What's behind Cornel West's beef with Obama?

Cornel West is a brilliant man. There are few intellectuals in his class. His work has given us new language to understand the complexities of race and racism in this country and the shortcomings of American democracy. West has proven his dedication to and love for black people time and again, serving as an intellectual forefather and mentor for many. He has earned a measure of respect.

So when it comes time to critique him, his words, or his actions, it is done with respect to that legacy, but also a tacit recognition that his legacy does not put him beyond reproach. It is this same principle that West applies in his vigilant critique of President Barack Obama.

Though he campaigned on his behalf, West has remained a vocal critic of Obama since the days of his candidacy. When he accepted the Democratic party’s nomination on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, West criticized Obama for not mentioning by name the leader of that march, Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the biggest points of contention has been Obama’s perceived lack of a “black agenda,” an argument that was the crux of the heated debate between West and Al Sharpton last month during the MSNBC special A Stronger America: The Black Agenda.

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Most recently, TruthDig columnist Chris Hedges wrote a column in which he interviewed West and the professor offered choice words for the president, referring to Obama as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats….he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.” In addition, West said he believes “Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men” and “feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart.”

West has every right to criticize the president. As an academic and member of the media, it’s not in his job description to be a cheerleader for Obama. He is not a campaign field organizer. He is here to ask probing questions and provide insight based on the knowledge he has and continues to accrue. I believe him when he says he has a profound love for and desire to work on behalf of working class and poor people. However, when West’s rhetoric becomes mired in personal attacks on Obama instead of substantive policy critique, the message loses potency.

Also in Hedges’ column, West said “I used to call my dear brother [Obama] every two weeks. I said a prayer on the phone for him, especially before a debate. And I never got a call back.” It’s in these moments where West’s critique of Obama sounds more like the refrain from Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” and the veracity of his arguments gets overshadowed by the perceived slights to his ego. Here he starts losing valuable ground. West wants to the national conversation to include an economic program that helps the poor and unemployed, an address of the prison industrial complex, and confronting Wall Street greed, as he mentioned repeatedly last night (May 17) in an appearance on MSNBC’s The Ed Show. All of this is not only valid, but necessary.

These are real issues that affect the daily lives of those not afforded a voice in Washington because they can’t pay lobbyists on their behalf. We need more voices to sound off and organize around these issues from the grassroots to the national political scene. But West must understand that when this critique is coupled with the sort of petty grievances regarding not being given tickets to the president’s inauguration, the strength of his original points is diminished. This approach has the potential to harm more than help.

After the TruthDig article circulated, MSNBC commentator and The Nation magazine columnist Melissa Harris-Perry took to Twitter (and later The Nation) to offer up her own critique of West’s assertions that the president “lacks backbone.” In explaining the idea of the “small left” and offering reasons for why Obama governs the way he does, Harris-Perry noted that the majority of the electoral body does not support progressive policies, and in order to be electable, Obama must appeal to at least 50 percent of public.

One of her more penetrating ideas came when she said: “I think it’s more helpful to alter the distribution than to shout at the candidates who are operating within.” An informed public that shifts its politics to the left would in turn demand candidates that reflect their ideology. In order for this to happen, we are going to need effective teachers/messengers.

All of us who are dedicated to social justice have to figure how best to use our personal gifts and strengths to serve the movement. While I understand West when he says he wants to be Frederick Douglass to Obama’s Abraham Lincoln, it may not be the role that suits him, if this is the way he’s going to go about it.

Speaking truth to people is just as important as speaking truth to power. Perhaps the way West could best serve is by being a public professor, teaching the people he loves so dearly, rather than a presidential agitator.