Melissa Harris-Perry and Adam Serwer wrote majestic takedowns of Cornel West's vicious and deeply personal rant against President Obama published this week, so I didn't think I had to. But there's one thing missing in the torrent of reaction to West I've seen this week: a recognition that maybe this is the way identity politics had to end, not with a bang but a whine. Dizzying racial and personal insults have come from all directions, and they're beginning to lose their meaning.
Much has been made of the personal pique that animated West's attack on the president: How dare the bellhop at West's hotel Inaugural Weekend wind up with tickets to the event itself when West didn't? How could Obama stop returning his calls? West's animus was impossible to miss, and it clearly drove the awful, ad hominem anger of West's invective.
The most tragic thing, to me, about West's meltdown was the way he tried to frame it as a universalist defense of poor and working-class people -- who in fact haven't gotten enough help or attention from this too-close-to-Wall Street administration -- but then somehow descends into personal attacks on the president as "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats." If that wasn't bad enough, West claims Obama's problem is that he is afraid of "free black men" due to his white ancestry and years in the Ivy League. "He feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want," West claimed.
Give Brother West credit for consistency: On MSNBC's "The Ed Show" Tuesday night, he repeated his criticism that Obama is too close to "upper-middle-class white brothers and Jewish brothers."
Oh no, the Jews again. Haven't we been here before?
How did the man who wrote in "Race Matters" that it's time "to replace racial reasoning with moral reasoning" come to this? I don't disagree with some of West's critique of Obama, but Ta-Nehisi Coates is exactly right here:
Was there something more Obama should have done to get a public option? Should he not have traded the Bush tax cuts for extending unemployment benefits? Did Obama settle too quickly on a small stimulus package? Was he wrong to allow the GOP to shut down planned parenthood in DC? Is the strategy of increased drone attacks in Pakistan inhumane? Was the financial reform bill he signed ultimately too weak?
I think all of this is fair game. I think Charles Ferguson's critique in Inside Job was really solid. I think calling someone a "black mascot" or a "black puppet" because they don't agree with you is much less so.
The Washington Post's always terrific Jonathan Capehart says that, essentially, West is "no better than a birther," challenging the president's credibility on specious, deeply personal racial grounds. (Joan Walsh, “Cornel West’s tragic meltdown,” Salon, 19 May 2011)
"The angry black man" returns -- but only for a short while
So the fact that we elected Obama is being tested -- successfully -- to make the angry black man once again acceptably "the angry black man." This way, rational, fair, mature, concerned Obama can ensure the Depression -- his ultimate role in history, I think -- and those most likely to be hurt, become primarily fair creatures of sport. (For me, with the examples that foremost come to my mind -- with West, with Armond White, with the brother in "he's climbing in your window…," emotional,"irrational" black men are being set up as deserving whatever might happen to them: instantly dehumanized.)
I think this is only temporary, however. Once the Depression is really rooted in, I think that like the last big one, everyone who had for a short while snickered at the habits and inclinations, the evidence of upset, of the poor and disenfranchised, will suddenly see the suffering masses as noble. No more talk of birther-politics. And, I think, no more illustrations of the angry black man. Instead, I think anti-semitism rises, becomes legitimate amongst the literate classes, even. America, everyone once again agrees, demonstrates its purity, its intention to be true to its heritage, its brothers, its folk, by reparing the damage done by slavery and keeping faith with black people -- by NEVER allowing blacks to be fair subjects of sport: and who must it have been to have done the considerable evil in temporarily swaying them away from their faith?
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The core of the matter
Black men's "theatrics," style, heritage, voice is now being readily deconstructed, brushed aside by liberals as really just plain inexcusable disrespect. This is amazing. It's the opposite direction from the '60s, which was about empowering the carnival of the disempowered -- whatever its true virtues -- not using it as evidence that they need not be listened to. Obama empowered this? That because you remain in support of him the very last thing you can be is racist, so enough of what-is-in-truth-your-inexcusable clownishness that we've long grown tired of pretending as otherwise? It empowers it, I think, but what motivates it is, one, that what-is-in-greatest-truth interestingness, signs of individuality, of being well nurtured, emboldenly ensouled -- what great black men like West and Armond White and Jesse Jackson mostly "are" -- is not allowed anymore: that these men flowered to the point of being so rich in individual personality suggests the permissiveness of the '60s, not the fearful restraint, denial of today (something Obama, ever careful, ever dispossessed, "embodies"); and two, because it's not going to last so long that guilt at what we liberals are up to cripples us.
At some level we all know that two groups in particular are getting destroyed out there: the working classes, and those most traditionally disenfranchised -- black people. And at some level we all know that in making Birthers the most ridiculous people in the universe, those who most fundamentally need our opposition, we are making it so that we don't need so much to see the awfulness that is happening to great segments of the working classes -- those, who, if they're not birthers, are most likely to support such populist creatures as Rush Limbaugh. Krugman can rant all he wants about how Obama is enlarging the dispossessed, and yet he is trumped by an image or two of them -- that calls up the multitudes we've been exposed to and hated on -- crazily doubting Obama's heritage. He can't really communicate, because we've activated a switch, an alternative, which empowers us to hear him but to not let it squarely sit -- he is referring to a people disconnected from what is most in play in the public arena. And at some level we know that in making it so that emotive, "unaccountable" black intellectuals like Armond White and West are mostly clowns or trolls, we're setting up the tradition they've been characterized as representing, embodying, as clownish too, which means that when we encounter the large swaths of black men who angrily loathe on Obama, who will suffer most under his management, our instinctive reaction is not to emphatize but to mock, to hate. "You're not just showing your 'color' -- in fact, it's never really been about that. You're just being disregarding and rude; probably from the beginning, mostly deserve to be put in place; and if this is what Obama is effecting -- good friggin' for him." We might not allow ourselves to quite THINK this, but we feel it automatically -- and it'll doom them of empowered friends. But I think it likely that we at some level know that we've not commited ourselves to being opposite to two groups we're supposed to want to enfranchise and represent: that we've untethered ourselves from exactly what made us liberals in the first place. Once the Depression has irrecovably set in -- and so long as Krugman still insists that government spending can still sway us away, it probably hasn't -- like the last Depression, liberals stop mocking the habits of the poor and become one hundred percent behind them. In fact, it'll be all we'll do, non-stop, for ten years at least. That is, even if the majority of the dispossesed were holding the craziest political inclinations, supporting the most ugly of populist leaders, and if black men were ranting away in the most outlandish, disrespectful manner, all we'll let ourselves see are noble people being unfairly picked on by cruel, corporate culture. Like the last Depression, this won't ultimately do much for them -- it was the awesome suffering, which empowered the belief that some gain is now surely deserved, which ended the Depression. And, as I suggested earlier, what it might actually empower is a spread of anti-semitism: in full regret that they for awhile turned against the common man and the descendents of slaves, that they swayed the very opposite of Good, liberals will lascerate themselves -- but also look to punish the sneaks surely responsible for their temporary, grotesque transmogrification.
I like West, and am inclined to want to defend him, but 5 years on I think he'll be very empowered again ... and heeded -- about what he had to say about Jewish influence. What he has to say about Jews is grotesque, and I am glad Joan was angered by it. It's not carnival; not now, because it's time for other groups to be picked on, but it can produce carnage.