Dyson, West, and Obama

When I first saw Dyson’s essay about Cornell West in The New Republic, I winced for a bunch of reasons, but I wanted to wait to see what black commentators would say before I formed my opinions. Lots of good writing, but none that I’m fully on board with, even though some of these are favorite, go-to writers of mine. This piece, from Malaika Jabali at For Harriet, is entitled The Audacity of Pettiness: Black Intellectuals Need to Find Something Better to Do. Hers is, essentially, a call to unity, arguing that these arguments are petty. I’ve always admired Jabali, but I think that framing misses a lot. Glen Ford over the Black Agenda report is more critical, arguing that Dyson is trying to curry favor with the Hillary camp by trying to make Obama’s enemies his enemies. I don’t think so, but Ford has some excellent reasons for criticizing Dyson’s actions here, and why unity is not necessarily the right call, to wit:

Black America has plummeted to such economic depths under Obama’s watch that there is no possibility of ever reaching economic parity with whites absent a social revolution, the beginnings of which we may be witnessing in the growing mobilization against brutal police enforcement of the oppressive social order.

Dyson’s essay frankly shocked me. His scholarly work strikes me as much, much better reasoned than his sprawling assessment of West. I wish Dyson hadn’t written his essay, and I really wish TNR hadn’t published it, not because black intellectuals should show unity around either West or Obama, but because there’s no way Dyson speaking on West can ever be anything but screwed up. Dyson has made his career writing about social and cultural meanings of black celebrity and, in particular, black maleness and celebrity. As a black male celebrity academic, West would be a likely object of study for Dyson. But West and Dyson were close; West was a mentor and friend, and that means it’s personal, no matter how hard somebody tries to be objective. And that is not scholarship or grist for TNR because it’s something very unique to scholarship and the academy.

The entire episode is ugly and is predicated on puerile assumptions among most spectators of the controversy:

1) that black people can’t disagree politically about complicated things, and if they do, it’s a petty squabble rather than a genuine disagreement about priorities or how the world works.

To me, the fact that people are losing their shit over the fact that West criticizes Obama, or that Dyson disagrees with West, demonstrates what a ridiculous hothouse the few, annointed black intellectuals we have live in, and TNR exploited it. Nobody penned any calls to unity when Robert Reich went on tears about President Bush. Why not? Because white people are assumed to be grown-ass people who are capable of principled disagreements about complicated things like “how to run the world properly” while black people are assumed to think the same things, and if some of their leaders don’t, then there’s something amiss here instead of, well, the fact that smart men can disagree about difficult things.

West’s (and Smiley’s) criticisms of Obama have been very, very pointed because the issues in play (poverty, mass incarceration) kill people. I think some vehemence is warranted. And nobody promised any president he was going to live in a criticism-free bubble.

2) that a scholar can only be a scholar if he spends all his time producing one scholarly product after another. Yes, West has become a scholar-activist, and to some degree, a performance artist, but most scholars never write a book as fine as Race Matters (Dyson has; he has two very fine books to his credit IMO) and sometimes, all we get is one fantastic book and a collection of middling ones (which is not true of West; he has many fine short-form contributions, too)–particularly in the later stages of a career. I think speaking out against poverty and mass incarceration is at least as important as anything else one might do later in one’s career, which as far as I can see for many full professors involves yammering on about how important their contributions are and silencing everybody around them who isn’t *them*. So Dyson’s “He used to do real scholarship” criticism of West can be spread around liberally in the academy,

and finally

3) people often break with their mentors at some point, and sometimes the relationship straightens out, or it doesn’t, but either way, it’s not the world’s business. Even if a scholar writes about it, it’s really, really difficult for people who are not within the academic context to understand how much influence mentors have simply on the emotional and intellectual lives of the people they teach. I’m sure variants of this are true in other contexts; I’m sure people who bring young people along in law firms or other businesses have special relationships that I don’t understand, either. Usually, people say this to diminish academia (because when isn’t that fun?), but I don’t: academia is an odd place, and intellectual work is intensely, intensely idiosyncratic and personal. If West really was a mentor to Dyson when Dyson was a young scholar, that closeness does not yield better information about who West is. From TNR and celebrity culture’s perspective, it yields juicy information, but it’s not good information, because I think it’s nigh-on-inevitable that academic mentors are always–always–viewed (whether currently or in hindsight) through funhouse mirrors of attachment, anger, and emotion. Being taught and nurtured is exhilarating. It is also, often, painful. Those come in cycles, and you love your mentors, you hate your mentors, you decide they are the smartest people around you, you decide you have outgrown them and are smarter, you realize that they are just human beings and learn to appreciate them for what they do, repeat. Mentors are not perfect. They lose interest in proteges and drop them, too.

Undoubtedly that last bit of writing reveals a lot about me, and maybe there are people out there who have emotionless, functional relationships with their mentors. Good on them. But that’s not what I experienced as either a protege or as a mentor myself, and it’s not what I see happening around me. Learning to do academic work at the level that West and Dyson do it–it’s hard and the relationships that take you there are messy. (Anybody see the movie, Whiplash?) Writing about your mentors is never straightforward; no matter what you do, it’s going to seem fawning or dishing to those outside the relationship.