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An Ivy League Game of the Dozens

Professor Michael Eric Dyson teaches a sociology course at Georgetown University, November 2011.

In a blistering 10,000-word essay published this week in The New Republic, scholar, preacher, and well-known public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson lambasted an even better-known scholar and public intellectual: his mentor Cornel West.

Dyson, a Georgetown University professor and sometimes television guest and radio talk show host, fired a laser-focused attack directly into the bull’s-eye, at the heart of a man who is now almost certainly a former friend. “West is still a Man of Ideas,” Dyson wrote, “but those ideas today are a vain and unimaginative repackaging of his earlier hits.”

Interestingly, the primal source of friction between the two men—both highly lettered and rabidly progressive African Americans who have built international reputations through their erudite speeches and writings from prestigious and predominately white college campuses—is their opposing allegiance to the first black U.S. president, Barack Obama. Dyson supports the president; West does not.

Both men have been harshly critical of President Obama’s relationship with black Americans. As Dyson assesses the differences in their views on the president, his critiques of the president’s policies are heavily seasoned “with love for the man and pride in his epic achievement.” West, as Dyson reports, told him that he doesn’t “respect the brother at all.”

West has criticized Dyson and other black supporters of the president in public forums, notably during a 2012 televised forum on “Democracy Now!”, in which West called them out by name: “I love Brother Mike Dyson, but we’re living in a society where everybody is up for sale. … Everything is up for sale. And he and Brother Sharpton and Sister Melissa and others, they have sold their souls for a mess of Obama pottage.” In addition to Dyson, West was referring to civil rights activist Al Sharpton and academic and television host Melissa Harris-Perry, both of whom have appeared regularly on their own MSNBC cable news shows since the president was elected.

Predictably, Dyson’s public riposte in The New Republic set tongues wagging in the black online community and beyond. Some found great amusement in the public spat, even as it made them queasy. “This was a drag, though,” wrote blogger/humorist Awesomely Luvvie, interspersing ridiculous GIFs throughout the post to illustrate the nonsense. “A PURE DRAG that left a bad taste in my mouth for both Dyson and West. I don’t know what Dyson’s point was in writing this piece. But for me, it started looking like the Pot was calling the Kettle egotistical.”

Other, more serious commentators shared similar views. Writing in The Nation, sportswriter Dave Zirin took issue with Dyson’s comparison of West to Mike Tyson, a once fearsome boxer who is now well past his prime and seeking fame and celebrity by making appearances in movies and cartoons. What’s more, Zirin raised the question of why Dyson would escalate this nascent disagreement into more public view at this particular time:

The timing of the essay is also very disorienting. We are at a moment when a new movement is attempting to confront an epidemic level of police violence. Dyson and West have in word and deed both been important voices in this movement. As the challenges of sustaining this struggle grow with every police killing, it is an odd moment for a public figure like Dyson to write so particular, so personal, and so granular an attack against West over his lack of scholarship, his love of celebrity, and his at times highly intimate racialized attacks against President Obama.

I’m more sanguine. I see no harm done to the larger, onlooking black communities by this public airing of dirty laundry by two verbose academics. Indeed, there’s something healthy and worthy of imitation in their war of words.

Democracy is founded on disagreements, strongly held and forcefully debated. There’s no shame when black folks behave in the best traditions of our nation. Plus, there’s ample precedence for it.

A century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington engaged in a series of public disagreements over the future direction of black American life. Their debate set the stage for what became the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, at the height of the movement,the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X preached divergent points of view with respect to the effectiveness of nonviolence and the role of whites in the black liberation struggle. And today, quiet as they’ve kept, simmering generational differences percolate beneath the surface among black progressive activists seeking strategies for how best to combat issues such as police shootings, criminal justice, and economic inequality.

For too many people, the myth of black homogeneity is a desired goal. Would that it were so easy. But black Americans are no more united—or divided—in their views and opinions about the world around them than any other group of humans. Take the acrimonious political relationship between Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Rand Paul of Kentucky. “They hate each other,” McCain’s daughter Meghan said last year on “The Howard Stern Show.”

Of course, this dustup between Dyson and West doesn’t begin to possess the political—let alone the moral—gravity of the Du Bois-Washington or the King-Malcolm X philosophical debate. I question who really cares or reads what either says, outside those in the cloistered halls of academia. Instead, Dyson and West are playing an Ivy League version of the dozens, a game of verbal insults often performed before an audience of peers who delight in the apparent tension the game provokes. On the playground, the game follows a predicable pattern. One insult leads to another, and a crowd gathers to “ooh” and “ahh” at the escalation:

“You’re so skinny, you can hoola-hoop with a Cheerio.”

“Yeah, well you’re so ugly, you had to tie a pork chop around your neck to get the dog to play with you.”

“Your mama so fat that when she sits around the house all the grass is in the shade.”

On and on it goes until one player has thoroughly humiliated the other and the game ends. Typically the combatants know to stop before someone gets a bloody nose from a joke that goes too far.

Did Dyson go too far? I don’t think so. As far as I know, neither Dyson nor West has thrown a punch or fired a weapon at one another. So let them spar with words that most of us can’t define. Those of us on the sidelines, holding their coats and cheering them on, might learn a thing or two about settling differences with no more damage to show for it than the combatants’ bruised egos.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.