The Perils of Being a Public Intellectual


Michael Eric Dyson has launched in the New Republic a bitter attack on Cornel West.[1] At the heart of Dyson’s critique is a discourse that engages in character assassination but not before he makes clear what is really at stake in his attack. Dyson resents West’s critique of Obama’s domestic and foreign policies. But rather than judiciously and analytically weigh such criticisms, hardly confined to West, he positions West as a spurned lover, angry and bitter because among other things, he did not get a ticket to Obama’s 2008 inauguration. Dyson expands his critique by claiming that West is not a scholar, who has lived up to the standards of decent scholarship, bolstering his case by quoting among others the irrepressible apostle of neoliberalism and unbridled finance capital, Larry Summers. It never occurs to Dyson that Summers’ critique of West may be more political than anything else. In what appears to me to be a move towards infantilism Dyson claims that West is a talker rather a scholar, as if speaking truth to power does not have its place as a legitimate mode of political intervention or that the realm of university-based scholarship is the only true space where truth can speak to power.

Finally, Dyson decries West for not being a prophet in the manner of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others and for not exploring adequately the genealogy of prophecy. I want to argue that the attack should not be seen simply as a personal attack as much as it is a product of the fear liberal intellectuals have about the role of left-oriented public intellectuals and the crucial role that pedagogy and changing consciousness plays in creating the formative cultures that make individual and collective resistance possible. West in this attack is simply a stand in for a range of public intellectuals who no longer believe in existing political formations and are redefining politics through both their words and actions.

Some have complained that there are other more important issues to address than to criticize Cornel West, and I partly agree with that, but at the same time the issue is not whether West should or not be held up to criticism. The issue is that the criticism in this case is close to worthless and another indication of the bankrupt liberalism that wallows in the irrelevant, personal, and soothes itself with what it thinks is a trenchant analysis, one that in reality reads like an apology for a politics that is tied with some guilt to the defense of the status quo. Talking about West’s personal life is a venture into the kind of spectacularized psychosis exhibited in the Dr. Phil show and in full display in the entertainment media. This isn’t scholarship. On the contrary, as Herbert Marcuse once put it, this is a form of scholarshit. With the recent killing of so many black men by the police, the increasing reach of the punishing state, the militarization of all aspects of society, and the cruel attack on social provisions and the welfare state by the financial elite, you would think that Dyson as a Black intellectual would use his talents to address a number of serious social problems. In fact, Dyson’s article is important less because of its focus on Cornel West’s shortcomings, personal and political, however fabricated, than as a exemplar of the crisis facing the work of many prominent intellectuals in the academy who have silenced themselves or lost themselves in the corridors of power, refusing to extend their intellectual capacities to addressing important social issues while defending higher education as a public good and reaffirming the connection between scholarship and social justice.

Political commitment and the work of the public intellectual is difficult and it takes many forms from writing books to engaging broader public spheres as a speaker, populist, organizer, and so it goes. West is a powerful and courageous activist and intellectual. Dyson has become a populist in ways that is not free of its own brand of opportunism–power seduces, and Michael now has to bear that burden. Unfortunately, he does not bear it with dignity in this case. Whatever Dyson might say about West withers next to the intellectual and moral comatose he displays in this assessment and putrid defense of Obama. He writes: “The odd thing is that Obama talks right—chiding personal irresponsibility in a way that presumes the pathology of many black families and neighbourhoods—but veers left in his public policy.”[2] This is more than a form of a moral and political self-sabotage, it is a decent into the dark cave of oppressive ideology. Tell that to the parents of the children killed by drones, to the whistle blowers put in prison, to people harassed by the surveillance state put in place under Obama, or to the endless number of immigrants exported and jailed under his administration. Maybe we should also include his tolerance for the crimes of bankers and torturers and his intolerance for the children and others who live close to or below the poverty line. And regarding prophecy, it is not earned on the TV circuit talking to zombies who believe critical dialogue is a shouting match. As my friend and colleague, Brad Evans points out, “Dyson represents the worst kind of liberal posturing, and is sadly more revealing actually of what is deemed important in the academy today … ” [3]

Dave Zirin has chimed in on the academic catfight, but he is too nice to Dyson.[4] He suggests that Dyson’s critique of West’s scholarship is partly on target but his political critique reveals an uncritical endorsement of Obama. There is something odd about this defense of Dyson’s scholarship given that much of his work is about rap stars, famous black women, and, well about his own self-proclaimed wisdom, made clear in his book, Can You Hear Me Now?: The Inspiration, Wisdom, and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson—a book whose title bears a close affinity to type of self-indulgence paraded in the smothering world of celebrity culture. In this instance, Dyson’s critique of West as vain and unimaginative appears more as a projection than a serious criticism. It would be too harsh to claim Dyson’s books are examples of what might be called shoddy work. More to the point, many of them simply err on the side of being just irrelevant, except when you want to appear on Fox news, host an MSNBC program or travel the celebrity culture circuit. Zirin is too diplomatic in his attempt to suggest that both West and Dyson have engaged in uncivil behavior and in doing so have more in common than one might realize. But Zirin does make one claim that I believe should have framed his essay more stronly. He writes:

Cornel West believes in Palestinian liberation. He believes in amnesty for undocumented immigrants. He believes that the bankers responsible for the 2008 crisis should be brought to justice. He believes that capitalism is a driving engine of much of the injustice in our world. He believes that Obama’s drone program is an act of state-sanctioned murder. One can choose to agree or disagree with these points, but one cannot ignore that West has been relentless in his efforts to place them in the political discourse. The word “Palestine” or “Palestinian” does not once make its way into Dyson’s piece. Neither does “Wall Street” or “immigration.” The word “drones” only comes up in a quote attributed to West. We can debate how sincere West’s commitments are to these issues or whether they are a cover for his hurt feelings and heartbreak that Dyson posits is at the root of all the discord. But they should be reckoned with. Does a “black politics” going forward need to have something to say about corporate power, Israeli occupation, immigration, and drone warfare? That’s the unspoken debate in this article, made all the more glaring because Dyson is sympathetic—and far closer to West than President Obama—on many of these questions.[5]

It is the unspoken in Dyson’s essay that raises more questions about what is really at the heart of his critique and speaks forcefully to what the real object of his criticism might be. While Dyson uses the rubric of faulty scholarship and character assassination to condemn West, what he is really doing is defending the illiberal politics of centrism, the permanent warfare state, the power of the financial elite, disparaging the multifaceted role of the public intellectual, and making a case for accommodating dominant power while reducing the purpose of the university to an adjunct of corporate power.

Others who rightly defend Cornel West have done a good job at pointing how trivial and personal Dyson’s attack is and how his criticisms are deeply motivated by a back-hand defense of Obama’s ideology and policies.[6] Max Blumenthal argues that Dyson’s critique both ignores the eruption of new forms of politics among young people while offering a tepid defense of a Democratic Party that has become simply an adjunct of corporate power and the financial elite. Against Dyson’s silly critique of West as a jilted lover, Blumenthal offers up an informative list of West’s tireless involvement among a range of grassroots organizations. He writes:

Few public intellectuals have positioned themselves at the nexus of these emerging movements as firmly Cornel West has. Earlier this month, I joined him on a panel at Princeton University to support a group of students and faculty seeking to pressure the school into divesting from companies involved in human rights abuses in occupied Palestinian territory. His presence boosted the morale of the young student activists who had suddenly fallen under attack by powerful pro-Israel forces. Days later, West joined veteran human rights activist Larry Hamm at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark for a discussion on local efforts against police brutality. It was in places like this, away from the national limelight, where West gathered his vital energy and his righteous anger. West’s investment in grassroots struggles ignored and even undermined by the Democratic Party has thrown him in direct conflict with the president and his supporters. He has been particularly withering in his criticisms of high profile African-American intellectuals and activists who have served as Obama’s loyal defenders.[7]

Blumenthal has joined a number of critics who have made clear that as a public intellectual West is involved in a number of grassroots campaigns against a range of injustices whether they be in protests against the incarceration state, racism, massive inequality in wealth and power, or the massive suffering produced by the financial elite. For instance, Carl Dix and Lenny Wolf have done a superb job analyzing both the absences and misrepresentations in Dyson’s attack.[8] They point to the evolving nature of West’s scholarship, his generosity of spirit in
americas-ed-deficit-300x449bringing others into the limelight, his solidarity with a number of grassroots groups, and his clearly endearing devotion not to a singular politics but to the radical spirit of democracy itself. What they do that other critics do not do is also expose Dyson’s genuflection not simply to Obama but to the dominant registers of a lethal kind of politics that makes it impossible to associate the United States with even a vestige of democracy. And for that their piece should be widely read.

Many of the articles critical of Dyson’s attack take up his critique of west on his terms and fail to widen the parameters of the debate. Consequently, what is missed is that West is being attacked because he is a public intellectual who enters the political arena through a variety of venues and attains a visibility rarely given to left intellectuals. There is more at stake here than rendering West self-indulgent, characterizing is work as being narrowly motivated by a hatred of Obama, and arguing that he does not produce rigorous academic scholarship. Of course, a minor but important question here is who appointed Michael Dyson as an arbiter of what counts as a productive intervention into the public sphere? What accounts for Dyson’s chutzpah in defining what counts as scholarship, public discourse, and the meaning of politics itself? Much of Dyson’s attack appears as an act of policing, particularly within the new and old boundaries and spaces in which dissent is produced, circulated, and distributed.

What Dyson disregards in his self-appointed role of being an arbiter for legitimate scholarship is that West does not define himself as a scholar but as an intellectual. Nor is West first allegiance to the standards of academic scholarship. West begins with important social problems and uses theory as a tool to address such issues. Hence, his approach to theory is not circumscribed by the often narrow and abstract dictates of what the academy deems as scholarship, which I believe has in recent years become an exercise in the production of jargon and a depoliticizing discourse. These are crucial points that Dyson misses entirely. West writes and acts by beginning with problems, his sense of commitments are defined as political interventions, not as attempts to be published by a university press or celebrated in the New York Review of Books, though both are possible given the influence he has in fashioning new kinds of political formations outside of the existing parameters of power. West functions as an intellectual who takes the educative nature of politics seriously and in doing so he changes the rhetoric, magnifies a pedagogy of disruption, moves in an out of a variety of public spheres without compromising his principles, and breaks open the confusing discourse of common sense, so deeply treasured by the apostles of oppression.

West’s politics are performative, and are not tied to the printed word. Is he at times a bit theatrical, sometimes appearing self-indulgent? That seems a minor, if not irrelevant, criticism compared to his ongoing attempts to fuse theory with action, reach into history in order to reclaim those elements of public memory long forgotten. And lest we should forget, he is not the lonely intellectual preaching from the Olympian heights of Princeton University. What is notable about his work is that he is one of the few public intellectuals in the United States who embraces the assumption that domination is not simply about economic structures but also about beliefs, rhetoric, and the pedagogical. He understands that the symbolic and pedagogical are powerful weapons to be used in creating alternative understandings of both the present and the future. He recognizes that such tools are crucial in creating the agents necessary to produce the collective struggles for a more democratic future to unfold. He works with social movements and does so as an intellectual not a prophet or an isolated academic scholar.  He is an intellectual because he believes in the power of ideas not the rewards given to those in the academy who become servants of power. And he believes that such power is collective not individual, the product of social movements and ongoing struggles not the abstract rhetoric of isolated and often irrelevant academics. Moreover, he does not think within a single discipline and understands that there is no closure in history.

History is open but it is only open to change if there are struggles, if a collective consciousness emerges that understands the nature of a new historical moment and the forces at work in necessary to change it. West’s appeal to hope is a political intervention, not an act of phrophecy–it functions so as to make thinking troubling, conjure up new public spaces open to new forms of solidarity. West’s politics is a call to educated hope, a recognition that knowledge can only speak to power and truth when people can locate themselves in the narratives it provides. West does that and he does it brilliantly and he does it as a public intellectual who not only embarrasses liberals but appears, in Dyson’s case to reveal their most poisonous and cowardly attributes. West is not a hero; he is not a celebrity; he is not a political romantic. On the contrary, he is a fighter. Someone who struggles in the name of justice and uses all of the intellectual resources, outlets and ideological and affective spaces at his disposable. Rather than impugning him, we should learn from him, be in dialogue with him, and be grateful that such a teacher is in our midst. And, let’s not forget that all of us who take on this role as engaged public intellectuals will not get rewards, we will not be invited to the White House, and we will not receive the usual empty accolades from the mainstream press. Instead, we will be considered dangerous, but as Hannah Arendt once said, thinking itself is dangerous in dark times. What Michael Dyson’s critique of Cornel West has done is make Arendt’s point obvious.

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014). His web site is www.henryagiroux.com.

[1] Michael Dyson, “The Ghost of Cornel West,” The New Republic (April 19, 2015). Online: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121550/cornel-wests-rise-fall-our-most-exciting-black-scholar-ghost

[2] Ibid.

[3] Personal correspondence.

[4] Dave Zirin, “Cornel West is Not Mike Tyson,” The Nation (April 20, 2015). Online: https://www.thenation.com/blog/204769/cornel-west-not-mike-tyson

[5] Ibid.

[6] Max Blumenthal “What’s Behind Michael Dyson’s Over the Top Take Down of Cornel West?

Hoping to salvage Obama’s legacy and his own reputation,” AlterNet (April 24, 2015). Online: http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/cornell-wests-radical-critique-race-and-us-brutality-middle-east-driver-michael

[7] Ibid.

[8] Carl Dix and Lenny Wolff, “In Defense of Cornel West: Is Barack Obama Right, or Has Michael Eric Dyson Lost His Mind? Revolution Newspaper (April 22, 2015). Online: http://revcom.us/a/383/in-defense-of-cornel-west-is-barack-obama-right-or-has-michael-eric-dyson-lost-his-mind-en.html


Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014). His web site is www.henryagiroux.com.

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