By Joan Walsh
Author, activist, erstwhile rapper and former Barack Obama surrogate Cornel West became the president’s First Hater (at least from the left) shortly after inauguration, because of Obama’s betrayal – whether of progressive principles, or West personally, has never been clear. When West was criticized for his fierce Obama attacks by progressive colleagues and friends, he turned his enmity toward his critics, particularly African Americans he saw defending the president on MSNBC: most notably Rev. Al Sharpton, Melissa Harris-Perry and Michael Eric Dyson.
But while folks on the multiracial left have been puzzling over and lamenting West’s ad hominem haymakers at former friends for years now, when Dyson struck back this week in the New Republic, he came in for a lot of “how could yous?” — even from some of West’s critics.
West’s peculiarly personal and vicious denunciations of Obama – from the pages of Salon to the David Letterman Show — are legendary. He famously called the president “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” He claimed Obama is afraid of “free black men” and is more comfortable with “upper-middle-class white brothers and Jewish brothers.” Later he got worse, claiming Obama’s drone policies made him “a global George Zimmerman.”
When African-American friends defended the president, he went in on them. West called MSNBC’s Perry “a liar and a fraud,” claimed Sharpton was the “bona fide house negro of the Obama plantation,” and attacked “the Michael Dysons and others who’ve really prostituted themselves intellectually in a very, very ugly and vicious way.”
t’s true that as Dyson’s TNR piece bemoans the nasty ad hominem nature of West’s attacks on Obama, as well as on him and his colleagues, he gave almost as good as he got, first praising West as “the most exciting black scholar ever,” then charting his intellectual decline. “His greatest opponent isn’t Obama, Sharpton, Harris-Perry, or me,” the Georgetown scholar’s article concludes. “It is the ghost of a self that spits at him from his own mirror.”
Dyson is now being attacked for doing to West what West did to Obama: acting at least partly out of a sense of betrayal and hurt. One difference is, Dyson owns it, laying it bare in the piece. He admits his decision to break with West is fueled by pain and confusion, and having had enough – in his case, enough personal insults, as well as insults to colleagues and friends and the president the author both admires, and pushes, in his own way, to be better. “Our lost friendship is the collateral damage of his war on Obama,” he writes. Dyson makes the case that the issue isn’t how West has treated him, but how he’s helped set back left-wing politics in the age of our first black president.