The Learned Professor West in his Element
A Response To Dr. Cornel West
Anybody who was looking for evidence that history repeats itself need only read my critiques of Dr. Cornel West since the first Bush election – when he thought it was wise to support Ralph Nader over Al Gore. Well, we all know how that worked out. But let me declare from the outset that I consider Cornel West to be one of the most learned and humane citizens to ever call him self an American, and I agree with him 90% of the time.
As a fellow Democratic Socialist we share the same basic vision and hopes for America. But from time to time I am forced to part company and criticize his views on a particular question. In the past we disagreed on his assessment of the character of Dr. WEB Dubois, and the viability of Ralph Nader’s bid for theu presidency and its implications for African American political strategy. And now I passionately disagree with his assessment of President Obama’s political strategy and policies. It is this question that I wish to address in the present commentary.
The differences between me and the learned Dr. West derives from our ways of looking at socio/political reality. Dr. West is a philosopher and theologian, which means he is given to grand mystical musings and philosophical speculations; whereas I rely on the evidentiary rules of the sober historian dispassionately assessing provable facts, and my strategy is determined by the cold realities of the political arena – a heartless place red of tooth and claw where grand speculators, dreamers, preachers and wishful thinkers are devoured like Christians facing the lions in the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome. In other words Dr. West is a moral scold whose actions are motivated by what he believes is right, no matter what, and I am a political animal who is looking for the best deal I can get because politics is the art of the possible!
It’s all well and good to speak in utopian language about everybody loving each other if your work is in the church, temple. Mosque or synagogue. There it is sufficient to speak in vague moral platitudes. Don’t misunderstand me; I too am interested in brotherely love and Christian charity. But in politics you have to have clearly defined earthly goals and a means of achieving your ends.
Alas in America today prayer and high minded ideals won’t deliver the bacon, this means one must find a way to successfully put together coalitions in Congress to get the votes you need for your agenda enacted into law. This is about hard nosed bargaining i.e. horse trading….And compromise! Such is the reality of politics in a participatory democracy. In our system of government we debate the issues, each side takes their case to the voters, and whoever convinces the majority of the electorate carries the day. That’s how it’s done.
In view of this reality, Professor West’s observation in the following passage from his recent NPR interview with I Cox makes no sense.
“I know my dear brother, President Obama, has a bust of Martin King right there in the Oval Office, but the question is are is he going to be true to who that Martin Luther King, Jr., actually is? King was concerned about what? The poor. He was concerned about working people. He was concerned about quality jobs. He was concerned about quality housing. He was concerned about precious babies in Vietnam, the way we ought to be concerned about precious babies in Afghanistan and precious babies in Tel Aviv and precious babies in Gaza.
“Martin King was fundamentally committed to the least of these. Of course, he was a Christian soldier for justice from the 25th chapter of Matthew. And so more and more black folk tend to be well-adjusted to Obama’s presidency, but does that mean they’re well-adjusted to injustice? Because we don’t hear our president talking about the new Jim Crow, the prison-industrial complex.”
I am, to say the least, disappointed at this niggling level of analysis from one of our leading critical thinkers and activist public intellectuals. In whose intrests was the President laboring when he expended loads of political capitol to push a national health care plan through Congress? Something popular Presidents of both parties have attempted to do and failed since Teddy Roosevelt proposed it over a century ago! And in whose interests was he laboring when he rammed equal pay for women into law?
Professor West, Pray tell us whose interest he served when he forced BP to establish an open ended fund to clean up the Gulf of Mexico and compesate the victims of the rig blowout, which began with a mandatory deposit of twenty billion dollars? And this at a time when Republicans were apologizing to the oil execs and criticisizing President Obama’s magnificent deal!
It is the clear task of the intellectual left to educate the public as to the real difference between what President Obama is doing and what the Republicans advocate. And for African American intellectuals it is an ancestral imperative!Instead we see leading intelectuals on the left, Professor West chief among them, whining about the fact that he cannot instantly address their favorite complaints, no matter that he is dealing with matters that are more important to stability and home and abroad.
Do we really want our President to be bogged down in discussions about “the prison industrial complex?” Just what country does Professor West think he’s in? The last thing on most of the electorate’s mind – black, white or Hispanic – is the plight of convicts. With black and Hispanic communities plagued by murderous criminals and dope fiends, many people believe there should be more prisons! This writer included!!!
But then, I live in Harlem, while Professor West resides in the pristine lilly white well protected precints of Princetown. And most white Americans certainly don’t want to hear about how hard convicts are having it when they are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and personally know good law abiding people – friends and family – who have lost the ability to do both.
I voted for Barack Obama, and campaigned for him with my voice, pen and personal efforts. And he’s doing just what I want him to do. But then, I voted for a President, not a preacher or protest leader. The difference between what I expect and what Dr. West longs for is clear from his comment in the Playboy interview, where he wished the President was “more Martin Luther King like.” This statement, like most of his critiques of the President, reveals that the good Professor is clueless in regard to the type of leadership the present moment requires form the Chief Executive of these United States.
This is not about rethorical moralizing; it’s about the exercise and retention of power – which is the ability to do what you want when you want to doit, to get others to do what you want when you want to do it, and to get the most, and the best, of what ever there is to get! Hence we need sober pragmatist who know how to keep their eyes on the prize; who see the world as it is and not how we wish it to be. Cornel West’s evocation of Dr. King demonstrates that in spite of his prodigious learning he does not understand this fundamental point.
Dr. King was a charismatic revivalist in a mass transformative movement whose objective was to change the moral tenor of American civilization – to persuade racist whites to recognize the error of their ways in race relations and repent. Hence his training as a theologian and philosopher was, when coupled with his verbal virtuosity as an Afro-American preacher, ideal tools for his task. But Barack Obama is the President of the USA, a demanding job unlike any other on earth, for which a different skills set is required.
To begin with, Dr. king did not have to seek the votes of a diverse constituency who are largely non-black in order to keep his position as head of SCLC and “leader” of the Civil Rights Movement. But Barack Obama does. Dr. Kings’ objective was to engage in “creative” disruptions of society in order to dramatize his point. Which is the proper role of outside agitators, but as President Barack is the ultimate insider. So his interest is in maintaining the orderly working of society with as few disruptions as possible.
This explains why revolutionaries so often became staunch law and order advocates once they seize power. It is in the nature of things. One’s perspective changes with one’s position in society. Revolutionaries are totally concerned with disrupting the existing order and seizing power; therefore the tactics they choose are suited to achieving that goal. But once they succeed in taking power then they have the problem of governing, creating a society more fulfilling to its citizen’s aspirations that the government they overthrew. And that requires a radically different program; in their new role the old tactics are no longer useful.
Barack Obama is tasked with rebuilding the nation from the rubble of eight years of disastrous Republican mismanagement of the nation’s affairs. It is, to say the least, a Herculean task even if all things remained equal and he received no opposition from the Grand Obstructionist Party. But our President has not been so lucky. His task is more difficult than that of the Hebrew slaves who were ordered to build bricks with no straw, or that of Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee Alabama a mere generation after slavery who was tasked with “building buildings in America with no money.”
Since, as Harold Cruse correctly argued, “Americans are anti-historical,’ let me remind the good Professor that when Barack Obama took office the nation’s economy was virtually crumbling around him, and he was presented with two foreign wars both bogged down in a quagmire. And he has been burdened by a do-nothing obstructionist Republican minority, and a right-wing mass media apparatus dedicated to scandalizing his name, casting doubt on the legitimacy of his Presidency, and apparently trying to get him assassinated.
If I believed all the vicious lies they tell about him 24/7 on WABC AM and Fox television, I’d want to knock him off myself. Then the critics on the left have been only marginally better. Both extremes exhibit what the distinguished American historian Richard J. Hofatader calls “the paranoid style in American politics.” After reading Dr. West’s comments the great novelist and peerless essayist Ishmael Reed has concluded in his ever insightful and candid fashion: “progressives” and their front men are out to destroy Obama just as they did Humphrey, Carter, etc. they’re staying home and pouting will lead to Republican victory and a corporate plant plain victory in 2012. Then you can forget about Social Security, Medicaid, welfare, etc.” because of progressives’ ego.”
And from where I sit this prescient brother has got a point. Everything that President Obama has done since he took office has been to try and fulfill the promises he made to bring about substantive change that we can believe in. And this has sparked a vilification campaign like none that I have witnessed in my lifetime. The Republican opposition has made no bones about the fact that they have one objective: To bring Obama down. I believe, as the courageous comic Wanda Sykes said at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner last year, what some of these crackers are doing verges on treason!
And now we hear Professor West, a moral clarion of the democratic socialist left, railing about the President being more concerned about saving Wall Street than unemployed workers. Since I have written a piece on the subject I won’t belabor it here– for an intelligent discussion of this question see: ‘Can President Obama solve the Unemployment Crisis?” at http://www.commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com. The plain fact is that the only way a President can directly influence the unemployment situation is to make the federal government the employer of last resort.
Yet in the present political climate that’s impossible because there are not enough votes in Congress to pass another economic stimulus bill – despite the fact that the country clearly needs one. In fact, the Republicans are running against the last stimulus package, although it prevented an imminent castastrophe that would have resulted in the firing of thousands of critical public sector workers all across the country and deepened the recession. Hence to blame President Obama for high unemployment is ridiculous, and to criticize him for bailing out the banks at the same time, when failure to do so would have brought on a world wide economic collapse, is well….just plain silly!
But what is even more disturbing in Professor West’s case, his criticism seems to be sparked by the fact that he feels ignored, or snubbed, by President Obama. Recalling an incident where he was in attendance when the President spoke, Dr. West tells Tony Cox:
“He made a beeline to me, though, brother, and he was deeply upset. He talked to me like I was a Cub Scout, and he was a pack master, you know what I mean? I said, well, my mother and father raised me right. I respect my dear brother, but I don’t like to be demeaned and humiliated in that way, and I didn’t get a chance to respond to him. And I hope maybe at some time we can. But it was very, it was a very ugly kind of moment, it seems to me, and that disturbs me because then it raises the question for me: Does he have a double standard for black critics as opposed to white critics? Frank Rich, Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, a whole host of brilliant, courageous critics say all kinds of things, and he treats them with respect. They get invited to the White House. I say the same thing, he talks to me like I’m a Cub Scout.”
That Dr. West felt the need to tell this tale is bad enough, but that he did so without irony or shame on public radio is shocking! It seems to never have occured to the self-important Professor that the three pundits he mentioned are among the best and the brighest of the punditocricy, and since they all appear on the editorial page of the New York Times, all the most powerful people in the world reads them!
On the other hand, despite his brillance – or perhaps because of it – his audience is far more limited. And besides, precisely because he is a brilliant and broadly learned African American intellectual Barack had every right to expect him to understand what the real deal is. And to be pissed off that he didn’t! I know I feel like pulling a Stanley Crouch and bitch slapping him myself when I read what he says sometimes.
Yet when all’s said and done, the most disturbing development is that on some critical questions the left’s position is becoming indistinguishable from the reactionary right. The anti-bailout hokum is a graphic case in point. Instead of closing ranks behind our visionary and courageous President and defending him from the Tea Party Brown Shirts, employing their formidable intellectual skills to counter the relentless ideological war being waged against him on the right, the left, who appear to be content in the role of a permanent national debating society with no chance of taking power, is finding common cause with the enemy!
Yet in the face of all these seemingly insurmountable obstacles Barack Obama’s performance has been nothing short of outstanding! I’d give him an A+ faster than the Lone Ranger could draw his gun. While Professor West may seek salvation in some heavenly realm, I shall abide by Kwame Nkrumah’s axiom: “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else will be added there unto.”