This Town Deserves a Better Class of Critic

Colbert King weighs in on Cornel West's barrage, Stanley Crouch gets his licks in, and Adam notes that Crouch has (thankfully) changed his tune


Meanwhile Eddie S. Glaude summons up a rhetorical army and, with considerable aplomb, plows through an enemy battalion of strawmen:

Recently, Cornel West offered a strident critique of President Obama's relative silence on this matter. For him, the president has failed to address substantively the conditions of the poor and the most vulnerable in our society. 

Instead, West maintains, Obama has been too concerned with appeasing the robber barons on Wall Street. Many took offense, not only with the personal nature of the criticism but also with the fact that West dared to criticize the president at all. 

Some African Americans hold the view that this only contributes to right-wing attacks against Obama, making him vulnerable in 2012. Others believe that such criticisms betray an unreasonable expectation that Obama owes something to the black community because he is the first black president -- a troublesome black identity politics, they might say. 

Worries about Democrats closing ranks for an upcoming election seem, to me, at least, to be a perennial (and uninteresting) concern. I am more interested in the underlying anxiety about black people criticizing Obama. It is as if we are being told to keep our mouths shut.

And I am more interested in who--specifically--took offense "with the fact that West dared to criticize the president at all." Glaude never bothers to name these critics, preferring to debate his own paraphrasing. I share Glaude's faith that there are black people out there, somewhere, who do believe Obama shouldn't be criticized. I just think it'd be nice if he'd name them and quote their actual arguments. 

It also would be nice if Glaude quoted Cornel West's actual arguments. To be clear, their number include:

--That Obama is a "black mascot" and a"black puppet" for Wall street and corporate America. 

--That Obama, whom West supported as a candidate to be Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military in the world, who throughout his candidacy repeatedly said he would kill Bin Laden if given the chance,  has lately mutated into the proud "head of the American killing machine."

--That West, a self-dubbed advocate of working people, is entitled to three inauguration tickets for every one ticket dispensed to mere baggage-handlers. 

--That West is an independent "free black man" who strikes terror in the heart of the rootless, deracinated, and culturally white Obama.

--That Obama, who for decades has made a home on Chicago's South Side, "feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men," as opposed to West who through considerable time spent studying and teaching in the Ivy League has acquired the powers of blackness denominated in the previous point.

I debated Glaude on twitter when this story initially broke. His defense at the time held that the worst aspects of West's tone "shouldn't detract from his criticism of Obama's policy choices." But I have searched West's argument repeatedly, and found only thin evidence of such criticism. West is disappointed with the tapping of Geithner and Summers. He also thinks it would be a good idea for Michelle Obama to abandon her childhood obesity campaign and tour America's prisons.

But there is nothing in West's volley about how the lack of public option will ultimately hurt poor black people. There no real attempt to argue that the Dodd-Frank won't actually end the problem of too big too fail. There's no detailed critique of how Obama's willingness to see Planned Parenthood defunded in local Washington D.C. ultimately hurts black women. There are no hot words for an Obama-led Democratic Party failing to deliver congressional representation to Washington, D.C. despite holding the House, Senate and the presidency. There is no serious assessment of the Office of Urban Policy. 

In sum, there isn't much policy anywhere in West's article or in Glaude's defense. But even if there were substance beneath West's essentialist dogma, this fact would not make it excusable. Should I find a Latino man blocking my way as I walk down the street, it would take some hubris to insist that the "Spic get out of my way." But it would take much more for me to, while in the midst of picking my teeth, to insist that, as a matter of fact, the Spic really was blocking the sidewalk. Dinesh D'souza does not get to call Obama a Kenyan anti-colonialist, and then protest that we missed the deeper aspects of his argument. 

And this is really the point. In the matter at hand, there is no real difference between the tribalism offered by D'Souza and his ilk, and the tribalism offered by West and his defenders. There is no real difference between Tea Partiers who insist that NAACP are the actual racists, and those who believe Obama is a "black mascot" damning the influence of identity politics. There is no real difference between those who push their agenda by implying that Obama isn't really American, and those who push their agenda by implying that Obama isn't really black.

Both are afflicted with a species of blindness, and intellectual sloth. Understanding and debating actual policy is hard. Enumerating perceived slights and name-calling, and dubbing it a black agenda, is not.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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