Thursday, May 19, 2011

This Man Must Be a Prophet

Cornel West has been lashing out at President Obama, at least partly on the grounds that Obama spends too much time around Jews and "has a certain fear of free black men…" Why, Professor West, do you know any? At The Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry wrote a nice takedown, pointing out that despite his protestations, West 1) has been sniping at Obama in similar terms for years; and 2) is no position to criticize Obama for spending too much time with white folks and Jews:
This comment is utter hilarity coming from Cornel West who has spent the bulk of his adulthood living in those deeply rooted, culturally rich, historically important black communities of Cambridge, MA and Princeton, NJ. And it is hard to see his claim that Obama is “most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they” as anything other than a classic projection of his own comfortably ensconced life at Harvard and Princeton Universities. Harvard and Princeton are not places that are particularly noted for their liberating history for black men.
Harris-Perry says that West's complaints are "deceptively wrapped in the discourse of prophetic witness," and allows that he "may have had principled, even prophetic reasons, for choosing this outsider position relative to Obama," but concludes that West's vendetta "looks more like a pissing match than prophesy [sic]." I'm not sure who (besides West himself, maybe) has claimed prophetic status for West, and I'll give Harris-Perry points for evidently understanding what a prophet originally was, namely a person through whom a god speaks. (Nowadays most people confuse prophecy with prediction, foretelling the future, which is often part of the job description but isn't its core.) But whatever else I may think about the content of West's critique, it sure sounds to me like he's channeling Yahweh: the whining self-pity, the outbursts of rage over real or imagined slights, are unmistakable.

Similarly, Joan Walsh at Salon asked rhetorically, "Is this how identity politics ends?"
It couldn't possibly be that any of these people, whatever their age, race or social class, wherever they went to school, have genuine differences with the president? (Or conversely, in the case of Obama defenders being attacked racially and personally, have wonderful and sincere reasons for continuing to support him fervently.) No one can be given credit for speaking from genuine moral or political conviction anymore; everyone can be dismissed or derided with a nod to their personal background. This may be the logical end of identity politics, where ultimately we're each locked inside whatever little box we check, tiny caucuses of one, and common ground is impossible.
Walsh has a point, but "identity politics" is at best an excuse, not a reason for the ad hominem attacks that keep infecting political and other discussion. (I can't even say "in the US" there, for it isn't confined to our borders.) The Obama White House, as she surely remembers, deals with its critics in exactly the same terms, and the same tactics are standard in Western culture and its biblical background. Reasoned discourse exists aplenty, but when reason is just too much work, or you're afraid that a reasoned argument lacks punch, there's nothing like personal attacks.

Walsh concludes:
Former Biden economic advisor Jared Bernstein wrote a really great piece about why he left the White House: It's pro-Obama, it's compassionate, it's fair-minded and it's also critical. This is the discussion we're supposed to be having. That West mess is a lamentable sideshow.
I agree about the sideshow part, but "pro-Obama" is identity politics.