An Open Letter to Dr. Cornell West
Pundit, Poet and Philosopher Share a Bright Moment
On Dr. King, President Obama and Politcal Reality
After reading your Op-Ed column on Dr. Martin Luther King in the New York Times, I felt compelled to sit down and write you a letter. Since the conversation that I want to have with you is about public matters i.e. the fate of our nation and the Presidency of Barack Obama, I decided to make it an open letter and put it on the internet so everyone can see it. I feel it is my duty to respond to your column because you are such an influential public intellectual and moral scold people listen when you speak. Like E. F. Hutton on finance, you da man with many people on matters of morality and politics.
Since I have publicly pledged to praise saints, celebrate heroes, unmask charlatans and chastise scoundrels I could not remain silent. You have all the trappings of intellectual and moral authority – Harvard education, PhD, author of influential texts, able orator, Princeton Professor of Religion – but the more I watch what you are doing with these powerful assets…I fear you are squandering them my brother, and you are in danger of hurting us all with your folly.
I am employing the term folly in the same sense as the two time Pulitzer Prize winning historian Barbara Tuchman in her path breaking book “The March of Folly.” Here the term folly refers to the decisions people make – - usually leaders of nation states – that all observable evidence suggests is against their own interests. And there can be no doubt among partisans of the working classes and foes of the plutocrats, which you claim to be, that the Tea Party /Republicans are avowed enemies of our agenda. Yet you are at this very moment engaging in activities that if continued will aid a total takeover of our national government by these vicious enemies of the working class.
Thus I have no doubt that in the present struggle for the soul of our nation and the survival of organized labor – which is the vehicle through which the working class defends their gains and advance their interests – you are missing your true calling in this great fight. As a self-declared spokesman for the working class and the poor, the proletariat and lumpen-proletariat, you are curiously at odds with the actual spokesman for the working class, the elected leaders of the great unions, who correctly view President Obama as the only friend of poor and working class Americans among all the people who are likely to become the next President of the USA!
Even as I write the Teamster Union President Jim Hoffa is on WNBC TV reaffirming their support for the reelection of the President; although they have some sharp disagreements with him about strategy. They do not question that Barack is their friend and the Republicans are the enemy; and if empowered would callously take away rights that the working class struggled for a century to win. The contrast between what the leader of one of the world’s most powerful unions had to say on this matter, and what you have been saying, highlights the fundamental disagreement that I have with you about your criticism of the President.
Dr. Nathan Hare – who holds two PhD’s, one in sociology and one in Psychology – is a longtime intellectual warrior in our struggle, a man who was on the front lines of engaged scholars when you were running about in knee pants in the wilderness of Sacramento chasing fire flies, states the problem succinctly. In a recent statement on Facebook, Dr. Hare argued that black critics of President Obama must first make it clear that there is no alternative to supporting the President and the Democratic Party in the coming elections. That is the only way your criticism can be constructive rather than destructive Cornell.
The difference is clear: constructive criticism is a critique that will help us defeat the Grand Obstructionist Party in the coming elections. Destructive criticism is the kind of loose and mindless diatribes that confuses and demoralizes people to the point where they decide that they cannot vote for either party and stay home…effectively turning the national government over to the Republicans. I am afraid, Dr. West, that this will be the result of your misguided, overly-emotional and often irrational attacks on the President. Alas, I am increasingly hearing threats to remain at home on election day from your acolytes.
Unlike you, the Teamster leader made it clear that there was no chance that organized labor was going to abandon the President because the Republicans are the enemy of the working class. While he didn’t like it, he understood the compromises the President has made. They get it that the President was forced into certain compromises in order to get anything done and avoid disaster. But you, Dr. West, don’t get it! You talk in terms that suggest the President has betrayed the entire progressive legacy because he was forced to compromise!
When in fact, the very concept of compromise means that you have to accept something you don’t want in order to get something you want. Whereas the Teamster leader was clear in his purpose and what must be done, you prattled on in your NY Times Op-Ed in such a muddled fashion one could easily conclude that you think President Obama could have solved the problems you rightly highlight but just wouldn’t do it!!! And therefore deserves defeat in 2012 – which goes without saying if your first charge is true! If you are not saying this, then what the fuck are you talking about?
What for instance do you mean by the following passage? “The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.” Considering that on two thirds of the issues you mention here the President actually proposed policies to do just what you said he should; I am constantly amazed at how people print stuff like this from you and don’t seem to recognize that it is muddled non-sense!
The only other person who manages to get away with publishing incoherent gibberish on a regular basis is Stanley Crouch, but at least he has the refuge of poetic license and people are so hypnotized by his use of language they don’t notice that he is making no sense. Your argument is the kind of stuff one expects from an impassioned but not very well educated undergraduate student…someone who has listened in on the conversations of mature intellectuals and got bits and pieces of the conversation and is now trying to reconstruct it –but doing so badly!
It is embarrassing to hear someone who is widely regarded as one of the nation’s premiere intellectuals say things like: “The administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.” First of all the bank bailout or TARP was passed during the last days of the Bush Administration, and was an admission that their economic policies had failed.
Thus the task of any serious analyst of our present economic mess is to point out with clarity that the Republicans now running the House, and all of their presidential candidates, are advocating those same policies – only now they are on steroids! Your failure to address this issue is itself enough to disqualify you as someone we need take seriously.
The problem with the kind of editorial you have written for the Times is that you are not required to suggest any policy options or strategies for achieving them. It does not take much to demonstrate that your argument is morally pretentious empty rhetoric, a hysterical rant that leads nowhere. Do you really think this nation, and the black community especially, would be better off if the banking system had failed…if the president had stood back and allowed the world financial system to collapse? If you do you are the most highly educated moron in history, a worthy ally of the Tea Party! If you don’t believe it you are a dangerous charlatan and hypocrite and therefore of one heart with the so-called “Tea Party Patriots.”
Instead of pointing out that President Obama has passed the most stringent regulations on Wall Street since the 1930’s, and nominated Elizabeth Warren, the brilliant Harvard Law professor and longtime advocate for the poor, to head the new agency, you attack him for saving the world financial system from collapse! Instead of denouncing the Republicans for refusing to confirm Professor Warren and fund the agency tasked with implementing the new financial regulations, while opposing any attempt to tax the rich, who are sitting on record profits, you attack the president for the success of the business community which is the engine that propels this economy.
Rising profits in the corporate sector is proof that the President’s policies to save the economy from a great depression that many economists believe would have been worse than the 1930’s has succeeded! That’s how capitalism works Cornell! And, in spite of the fact that both of us wish it were otherwise, Americans overwhelmingly support capitalism! If the democrats were in control of the Congress however, they would have done away with the Bush Tax cuts and raised the effective corporate tax rate by terminating many of the tax write offs that they presently enjoy.
It is the Republicans that are preventing this from happening…but you continue to blame the President. Your actions in this regard is leading some of your critics to conclude that you are really a paid agent for the plutocrats – especially since your so-called “Poverty Tour” designed to embarrass the President is paid for by a major commercial bank! They think you a false witness with a hidden agenda designed to so confuse the issues that many who voted for President Obama in the last election will stay at home this time and give the election to the Republicans.
That’s what some folks are beginning to say about you Corny. However I am not one of them. In my view it doesn’t matter if you are a paid agent of the reactionary right or not, because I can’t imagine what you would do differently if you were a paid agent. As the New York Times columnists Charles Blow has demonstrated by crunching the numbers: If everybody who voted for the President votes for him again in the coming election, but 10% of Afro-Americans who voted stay at home, Barack will lose! Hence whether you were paid for your role in this or not is a distinction without a difference. The result will be an unmitigated disaster for the least among us…the people you claim to care about the most.
While your Op-Ed is full of hysterical moral preachment and pretentious sophistry masquerading as deep thought, with false analogies popping up everywhere like Banquo’s ghost, you never rise to what I believe is your true calling in the great struggle to determine whether civilization or savagery shall triumph in America. Sometimes you tease us with the possibility that you recognize your role, but you never rise to the occasion.
A poignant case in point is the following observation: “King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.” Obviously this transformation is a matter that is far beyond the control of any politician; this is work for preachers, philosophers and theologians.
If you had been unable to recognize it before, the implications of your observations in the Op-Ed should have clearly defined your calling. You are a professor of religion at Princeton, a position which invests you with great authority on the interpretation of biblical texts. Hence instead of dispensing bad political advice and spouting questionable historical analysis, what we desperately need you to do is lead an assault on the theology that fuels so many of the arguments of the far right. How is it possible that you can stand silently by and bear witness to far right evangelists preaching a false doctrine that converts Jesus Christ from the champion of the poor and down trodden, into the God of billionaires that grind the poor underfoot to make the rich richer?
How have you chosen to attack President Obama instead of Rick Perry, an unabashed foe of the working class who literally wraps himself in the bible, that is leading all Republican candidates in the polls, when Barack is the only friend of the poor who has a chance of being elected to the Oval Office? Why are you not running around like a watchman in the night yelling “Blasphemy!” “Sacriledge!” to the top of your lungs?
Was it not Jesus who said: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?” Did not Jesus Christ despise usurious bankers so much that he drove the money lenders from the temple with violent action? If I, a man whose devoutly Christian senior daughter has declared “an un-churched heathen,” is offended by this perversion of the teachings of Jesus why aren’t you? If their false theology offends a wretch like me – an avowed atheist beyond salvation – why are you so nonchalant Chilly Willie? You who claim to love the lord every chance you get ! I have wracked my brain seeking an answer to this enigma.
If you are not a stealth provocateur out to do the president in for money or personal animosities fueled by envy, revenge or blind ambition, then you have misread your role and tragically squandered your splendid gifts worse than anyone I can think of now or in the distant past! Ten years ago you ran around the country urging people to vote for consumer advocate and political gadfly Ralph Nader rather than Al Gore, the Democratic candidate.
In doing so you helped to elect George W. Bush; if the 300,000 wayward Democrats had not voted for Nader in Florida, Al Gore’s margin of victory would have been so large that the controversy which put Bush in office would never have been an issue. Not only are you far too arrogant and self-righteous to fess up your role in this disaster, and seek forgiveness from the multitude of Americans who were injured or killed by Bush’s decisions on the economy, taxes, war and peace: You are doing it again!!!!!
It seems that you never learn, or you refuse to learn, but I warned you that your misguided preachment could result in the election of George Bush and it did. In fact, I published a commentary of several thousand words laying out the dimensions of the impending disaster titled “On Choosing the Lesser Evil” and I have posted it on this blog to remind people of the destructive role you played 10 years ago.
It is inconceivable that you learned nothing from that experience; but alas, either you learned nothing or you are clear in your purpose to destroy the Presidency of President Obama no matter what. That would make you a helpful ally of the Tea Party if not an agent. Should these right wing anti-government zealots achieve total control of the US government; the sins that they commit against working people of all colors will also leave an indelible stain on your character. It would be poetic justice worthy of a Shakespearian tragedy to watch you wander about like Lady Macbeth crying “Out damned spot!’ in a futile attempt to white-wash your role as midwife to the calamity.
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
August 29, 2011