April 19, 2015, marked by the publication of Prof. Michael Eric Dyson’s screed against his former mentor, Dr. Cornel West, in The New Republic, is a day that will live in mendacity. Reading the piece, which attacks West for his rejection of Obama and his activism in the name of human rights, was at times painful, enraging, and yet also to be expected. While Dyson has grown in stature as a black intellectual under the glowing auspices of the Obama administration, so too has his conformity. In the era of George W. Bush, he was able to sell himself as a well-spoken academic with a seemingly leftist agenda, using polysyllables and alliteration to stake out a claim for the validity of rap music as an expression of African American angst while denouncing the Republican agenda. But as the Obama administration proved to be hopeless and intent on enacting no change, Dyson was apt to play his cards right and curry favor with the White House.
My own suspicion was piqued several years ago in a debate on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman, where Prof. Dyson argued in favor of the travesty that was the late Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X, A LIFE OF REINVENTION. While Amiri Baraka slammed the book as an effort to strip Malcolm X of his revolutionary credentials, Dyson accused the late poet of Euro-centrism because he was apt to refer to Marx and Lenin without apology. This newest apologia for neoliberalism at the expense of loyalty confirms these suspicions.
What is so difficult about this issue is removing the personal chaff from the political wheat. Already Dave Zirin at The Nation has written a fantastic rebuttal, CORNEL WEST IS NOT MIKE TYSON, which is worth reading. Zirin is brilliant when he writes:
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.
I feel it would be essentially inappropriate to re-tread that which Zirin has so masterfully dissected. However, one element I found intriguing was the discussion of ‘prophethood’ and Dyson’s attempt to portray his former professor as some sort of borderline-lunatic, deluded to the point he sees himself as a prophet. Dyson writes:
West’s lack of understanding of the prophetic tradition is perhaps most evident in his criticism of [Rev. Al] Sharpton and [Rev. Jesse] Jackson. He berates them for their appetite for access to power, their desire for insider status. Even if we concede for the moment that this is true, it isn’t a failure of their prophecy but of West’s ability to distinguish between kinds of prophets. In his 1995 book, THE PREACHER KING, Duke Divinity School Professor Richard Lischer noted that in ancient Israel, the central prophet moved within the power structure, reminding the people of their covenant with God and also consulting kings on military matters and issues of national significance. Peripheral prophets were outsiders who embraced the poor, criticized the monarchy, and opposed war.
While I certainly lack Dyson’s Ph. D. in Religion from Princeton, I do find myself from time to time enjoying the work of Dr. Noam Chomsky, whose Master’s thesis was titled MORPHOPHONEMICS OF MODERN HEBREW. Ergo, Chomsky’s insights on the prophetic tradition of the Jews might be of some interest here. In a 2010 interview with David Samuels of Tablet Magazine, Chomsky had the following insight:
The word “prophet” is a very bad translation of an obscure Hebrew word, navi. Nobody knows what it means. But today they’d be called dissident intellectuals. They were giving geopolitical analysis, arguing that the acts of the rulers were going to destroy society. And they condemned the acts of evil kings. They called for justice and mercy to orphans and widows and so on… [T]he nivi’im were treated the way dissident intellectuals always are. They weren’t praised. They weren’t honored. They were imprisoned like Jeremiah. They were driven into the desert. They were hated. Now at the time, there were intellectuals, “prophets,” who were very well treated. They were the flatterers of the court. Centuries later, they were called “false prophets.”
As I read Dyson’s collection of shibboleths, this insight came to mind and left me bemused as I continued through his blitzkrieg.
The other thread running through this offensive thrust is Dyson’s accusation that West has sacrificed academic credibility in the name of celebrity, saying:
[Former Harvard President Larry] Summers had reprimanded West for his varied side projects… I knew Summers was right when he pointed to West’s diminished scholarly output. It is not only that West’s preoccupations with Obama’s perceived failures distracted him, though that is true; more accurate would be to say that the last several years revealed West’s paucity of serious and fresh intellectual work, a trend far longer in the making. West is still a Man of Ideas, but those ideas today are a vain and unimaginative repackaging of his earlier hits.
This is typical of what has become a standard trope in the hallowed halls of the Ivory Tower. In 1916, Bertrand Russell was expelled from the faculty of Trinity College for pacifist agitation against the First World War. Dr. Norman Finkelstein’s accusations of plagiarism against Harvard Law School Prof. Alan Dershowitz were called ‘unprofessional’ by the tenure committee of DePaul University when he was denied a faculty position. Prof. Steven Salaita’s Tweets about the massacre in Gaza last summer were called anti-Semitic, apparently justifying his termination at the University of Illinois. These days, the standard script for delegitimizing academics who become politically inconvenient begins with attacking professional output. In the case of Dr. West, it seems obvious that his former pupil is not just shaded green with cash windfall, he is also saturated with some serious envy. Dyson spends several lines trashing West for his appearances in films like THE MATRIX RELOADED or a well-intentioned but critically-panned spoken word album.
But Dyson himself is no innocent. A review of his profile on IMDb.com reveals this self-proclaimed ‘professional’ has played 3 fictional roles since 2004 and made 57 appearances in non-fictional capacities, either on television or in documentary films, a profile that also does not note his 11 appearances on Democracy Now! due to the media distribution method of that show. It seems obvious that the old Arab proverb holds true here, when you point one finger at another, three point back at yourself.
Ultimately, there is very little doubt how history will view these two scholars. West will be remembered as a man who had no compunctions about putting his philosophy into a living praxis, whereas Dyson will be remembered as a man of many syllables and little action.
Andrew Stewart lives outside Providence. His documentary, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the history of colonial Rhode Island slavery and its links to Brown University, is now available on DVD at or can be viewed on Amazon Instant Video.