by Jeremy Fassler
Once, Cornel West was one of America’s most dynamic thinkers. With the publication of his landmark 1993 book, Race Matters, he became a celebrity who appeared on talk shows, cut rap albums, and even cameoed in The Matrix sequels. His fans, including myself, eagerly awaited to hear what he thought, and in that sense, the Obama Presidency should have brought out the best in him. Instead, he turned into a caricature of his former self, as Michael Eric Dyson argued in his essay “The Ghost of Cornel West,” and his latest Guardian diatribe against Ta-Nehisi Coates shows how he has fallen victim to his hubris.
In his 2008 book Hope on a Tightrope, West wrote that he loved Obama, but would remove the gloves once he got into office. If that had been the extent of his criticism, it would have been understandable, but his pettiness towards the President went as far back as his initial campaign announcement in 2007, when he took issue that the then junior-Senator from Illinois had given his announcement address from the state capitol in Springfield, instead of at the State of the Black Union, hosted by West’s colleague Tavis Smiley. He believed this snub proved Obama was not concerned with African-Americans: “Coming out there is not fundamentally about us,” he said. “It’s about somebody else. [Obama’s] got large numbers of white brothers and sisters who have fears and anxieties, and he’s got to speak to them in such a way that he holds us at arm’s length.”
West’s antipathy reached a boiling point in January 2009, when, after endorsing and campaigning for Obama, he couldn’t get tickets for his inaugural. Recalling the incident in Truthdig, he said, “brother Barack Obama had no sense of gratitude, no sense of loyalty, no sense of even courtesy, [no] sense of decency, just to say thank you.” According to Dyson, West left the President-elect several voicemails with instructions, but they all came from a blocked number with no way to return the call – “a routine with which I was all too familiar,” he remarks. But West built this up in his mind as a betrayal, obsessing over it to the point where, when he finally met with Obama in the Oval Office, West spent much of their meeting addressing the issue, according to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s book Double Down.
Although he voted for him in 2012, West soon turned against other African-American scholars and activists whom he felt didn’t sufficiently criticize Obama enough. Jesse Jackson became “ontologically addicted to the camera”; Al Sharpton “the head House Negro on the Obama plantation”; Melissa Harris-Perry “a liar…a fake, and a fraud”; and former colleague and friend Michael Eric Dyson had “sold [his soul] for a mess of Obama pottage.” Rather than aim his powerful rhetoric at the most destructive figures of our time, like President Donald Trump (whose election he dismissed as “another ugly moment” while gloating how Hillary’s loss ended neoliberalism) he would rather attack members of his own race who don’t align with his beliefs 100%. Now he has turned his sights on Ta-Nehisi Coates, and he comes away with egg on his face for it.
The crux of West’s essay is felt in the title: “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the Neoliberal Face of the Black Freedom Struggle.” For eighteen paragraphs, some consisting of only one sentence, he accuses Coates of not fully understanding white supremacy because he does not attack war, Wall Street, and the American Empire, all of which he believes facilitate white domination of society. If he really did understand this, West argues, he would have attacked President Obama the same way he did, but according to him, “[Coates’s] own literally ‘dreams’ of success were facilitated by a black neoliberal president who ruled for eight years,” therefore he is ill-equipped to speak for his people.
The eighteen-paragraph essay is little more than eighteen different ways someone can be called a “neoliberal shill.” In sentence after sentence, West hurls the same exact criticism at Coates with different wording. Here’s a couple of samples:
“Coates…represents the neoliberal wing…[that] reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people.”
“Coates…never connects this ugly legacy [of white supremacy] to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty…”
“When he honestly asks: ‘How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?,’ the answer should be clear…because you are silent on what is a threat to their order (especially Wall Street and war.)”
“[Coates’s] gross misunderstanding of who Barack Obama is – the first black head of the American Empire – speaks volumes about Coates’ neoliberal view of the world.”
“Coates praises Obama as a ‘deeply moral human being’ while remaining silent on the 563 drone strikes, the assassination of US citizens with no trial, the 26,171 bombs dropped on five Muslim-majority countries and the 550 Palestinian children killed…”
“His…myopic political neoliberalism has no place for keeping track of Wall Street greed, US imperial crimes or black elite difference to poverty.”
There may be a method to West’s repetitive writing style. In his essay, Dyson laments West’s inability to write another significant work since Race Matters. Most of the books he has published these last 25 years have either rehashed earlier themes, or been written with the help of a co-author. He has always believed in the power of rhetoric and the Socratic method, which is admirable, but as Dyson writes, “there are limits on what speaking can do for someone trying to wrestle angels or battle demons to the page…the ecstasies of the spoken word, when scholarship is at stake, leave the deep reader and the long listener hungry for more.”
While you could conceivably argue that West’s repetitions of his points are an attempt to mimic the Socratic style, it’s still an unsatisfactory answer, since his essay is so sloppily researched that it appears he wrote it without ever reading any of Coates’s essays. Yesterday on Twitter, Coates stood up for himself, linking to articles that prove he does write about all the things West claims he doesn’t. The intersection of capital and race/gender/sexuality? Here’s this essay from 2011, “On Labor.” LGBTQ African-Americans, whom West claims Coates has “not paid serious attention” to? Here’s his essay “Race and Gay Marriage in Perspective,” from 2010. And in response to critiques that he ignored Obama’s drone policies, here’s not one, not two, but three different pieces of Coates on this very subject. If West had bothered to do this research, he would have realized that he and Coates might agree on more than they disagree.
What’s more, just like his newer books are recycled versions of his older works, this essay is just a recycled version of an older one. In 2015, the year Coates published Between the World and Me and won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, West weighed in on Facebook. I encourage you to read it in full, and look at it side-by-side with the Guardian piece:
It’s the same exact essay with almost the same exact structure. He accuses Coates of not being critical enough of Obama, of being silent on the things he should speak out on, and of being nothing more than white liberals’ favorite black scholar. He even cites “Robin DJ Kelly, Imani Perry, [and] Gerald Horne” as counter-examples – all whom he also cites at the end of the Guardian essay. And it proves, at least to me, that West is either totally unfamiliar with Coates’s works, or, if he is, he barely remembers them. Remember all those essays Coates linked to earlier where he attacks the things West claims he doesn’t? They were all written before the publication of this Facebook post. West not only got it wrong the first time, he doubled down on it the second time. This is inexcusable for someone of his stature.
Twenty-five years ago, Cornel West would have constructed arguments, essays, and books that allowed us to understand his points, even if we didn’t agree with them all the way through. Now, his belief in the infallibility of these arguments has corrupted his writing, making us forget that he once bestrode the academic world like a colossus. The power of West’s previous work still rings true today, and I imagine he would still be enshrined if he only wrote Race Matters. If anything, at a time like this, we need his voice. But not only do we not have that anymore, he doesn’t have it anymore either. And we’re all worse off for it.