Granted, local (Let’s Pretend We’re) Democrats won’t find it easy to tear themselves away from luxurious development plans and Sunday afternoon chain restaurant excursions, but in their spare time, perhaps a few minutes of Cornel West might help reorient their Gahanized inner compasses.
The essay is excerpted here. That’s no substitute for reading the whole piece.
Everybody Hates Cornel West, by Connor Kilpatrick (Jacobin)
How Cornel West went from liberal media darling to pariah.
… Now, West finds himself in a strange place. After his public break with the Obama presidency, the same liberal intelligentsia that once championed West has not only thrown him overboard, but seems to delight in making a public spectacle of their scorn for a man they claim is little more than “embittered” after being “spurned” by the first black president.
Long beloved by liberals as the premier black public intellectual, West is now rejected by the same crowd of Democratic Party apparatchiks that first helped him shoot to fame through television appearances, countless books, a hip-hop album, and even an onscreen role in The Matrix sequels.
The list includes The Nation’s Joan Walsh; the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart; and Michael Eric Dyson.
Dyson, the Georgetown professor and Aspen Institute regular, spent one particularly lengthy section of his New Republic essay “ranking” black public intellectuals’ prowess according to their equivalent prizefighter. West was given the rank of Mike Tyson.
All of this led up to the great left/liberal schism of 2016 that was Sanders vs. Clinton. As Dyson, Capehart, and Walsh lined up firmly behind the increasingly miserable Clinton campaign, West found himself allied first with Bernie Sanders and later Green Party candidate Jill Stein. At the height of Sanders-mania, while Dyson, Walsh, and Capehart were delivering cringeworthy apologetics for Clinton, West was working with the Sanders campaign in the South, touring black churches and colleges in support of the social-democratic political revolution.
Or, the joys of “choice” in a duopoly.
In the Obama era, black public intellectuals find themselves in a curious position. It’s a difficult balancing act — how to keep “interpreting the drums” for the Democratic Party elite, as (Adolph) Reed’s argument goes, while staying friendly with that same party that’s overseen a mass economic immiseration of working-class Americans and an exploding carceral state (both of which disproportionately affect black Americans).
The contradictions in this relationship grow even starker as the rhetorical victories have stacked up. Today, even Silicon Valley CEOs proudly proclaim that “Black Lives Matter.” The discourse of diversity and the grad student seminar has become entrenched in everything from television criticism to celebrity tabloids. The Obama years have been a boon to the salaried intellectual class of all races, but lean times for the working-class constituents whose needs, hopes, and desires the black intellectual class vies to interpret for white audiences. What is the role of the black public intellectual when the discourse of “race relations” is now perhaps the liberal class’s preferred way — some would say only way — of talking about our never-ending barrage of social injustices?
Needless to say, the Obama era has been a hell of a trip for Brother West.
Illusory uplift versus versus material reality? Ask Adam Dickey to explain this notion to you; I’ve tried, but regrettably remain blocked from local Democratic communications channels.
As the analytical role of black public intellectual became increasingly unable to explain the growing social inequalities in American life, West bolted from the political mainstream to the margins. Where he once shared the stage with President Obama, he now occupies it with people like Revolutionary Communist Party leader Bob Avakian. While the Hillary Clinton campaign enlisted the Democratic Party’s black bourgeoisie to batten down the hatches against the Sanders threat, West assailed the Obama legacy as one of illusory racial uplift alongside the material reality of a post-crash society in which single black women were left with a median net worth of five dollars.
When Clinton’s black surrogates shamelessly accused Sanders of racial aloofness, West fought back using the same rhetoric of a “black public intellectual” that had helped build his career. But now, he was attempting to forge that same language into a weapon of social-democratic demystification, wielding it against the Clintonite fog of cultural studies jargon, meritocratic appeals, and subtle free-market apologetics.
Or, the emerging local dynamic of the Dan Canon wing versus the Jeff Gahan wing.
The same brokerage politics of racial authenticity that had, decades ago, delivered black votes to the Clinton machine weren’t about to win them away for a seventy-four-year-old senator (Sanders) few had heard of. The Wests of the world can deliver only righteousness and fiery passions. Congressmen Jim Clyburn and John Lewis can deliver jobs, networks, and targeted legislation.
As much as West tries to summon what he calls “the black prophetic tradition” in order to make it work for the democratic-socialist agenda he sincerely believes in, the battle over that discourse has long since been lost. The Democratic Party has only grown more skilled at “interpreting the drums,” even as it continues to abandon or rewrite historical commitments to trade unions and social insurance programs — commitments that disproportionately benefited black Americans.
We live in an era in which Clinton — who proudly supported mass incarceration and the obliteration of welfare — declares that a social-democratic program of financial reform and single-payer health insurance “won’t end racism.” A recent WikiLeaks publication of internal Clinton campaign emails reveals another line they were testing out against Sanders: “Wall Street is not gunning down young African Americans or denying immigrants a path to citizenship.”
It’s a sentiment that would’ve bewildered civil rights veterans like A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr, John P. Davis, Bayard Rustin, and Lester Granger, all of whom were committed to social-democratic politics as a crucial means of putting racism on a path towards ultimate extinction.
To “follow the money” suggest two very different goals. Establishment Democrats have opted for one of them, and Cornel West the other.
I remember looking around the auditorium: the young, this new generation who would soon file out in Occupy and, a few years later, join the Sanders campaign, were hanging on his every word as they listened to West define what it meant to be radical, what it meant to be on the Left.
“That means we cut radically against the grain of the last forty years, especially in the American empire, where we have been told lies. Unfettered markets generating self-sufficiency, prosperity, and justice is a lie!. . . Wall Street oligarchs and the corporate elites are sucking so much of the blood of American democracy in such a way that more and more people are just useless, superfluous. And they don’t care! They think that they can get away with it because there’s been no resistance of large scale! And they think in the end, the chickens don’t come home to roost, that you don’t reap what you sow . . . we simply say at Left Forum,” and here he backed away from the mic, lowered his voice and smiled, “We stand for the truth.” People were on their feet, exploding in applause.
While West’s reputation has suffered greatly among liberals, it has never been better among socialists. And while still marginal, after the Sanders challenge to the entire liberal class, ours is a corner with some confidence now. West is a longtime member of the Democratic Socialists of America and his reputation for generosity among younger members is unparalleled. He seemingly has time for everyone. Especially those who offer him nothing in career opportunities or elite respectability.