When you dig down to the nitty-gritty, there’s not much new or substantial in the ongoing beef that Princeton University’s public intellectual Cornel West picked with President Barack Obama. It’s an old-school game of “playing the dozens,” albeit an erudite version for an Internet-savvy audience. Back in the day, black kids on the playground woofed at each other, issuing verbal taunts and insult-laden rejoinders. “Your momma so skinny, she could hula-hoop with a Cheerio,” one wit might say. Then, came the reply: “Oh yeah, well, your momma so fat, her school picture was an aerial photograph.”
For the most part, the insults tossed around are meant to be good natured and entertaining. And, of course, they were never to wander far from the unarticulated propriety established by those who enjoy the game. The fun stopped if anyone crossed the line with a cutting remark that sliced too deep or proved too humiliating. Typically, such an infraction resulted on one or both players suffering a bloody nose or split lip.
A week ago, West played the dozens on President Obama. In an interview with Truthdig blogger Chris Hedges, the loquacious philosopher described a personal and political pique with the president. “I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” he said. And, he called him “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”
Did West cross that line?
Perhaps he has, if the resulting reaction in the blogophere serves as the game’s referee. But I’m a bit more charitable toward West. Sure, West’s bottom-line complaint about the president’s policies (or lack thereof) that specifically address the dire situations in many black communities is worthy of public debate. And, yes, the good professor went awry in linking his personal issues with his public critique.
But the real issue here is a gross fear among some progressive leaders that such attacks have—or will have—bearing on the president or his ability to get re-elected. Fear not. Judging by the silence from the White House, Team Obama doesn’t seem the least concerned about the food fight that’s raging among the intelligentsia seated at the black dining table in the Ivy League faculty lounge. Indeed, the president just left Ireland, where he jested about his “O’Bama” Irish ancestry.
Why? Well, just like schoolyard games, no one who matters really cares about the taunts and insults tossed around like bubble gum and candy. So Professor West didn’t get tickets to the inauguration and his hotel doorman did. Big whoop! Endless invective over this trivia makes a sideshow of supposedly earnest public policy discourse. In this case, one played by well educated and highly compensated media stars.
After the West comments went viral, black political commentators (and a few, in-the-know white pundits) were invited to join the game on cable news shows and op-ed pages, almost uniformly rushing to the president’s defense. Most notably, Melissa Harris-Perry, who was a colleague of West’s at Princeton’s Center for African American Studies before recently accepting a position at Tulane University, tossed a few dozen insults of her own.
Writing in The Nation, she accused West of being jealous and petty. “West may have had principled, even prophetic reasons, for choosing this outsider position relative to Obama, but it is dishonest to later frame that choice as a betrayal on the part of the president,” she wrote, noting that much of West’s complains are personal, such as Obama’s refusal to return phone calls or declining to offer choice tickets to inauguration activities. “It is clear to me that West’s ego, not the health of American democracy, is the wounded creature in this story.”
Two other media-powered progressives—Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post and Joan Walsh writing for Salon—offered provocative takes, as well. No need to summarize them here; you may read them at your leisure.
If there can be found a tiny nugget of interest in this noxious diversion, it is mildly remarkable that the media-savvy commentators happen to be African Americans, debating who is and who is not black enough to lead our nation. This is a novel development in the usually snow-white political pundit class, which tends to have these conversations with little to no black voices at the microphone. Is this progress?
I draw attention to this matter because it advances the idea that President Obama is changing the way Americans deal with race, particularly the degree of candor and visibility of the debate. That’s a great thing, even if it’s not always a straight-line move in an upward direction. There are spikes of high moments and low valleys. This West-Obama nonsense is a pitfall.
The speck of substance in West’s attack on President Obama—that the president isn’t doing enough for black Americans—has been downplayed or ignored in the freak-show hoopla of personal attacks. That’s the least important aspect of this matter. But like the way the schoolyard criers endlessly replayed the best lines during an especially rousing game of the dozens, those on the sidelines are stirring the pot to draw attention to their ability to keep the beef alive. For them, the retelling is as good as witnessing the actual event and helps make the commentators as popular as the players in the game.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.
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