"Do or Do not. There is no try."

“The Sad But Self-Inflicted Fall Of Cornel West”: The Self Anointed ‘Prophet’ Is Yesterday’s News

Michael Eric Dyson’s blistering takedown of Cornel West in The Ghost of Cornel West for The New Republic not only closed the door on a decades-long friendship that arguably led the way in black American thought at the end of the 20th century, but also displayed how the roles of black leaders have evolved during Barack Obama’s rise to prominence.

Dyson starts off by describing West’s animus toward the president as a love that has turned into a hatred so severe that it would make the heavens shudder. He mentions the times when West called Obama a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface,” on Democracy Now! and a “brown-faced Clinton” in Salon magazine. He discusses a moment when West told him, Dyson, that he does not “respect the brother at all,” referring to Obama. All this in the first two paragraphs.

As the piece winds its way to the conclusion that solidifies the end of their personal and professional relationship, a narrative of West emerges as a man of supreme intellect who thought that he had reached the pinnacle of African-American thought. West had even gone so far as to start referring to himself as a prophet. He believed that he was the voice that the black community would run to when in need of clarity. Dyson was one of those voices early on, so West’s fall from grace in his eyes is all the more striking. He was a self-anointed prophet, who has publicly lost one of his most significant disciples and a friend.

Apparently, it was the release of Race Matters in the mid-’90s that placed West at the pinnacle, and he intended on staying there for life. He did not need to publish new, thought-provoking works. His lack of output was disappointing, and so were his verbal attacks toward others in the black community, especially at MSNBC contributor and professor Melissa Harris-Perry.

Still, he potentially could have recovered from both of these errors. Yet he decided to rest on his laurels from here to eternity, and as he did so, time, unbeknownst to him, began passing him by. When Obama showed up, and politely challenged West’s idyllic place at the summit, West responded venomously to challenge this young, brash usurper.

West was not the only person to challenge Obama’s place within the black community—Jesse Jackson had very choice words for Obama, too—but he is one of the few whose perspective has not evolved with the passage of time, and nothing could be more damning for an intellectual. Yet the key thing to remember is that Obama did not take West’s position at the summit; he instead built a taller mountain and sat atop it.

This recent evolution of black leadership in American society always makes me think about a conversation I had with my grandfather on the eve of the 2008 Iowa caucuses.

During the conversation, he explained to me that he intended on voting for Hillary Clinton for president because he did not believe that white people would allow Obama to become president of the United States. My grandfather was an educated man, a minister, and a veteran of the Korean War, but mentally it was absolutely impossible for him to believe that Obama could become the next president.

I did not agree with his perspective, but I knew where it came from, and it made me wonder more and more about how one’s environment and experiences can drastically shape what you can believe is possible in the world.

Most times when I tell this story, I need to follow it up with a simplifying analogy to explain how this perspective could have come into being. In this analogy, I condense America to a k-through-12 school.

At the beginning of America, blacks were unpaid laborers at the school. Then we became paid laborers, and then we were able to have our own classes, and through this structure, influential black teachers were able to emerge. These teachers made progress within the school and created lasting changes, but the goal was always to become one of these beloved teachers and to make change through this medium. Many of the most influential black leaders in America were teachers or educated through the church. W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were both teachers. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X taught from the pulpit. Dyson and West used both media, the classroom and the pulpit.

Obama, on the other hand, specialized in neither, even though he taught at the University of Chicago. Instead he took the administrative route. He wanted to be the principal of the school, and that meant he could not teach full time, and this is where the conflict has largely emerged.

People like my grandfather did not believe that it would be possible to have a black principal. Many within the African-American community wanted to know if Obama would be able to teach class full time, because in their minds teaching was what black Americans had always done; and when he said that he could not, they questioned his motives and integrity.

When Obama won the presidency the opportunities for black thought and leadership expanded. My grandfather was beside himself with joy that night because he had lived to witness the previously thought impossible. What he thought was possible in the world had now expanded. Innumerable black Americans felt the same. A new level of attainment in public life was now possible.

Yet despite this progress, the need remained for great black teachers, and now a new question emerged: How would the teachers themselves handle no longer being arguably the most influential voice in the Obama era?

Dyson and other black leaders have taken a healthy position of comfortably and even vehemently disagreeing with Obama on policy issues, but respecting the man for the position he has earned and what it has done for the black community.

West clearly did not take this change well and instead opted to sternly rebuff this paradigm shift that undermined his influence.

Dyson details West’s anger when Obama did not give him tickets to the inauguration, and he mentions how West “lambasted” Obama when the then-junior senator from Illinois decided to announce his candidacy for the presidency in Illinois instead of at Tavis Smiley’s State of the Black Union meeting in Virginia.

West wanted Obama to visit his class, and he became incredulous when the candidate chose to speak in front of the people who elected him instead of those within the black community. West either did not see the shift or chose to ignore it.

When West did not receive inauguration tickets his fury was that of someone who did not understand that the party could go on without him.

He wanted everyone to love him for his brilliance, and forgot to use his intellect for the benefit of others. He stopped being a teacher, refused to be a student, and wanted to be a prophet.

The leadership roles that black Americans can obtain has changed in the last decade and this has required an evolution of thought amongst black intellectuals and leaders, and a re-examining of roles within the black community.

West was once both an intellectual and a leader, but as the times changed, he did not. And now progress, thought, and leadership have moved forward without him.


By: Barrett Holmes Pitner, The Daily Beast, April 22, 2015

April 26, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, Black Americans, Cornel West | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Learning Lessons From The Umbrage Police”: The Media’s Morality Play And Melissa Harris-Perry

Here’s a can’t-miss prediction for 2014: Some time this year, a media figure will say something offensive about someone who does not share their political ideology. There will be a chorus of feigned outrage. Apologies will be demanded, then grudgingly offered. Those insincerely expressing their displeasure at the original statement will criticize the apology for its insufficient sincerity.

In fact, this little routine will happen multiple times this year (and next year, and the year after that). It will happen with both media figures and politicians. That’s just how we do it in America. There’s so much umbrage taken in politics that it practically constitutes its own industry.

Last week we saw one more of these cases, but it was different from most, in that the eventual apology not only contained what an actual apology should, it was obviously earnest as well. That’s so rare because the insult-apology morality play, in politics at least, is always enacted against a background of partisan contestation that discourages everyone from acting honestly.

To summarize briefly, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry had a segment on her show with a roundtable of comedians in which she put up photos and asked them to come up with amusing captions. One photo was the Romney family Christmas card, with Mitt and Ann posing amongst their hundreds of grandchildren, including a new addition to the brood, an African-American baby adopted not long ago by one of the Romney sons. One of the comedians on the panel sang, “One of these things is not like the other…” and Harris-Perry joked that it would be amusing if one day the child grew up to marry Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s baby, so Kanye and Mitt could be in-laws.

As far as these kinds of sins go, the brief exchange was pretty mild. It wasn’t as if Harris-Perry or her guest said something particularly cruel about the child; the joke was in the anomaly of a black child in the midst of a family as famously white as the Romneys (dressed on the card in matching pastel-and-khaki outfits, no less). That doesn’t mean it wasn’t problematic, just that we should be able to distinguish between the ill-considered quip and the truly hateful remark.

That broader context is something the rest of us can consider, but Harris-Perry chose not address it when she offered an on-air apology profoundly different from those we usually hear. She didn’t say “I apologize if someone was offended,” as people so often do (which actually means, “I get that you were offended, but I don’t think you should have been”). She didn’t try to minimize it; if anything, she might have made the offending segment sound more offensive than it was. She said it was wrong and took responsibility for it. And most importantly, she said this: “I am genuinely appreciative of everyone who offered serious criticisms of last Sunday’s program, and I am reminded that our fiercest critics can sometimes be our best teachers.”

There were many liberals on social media who expressed the opinion that Harris-Perry shouldn’t have apologized, mainly because it would only deliver succor to the enemies of liberalism, who are a dastardly bunch. But Harris-Perry’s words and evident sincerity made it clear that the apology wasn’t about conservatives, it was about her. She chose to do the right thing, to commit a morally righteous act even if people she doesn’t like would enjoy it.

In other words, she removed herself from the political calculation that asks of everything, “Which side is this good for?” That isn’t easy for someone involved in politics to do, because so many forces push you to see every controversy primarily from that perspective. Had Harris-Perry been focused on not giving her critics any satisfaction, or simply keeping up the fight, she might have given one of those familiar non-apology apologies. She might have said: Listen, imagining Mitt and Kanye at Thanksgiving together isn’t exactly like, say, that time during the Clinton presidency when John McCain asked the crowd at a Republican fundraiser, “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father.” That was truly despicable; what I did was a misdemeanor at best.

But she didn’t say those things; instead, she acted the way a good person would, the way most of us hope we’d act in an analogous situation in our own lives. She overcame the natural instinct to be defensive that we all share and to say that our good intentions should absolve us of blame. It’s ironic that we don’t expect that of those in public life, even though in general, the light of attention tends to encourage people to show their best selves. A slew of psychological studies have shown that when we know others are watching us, we’re more likely to act cooperatively, help people in need, and even to pick up after ourselves. When we’re in public we start seeing ourselves through others’ eyes and want to project an admirable persona. That’s why it’s sometimes said that character is what you do when no one’s watching.

For politicians and media figures, someone is always watching, and there’s a legion of people waiting to expose and punish you for the things you say. When you’re being taken to task by people who most assuredly do not have your best interests at heart, it’s awfully hard to ask yourself honestly whether, just this once, they might have a point.

As I’ve often said in comparing ordinary people to presidential candidates, if somebody followed you around recording everything you said for a year—heck, even for a day—there would undoubtedly be some things that passed your lips that would make somebody angry. Now that we have social media, it isn’t necessary to have your own TV show in order to risk a rain of criticism for the ugliness of your momentary thoughts. We all have to be accountable for what we say, but we can pass or fail the test that comes after you say something you shouldn’t have.

The web is full of “The Worst Apologies of 2013” lists (Paula Deen figures heavily), but to my mind, the best one came from Grist‘s David Roberts, who not only apologized for something insulting he said about someone on Twitter, but wrote a long and thoughtful post unpacking the whole episode. “As for the ‘political correctness police,’ well, I’m happy they got me,” he wrote. “That kind of social censure reinforces norms that badly need reinforcement in social media … If I’m briefly being made an example of, that’s as it should be—learn from the example!”

Learning from episodes like this one can be the hardest part, since the prevailing question is usually “Who won?” But maybe next time the umbrage machine fires up, we can ask what was revealed about everyone’s character, not just in what they initially said, but in how they responded to their critics.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, January 6, 2014

January 8, 2014 Posted by | Media, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Unpaid Interns”: Political Wives Of The GOP

At an event for Mitt Romney last night, Ohio Governor John Kasich did his best to pay tribute to women by talking about the difficulties of being a political spouse.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “You know, they’re at home, doing the laundry and doing so many things while we’re up here on stage.… [it’s hard] to put up with the travel schedule and have to be at home taking care of the kids.”

To tell the truth, I’m not outraged over Governor Kasich’s remarks. He was just complimenting women the only way he likely knows how—by acknowledging their domestic acumen. Given the outrageous remarks about women lately—from “legitimate rape” to slutty birth control users—suggesting that all political wives do is the laundry is the least offensive comment from a Republican in months.

Besides, to conservatives, recognizing women for their roles as wives and mothers—rather than as individuals unto themselves—is a fabulous compliment. It’s a pat on the head for all those ironed shirts. But this focus on women’s caretaking is more than just misguided attempt to woo female voters, it’s a disturbing window into the very limited way that Republicans view women.

After Ann Romney’s epic RNC “I love women” moment, MSNBC host and Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry noted how her speech focused on women “in their relational roles—women are mothers, women are widows, women are wives.”

“Actually women are lots of other things,” Harris-Perry said. But not in the Republican imagination, where women are happiest at home and most fulfilled by their husband’s accomplishments—not their own. Where being a leading lady means loving your supporting role.

It’s as if Republicans view wives as unpaid interns—expected to do grunt work just for the experience and joy of being part of someone else’s success. (At least the interns get something on their resume out of it.)

This isn’t to say that the care and domestic work that women do isn’t important—it is. In addition to the important task of raising children, domestic labor is what allows these politicians to do their public work. As Jill Filipovic has written, “Men who have stay-at-home wives literally have nothing other than work to worry about.”

They have someone who is raising their kids, cooking them dinner, cleaning the house, maintaining the social calendar, taking the kids to doctor’s appointments and after-school activities, getting the dry-cleaning, doing the laundry, buying groceries and on and on (or, in the case of 1% wives, someone who coordinates a staff to do many of those things). That model enables men to work longer hours and be more productive.

But if you’re going to value domestic work, really value it—don’t just give it a wink and a pinch on the butt. And that’s the problem with this constant veneration of women as wives and mothers—it’s all talk. It’s easy for male politicians to acknowledge their wives’s hard work when the expectation is that this is simply what women exist for—and even easier to vote for policies that assume the same. Because if we’re just wives and mothers—not individual people with their own desires—what do we need with pesky things like the right to bodily autonomy or equal pay? After all, we have laundry to do.

By: Jessica Valenti, The Nation, September 13, 2012

September 16, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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