Confusing Righteous Indignation With Hatred: Dismantling Michael Eric Dyson’s Critique of Cornel West

Dr. West and I (Jan. 2012)
Dr. West and I (Jan. 2012)

“The righteous indignation of a Martin Luther King Jr. becomes a moment in political calculation and that makes my blood boil.”

–Dr. Cornel West

Arguably the most valuable aspect of democratic culture is the freedom afforded those who choose to dissent. Without constant, unimpeded criticism of the status quo societies collapse into paralysis or, in the direst of circumstances, one or another form of tyranny. Unfortunately, this ability to voice criticisms of power is not always taken advantage of. In fact, the temptation to succumb to ideological conformity is sometimes strongest in societies that purport to champion traditions of liberty. A textbook case of such conformity can be found in the two latest articles (here and here) by Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson in the establishment liberal journal The New Republic.

Responding to what he describes as Dr. Cornel West’s “rage against President Barack Obama”, Dyson condemns the former Princeton professor and public intellectual for his “callous disregard for plural visions of truth”, a malady that can be overcome only through “the prophet’s duty of pitiless self-inventory.” Undoubtedly, the desire to carry out a “pitiless self-inventory” is surely an essential characteristic needed to critically engage with the most pressing problems of the day, a characteristic Dyson ought to have in abundance, at least if he counts himself immune to the hypocrisies he now attributes to his erstwhile mentor.
dyson_westAmong the many crimes appended to Dr. West’s bill of indictment are his impassioned criticisms of Obama’s defenders, who he accuses of sacrificing elementary principles of justice for access to centers of privilege and power. “West’s attacks on me were a bleak forfeiture of 30 years of friendship,” intones Dyson. “It was the repudiation of a fond collegiality and intellectual companionship, of political comraderie and joined social struggle.” Putting aside the tone of West’s criticisms, which are of marginal significance compared to the substance of them, it’s worth investigating what kinds of critiques led to the end of this companionship. Dyson’s original TNR piece features three YouTube videos. In one 43 second video Dr. West, during an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! , describes Obama as a “Rockefeller Republican in Blackface.” Presumably, this was posted to illustrate Dr. West’s penchant for “verbal brutalities”, a term Dyson used to describe West’s “hateful language” in his subsequent article. The two other videos feature a BBC appearance of Dr. West urging Obama not to become “the friendly face of American empire,” and another appearance on C-SPAN (quoted above) where he decries the hypocrisy of Obama conducting his swearing-in ceremony with Dr. King’s Bible while perpetuating policies (drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia for example) that radically depart from King’s emancipatory message.

Again, ignoring the tone of West’s critiques, it’s undeniable that there is a thread that connects them, namely a principled opposition to imperial power and corporate criminality. Notably, even in the Democracy Now! video, despite its brevity, West brings attention to Obama’s “imperial foreign policy at work.” Indeed, if Dyson were truly interested in writing a “sharp polemic” (his self-description) he would at least devote some attention to these hugely consequential topics of global importance. Why else would they reappear in Dr. West’s critiques with such frequency and clarity? Strangely, Dyson’s “self-inventory” yields no results. As the intrepid sportswriter and Nation contributor Dave Zirin observed shortly after the publication of Dyson’s first piece:

The word ‘Palestine’ or ‘Palestinian’ does not once make its way into Dyson’s piece. Neither does ‘Wall Street’ or ‘immigration.’ The word ‘drones’ only comes up in a quote attributed to West. We can debate how sincere West’s commitments are to these issues or whether they are a cover for his hurt feelings and heartbreak that Dyson posits is at the root of all the discord. But they should be reckoned with.

Likewise, author and investigative journalist Max Blumenthal, in a piece written for AlterNet, observed, “BDS might be sweeping American campuses, but Dyson has been largely silent on Israel’s endless occupation. Dyson carps about character assassination, but he is reticent on drone assassinations. Since Obama entered the Oval Office, Dyson has had much more to say about Nas than the NSA.”

Moreover, Dyson’s second article—one which he introduces as “a few lines to address the most salient responses,” to his original article—also devotes zero attention to drone warfare, Israeli criminality, NSA surveillance or imperial power quite generally. Briefly, Dyson addresses this oversight in his second article, arguing he would “leave the breadth and depth of West’s political activities to his advocates or biographers,” since he was more interested in “probing the vituperation that clouds West’s political stances no matter their variety or virtue.”

Discarding the fact that one doesn’t have to be an “advocate” or a “biographer” to expound on Dr. West’s or anyone else’s “political activities” (how one could host a political show on MSNBC with this standard is a mystery to me), that Dyson chooses not to inspect, in the least, the “variety and virtue” of West’s criticism of Obama only reinforces the reasonable suspicion that Dyson is either unwilling to denounce, or more insidiously, in complete agreement with these policies. Particularly glaring is this oversight since it was explicitly brought to his attention via Zirin’s critique, providing him ample opportunity to dispel any false assumptions.

Incidentally, what of the “vituperation” that “cloud’s” Dr. West’s criticism? Is that a crime? Uncontroversially, compared to words that would be uttered by the victims of Obama’s drone policies West would likely be counted too generous. Not only have approval ratings for Obama’s policies in Pakistan equaled those earned by President Bush, an impressive feat, but the New York Times recently reported that drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have “incited deep resentment toward the United States” (my emphasis). That this “deep resentment” may sometimes find its way to the Oval office and is sometimes directed at the man who, in the wake of the tragic killings of two western hostages in Pakistan, took “full responsibility” for drone policy is not only understandable but perfectly rational. Is it completely inconceivable that Dr. West may empathize with their outrage? Rather than criticize those who are filled with resentment over these criminal policies, Dyson ought to dedicate more time to trying to stop these policies that foster such righteous fury.
drones pewAnd this is where Dr. Dyson and Dr. West part ways. While Dyson falsely accuses West of having his judgment clouded by “vituperation”, his own judgment is, it seems, irreversibly clouded by infatuation, not with the individual that is President Obama, but the power and achievement that he embodies (a form of power that is, at bottom, very reactionary). Examples of this infatuation are as plentiful as they are cringe-inducing. Whether it’s Dyson’s impassioned MSNBC speech announcing his talent in “riding the Obama bandwagon hard” or his less comical, but equally troublesome, appeal to 2012 voters to “join me” in “helping [Obama].” As for sustained criticism? Dyson once “riled the White House” when he bravely denounced Obama as a “gifted leader whose palpable discomfort with discussing race made him a sometimes unreliable and distant narrator of black life.” With critics like this who needs commissars?

Graphic as these testimonials are, they are of secondary importance to what Dyson doesn’t say and what these silences imply. Historically, it has always been incredibly easy to tear down public figures, especially those as vocally anti-authoritarian as Dr. West, on the grounds that they are uncivil or too vigorous in their criticism. Take the example of Native American Studies professor and Palestinian solidarity activist Steven Salaita. After condemning Israeli atrocities in the Gaza Strip during the 51 day massacre last summer he was denied a teaching position at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Reacting to Salaita’s condemnation of Israeli crimes, university Chancellor Phyllis Wise declared that UIUC could not tolerate “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them”, a justification the widely read Academe Blog deemed “ridiculous.” Fundamentally, Dyson’s dissatisfaction with Dr. West is of the same brand.

Without venturing into hagiography, which is always an unattractive trait for those genuinely committed to critical thought, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of Dr. West as a voice of dissent and social uplift, not only in the Black community but in the United States as a whole. From the numerous arrests that he has undergone in the spirit of grassroots civil disobedience, to his outreach to the younger generation, to his defense of political prisoners like Mumia Abu Jamal and Palestinians languishing in the open air prison of the Gaza Strip, no amount of “philosophical meditation on prophetic vocation, scholarly craft and writerly art” can diminish his contributions to our national discourse and the movements that spring from them, a combination that is helping to construct a more just society. Legendary German socialist Rosa Luxemburg famously remarked that “those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” It’s about time Dr. Dyson joined Dr. West and noticed his own.



Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC

mediumblue.cover_5.06x7.81_EC-e1394643725270Shortly after news surfaced that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden provided Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras with secret documents detailing the massive crimes of the American surveillance state, beltway journalists wasted little time in denouncing Snowden as a “traitor” and “narcissist” who jeopardized US “national security.” Now, nearly a year later, journalism which would have been impossible without Snowden’s courageous act of conscience has earned praise from populations around the world, foreign parliamentarians, and even the creator of the world wide web, who called Snowden a “hero” for his actions. Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras have also received accolades for their fearless journalism, winning the prestigious George Polk award. The Washington Post and the Guardian has also been recognized by the Pulitzer board for their reports on NSA criminality. All of these changes highlight how Edward Snowden’s revelations not only provided the global public with vital information about the “likely unconstitutional” deeds of the US government but have reinvigorated a long overdue conversation about journalism and the role of journalists vis-a-vis power centers. Part of this conversation should include a sober examination of the most prominent media outlets, the interests they represent and the ideas they espouse. Michael Arria’s Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC offers a revealing glimpse into the prevailing values at a purportedly “liberal” network that former President Bill Clinton described as “our version of Fox.” In this incredibly sharp, and often humorous, critique of MSNBC Arria raises the question that probably seemed obvious in the immediate aftermath of the Snowden revelations, namely that an honest evaluation of American media is not compatible with the conservative-liberal dichotomy of elite discourse. Instead larger questions should be asked about the relation of the public to private power or as Arria states “the issue has never been whether the media is too liberal or conservative, the problem is who controls the media.” In this book this question is answered and the implications are ominous. Analyzing interviews, articles and the institutional structure of this GE-owned network, Arria exposes MSNBC for what it really represents: a team of deeply subservient mouthpieces for wealth and power, specifically the Obama administration.

Hardball host Chris Matthews, who admitted to feeling a pleasurable “thrill go up his leg” when President Obama spoke.

He begins his analysis with the climate of nationalism that dominated the country in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11th. While the overwhelming majority of network personalities were agitating to bomb Iraqis there was a rare exception. MSNBC host Phil Donahue invited anti-war voices on his program. This deviation was considered unacceptable at MSNBC headquarters and for this decision Donahue lost his job. Explaining his dismissal Donahue stated “we were the only antiwar voice that had a show, and that, I think, made them very nervous.” Donahue’s colleague and current host of Hardball Chris Matthews reserved a particular distaste for Donahue’s “advocacy journalism”, as sympathy for victims of US power is disparagingly described. “Matthews declared he would bring down the network if Donahue stuck around,” Arria notes citing a US News and World Report article. This institutional pressure to conform stood out as a dominant value in MSNBC’s corporate culture and Arria provides startling examples of its effectiveness. Take for example his critique of Rachel Maddow, a reporter who, despite her “liberal” leanings, parroted misinformation about Iran’s “nuclear weapons program”, defended NATO’s bombing of Libya–characterizing the aerial assault as an American effort to “stabilize Libya”–and asserted that “drones don’t change the politics of war that much.” When CODE Pink activist and fearless anti-drone campaigner Medea Benjamin disrupted President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University to highlight the humanity of drone war victims, Maddow responded with a condescending report, mocking Benjamin. “After anti-war activist Medea Benjamin interrupted an Obama speech on drones … Maddow ran a graphic reading, ‘Stop Agreeing With Me!’ the implication being that, if Benjamin just shut up and listened, she would quickly learn that Obama had many of the same reservations.” Obama’s “agreement” with Benjamin was recently reiterated in his administration’s decision to boycott a UN conference on drones, an inconvenient contradiction that likely can be resolved by asking, like a good “liberal” commissar, “would you prefer Mitt Romney to blow up Pakistani children?” Incidentally, this hypothetical may be too generous. MSNBC employee and co-host of The Cycle Toure distanced himself so far from the victims of drone warfare that when the murder of 16 year old Abdulrahman Awlaki was brought up on his show he didn’t even know who Awlaki was.

“… During an MSNBC panel discussing drone strikes Toure seemed completely unaware that Abdulrahman, had ever even existed: ‘What do you mean a 16 year old who is killed? I’m not talking about civilians’, he declared, when the subject came up. After fellow panelists, liberal Steve Kornacki and conservative S.E. Cupp, explained to Toure who Abdulrahman Awlaki was, he shrugged, ‘If people are working against America, then they need to die.'”

Other reporters covered in Arria’s critique are Chris Hayes, Melissa Harris-Perry, Ezra Klein, Ed Schultz and Joy Reid. Of particular interest is the story of Chris Hayes, who Arria acknowledges as someone who is often seen as the “progressive” exception to the otherwise Democratic Party tribalists that have come to dominate MSNBC. After Hayes made an extremely mild and unoffensive statement questioning the heroism US soldiers the cultural managers in the elite press dropped the hammer on him. Richard DeNoyer, the National Commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars, condemned Hayes statement as “reprehensible and disgusting”, a grave insult to “our fallen service members.” Immediately Hayes backtracked on his statement and issued an apology, asking “who was I to say who is and who isn’t a hero?” and admitting that “he fell short in a crucial moment.” This incident causes Arria to make the compelling observation that “If every soldier storming into Afghanistan and Iraq is hero, merely by extension of being American, then logic dictates, soldiers on the opposing side should be viewed as heroes, by their fellow citizens,” and “these are the questions we must ask, and the kinds of discussions we must have, if we ever hope to live in a country that doesn’t possess an aggressive, and murderous, foreign policy.”

Melissa Harris Perry kindly encouraging Snowden to “face the music” (go to jail) in a televised open letter.

Logical exercises of this kind are alien to MSNBC journalists who operate under an intellectual and moral code of silence where any examination of imperial ideology, no matter how superficial, makes everyone “very nervous.” The nervousness that paralyzes MSNBC journalists when dealing with issues of imperial power was put on full display in Melissa Harris Perry’s appraisal of the Obama administration. In what Arria accurately describes as a “tremendously disrespectful version of history” Perry asserted that President Obama is “stunningly similar” to Dr. Martin Luther King. Meanwhile, serious critics like Dr. Cornel West attacked these illusions, pointing out that King “would talk about drones. He’d talk about Wall Street criminality. He would talk about the working class being pushed to the margins as profits went up for corporate executives in their compensation.” Arria summed up the distinction more straightforwardly: “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream; President Obama has a Kill List.”

A review of this excellent book would be incomplete without mention of the many humorous scenes Arria paints from Chris Matthews announcing that he got so excited listening to one of Obama’s speeches that he “felt a thrill going up [his] leg” to Joy Reid’s interrogation of Wikileaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson, a tense exchange that forced Arria to conclude “the spirit of Joe McCarthy lives deep in the heart of Joy Reid.” He also satirizes a decision by Ed Schultz to do a report about televangelist Pat Robertson’s advice to a mother on “demon-sweaters” from Goodwill instead of covering the incomparably more consequential story of Chelsea Manning’s trial. In another comedic aside, Arria opens the chapter on Ezra Klein with the following observation: “It’s very possible that everything you need to know about the young Washington Post columnist and MSNBC contributor Ezra Klein, can be deduced from the opening line of a New Republic profile on him: ‘The first time I interviewed Ezra Klein, the 28-year old prince of DC media, he brought me a sandwich: prosciutto on a poppy-seed baguette.'”

This injection of humor, in an otherwise serious book, makes Medium Blue a highly engaging read for anyone unimpressed by the easy, self-flattering denunciations of Fox News, which is certainly a highly jingoistic, racist and xenophobic network, but “undeserving of rigorous analysis.” As Arria states in the introduction “Liberals frequently bite on the trolling, bothering to waste time and words on superfluous tasks like fact-checking Ann Coulter books.” Perhaps this is the most significant contribution of his book, that he penetrates the simplistic tribalist paradigm of elite discourse, where the limits of thought are narrowly constrained by party affiliation, and lays down a devastating critique of American mass media. No one who reads this book can afterwards watch MSNBC and not be overcome with feelings of contempt, if not amusement. In a recent appearance on the network, award-winning investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill compared MSNBC’s editorial line to an “Obama for America meetup.” One can only imagine how many employees he made “very nervous.”