Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Disappointment with Cornell West

I think I've gone on record in my deep admiration for Princeton Professor, Dr. Cornell West. I believe he has a critique of American culture, politics and the imperative to address the need of the poor and downtrodden that, for my money, is nearly inarguable. I have met him on a couple of occasions, albeit years ago and I was and I remain, thoroughly impressed with his mental dexterity. His capacity to translate the most complex theological, philosophical concepts into street language and back again.

This admiration and respect I have for him and his work, is why I'm so disappointed.




West has been almost antipathetic toward Barack Obama since he announced that he was entering the 2008 presidential race. I remember watching Tavis Smiley's 'State of Black America' symposium, which took place the same day and nearly the same time that the SOBA event was taking place. It was clear that Smiley took it as a personal affront and West, at the time, appeared to be supporting his friend's assertion that the announcement should have been delayed or maybe even made at the SOBA. Of course, that would have been the end of Obama's candidacy about as soon as he announced it. He would never have been perceived as someone running for president of all America - he would have been black America's candidate.

West, however campaigned for Obama. But I can't remember a time when it has seemed that West's support for Obama has been less than full throated. At best, I attributed this to the academic distance of a scholar; at worst it was supporting Tavis Smiley's fit of pique for being snubbed.

But over the years, Dr. West's criticisms and critiques have grown more harsh and less tempered by scholarly distance and more personal.

In a recent column, West asserts that Obama has a problem with 'free black men' and has accused him of being  “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.”


Professor West goes on to relate accounts of what he considers personal disrespect: lack of access, telephone calls from Valerie Jarrett, Obama's senior advisor, complaining about the remarks he's made and then an alleged insulting encounter with the President at an Urban League event. 


All of this speaks of something much more personal and something which colors Dr. West's usual criticisms with a rather ugly, garish hue. 


I've said often, Barack Obama is not above criticism. I don't like his failure to set a firmer tone with his own party during his first months in office. I was disappointed with the way he let the health care debate get away from him early last year. I'm uncomfortable with his being a war president. Obama compromises way far too soon. So soon, in fact, he often appears to be negotiating with himself. And, yes, blacks in America are faring worse in almost every meaningful statistic, with far too little coming from the federal government. 
More often than not, until recently, it appeared that his own cabinet couldn't adequately communicate his policies in public (I often cringed whenever I would see any White House spokesman on a Sunday morning news program!).  


But Obama is growing in office. He will never be the president conservatives want. Nothing he does will appease Tea Partiers. And Fox News will always find an angle to diminish his accomplishments. 


But Dr. West's critique always omits several important facts.


The President took office during an economic crisis that is second only to the great depression. The measures he took had to stabilize Wall Street or this country - and the world's economy would have cratered. One of the greatest hindrances to Obama achieving a progressive domestic agenda has been his own party, which nearly matched Obama's proficiency to capitulate to the minority in Congress in some misguided notion of 'unity'. And West never mentions the fact that the president faces an obstructionist House majority determined to pass nothing but conservative measures, even when he the policies he proposes are essentially Republican ideas! 


Dr. West has joined the liberal wing of the Democratic Party whose pure ideology suggests that they will only support the president they put in office if he damns all politics and pushes legislation that can't even get support from his own party. Or which loses in the House even if every Democrat votes to support it. 


And of course, West totally lets the Democratic legislators off the hook. They can actually propose and promote legislation for jobs training, for education, for help for our urban centers. And in doing so, they could have the support of a friendly White House. Instead, they appear so distracted by a preoccupation with access and public complaints that he's not the Civil Rights Leader in Chief that they are introducing - or don't appear to be introducing - any legislation that accomplishes what they look for Obama to do. 


West also appears to forget that every President must be 'made' to do the right thing. No one ascends to the presidency without first being a politician. Politicians must have a constituency and that constituency must be organized and must work to force issues. Not just declare what they want. When A. Philip Randolph and Eleanor Roosevelt implored FDR to introduce anti-lynching legislation, they laid before him the most cogent, reasoned argument possible. After they had finished, Roosevelt said, 'You're right. You're right. Everything you've said is right. Now go out and organize and make me do it!' Liberals may not like the fact that you have to work to get your agenda passed, but that's exactly what it takes. You don't win because you elect a man or woman to office. You win, because you can influence that politician after the election. 


When Commerce Secretary Ron Kirk, was mayor of Dallas, there were a number of blacks who were disappointed because he didn't appear to have an agenda for black communities in Dallas. They complained that he was in the pocket of the business community. I told some of my friends who had that complaint, 'He is the FIRST black mayor of our city. You don't get an activist with the first!' The same is true with this president. 


What liberals/progressives need to understand is that the failure to support Obama at this juncture doesn't leave him vulnerable. He has more choice. He can create a base with moderates and win a second term with a smaller margin. Ultimately, liberals/progressives can be stuck with a Ralph Nader type candidate who makes noise, captures votes and joins the opposition in the losers column. 


The option is to be in support of the president and build a constituency that forces action, in the same way it happened with Kennedy, with Johnson, with Clinton. 


West, must stop being petty. He only diminishes his own stature. The true place of a prophet, intellectual or religious, whether inside or outside the palace of the King, is always a place of objectivity. A place where the truth can be told whether it one is provided or denied access. To the degree that West's critique/criticism is valid, it's value is obscured by what can only be described as his pouting and petulant tone of his rhetoric. 


Dr. Cornell West is a gift to America. He has much to say and we need to desperately listen. But he must say it right.

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