Professor Cornel West is President Obama’s silenced, disregarded, disrespected moral conscience, according to Chris Hedges’s recent Truthdig column, “The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West went Ballistic.” 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.
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. Smiley repeatedly suggested that his forum was the necessary black vetting space for the Democratic nominees. He needed to ask Obama and Clinton tough questions so that black America could get the answers it needed. But black America was doing a fine job making up its own mind in the primaries and didn’t need Smiley’s blessing to determine their own electoral preferences. Indeed, when Smiley got a chance to hold candidate Clinton “accountable” he spent more time fawning over her than probing about her symbolic or substantive policy stances that impacted black communities. Fiercely loyal to his friend, Professor West chose sides and began to undermine candidate Obama is small and large ways. Candidate Obama ceased calling West back because he was in the middle of a fierce campaign and West’s loyalties were, at best, divided. I suspect candidate Obama did not trust his “dear brother” to keep the campaign secrets and strategies. I also suspect he was not inaccurate in his hesitancy.
West may have had principled, even prophetic reasons, for choosing this outsider position relative to Obama, but it is dishonest to later frame that choice as a betrayal on the part of the president. After what I had written about Senator Clinton during the campaign I wasn’t expecting an offer from the State Department.
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? Wait a minute…
What exactly is so irritating to West about inaugural ticket-gate? It can’t be a claim that the black, progressive intellectual community was unrepresented. Yale’s Elizabeth Alexander was the poet that cold morning. It can’t be that the “common man” was shut out because the Neighborhood Ball was reserved for the ordinary women and and men who worked to make Obama ’08 possible. It must be a simple matter of jealous indignation. While I appreciate the humanness in such a reaction, it hardly counts as a prophetic critique.