As you may have noticed, African-American superstar academic Cornel West has been in some public hot water for a recent web interview in which he made some, well, not very nice comments about president Obama. West, who writes on culture, politics, religion, and race, and who tends to shuttle between Princeton and Harvard, accused the nation’s first African-American president of being the puppet of Wall Street interests, uncomfortable in his own black identity, and more likely to be hanging out with “white and Jewish men,” then the brothers and the sisters. West was bitter about not getting an invitation to the inauguration, and that Obama was no longer returning his phone calls. And this despite his own hard work in getting Obama elected.
Comments on West were predictable. Most of them were wholesale attacks on his intelligence, character, or even sanity (A Boston Globe article credited some observers with suggesting that he was both a blowhard and “unhinged.”) Of West’s few defenders, the most striking was radical journalist Chris Hedges, who believes that West is a major social prophet and that West’s critics can’t even carry West’s computer paper.
Look around the web and you’re sure to find lots more about this encounter, and here are my few cents.
First, there is no question that West was out of line in the way he talked about Obama. Especially for a man who calls himself a Christian, as West does, why stoop to all this nastiness? The psychological explanation is not hard to find: West was hurt that Obama was no longer treating him like a buddy. And even more, that Obama is not the agent of social change that West imagined he might be.
Is it too much to ask that West simply admit all this? Especially, after forty years of modern feminism, which has made this point in countless ways and which West claims to have learned from, can’t an angry man—even a really smart angry man—say something like: “I feel very hurt by the way Obama is treating me. I thought we had a better relationship, and I just feel used.” And could not West admit that he, the very, very, very smart Cornel West, had been wrong: “And I have to admit, I really misjudged Obama, I thought he was a lot more than he is. Here’s why I made that mistake [or] I’m really going to have to ask myself some serious questions about how I could have been so wrong.”
Ahh…for Cornel West, or any other big time big shot male intellectual or spiritual voice, to talk to us like that. What a different model of how to talk and think that would be!
On the other hand…what did West say that was true? Certainly not his silly dissing of Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign and his advice to her to visit some prisons (where I’m sure he spends a great deal of his time). Besides being rude and emotionally out of touch with himself, did he tell us anything we needed to hear?
And the sad answer is, I believe, yes, he did. Many of Obama’s fiscal and foreign policies aren’t very different than the ones Republicans endorsed. His staff of economic advisors are in the main politically conservative, cut from the same Wall Street cloth that Bush used. He has made no serious move to cut back on the U.S’s 150 or so military bases throughout the world; he gave up on climate change legislation with barely a whimper. There are some exceptions (for instance his attempt to nominate a major environmentalist to the head of the Commerce Department), but they are far from the rule.
So if West needed to spend some quality time with his therapist before he gave his angry interview, he was still on to something important.
But let’s push this all a little further, in two ways.
First, every president had better be a (phrased much more nicely) “puppet of Wall Street,” for if they are not, the ruling class in this country will do even more what it is doing now: go on strike. American corporations on sitting on trillions of dollars in cash, and not investing. Why? To discipline the politicians and the general population, to let them know what will happen if the “business climate” is not what Wall Street likes. Until we have socialism—collective, democratic control of investment—the owners of the means of production can always trump liberal movements simply by not investing, thereby creating high unemployment, and then letting the people demand that politicians give investors anything they want so that the jobs will come back. (Sound familiar?) Until there is a serious mass movement for socialism, Obama and all those who follow him will have their hands tied by this fundamental economic fact
Second, and even more frightening: many believe that there is in this country a shadow government of defense contractors, military, and national security types who would simply execute any political leader who threatened their interests. The Kennedys, King, other leaders who have had plane crashes, several Black Panthers—all died under mysterious circumstances. It may be that Obama knows that his own life is subject to similar threats. Stray too far off the reservation, and you won’t come home that night.
The lessons in all this? Conversations will be a lot more productive if we admit our emotional connection to the subject matter and get real about our own mistakes, if we try to be respectful even as we tell the truth, and if we focus on the kernel of truth even if a lot of what’s been said is you know what.