I just got done reading the latest Chris Hedges column in which he interviews Cornel West on his grievances about Obama.
By way of introduction, I'd like to say that there was a time when both Chris Hedges and Cornel West were heroes of mine. I've read their books. In particular, Hedges' War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning and West's Race Matters both had a profound impact on my thinking.
Perhaps because of that, I won't demonize either of them or call them evil. I'll just say that I think they're wrong. Unfortunately, they don't afford President (or Michelle) Obama the same courtesy. Here's how Hedges starts his column.
The moral philosopher Cornel West, if Barack Obama’s ascent to power was a morality play, would be the voice of conscience. Rahm Emanuel, a cynical product of the Chicago political machine, would be Satan. Emanuel in the first scene of the play would dangle power, privilege, fame and money before Obama. West would warn Obama that the quality of a life is defined by its moral commitment, that his legacy will be determined by his willingness to defy the cruel assault by the corporate state and the financial elite against the poor and working men and women, and that justice must never be sacrificed on the altar of power.
Perhaps there was never much of a struggle in Obama’s heart. Perhaps West only provided a moral veneer. Perhaps the dark heart of Emanuel was always the dark heart of Obama. Only Obama knows. But we know how the play ends. West is banished like honest Kent in “King Lear.” Emanuel and immoral mediocrities from Lawrence Summers to Timothy Geithner to Robert Gates—think of Goneril and Regan in the Shakespearean tragedy—take power. We lose. And Obama becomes an obedient servant of the corporate elite in exchange for the hollow trappings of authority.
Do you see what he did there? It couldn't be that Obama or Emanuel disagrees with Hedges point of view. No, you have Emanuel cast as Satan and Obama as hungry for power, privilege, fame and money. This is the notion of many of the "professional left"...anyone who disagrees with me is somehow evil or power/money hungry. Its what makes them ideologues who are as guilty of dehumanizing their opponents as the wingers.
Then Hedges begins to quote West. It doesn't take him long to trot out the old canard about Obama's appointments. You've heard it all before...its all about Summers, Geithner, and Gates. What I want to know is whether or not West's only concern is about the people Obama chose for his administration. Does he ever talk about the policies these men might have promoted? Not so much. It seems to be enough to merely call out their names and the left's response is "Oh my, that's TERRIBLE! Obama is a failure."
Then West goes into his own sense of personal betrayal. Its so terrible that Obama didn't call him back. Melissa Harris-Perry does a much better take-down of this one than I could.
When I got to the part of the article where he brings in Michelle Obama, I was pretty livid. Here it is:
Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, has, West said, phoned him to complain about his critiques of Obama. Jarrett was especially perturbed, West says, when he said in an interview last year that he saw a lot of Malcolm X and Ella Baker in Michelle Obama. Jarrett told him his comments were not complimentary to the first lady.
“I said in the world that I live in, in that which authorizes my reality, Ella Baker is a towering figure,” he says, munching Fritos and sipping apple juice at his desk. “If I say there is a lot of Ella Baker in Michelle Obama, that’s a compliment. She can take it any way she wants. I can tell her I’m sorry it offended you, but I’m going to speak the truth. She is a Harvard Law graduate, a Princeton graduate, and she deals with child obesity and military families. Why doesn’t she visit a prison? Why not spend some time in the hood? That is where she is, but she can’t do it.
West is trying to twist this to say that Jarrett was mad that he had compared Michelle to Ella Baker. I don't think so. Any black woman would wear that comparison with tremendous pride. Here's the original quote Jarrett was referring to. You tell me what you think she was angry about.
I think she's got a lot of Malcolm X in her, a lot of Ella Baker. But she's had to contain it in a very intense manner to conform to the first lady image. Somebody of her brilliance, somebody of her vision, somebody of her courage confined to keeping gardens at the White House, reaching out to military families, highlighting childhood obesity. I think she could be a great force for change if she could only set herself free. She can't, though. Black sister exercising her power, willing to take a stand, would be too much of a threat.
What he's saying is that Michelle obviously isn't "free" because of the issues she has chosen to highlight as the First Lady. If brother West would have merely said that he was disappointed in her choices and hoped she would considers others that he views more important, that would be fair criticism. But he had to denigrate her as a human being - similarly to how Hedges did with Obama and Emanuel at the beginning of the article - all because he disagrees with her choices.
I find West's next sentence to be unconscionable.
I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” West says.
I really don't even have the words to respond to this one - other than to say "How dare you!"
And from there I'll refer you to the above response from Melissa Harris-Perry as well as articles on this by Marcus Toussaint and Keith Owens.
Whew! I must admit that it feels good to get all that off my chest. It not only goes out to Hedges and West - but to all the times I heard a lot of the same crap from other members of the frustrati.
UPDATE: Thanks to a comment by rikyrah, I read an article about this by Ta-Nehisi Coates who quoted Adam Serwer. He addresses West's line about Obama being afraid of free black men with the words I would never have been able to find.
Growing up mixed you sometimes face a kind of confusion. Those around you press you to make a choice about how much of yourself you're willing to give up, how much you're are willing to pretend in order to claim membership in one club or another. West demands to know why Obama isn't sitting at the black table in the dining hall, while reminding him that he's only welcome there by his graces. What you eventually learn is that peace is not something the "gatekeepers" have to offer and is the last thing they want you to find. Eventually you learn the rules of the game are silly and destructive, and who you are can't be negotiated either way.
To some degree this is just a part of adolescence, but most people have grown out of this kind of racial pageantry by middle age. West has not, but perhaps worse, he assumes the president has not. Perhaps he did not read the president's autobiography, or he would have realized that Obama is not a lost little mulatto child who is willing to give West something in exchange for that which is not West's to trade. Obama's struggle to find peace with himself is essentially the opposite of "deracination," a term that takes on all the force of an epithet here. Obama is lambasted as a Kenyan anti-colonialist by the likes of Newt Gingrich, and as a wide-eyed surrogate of "upper middle class white and Jewish men" by the likes of West. To have one group of morons question your citizenship while others question your blackness. To have one's very being interrogated by those who, because of their own pathologies, see your difference as a kind of terrible mistake, an anomaly to be soothed with toxic balm of archaic social binaries, this is what it means to be black, and also a mutt.
President Obama has a "fear of free black men," says the celebrity professor from Princeton by way of Harvard, explaining why the president feels "at home" among people who are not black. This remark made me wonder: Which of these men do you think, is actually free, and which afraid of who he truly is?
And now I understand why thinking about all of this sent me into a rumination of the process of identity formation - which is the subject of my next post above.