Michael Eric Dyson’s Attack on Cornel West Fails to Count Activism as Real Work

The two times I’ve seen Cornel West in person in the last four years were very different experiences. The first time, he was getting arrested to protest New York City’s racially biased “stop-and-frisk” policy at my precinct in Harlem. I watched, camera aloft and chanting, as he and a mixed-race, mixed-gender, mixed-age group were loaded into a police truck, handcuffed. The second time was at a Jane Austen Society of North America conference, where West, a keynote speaker, brought the (surely not entirely progressive) house down with his class and religion-based readings of Austen’s texts and praise of her literary genius.

To me, these recent experiences don’t point to a man who has “fallen” from any perch, but that is the thesis of Michael Eric Dyson’s long, long, longread in The New Republic. The piece is part diatribe against West for being blinded by his animus towards Obama; part genuine lament for their lost friendship and West’s diminishing academic and intellectual output; and part primer for those unaware of the schisms in black academia, punditry, and public scholarship in the Obama era. With well-placed zings, Dyson scolds West for what he sees as a misuse of the label “prophetic” (“Prophets, as a rule, don’t have tenure”) and claims that he is as enchanted by celebrity and access as the folks he criticizes for being too close to Obama. The liberal quotes from Wests’s name-dropping memoir are damning, certainly. Already the jokes proliferate on Twitter: this is academia’s version of a rap battle, Biggie and Tupac with polemics instead of rhymes.

Since both Dyson and West are well-known media figures, it’s hard not to come into this highbrow feud unbiased. So, in the interest of transparency, I confess that because of the aforementioned literary geekiness, because I find him more sincere and thoughtful on TV, and because his ideas appear more intersectional and economically radical, I’m partial to West. Yet I acknowledge the true ring to some of Dyson’s arguments — particularly about the lesser quality of West’s recent literary output, his reliance on celebrity co-writers (“West’s inability to write is hugely confining”), and his (alleged) choice to prioritize ideology over relationships, notably in his consistent labeling of Obama-friendly (or -friendlier) black progressives as sellouts and worse:

West has sacrificed friendships and cut ties with former comrades because he insists that only outright denunciation of Obama will do. It is a colossal loss for such a gifted man to surrender to unheroic truculence: If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, then the loss of a brilliant black mind is more terrible, more wasteful. At precisely the moment when we could use the old West’s formidable analytical skills to grapple with the myriad polarities that glut the political horizon, the new West, already in the clutches of a fateful denouement, has instead sought the empty solace of emotional catharsis.

Still, what is the “emotional catharsis” Dyson dismisses? Getting arrested alongside young protesters? Using his platform to inspire the everyday people who are rising up against the racist police state throughout the country? West hasn’t simply been sitting at home listening to his own spoken-word album. He’s on the streets, getting arrested in Ferguson and stopping by many a rally and sit-in to rev up the crowd. A quick glance at headlines shows that in April alone, he’s been demonstrating for racial justice in California, encouraging climate change protesters at Harvard, and speaking out against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, not including the appearance and arrests in Missouri.

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To the young and motley American Left, Cornel West has become a comrade. My Twitter feed blew up last night with activist types calling West an available mentor and a figure of hope to Ferguson protesters. Indeed, the fact that he’s supporting fossil fuel divestment seems to be more “prophetic” than much of what other pundits and activists are doing, since he’s at least trying to achieve something that has fatally failed for decades: connecting social justice struggles to the environment.

To an admitted bystander, there’s lots of critique in Dyson’s account that feels earned, and plenty more that reads as incredibly hypocritical. But even if every single piece of invective were true, I think it would be wrong to dismiss West’s recent full-on embrace of grassroots movements. Maybe Dr. West feels that his creative and scholarly work is done and therefore, disillusioned with “the system,” he wants to be a full-time activist. Is that an essentially terrible choice to make? And again, even if West is choosing this path for the ego boost he gets out of being thronged by fellow marchers and quoted in the media, his participation still might be a net good.

Putting one’s relatively privileged body on the line in solidarity is a time-honored progressive value, not a mere waste. Activism is worthy work, and to use a favorite West phrase, that matters.