift of prophecy and its cultural determinants, or linked his understanding of prophecy to secular expressions of the prophetic urge found in New Left radicalism, for example….”
Dyson considers the vagueness all too convenient. It leaves West free to put on the prophetic mantle when and how he sees fit -- to issue warnings and denunciations while never clarifying the grounds for his claim to assume that role. In challenging this blind spot, Dyson also challenges the authority upon which West’s discourse rests.
As rhetorical strategy goes, it’s a shrewd move. Dyson targets something more fundamental than West’s political stance, and something harder to hit than a side-of-the-barn-sized ego. It will be interesting to see if West takes up the challenge. His students at Union Theological Seminary ought to press him on it.
At the same time, grounding their disagreement within the terms of their shared religious faith leaves open the possibility of reconciliation. Dyson’s other point about prophecy is that the prophet’s inspiration coexists with human fallibility. All of the most pointed jabs at West -- his vanity, appetite for media attention and intellectually lightweight work -- are also reflexive. “West’s off-the-cuff riffs and rants,” Dyson says, “spoken into a microphone and later transcribed to page, lack the discipline of the written word.” Coming from the man who published Debating Race With Michael Eric Dyson, a collection of transcripts from his television appearances, let’s hope this was meant as self-critical.
From mutual admiration to mutual recrimination -- to mutual forgiveness? Who knows? The next move is West’s. Five years ago, I hoped, against all odds, that Brother West might count as hitting rock bottom.
Alas, no. West’s activities since then have included a cameo appearance on a situation comedy. He also offered himself as the bait to lure thousands of fans into attending his “dialogue” with a Maoist cult leader whose grandiosity and verbosity did not lend themselves well to conversation, as such.
So, to repeat: I agree with a very large portion of what West says, but only his worst enemy could feel much enthusiasm for the use he makes of his time.