Dyson-West Thrilla in Ivy Towers
The Dyson-West Thrilla in the Ivy Towers is in full throttle. Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West are embroiled in a public spat. It is one I would prefer to ignore. Brothers, it seems are always in a spat over who is the king of the hill or some other desultory issue that has nothing to do with closing the racial divide, or eliminating violence against women, or closing the economic gap between the races in this country.
After reading Danielle C. Belton’s article in The Root , an account of Dyson’s story in the New Republic, The Ghost of Cornel West, I was content that I knew everything I ever wanted to know about the relationship of these two giants in the arena of black thought and struggle. Belton, I believed had covered the highlights of Dyson’s critique without injecting her own editorial opinion. Thus, I did not have to wade into Dyson’s prose to read it for myself.
After all, four years ago, August 5, 2011, at the height of West’s and Tavis Smiley’s bus tour across America touting the Obama presidency as the worst one ever, I posted on my blog “An Open Letter to Cornel West.” I pretty much said all that I had to say about brother West and his criticism of President Obama at a time when cynicism over the Obama presidency was relevant. I have never found it helpful to beat a dead horse. I closed my open letter with this suggestion: “Get off the bus. Go home. Read some good old books. Then do what philosophers do: develop a vision to propel us into the 21st century.”
Then, I came across a discussion at Your Black World between Boyce Watkins, another Ivy League Scholar, and Yvette Carnell, the founder of Breaking Brown. They appeared to dumb down the controversial essay by Dyson. Their discussion of the squabble was reminiscent of W. E. B. DuBois taking sides with Monroe Trotter in Trotter’s dispute with Booker T. Washington, which led DuBois to pen his Essay on the “Tuskegee Machine”, Of Mr. Washington and Others.
Watkins and Carnell did manage to posit a very good question: “Why now?”
Why this sudden scholarly critique of West, who after all, has done about as much damage as he can do to the Presidency of Barack Obama? Especially, considering that two years hence, Obama will be history, relegated to the history books. The approach of Watkins and Carnell shed a paucity of clarity on their own question. I left their video confused, but still not having the time to tackle Dyson’s piece, I resolved to leave the bickering to the Ivy League savants.
Later, I received a request via my Facebook page from Rick Mosley, a social media friend, who seldom if ever has commented on any of my posts. He was referred to me several years ago, by a mutual friend, who knew that we shared a love of baseball and had a Tuskegee connection. He posted a link to the New Republic article on my page and postulated: “We would welcome your insights into this article.”
Mosley made it easy for me. Conceivably there is an allure when a person, who reads your work from a distance, thinks enough of your knotted and twisted mind to request your thoughts on a pungent topic.
I did not have to go and search to find Dyson’s piece. Perhaps, I am as big an egotist as Dyson and West. I decided to read Dyson’s piece for myself and measure my thoughts by the cacophony of words boomeranging back to Dyson.
I am a fan of good literary prose. I like to think that I can string a good sentence or two together every now and again. Dyson’s essay on West, though I had to resort to my dictionary and thesaurus over ten times, is as good as any literary feat in that genre’. It took me nearly an hour to read Dyson’s diatribe and eight hours of sleep to absorb his themes and sub-themes.
In his essay, Dyson takes exception with West’s self-proclaimed Prophetic status. West believes that he is cut from the same prophetic cloth as Jeremiah. Although I do not have a degree in theology, my two degrees are in political science and jurisprudence, I tend to agree with West. He is a modern day Jeremiah.
Dyson says that a prophet in the Hebrew sense was a man of God who worked in conjunction with the government leaders of his day. However, this analysis fails to account for the prophetic ministry of Jesus, who was not born into the Leviticus tribe. Jesus’ ministry was one that went directly to the needs of the people; without involving the government in the resolution of the issues of daily life. His ministry was successful until he came into the cross-hairs of the government.
West has long preached a revolutionary theology. His pronouncement gets to the underpinnings of the governmental system that he sees as oppressing 99 percent of its citizens for the enrichment of the 1 percent money-changers. For West, the leadership of the 1 percent must of necessity be replaced by democratic rule of the masses.
This was his philosophy when I met him in 1973 at Tuskegee University during the Philosophy and the Black Experience Conference and this largely remains his philosophy today. Under this philosophy, any president, black, white, or female, who does not squash the 1 percent comes up short in West’s mind.
West could be tolerated by the oligarchy that he despised, as long as he directed his barbs at President Obama during his first term. Such attacks played into the hands of the oligarchy who wanted to replace Obama with someone they could more heavily rely upon. The conventional wisdom held, that a black president weaken by the slings and arrows of the nation’s leading black philosopher, would make Obama ripe for defeat in his bid for re-election. As we witnessed, that did not happen.
Dyson takes aim, at what can only be described as, West’s bombastic vitriol towards President Obama. In my 2011 open letter to West,I postulated the same theme. Intellectual thought leaders like Dyson were nowhere to be found. Why not then? Why now as Watkins and Carnell posited?
In his turn, West was only being true to the beat within. He hears a silent beat, between the beat. It is this rhythm that he marches, when speaking truth to power on behalf of the down-trodden, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the widowed and the children.
For 42 years, West has been insulated and protected in academia. Last year, West flexed his muscles outside of the confines of his Ivy Tower cocoon. He stood eye-ball to eye-ball with members of the Ferguson Police Department. He went to jail with the kids who make up the BlackLivesMatter Movement.
Dyson in his piece, negates the importance of West’s involvement in Ferguson by labeling the BlackLivesMatter Movement as a movement led by gays. It is a two-fold attack to neutralize the turmoil in the streets in America today and to marginalize the future works of West.
Today, we find West in the streets locked-arm-and-arm with the young people who comprise the face of the human rights movement. Dyson is largely correct that this movement is led by gay activists. One of them, Atlanta spoken word artist, Aurille Lucier, often refers to herself as the “Queer Activist.”
Additionally, this new street movement, as seen on the evening news is funded and organized by Bob Avkian, who describes himself as a Revolutionary Communist Leader. According to Avkian’s website, “he is ushering in a whole new phase of communist revolution and a whole new conception of the new benefit of humanity.
West is a central prong of this “whole new phase of communist revolution.” He is listed in Avkian’s literature as a revolutionary Christian leader. West essentially brings to a secular movement a certain spirituality that has long been absent from the radical left. It makes this new phase of “communist revolution” bonafide and answers Watkins and Carnell’s question, regarding why Dyson’s criticism is leveled at West with less than 24 months to go in Obama’s term.
I have similar advice for West as I had in 2011. Get out of the street. Go home! Read a few good old books; then do what philosophers do, develop a vision to propel us into the 21st century.
It is one thing to blast the perceived ineptitude of a political leader, but quite another proposition to agitate for a turn-over in the entire system of things. After a long and storied intellectual career, West finds himself exactly where the intellectual giant, DuBois found himself after World War II, leaning towards Communism; and if Dyson has his way, like DuBois in his last decade, marginalized and maligned.
Harold Michael Harvey, is the author of the legal thriller “Paper Puzzle,” and “Justice in the Round: Essays on the American Jury System,” available at Amazon and at haroldmichaelharvey.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Just read your article, and enjoyed it very much. I must admit that West and Tavis Smiley left such a bad taste in my mouth with their pronouncements against Obama that I have listened to very little that they have had to say since his first term in office. And while I do agree with much of what West has to say about poverty, isolation, and racism/classism in our society, I too do not agree with the “let’s tear everything down and start all over again” line of thinking he seems to take.