So Sunday night my twitter feed blew up with links and references to a piece Michael Eric Dyson wrote in response to Cornel West. I scrolled only casually interested until I found a Democracy Now interview where Tavis Smiley and Cornel West harpooned Dyson and a number of others for their support of President Obama (starts at 42 min).
Tavis and West have been on this particular warpath for some time, so at first I didn’t think it strange. What was new, however, was the venom of West’s comments. Customarily a man that speaks much of love and calls everyone brother in attempt to affirm their humanity, West took the gloves off and branded Dyson and others sell-outs who “sold their soul for a mess of Obama porridge.”
I thought to myself, “ouch.” But Dyson felt the sting.
Having remained largely silent in response to Smiley and West, Dyson blew off his keyboard and channeled what can only be regarded as years of reflection, regret, and resentment in response to West. That he could compose in a night or two so long, thoughtful and ultimately devastating a review of West’s career and current status beggars imagination. The piece is an attempt to set West’s hair on fire.
This has been coming for a long time. It’s as if Dyson surveyed and tallied all the border skirmishes involving West’s assault on the pantheon of Black intellectual elites and announced in full thoughtful fury, “Unleash the Kraken!” From some watery unknown depths emerged a tentacled beast wrapping West in its clutches, dragging the iconic air-froed, black-suited, gap-toothed image to the abyss. I don’t think I’ve ever read so thorough a take-down in the age of the blogosphere. I’m tempted to call this fight after the first round, but…
West may respond and the battle may go on. I don’t know of any two persons who know more big words and spew them with the rapidity and cadence and overwhelming flurry as these two rhetorical pugilists. This could go on for quite a while if vocabulary is any indication of what’s possible.
I don’t know. But before the bell sounds, while the fighters are on their stools spitting in cans, patching cuts, and taking instruction from their corner, it might be good if those of us ringside pause a moment to take in a few lessons. It would be easy to get our popcorn and drinks, discuss things round by round, and basically enjoy a good fight. We’ve loved a good fight ever since the days of after-school playground fisticuffs. But we don’t want to enjoy a fight between two titans and miss the lessons for us mere mortals.
I can think of five.
- Black People Disagree with Each Other.
It’s a shame that we have to state that, but we do. Once again: Not all Black people are alike or think the same way. We even disagree. And sometimes we manage to do it publicly.
People outside the African-American community need to know this lest they deal with us only according to stereotypes and not as persons with our own minds. But people inside the African-American community need to know and represent this lest we place one another in a hegemonic box of cultural and intellectual slavery. More on this later. But let’s note the obvious: Black people disagree with each other—often vigorously. Just visit the barbershop Saturday.
- Words Hurt.
That little playground ditty about sticks and stones is simply false. Words do hurt. A lot. And words questioning someone’s ethnic identity and loyalty hurt in a way that people outside the community can seldom understand. West calling a cadre of public intellectuals, academics and political types “Uncle Toms” makes him guilty of using one of the most reviled ad hominem tropes of our history. It’s still the red button. Pushing may get you some pushback. But Dyson’s words are no less destructive. His words are more polite, his argument more compelling, but with each punctuated sentence he’s wielding a stick and throwing a stone at West’s heart—and the hearts of those who admire and respect West.
Words hurt. Use them sparingly. Use them wisely.
- Ideas Matter.
This entire battle royal erupted over an idea: What does it mean to be a progressive? Now, I don’t have a dog in that fight since I think of all generations ours is less entitled to wear the label than any other because ours has abandoned nearly every moral sense of either a starting place or a destination. What are we progressing toward, except more and more confusion? Be that as it may, Smiley, West and Dyson care a lot about it and care a lot about whether President Obama can rightly be described as “the most progressive President since…” or described in any categorical sense as a “progressive.”
An entire worldview and a host of priorities lie behind this label. For African-American Christians, the debate unearths that consternation many of us have felt with the Obama presidency. On the one hand, we share in the country’s pride at electing its first African-American president (Bill Clinton notwithstanding). On the other hand, as Christians, Obama’s morally suspect progressivism is evident in his support of abortion, which claims the lives of millions of African-American children in the womb, and his support of gay marriage, which rejects any biblical notion of sexual morality, marriage, and the gospel. The very consternation we feel echoes the truth that this man’s ideas matter a lot. For my part, Obama is no question a progressive, but perhaps not that kind of progressive for some.
- Hegemonies Self-Destruct.
Which brings me to another observation. The argument as to whether Obama is that kind of progressive is really about the continuance of a Black and liberal hegemony. There continues to be raging fist fight about what it means to be “Black” and about what it means to be “Black” in political associations. What West and Dyson are arguing about, in part, is whether Obama is the right kind of “Black” when it comes to their respective definitions of “progressive.”
West wants the dominant view of progressive to require a populist, “I’m for the little man” and “I reject Wall Street” commitment. After all, the masses of Black folks are little men, have nots in need of a champion at the highest levels. Dyson, willing to be more pragmatic and incrementalist in his definition, wants room for an Obama who campaigns left and governs moderate.
But here’s the danger with either position if it’s made dominant and exclusive: it ultimately eats its young. That’s what we’re watching as we watch these two duke it out. The “father” West snarls angrily at the son for not going into the company business, while the “son” Dyson demands his inheritance and runs off into a far country. The insistence that there’s one way to be “progressive” or “Black” eventually suffocates everyone in the family or forces some to flee. These two towering intellects ought to know that, and knowing this ought to influence their willingness to admit a wider range of options. To continue as if there’s only room for one will eventually mean there’s room for none. The weight of the hegemony crushes all beneath it.
The lesson: Don’t so narrowly define “Blackness” that you start to throw people away or crush them under your domineering assumptions. Blackness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But we have no right or ability to make others behold what we do. Our sight is too short.
- Reconcile Quickly
Jesus says something about this in Matthew 5:
“23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
West and Dyson have long regarded one another as bruthas and as Christian brothers. Now they have something against one another. It seems their worship will be hindered until or unless they leave their offerings to God at the altar and put things back together. This should happen quickly before they arrive in a more severe court than the court of public opinion. Sometimes fights need to be public and sometimes they need to be serious. As we watch this one unfold, we might ask if our own fights need to be so.