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Seven Thoughts On The Ghost Of Cornel West

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1. It’s not terribly uncommon for the type of people who’d even be interested in reading Michael Eric Dyson’s thoughts about Cornel West to rib on Dyson for his often torrential and occasionally obnoxious loquaciousness. He is a man very in love with both the words escaping his pen and coming out of his mouth, and the conspicuousness of this love often makes him easy to caricature.

Some even take that ribbing further, suggesting that Dyson is, at best, an empty-worded academic lightweight or, at worst, a disingenuous, empty-worded, academic lightweight. Basically, a fraud.

It reminds me of some of the criticism James Harden receives. He’s an MVP candidate, one of the NBA’s dozen or so best players, but there are some fans who consider him to be gimmicky. A fraud. Basically, he’s only successful because of how he baits players into fouling him and baits the referees into calling those fouls.

And then Harden will go and drop 50, 10, and 8, effectively exposing those charges as fruitless.

Dyson has similar moments in “The Ghost of Cornel West.” There are some passages in this piece that are, well, amazing. Like this one, where he compares West to Mike Tyson.

If black American scholars are like prizefighters, then West is not the greatest ever; that title belongs to W.E.B. Du Bois. Not the most powerful ever; that’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. Not the most influential; that would include Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, Black History Week founder Carter G. Woodson, historian John Hope Franklin, feminist bell hooks, Afrocentricity pioneer Molefi Kete Asante—and undoubtedly William Julius Wilson, whose sociological research has profoundly shaped racial debate and the public policies of at least two presidents. West may be a heavyweight champ of controversy, but he has competition as the pound-for-pound greatest: sociologists Oliver Cox, E. Franklin Frazier, and Lawrence D. Bobo; historians Robin D.G. Kelley, Nell Irvin Painter, and David Levering Lewis; political scientists Cedric Robinson and Manning Marable; art historian Richard J. Powell; legal theorists Kimberlé Crenshaw and Randall Kennedy; cultural critic Tricia Rose; and the literary scholars Hortense Spillers and Farah Jasmine Griffin—all are worthy contenders.

Yet West is, in my estimation, the most exciting black American scholar ever. At his peak, each new idea topped the last with greater vitality. His fluency in a remarkable range of disciplines spilled effortlessly from his pen, and the public performance of his massive erudition inspired many of his students to try to follow suit, from religious studies scholars Obery Hendricks and Eddie Glaude Jr. to cultural critics Imani Perry and Dwight McBride. West may not be Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Jack Johnson, Jersey Joe Walcott, or Sugar Ray Robinson. He’s more Mike Tyson, a prodigiously gifted champion who rose to the throne early and tore through opponents with startling menace and ferocity. His reign was brutal, his punch devastating, his impact staggering.

I’m not well-versed enough in Black academia to know if this analogy holds water. But the construction of the analogy itself — and the breadth of knowledge necessary to craft it — is one of the many reminders in this piece that Dyson can drop 50, 8, and 8 too.

2. The irony of Dyson including a long and relatively insignificant passage about his own background in a piece calling West out for being vain did not escape me. This was not the pot calling the kettle black. This is the metal pot being mad at the metal kettle for being metal.

This is not a personal attack on Dyson as much as it’s just a recognition of the fact that anyone who writes several books or accepts panel or TV invitations to speak or decides that lecturing college students is their best career path or does what I’m doing right now is, by definition, vain. You can not be one of the People Who Write And Say Things Other People Listen To without first believing that what you say and what you write is important enough to be heard. And this belief requires the type of vanity that would make you include a long and relatively insignificant passage about your own upbringing in a piece calling someone else out for being vain.

3. The fall out between Dyson and West — and West and several other former friends, apparently — apparently stems from West’s feelings about President Obama. In a nutshell, West feels deeply disrespected by the President, and has seemed to distance himself from anyone who still supports him. Although there are several reasons for West feeling this way about Obama, the most prominent seems to stem from his inauguration. Despite being very supportive of Obama up to that point — and apparently very outspoken with this support — West did not receive a ticket, and was very hurt by this slight.

Dyson defends Obama, writing that the president actually shared with him that “…West left several voice messages, including prayers, from a blocked number with no instructions of where to return the call.” Implied: Obama wanted West to be there, but wasn’t able to reach him.

This is bullshit. Of course, Obama was and still is a very busy man, but if he really wanted to reach Cornel West, he could have reached Cornel West. Although West’s antipathy seems one-sided, there doesn’t seem to be any love lost on Obama’s end either.

4. This particular antipathy — a mix of personal feelings and policy/politics-related distrust — is not unique to West. There are quite a few very smart and very progressive people of color who have similar feelings about Obama. The dislike and distrust is so palpable that it does feel personal. And not personal in the “this random person wronged me” sense but the “this person I loved wronged me” sense. I’ve always considered — and still do consider — those people to be delusional. People disappointed that Obama is who is he instead of who they wrongly expected/wanted him to be. Jilted lovers, basically.

But perhaps there is something more there. I don’t believe there is, but I acknowledge the possibility of my own feelings about Obama shielding me from some truths about his character.

5. Along with West’s vanity, Dyson’s main criticism of West is that he’s been a substandard academic for the last, well, 20 years.

It is not only that West’s preoccupations with Obama’s perceived failures distracted him, though that is true; more accurate would be to say that the last several years revealed West’s paucity of serious and fresh intellectual work, a trend far longer in the making. West is still a Man of Ideas, but those ideas today are a vain and unimaginative repackaging of his earlier hits. He hasn’t published without aid of a co-writer a single scholarly book since Keeping Faith, which appeared in 1993, the same year as Race Matters. West has repeatedly tried to recapture the glory of that slim classic by imitating the 1960s-era rhythm and blues singers he loves so much: Make another song that sounds just like the one that topped the charts. In 2004, West published Democracy Matters, an obvious recycling of both the title and themes of his work a decade earlier.

If true, this pattern is both the most predictable part in the piece and the most damning. It’s predictable because it’s human nature for people to take their foot off the pedal once they reach the pinnacle of their profession. You see in every other industry — ambitious people start to lose some of that ambition once it leads to success — so West should be no different.

It’s damning, however, because it suggests that the top for him wasn’t Race Matters, it was the recognition he received for writing Race Matters. Fame, not achievement, is what made him soft, and I can’t think of a worse thing to say about an academic — especially an academic who very publicly criticizes the academic bon-fides of other academics.

6. You will not find a better deconstruction of the difference between speaking and writing than what Dyson does here:

The ecstasies of the spoken word, when scholarship is at stake, leave the deep reader and the long listener hungry for more. Writing is an often-painful task that can feel like the death of one’s past. Equally discomfiting is seeing one’s present commitments to truths crumble once one begins to tap away at the keyboard or scar the page with ink. Writing demands a different sort of apprenticeship to ideas than does speaking. It beckons one to revisit over an extended, or at least delayed, period the same material and to revise what one thinks. Revision is reading again and again what one writes so that one can think again and again about what one wants to say and in turn determine if better and deeper things can be said.

7. Why wasn’t this published in EBONY? Or The Root?¹ Or any of the several renowned publications featuring Black EICs, Black associate editors, Black managing editors, Black copy editors, Black writers, and (mostly) Black readers? Why, when one of our most prominent academics decides to write a racially and politically tinged 15,000 word long piece about another one of our most prominent academics, isn’t a traditionally Black publication the landing point for it? Why won’t one of them receive the hundreds of thousands of clicks — and accompanying ad revenue/attention/prestige — that the New Republic will today?

I don’t expect anyone to answer these questions today. But at least we should be asking them.

¹Danielle Belton did interview Dyson at The Root. The point remains, though.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Wheldrake

    Why was it published in the New Republic? Because TNR is hitjob central–that’s why. That feeble-minded rag has been in the business of low-brow hatchet-jobs on real leftist voices for some years now. It’s sad that Dyson lends his name to this publication with this outright character assassination piece. Notice that he doesn’t really address all of the real political grievances West has with the neoliberal status quo. He just infantilizes West and calls him “irrational.” West has flaws, sure, but he’s till speaking real truth to power. Dyson, however, just pissed away his credibility.

  • eve

    Yes. Having an article like this in New Republic is akin to having Sharpton’s National Action Network conference in the Sheraton. It’s like “whuh???” We need our gems (or stones) to gain at least ONE more cycle within the community, even if just for economic purposes, before it propels out to the general public. And when you add that this is dirty laundry, and when you add that this is clearly personal to the point that many of us likely read it cringing (like one did when they first heard their parents, as Boomers would say, “getting down”) it’s even more weird.

  • Courtney Wheeler

    I was always a more of a Cornel fan than a Dyson one (I felt Dyson was two rhyming phrases away from being Jesse Jackson) But I must admit, for about two years something was off about Cornel to me but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Dyson’s essay, especially his complaints about Obama rang true to me. Cornel West’s beef the President slowly morphed into “he didn’t invite me to his party” than actual policy complaints. But overall any political pundit bitching about another pundit even when warranted just seems petty.

    • Sometimes the simplest answers suffice: I think Cornel just wanted attention.

      You can watch clips of some of his recent criticisms of Obama and the Black MSNBC branch of his administration. He’d often make a criticism, and just as he was concluding his statement, you could see him think for a second, and then he’d come up with a phrase that spiced up the comment. Even sometimes the intervierwers would be looking around like, “N!gga was that necessary?!”

      It wasn’t about mere criticism, you could tell there is something else there.

  • Jay Howard Gatsby

    Ironically, I’ve viewed a few opinions on Dyson’s, well, opinion, and your point 7 stands out most of all.
    I didn’t question it at first but now I do wonder why Dyson’s piece was on The New Republic instead of in a Black publication. It makes me question if MED had one of those “old men on the porch” moments (you know, like Charles Barkley has when he’s asked for opinions on social issues) where airing our dirty laundry to “others” makes them feel better about themselves.
    I can’t disagree with much of what Dyson said about Dr. West but it’s intriguing that he doesn’t hesitate to make his own personal cases as to why HE (Dyson himself) might be better situated to call himself a prophet just because of his church background.

  • Ms. Passion

    The answer to number 7 (maybe). I don’t know if it’s connected but Jamil Smith is the Senior Editor for the New Republic. He was also a producer on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show. Cornel West called MHP a “fraud” . MED is a frequent contributor on MSNBC… I don’t know. I’m just playing connect the dots.

    • Jay Howard Gatsby

      oh no!!! it’s a conspiracy theory that actually has a rabbit hole that actually does connect some dots and at least appear plausible!! I didn’t know those existed.

    • Medium Meech

      Don’t listen to champ on number 7, Champ is a little salty because he was trying to get Micheal Eric Dyson to be a guest writer for that article but he went with New Republic instead.

  • Medium Meech

    Man these academic Thots be tripping. From my experience the black high profile Af-Am academics of that generation have huge senses of self importance. On one hand I think Mike Dyson throwing personal haymakers against a colleague in a public forum is in bad taste. On the other someone needed to call out West and his very personal and very public thotlery with the president and everyone tangentially related. And with the personal nature of Wests attacks I think some leeway in criticism of him should be granted.

    • Wild Cougar

      I approve of this message. Few things are more embarrassing to watch than Black men who think too much of themselves going full diva when they start to lose shine.

    • Dougie

      I liked the comment as soon as I saw “Man these academic Thots be tripping”. That’s classic.

      But I also agree with you. Dyson is in bad taste. But SOMEBODY needed to knock Cornel West off his high horse. And if you’re gonna go at it, then you might as well do it like this. Dyson Buster Douglas’ed West just now.

  • Danielle C

    The whole article is an embarrassment and it’s not even worth all of this analysis. MED wants to be in the public eye and apparently he will do anything to accomplish it. He wrote an entire book called Is Bill Cosby RIght? This is not the stuff of superior scholarship that he accuses West of failing to produce. It doesn’t matter what you think about West, the article was petty and is NOT what academics are in the business of doing. What a waste of hours that could have been spent addressing real issues. We are in the midst of a moment where there are so many things to rant about and MED chose his personal beef with someone else? I think the fact that this appeared in TNR goes right along with the sentiment of this piece…..those white folks are sitting back enjoying this and MED should be ashamed……he may get on MSNBC for this, but in the academic world no one respects this, no matter where their politics lie. And black lives don’t matter anymore because of this.

    • Please…

      I’m neither a fan of West or Dyson, but to think that scholars or academics are beyond the human vice to rant, throw out all sense of intellectual honesty, and tear down their enemies is laughable at best, if not ignorant at its worst. Malcolm X said far worse things about MLK, some of which were blatant lies, whatever, such is life. The article was indeed petty, but calling Obama a “Republican in blackface” is bound to attract petty responses in the future, is it not?

      Not to mention, I don’t know if you’re a fan of intellectual history, but people in academia are notoriously petty, and why wouldn’t they be, when people are fighting over the validity and supremacy of their theories and abstractions, why would they not fight over and over with words, ideas and smears – just like sport fans, where the results of such conversations as least lead to somewhere, like all-star votes? I think you put too high value to the elite-ness or nobility of those who attain doctorate degrees and travel daily the halls of the ivory tower.

      Finally, ummm, black lives don’t matter anymore, because two PhDs/”Prophets” got beef…yeah, I don’t think reality or life rotates around people who have a big vocabulary and oratorical skills who are also political activists and media personalities. Yeah, they are useful, many times even influential, but just like black people lived on during the Nas and Hova beef (which I’m willing to bet was far more relevant), I think we’ll be able to manage dealing with two black progressives mudslinging one another.

      • Furious Styles

        “…to think that scholars or academics are beyond the human vice to rant, throw out all sense of intellectual honesty, and tear down their enemies is laughable at best, if not ignorant at its worst….Not to mention, I don’t know if you’re a fan of intellectual history, but people in academia are notoriously petty…”

        Word. I mean, look closely. They have students (undergrad and grad) kissing their asses and they are rewarded for having the “right” answers, and failing that, being the most persuasive person in the room constantly. And then you add the element of celebrity that comes with being a public intellectual. Just like money, fame will amplify the virtues and vices you already have.

      • NCDancer

        This! It has always been this way in academia. What’s the saying: Academic politics are so nasty because the stakes are so low.

      • Wild Cougar

        They need to get a reality show so we can watch them toss glasses of wine at each other.

        • “Blood, Sweat, and Thesauruses”

          There could be a drinking game where the viewers take shots every time someone says “Obama” “MLK” or “my brother”.

          • miss t-lee

            we would all have alcohol poisoning.

            • Straight Cooter Brown status.

              • miss t-lee

                You already know.

              • Lea Thrace

                You are so damn country! LOL

              • AlwaysCC

                i just learned about cooter brown a couple of years ago and i try my best to introduce him to people as often as i can! lol

        • ReadyRoc

          You won! lol “toss glasses of wine at each other.”

      • DBoySlim

        “Yeah, they are useful, many times even influential, but just like black
        people lived on during the Nas and Hova beef (which I’m willing to bet
        was far more relevant), I think we’ll be able to manage dealing with two
        black progressives mudslinging one another.”

        It was far more relevant. Nas and Jay-Z had historical importance. This, not so much.

      • Danielle C

        No one is beyond pettiness and ranting….that’s not what was meant here….I see that’s all that people read from this passage. We are not in the business of writing articles talking about anita baker concerts, personal riffs and other ridiculousness in public acting like it’s scholarship. Sure, some can do it and have done it….but in general, this is not something that is going to bring you respect in the field and people for that reason don’t do it. They save it for other forums. The article comes off as very silly and much less substantive than the comparisons that have been made of Martin and MLK and Booker Washington and Dubois. There’s no comparison.

      • Asiyah

        “Not to mention, I don’t know if you’re a fan of intellectual history,
        but people in academia are notoriously petty, and why wouldn’t they be,
        when people are fighting over the validity and supremacy of their
        theories and abstractions, why would they not fight over and over with
        words, ideas and smears – just like sport fans, where the results of
        such conversations as least lead to somewhere, like all-star votes?”

        Thank you for this. I now feel less bad for not getting into a PhD program. I CAN be petty, but if that’s how you have to be in academia, no thank you. I’m good.

    • God Shammgod

      You would have a point if it weren’t for the small fact that the entirety of history proves otherwise.

  • Are black intellectual publications even in the business of public scathing critiques of other black intellectuals and thought anymore? Thought that went out of vogue decades ago. Everything is about affirmation and self-esteem now.

  • It’s not that hard to understand really.

    Like I said below, I don’t really care for Dyson or West, I think both have actually been very purposeful about the words they use and how they choose to attack one another, in this case, I actually have more respect for Dyson because he doesn’t do it under the passive aggressive guise of “brotherhood”, which Cornel is quite notorious for doing so. A father can beat the h@ll out of you and defend it using the defense of love, but such arguments fall apart and are embarrassing, when it’s adults at the table.

    I wrote about this awhile back about online/youtube black intellectuals (or pseudo-intellectuals if you care) and how contrary to what people might expect, people who argue about ideas, are most likely to engage in petty attacks of once another, since there’s usually no objective way of determining whether an idea that exists in theory alone is true or false, thus the default is to attack what can be objectively verified or falsified: the person. Does it lead to anything productive? No, of course not…but who cares, unless you’re under the illusion that such conversations ever seek to accomplish anything or ever do.

  • Yet Another Lurker

    What’s with Bell Hooks name being the only one in lower case? Was that a backhanded compliment type of recognition or just an error? Sorry if this sounds petty, just something I noticed. ***back to reading the rest***

    • bell hooks spells her own name like that for stylized effect. In fact, capitalizing the first letters in her name would be improper. For example, check her official page as a scholar at The New School.

      • TeeChantel

        You beat me to it :-)

      • I remember reading about her rationale about this a couple years ago…

        Lets just say academia at times can be a refuge for overthinkers – usually, at their own expense.

        • LMNOP

          One of my work study supervisors did the lower case name thing. Every time I got an email from him I’d sit there thinking “no, you’re not bell hooks, leave your name alone.”

          • AlwaysCC

            lol i do it because i think my name actually looks better with the lowercase c (i have no ‘high’ or loopy letters in my name)

      • Yet Another Lurker

        Ah, good to know. Thanks!

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