Cornel West may be a big man on campus, but Barack Obama is the president of the United States.
West might have been wise to consider this pecking order before calling the president “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” Such epithets hurled against Thomas Sowell or Allen West will boost their speaking fees. But tugging on the Chosen One’s cape is no way to ingratiate yourself to academia, Hollywood, the media, and other drivers of West’s gravy train who clearly value the president more than the professor.
“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” West explained in an interview earlier this month. “It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white.”
Indonesia? Hawaii? The South Side of Chicago? They don’t exactly have the “white context” of say, Princeton, New Jersey, do they?
West questions not only the president’s racial heritage, but his mammalian status (“he lacks backbone”). The former transgression prompted the _Washington Post_’s Jonathan Capehart to blog that “West is no better than a birther.”
West’s tirade has left some on the Left perplexed. Salon.com’s Joan Walsh characterized the celebrity intellectual’s rant as a “tragic meltdown.” She posits that “maybe this is the way that identity politics has 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.”
Whereas the “meltdown” sparked in Walsh an epiphany about the identity politics she has so long embraced, Stanley Crouch maintains that West’s ugly outburst just confirms the conception of West that black thinkers have long held—but kept to themselves. “Serious black intellectuals privately dismissed West many years ago as no more than an academic loudmouth with a good show business game,” tartly claimed Crouch, who dubs the Princeton professor a “pompous, educated fool, drowning in narcissism.” The New York Daily News columnist wrote Monday: “Publicity, not scholarship, is his true tradition.” Ouch.
The outrage isn’t about the tactics. It’s about the target.
Such racial vituperation has been a staple West’s rhetorical arsenal for years. When West ridiculed Clarence Thomas’s “claims to black authenticity,” or dismissed him as a token, the Left didn’t merely tolerate this. They cheered wildly, making Race Matters a runaway bestseller. Now that a liberal African American president, rather than a conservative African American Supreme Court justice, is the focus of such ugly abuse through a racial lens, the Left is shocked, shocked.
It is strange that West’s appearance in two of the Matrix movies, or his reinvention as a rapper, didn’t prompt dismissals of him from Stanley Crouch as “an academic loudmouth with a good show business game.” Criticizing Barack Obama did. We do not know what Crouch thought privately about West. We do know that the public disavowals of West came only after he lambasted Obama.
Ditto for Joan Walsh’s characterization of West’s battering of the president as a “meltdown.” A meltdown happens when a person acts unlike himself. A meltdown isn’t when a figure behaves in a manner to which the public is accustomed.
Bewilderment at Cornel West obsessing over race is like expressing surprise that Rodney Dangerfield would talk about respect. It’s his shtick. In the barely two-page introduction to Race Matters, West discusses teaching a course on Afro-American Cultural Studies. He perceives Manhattan cab drivers bypassing him as racial slights. He dutifully notes the “European descent” of a woman picked up by a cab and points out the “white male photographer and white female cover designer” whom he meets. The race-obsessed author quotes the race-obsessed W.E.B. Du Bois and name-drops the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. He fantasizes about living in Addas Ababa, Ethiopia. He talks about visiting his favorite soul food restaurant and “the soothing black music of Van Harper’s Quiet Storm on WBLS, 107.5.” This is as much an introduction to a book as it is to a man. Cornel West is a professional black man. It’s his business, and a lucrative one at that.
It’s not that the reader was not forewarned. The book is called Race Matters, after all. Therein, West segregates not just people, but their emotions, their actions, their thought, their everything. To take just one page (page 86), West writes of “black sexuality,” “black intelligence,” “black moral character,” “black possibility,” “black social spaces,” “black humanity,” “black families,” black institutions,” “black egos,” “black sanity,” “black love,” and “black survival.” It’s as if West believes blacks and whites aren’t merely separate races, but separate species incapable of sharing basic human characteristics such as intelligence, ego, and character. The unhealthy obsession with color, which manifested itself in the verbal assault on the president, made Cornel West. It now threatens to unmake him.
Much pop psychology has been engaged by those seeking to analyze why one black leftist would attack another black leftist. Surely the egomaniacal West encouraged this by publically griping over unreturned phone calls, inauguration snubs, and a presidential cussing out. But the former Obama supporter’s pettiness is a minor factor here. Overlooked is the inconvenient truth that the same identity politics that weaved the modern Democratic Party is responsible for this small tear in its current fabric.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of Why the Left Hates America (Prima Forum, 2002), Intellectual Morons: How Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas (Crown Forum, 2004), and A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, 2008). He writes a Monday column for Human Events and blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.
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