Cornel West's Continuing Feud with Barack Obama

"Black puppet" and "black mascot" are in keeping with West's anthology of insults

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Cornel West latest outburst is directed at a now familiar target: his one-time brother Barack Obama. "Outburst" is almost the wrong word to describe West's recent and vehement opposition to the president on everything from how he's handled the financial crisis to how he handles his black identity. "Redux" might work better since the points on which the Princeton professor harps are the same he's been championing since the beginning of Obama's ascent to office. However, West's way of saying things has become increasingly, shall we say, aggressive.

Yesterday, Truth Dig published a somewhat condemning exposée by Chris Hedges on West's behavior towards Obama since the inauguration. Though the article is filled with blogworthy quotes--we'll get to them--the backstory provides some much needed context to the whole affair.

In the early days of the Obama campaign, West spoke critically and spoke often of the man who would become America's first black president. His speeches weren't necessarily negative, but they certainly viewed Obama through a critical lens, usually focused rather narrowly. For example, after Obama won the democratic nomination in 2008, West bellowed over the president's failure to cite Martin Luther King Jr. in his acceptance speech. By the celebratory occasion of Obama's election and inauguration, however, the tone mellowed a bit but foreshadowed a lot. West told Democracy Now after Obama's election in November 2008, "I hope he is a progressive Lincoln. I aspire to be the Frederick Douglass to put pressure on him." Promise: kept.

According to West himself, President Obama betrayed him on two counts after his election. The first was personal. It all started with a mix-up over inauguration tickets. Obama became increasingly hard to track down after his election but came through with a ticket for West. Tickets for West's mother and brother were nowhere to be found, and the three ended up watching the event from their hotel room. West told Hedges:

What it said to me on a personal level was that brother Barack Obama had no sense of gratitude, no sense of loyalty, no sense of even courtesy, [no] sense of decency, just to say thank you. Is this the kind of manipulative, Machiavellian orientation we ought to get used to? That was on a personal level.

After the inauguration it became clear that West would sing a different tune about Obama and began to addressed what Hedges identified as Obama's "betrayal on the political and ideological level." On the first anniversary of Obama's inauguration West sent a message to President Obama expressing skepticism about progress so far. He called it "loving pressure" and pointed his harsher remarks directly at Obama's economic team:

I must say that despite your brilliance, despite your charisma, I’m disappointed when it comes to the fundamental question, the question of priorities, the question of urgency… We need democratic policies, not technocratic policies. Your economic team has little or no concern about poor and working people. Job creation is an afterthought. You say the recession is over, but 10.2% of our precious citizens are unemployed and many of those have given up working.

Later that year, an interview with Playboy launched one of the bigger headlines sprees in July with West's admission that he didn't think Obama was "a messiah or even a very progressive politician." West continued by addressing what he called "whitewashing within the administration:"

Black folk can't be blindsided by Obama's pigmentation and historical symbolism. What I'm saying is I wish he could be more Martin Luther King-like… But by necessity, Obama has had to downplay his blackness to appease the white moderates and independents and speak to their anxieties.

Shortly after the Playboy interview, NPR spoke with a still fuming West and more name-calling ensued. West described his most recent and very brief meeting with the president in the August 2010 interview:

I hadn't seen [Obama] for two and a half weeks, and he made a beeline to me, though, brother, and he was deeply upset. He talked to me like I was a cub scout, and he was a pack master… It was very, it was a very ugly kind of moment, it seems to me, and that disturbs me because then it raises the question for me: Does he have a double standard for black critics as opposed to white critics?

Then after several months of relative silence came the April flare-up that Hedges analyzes. Though many headlines today point to West calling Obama "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats" the phrase is fairly well rehearsed. West used the phrase in this April 4th interview with RT America and echoed the talking points on MSNBC a week later:

In explaining those remarks to Chris Hedges, West let his convictions go. You'll see these two quotes on a lot of blogs this week. First come the remarks about Obama's inevitable racism after having grown up in Kansas:

I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men. It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening. And that’s true for a white brother. When you get a white brother who meets a free, independent black man, they got to be mature to really embrace fully what the brother is saying to them. It’s a tension, given the history. It can be overcome. Obama, coming out of Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable.

Then on Obama's failure to be progressive:

I was thinking maybe he has at least some progressive populist instincts that could become more manifest after the cautious policies of being a senator and working with [Sen. Joe] Lieberman as his mentor. But it became very clear when I looked at the neoliberal economic team. The first announcement of Summers and Geithner I went ballistic. I said, ‘Oh, my God, I have really been misled at a very deep level.’ And the same is true for Dennis Ross and the other neo-imperial elites. I said, ‘I have been thoroughly misled, all this populist language is just a facade. I was under the impression that he might bring in the voices of brother Joseph Stiglitz and brother Paul Krugman. I figured, OK, given the structure of constraints of the capitalist democratic procedure that’s probably the best he could do. But at least he would have some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running amuck. I was completely wrong.
As Slate's Dave Weigel points out, West inevitably ends up pointing to his own decade-old feud with Larry Summers, another establishment guy with whom West blurred a personal and ideological line. Now over two years into the Obama presidency, West is hardly taken serious. Keith Owens, on Jack and Jill Politics put it simply, and I'm paraphrasing: In the flurry of assumed snubs and missed invitations from Obama, West simply lost it.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.