Scholar, author, activist, lecturer, and media personality Dr. Cornel West is one of the most well-known Black public intellectuals in the country. He has mentored a number of others and his work has influenced younger scholars and activists in the fields of race, religion, and social justice. He has the respect of many. Or, had.
West has certainly alienated a portion of his following in recent years as he has levied what many consider to be very harsh critiques against President Barack Obama. The backlash has also caused a public spat with Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, his former Princeton University colleague and host of Melissa Harris-Perry, which will debut on MSNBC later this month. Last year, in response to an interview West did with Truthdig.com, in which he claimed “Barack Obama has a certain fear of free Black men” and was “a Black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a Black puppet of corporate plutocrats,” Harris-Perry wrote a blog for TheNation.com calling West’s critique “self-aggrandizing, victimology sermon deceptively wrapped in the discourse of prophetic witness.” What followed was a massive lesson in public discourse, as a community debated the most productive ways to criticize the president.
Disagreements among Black intellectuals are hardly new or unexpected. They are encouraged. But it’s always disappointing when it starts out as a war of ideas and then devolves into trite personal barbs.
In a recent Diverse magazine profile, West says of Harris-Perry, “I have a lot of love for the sister, but she is a liar, and I hate lying.” It wasn’t completely about her character, as he also had critiques of her professionally, saying, “There’s not a lot of academic stuff with her, just a lot of twittering.”
But that was light work in comparison to his most scathing comments, as West said, “She’s become the momentary darling of liberals, but I pray for her because she’s in over her head,” and adding, “she’s a fake and fraud. I was so surprised how treacherous the sister was.” That sounds less as though it comes out of the “Black prophetic tradition that has a commitment to truth and justice” and more so from the tradition of the dozens and battle rapping.
What gets lost in all the mudslinging is the opportunity to have a substantive debate regarding the legitimate critiques West raises concerning the Obama presidency and American society in general. Where Obama (and politicians everywhere) wraps himself in the rhetoric of protecting the middle class, there is no doubt we need to be having a more robust conversation about poverty and implementing an economic agenda aimed at helping the poor. The use of drone attacks overseas raises many questions about modern warfare and American imperialism. But while he could be fleshing out these ideas and generating progressive conversations and movement, West squanders his platform by reveling in personal complaints about the president not returning his phone calls.
West's words don't necessarily delegitimize his more worthwhile critiques; however the personal attacks call into question his motives. He may very well have been hurt by not receiving tickets to the president’s inauguration, but if that gripe is elevated to that of the plight of poor and working class people, is this about a profound love of poor people or West’s ego? And how then do those motives color his critiques? These are the questions Harris-Perry raised in her writing last year. They are questions on the minds of many. As an unelected college professor and media personality, West has no obligation to answer. As a self-proclaimed servant of the people, there is a certain level of accountability involved.
Part of that accountability is not publicly engaging in disputes best left to phone calls and closed door meetings. So much of this appears to reflect personal animosity and professional disagreement between colleagues to which the rest of us shouldn’t be privy. Some of it is thin and ironic. West’s criticism of Harris-Perry as being mostly about “twittering” is particularly interesting given the criticisms that have been levied against him during his career. When he was making rap albums or performing on stage with Bootsy Collins, he drew the ire of those questioning his devotion to scholarship. The same argument he offers about his extracurricular activities reaching new and varied audiences is one that Harris-Perry could employ to defend her active Twitter presence.
This isn’t a defense of Harris-Perry, because she doesn’t need one. Her work is open to the public and stands available for anyone to praise, critique, or both simultaneously. Harris-Perry is a highly intelligent public figure with multiple platforms at her disposal. She would hardly need any assistance if a defense were necessary. This is about making sure we don’t lose our way. It’s about not allowing petty personal beefs to distract us from the task at hand. Black intellectuals should be having vibrant conversations in which they disagree, push one another, and challenge the public to think in exciting new ways. The life of the mind is a life of ideas. Let’s hope it can get back there.