Cornel West: Dyson’s Attack Was “Distraction,” “Narcissistic Self-Projection”

MSNBC analyst and veteran Obama supporter Michael Eric Dyson published “The Ghost of Cornel West,” a hatchet job attack on social and economic justice leader and renowned public intellectual Cornel West in The New Republic on 19 April.

Immediately after reading the lengthy (approximately 10,000-word) piece, I wrote a detailed response, “The Ghosts of Obama’s Victims: Liberals Attacks on Cornel West Expose Their Political Bankruptcy,” condemning Dyson for his intellectual dishonesty, superficial politics, and shameless support of the thoroughly reactionary Obama administration.

West did not immediately respond to the prolix public string of ad hominems flung in his direction by a prominent liberal figure, and friend.

In a panel discussion on Dr. Jared A. Balls Baltimore radio WEAA 88.9 FM No Hooks program, I had the privileged of discussing the piece with Kirsten West Savali of The Root and Dr. Greg Carr of Howard University. We all agreed that West—in his characteristic modesty, despite Dyson’s insistence on the contrary—would likely mostly ignore the attack and not waste time on personal kerfuffles, drawing even more attention and energy away from important political and social issues.

On 23 April, West published a succinct three-paragraph indirect response to Dyson on his official Facebook page. West wisely centered political struggles in his statement (the opposite of what Dyson did) and tried to diffuse the tension by “focus[ing] on what really matters: the issues, policies, and realities that affect precious everyday people catching hell and how we can resist the lies and crimes of the status quo!”

The escalating deaths and sufferings in Black and poor America and the marvelous new militancy in our Ferguson moment should compel us to focus on what really matters: The life and death issues of police murders, poverty, mass incarceration, drones, TPP (unjust trade policies), vast surveillance, decrepit schools, unemployment, Wall Street power, Israeli occupation of Palestinians, Dalit resistance in India, and ecological catastrophe.

Character assassination is the refuge of those who hide and conceal these issues in order to rationalize their own allegiance to the status quo. I am neither a saint nor prophet, but I am a Jesus-loving free Black man in a Great Tradition who intends to be faithful unto death in telling the truth and bearing witness to justice. I am not beholden to any administration, political party, TV channel or financial sponsor because loving suffering and struggling peoples is my point of reference. Deep integrity must trump cheap popularity. Nothing will stop or distract my work and witness, even as I learn from others and try not to hurt others.

But to pursue truth and justice is to live dangerously. In the spirit of John Coltrane’s LOVE SUPREME, let us focus on what really matters: the issues, policies, and realities that affect precious everyday people catching hell and how we can resist the lies and crimes of the status quo!

Although the presumed agent responsible for the “character assassination” West addressed was clearly meant to be Dyson, he remained unnamed.

A few months later, in an exclusive interview on Grit TV’s The Laura Flanders Show, published on 9 June, West named names, accusing Michael Eric Dyson of “narcissistic self-projection” and distracting from important social issues.

The host Laura Flanders asks “What’s wrong with [Dyson’s] approach?” West responds

(11:19)

Well, he can have the approach he wants. Again, I want everybody to lift their voice. But you question is whether you’re gonna be honest and candid about it.

When I hear talk about Wall Street government, Main Street left out to dry; when I hear talk about the drone presidency, and I see the innocent lives lost; when I see massive surveillance that brother [Edward] Snowden and sister [Chelsea] Manning and others have disclosed, righteous indignation flows.

Ecological catastrophe, on to corporate greed; then we got the new Jim Crow, we got decrepit schools, and so forth. Then if he says, “No we need polite language in order to support the President, and maybe have a criticism every now and then,” I say “No, we’re two different kind of black men.” I’m full of righteous indignation to see these structural injustices.

West proceeds to discuss how Dyson was not just a former mentee, but a close friend. The ad hominem-filled attack was ergo even more painful. At 12:14, West remarks “and Brother Dyson, of course he’s not just a former student I’ve known for over 30 years, but he was my very close brother; there’s no doubt about it.”

Continuing, West speaks about Dyson’s precarious position as a purported progressive who has “changed,” has has betrayed his values and now “act[s] like a neoliberal.”

(12:33)

Brother, this looks like narcissistic self-projection. You see in yourself, when you’re looking at me, in terms of you got me wrong and I’m trying to tell the truth, and willing to pay a price. You were telling the truth for a while, but unwilling to pay the price. You changed. You’ve become one of the president’s men, and now you get rationalizations for your deference to the status quo.

Now if you want to be deferent to the status quo, that’s a choice people make. There’s black conservatives; there’s black liberals; there’s black neoliberals. He wants to be a black leftist. You can’t be a leftist and act like a neoliberal. You can’t do it. There’s something called the truth that’s bigger than all of us.

In a preposterous, yet typical, liberal apolitical character slander, Dyson absurdly speculated that West’s supposed “hatred” of Obama is rooted in the fact that Obama did not give the minister tickets to his inauguration. Flanders inquires about the accusation, and West replies emphatically “Oh, no,” explaining

(13:28)

That has nothing to do with the drone presidency, Wall Street presidency—these are the issues.

And see, I was reading my dear brother’s piece, as we planned to go to Ferguson, Baltimore; and I’m thinking, this is a distraction. We’ve got all these deaths out here, this suffering out here. The last thing we need is some narcissistic discussion about two negro intellectuals.

We’ve got the people. We’re trying to serve the people.