I know I am late to the conversation, but I finally got around to reading Chris Hedges’ May 16, 2011 column at truthdig titled “The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic” and Melissa Harris-Perry’s May 17th blistering blog entry titled “Cornel West v. Barack Obama,” and, well, snap. Harris-Perry’s critique of West is powerful stuff. I urge you to read the whole post, but allow me the liberty here to quote some of my favorite passages:

In a self-aggrandizing, victimology sermon deceptively wrapped in the discourse of prophetic witness, Professor West offers thin criticism of President Obama and stunning insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed black leadership class that has been largely supplanted in recent years.

But wait, she is just getting started:

West begins with a bit of historical revision. West suggests that the President discarded him without provocation after he offered the Obama for America campaign his loyal service and prayers. But anyone with a casual knowledge of this rift knows it began during the Democratic primary not after the election. It began, not with a puffed up President, but when Cornel West’s “dear brother” Tavis Smiley threw a public tantrum because Senator Obama refused to attend Smiley’s annual State of Black America.

She further notes

Furthermore, West’s sense of betrayal is clearly more personal than ideological. In Hedges’s article West claims that a true progressive would always put love of the people above concern with the elite and privileged. Then he complains, “I couldn’t get a ticket [to the inauguration] with my mother and my brother. I said this is very strange. We drive into the hotel and the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel has a ticket to the inauguration… We had to watch the thing in the hotel.” Let me get this straight—the tenured, Princeton professor who collects five figures for public lectures was relegated to a hotel television while an anonymous hotel worker got tickets to the inauguration! What kind of crazy, mixed up class politics are these?

And just to be clear, she writes

But I can tell the difference between a substantive criticism and a personal attack. It is clear to me that West’s ego, not the health of American democracy, is the wounded creature in this story.

Whew. I can feel the fire of those words just from copying and pasting them. It’s a devastating, reasoned, and clearly substantiated critique.

While I admire Harris Perry’s craft here and agree with much of her critique, what interests me even more about this debate that later ended up on MSNBC’s The Ed Show (see ) is the uproar it’s caused. Part of the controversy is predictably about whether or not African Americans should engage in public debate rather than presenting a united front. Harris-Perry takes on this idea in “Breaking News: Not All Black Intellectuals Think Alike,” where she writes

I vigorously object to the oft-repeated sentiment that African-Americans should avoid public disagreements and settle matters internally to present a united front. It’s clear from the history of black organizing that this strategy is particularly disempowering for black women, black youth, black gay men and lesbians, and others who have fewer internal community resources to ensure that their concerns are represented in a broader racial agenda. Failing to air the dirty laundry has historically meant that these groups are left washing it with their own hands.

Citizenship in a democratic system rests on the ability to freely and openly choose, criticize and depose one’s leaders. This must obtain whether those leaders are elected or self-appointed. It cannot be contingent on whether the critiques are accurate or false, empirical or ideological, well or poorly made. Citizenship is voice.

But in addition to the again, predictable, and valuable, discussion from those who seek to defend West and from those who support the president, there is a rather vicious and disturbing streak of personal attack on Harris-Perry herself, and all by male academics.

Writing at Your Black World, Dr. Boyce Watkins characterizes Harris-Perry as going after West “as if he were the man who stole her first born child,” and suggests Harris-Perry’s comments are motivated by spite because she “didn’t begin speaking out against Professor West until she had a new job at Tulane University, and I suspect she might have remained silent had West given her what she wanted” i.e. tenure at Princeton. Then there is this from the self-titled Uppity Negro writing in “The Rage of Black Academia: Melissa Harris-Perry and Cornel West, A Collegiate Conundrum“:

“Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry’s response to West was childish and way beneath her standing as a public scholar and intellectual.

Just turn to the google to find similar attacks. I can’t bear to cite any others; I find the tenor of these gendered responses infuriating.

Clearly many of Harris-Perry’s male colleagues are responding to her and not her critique, engaging in condescending, disparaging language as a way to trivialize her. Because they are unable or unwilling to address her assessment of West’s comments, these men turn to rumor, innuendo, and personal attacks. In this way, they hope to undermine Harris-Perry and her argument. This is an all-too-familiar tactic. Fortunately, their attempts to diminish and dismiss aren’t working.  Eric Wattree and others are addressing these gendered attacks as well.

No matter how much some of her colleagues wish her to, Harris-Perry isn’t going away. Snap!


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