In the wake of our country’s 56th Presidential inauguration where Barack H. Obama was sworn into office as the nation’s 44th president, there arose several less significant yet attention grabbing sideshows. For example, there was the media tomfoolery that’s now infamously known as Beyonce-gate which involved speculation about whether or not the multi-platinum, Grammy award winning, recording star lip sync the singing of the national anthem (as if anyone needs proof that Beyonce can sing live). Then there was also the circulation of a video clip of Dr. Cornel West speaking with self-righteous indignation in response to the fact that President Obama chose to be sworn in with his hand on the personal bible of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
According to the professor it was offensive for the President to use Dr. King’s bible “in a moment of presidential pageantry without understanding the challenge that [Dr. King] presents to all of those who are in power, no matter what color they are.” Dr. West went on to declare that Obama’s usage of the King bible reduced the righteous indignation of MLK to a moment of political calculation which made his (that is, Dr. West’s) blood boil.
If you’ve heard Dr. West share his views on the Obama administration over the course of the last few years these recent comments will not surprise you. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that Dr. West and Tavis Smiley have been on their own self-sponsored Obama truth-telling campaign for most of the President’s term in office. As a result, they’ve become (in the eyes of many African Americans) little more than two jealous, counterproductive, self-serving, and egoistical defected leaders.
From my viewpoint, though I share many of Dr. West and Mr. Smiley’s concerns about the Obama administration and the unfortunate mistaken conflation of the King legacy with the political success of President Obama, I DO NOT, however, share their negative assessment of the value, effectiveness, and political progressiveness of the this presidency. Nor do I agree with past comments that Dr. West has made about the President’s ontological blackness or lack thereof.
On the other hand, I don’t agree either with those Smiley/West detractors who simply want to reduce their criticism to mere hater’ation and professional jealousy. Though there is clearly a degree of personal animosity within their commentary, I still believe that at the core of their criticism and pointed speech is a genuine concern about the current political moment we find ourselves. In particular, when you consider Dr. West’s history as an academic, activist and public intellectual, it’s hard to make a case that he has been more critical of President Obama than he was critical of previous administrations and presidential candidates (though the same could NOT be said of Tavis Smiley, in my opinion).
In an interview conducted in 1993 by Charlie Rose with Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Dr. Cornel West, Rose asked Gates what was the biggest disagreement between he and West as premiere black intellectuals? Gates responded, that “West could be described as a clear eyed liberal, while I [Henry Louis Gates] am a messy middle kind of guy.” This I recalled to mind when I heard certain critics of Dr. West suggest that his recent critiques of POTUS “don’t sound much like the Cornel West they know and whose work they respect.” In truth, those who’ve read or listened to Cornel West over the last three decades will know that he has always voiced a rigid allegiance to a particular set of political and social values; and he’s never been afraid to critique others for failing to line up to his articulated moral standards.
Moreover, those familiar with the literary works of Cornel West will attest that he has always viewed his intellectual pursuit as “a scholarly endeavor against systems of power that yield undue influence in the lives of citizens.” For example, West argues in his chief academic work The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989), that the task of a revolutionary intellectual was to develop a counter-narrative to the hegemonic texts and narrative of the prevailing order. In other words, West has always viewed himself as an intellectual freedom fighter and advocate of progressive policies directed at increasing the standard of living for poor and working class Americans.
Sadly, too many of Dr. West’s detractors have forgotten the politically subversive ethos of his vocation and work. As a result, they’ve given the faulty impression to the uninformed that West’s stern criticism of President Obama is somehow uncharacteristic of him, when in fact, just the opposite is true. Consider West’s harsh characterization of Obama as a “wall street mascot” and “puppet of plutocrats and oligarchs.” Many have suggested that these comments were the result of West having a personal vendetta or need to settle an old score. However, I would have readers recall West’s vigorous opposition to Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, when West declared that: “The rise of an ugly imperialism has been aided by an unholy alliance of the plutocratic elites and the Christian Right, and also by a massive disaffection of so many voters who see too little difference between two corrupted parties, with blacks being taken for granted by the Democrats, and with the deep disaffection of youth.” Furthermore, West argued that since the Republican and Democratic parties were both owned by corporate money and interests; choosing between them was like choosing between “the left-wing and right-wing versions of the Dred Scott decision!”
Interestingly, some critics of West have asked, where was his criticism of the Clintons and the Democratic Party during the Bush administration when the gap between the rich and poor widened exponentially? However, just a modicum of research will reveal that West argued in 2004, that Democrats like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton were “paternalistic nihilists and slick professionals who spoke blandly for democracy with no heart-felt rage at the injustices of the system.” Moreover, West also described the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush as “a political ice age where it became fashionable to be indifferent to the suffering of the weak.”
It should also be noted that President Obama is certainly not the first black political figure to be the target of West’s harsh criticism. During the Bush administration he dismissively described the two highest ranking African American government officials Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell as nothing more than “cogs in the American imperial machine.” And how can one forget West’s controversial assertion that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is “beautifully black in phenotype and skin pigmentation but lacking in the fundamental quality of blackness because he chooses to side with the powerful over and against the weak.”
Given these facts, it’s hard to conclude that Dr. Cornel West has changed that much since the country elected its first African American president because in so many ways he’s still the same straight talking clear eyed political progressive he’s always been. Instead, I suggest that the ones who’ve changed are those of us who constitute West’s audience; and the reason we’ve changed is clear. We’ve changed because for the first time Dr. West’s criticism, which we’ve grown to respect, is directed at someone that we’ve grown to revere—The 1st African American President of the United States. So if Dr. Cornel West doesn’t sound much like the Cornel West you remember, maybe it’s because you forgot him when you met Barak Obama.
Compassionately and Critically yours, Billy Michael Honor