Cornel West Is Not Mike Tyson

Cornel West Is Not Mike Tyson

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson’s 10,000-word excoriation of Dr. Cornel West is highly personal. But there is a political fight thrumming beneath the surface.


As a sportswriter I am very sensitive to the use and misuse of boxing metaphors. Few analogies are either more powerful or more universally understood than comparing a public figure to an iconic fighter. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, in a panoramic, painfully personal, deeply researched 10,000-word excoriation of Dr. Cornel West, published in The New Republic, has compared the 61-year-old professor to Mike Tyson. He describes West as someone who once “tore through opponents with startling menace and ferocity,” but who has since devolved into a “faint echo of himself,” an ear-biting sideshow, more interested in celebrity than serious academic and political work.

With all respect to Dyson, who wrote the intro to my book Game Over and has been a friend to me on numerous occasions, this is in my view the wrong choice of championship pugilists. West is not Mike Tyson: he’s Muhammad Ali. Not the Muhammad Ali of ESPN hagiographies or Hollywood films starring Will Smith. But the real Muhammad Ali: effortlessly provocative, undeniably narcissistic, and unquestionably brilliant. The deeply hurtful quotes that West has aimed at Dyson (he has “prostituted himself intellectually”) and Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry (“she is a liar and a fraud”) are 21st-century iterations of Ali’s regrettable, and for many unforgivable, questioning of the blackness of the great Joe Frazier, comparing the proud fighter to an ugly gorilla, all in the name of hyping up fights and throwing Frazier off of his game.

These comments are vicious, and as someone who has benefited from the kindness offered me by both Dyson and Dr. Harris-Perry, they anger my blood. The restraint that Dyson has shown over the last several years as West has thrown out his assorted rabbit-punches should be acknowledged. But the sight of Dyson escalating what was a one-sided series of verbal taunts into a written treatise, and marshaling his intellectual powers toward a polarizing 10,000-word New Republic essay is to see nothing less—I suppose based upon your perspective—than the academic version of either George Foreman punching himself out in Zaire or “Smokin’ Joe” sending the champ to the canvas of Madison Square Garden. (I am well aware that in this metaphor, I’m the white sportswriter getting some copy out of the spectacle of two heavyweights throwing hands. Hopefully, I’ll be more Bob Lipsyte than Jimmy Cannon.)

The timing of the essay is also very disorienting. We are at a moment when a new movement is attempting to confront an epidemic level of police violence. Dyson and West have in word and deed both been important voices in this movement. As the challenges of sustaining this struggle grow with every police killing, it is an odd moment for a public figure like Dyson to write so particular, so personal, and so granular an attack against West over his lack of scholarship, his love of celebrity, and his at times highly intimate racialized attacks against President Obama.

The piece begins with Dyson’s thesis that Cornel West’s animus for the president is rooted in a love betrayed. West “hates” President Obama and uses such personal invective in his political critiques because he once loved him and feels wronged, both personally snubbed and politically ignored. It is difficult to escape the idea that this thesis mirrors Dyson’s perspective toward West. His anger is so intense toward Cornel West because his onetime mentor—someone with whom he would attend Anita Baker concerts in the 1980s for no reason other than to swoon—has branded him a sellout for not joining him in denunciation of the Obama administration. Dyson defends himself against these charges, writing that he has never relinquished his criticisms of President Obama but has also never relinquished either his love for the man or his respect for the accomplishment of becoming the first black president of a country founded on principles of white supremacy. He believes he has been principled and is demonstrably hurt that West has translated his political approach through the ugliest possible lens. There has been no give, no charity, in West’s public analysis of Dyson’s political tactics, and now Dyson is ready to return in kind. In honor of the boxing metaphors used by Dyson, several of his blows hit their mark, and Dyson is, frankly, too good a writer to not make this piece leave a bruise. West has exposed his chin through his acquisition of celebrity and absence of scholarship, and Dyson never forgoes taking a roundhouse punch, even when just a jab will do.

But there are several holes in Dyson’s piece that are glaring. To read the article, one would think that West’s anger toward Obama is solely rooted in snubbed invitations and unanswered phone calls. This ignores a series of key political criticisms that West has been raising for years.

Cornel West believes in Palestinian liberation. He believes in amnesty for undocumented immigrants. He believes that the bankers responsible for the 2008 crisis should be brought to justice. He believes that capitalism is a driving engine of much of the injustice in our world. He believes that Obama’s drone program is an act of state-sanctioned murder. One can choose to agree or disagree with these points, but one cannot ignore that West has been relentless in his efforts to place them in the political discourse. The word “Palestine” or “Palestinian” does not once make its way into Dyson’s piece. Neither does “Wall Street” or “immigration.” The word “drones” only comes up in a quote attributed to West. We can debate how sincere West’s commitments are to these issues or whether they are a cover for his hurt feelings and heartbreak that Dyson posits is at the root of all the discord. But they should be reckoned with. Does a “black politics” going forward need to have something to say about corporate power, Israeli occupation, immigration, and drone warfare? That’s the unspoken debate in this article, made all the more glaring because Dyson is sympathetic—and far closer to West than President Obama—on many of these questions.

Dyson says repeatedly that he is a critic of Obama but loves the man, while disagreeing with much of his “neoliberal” policy. Yet he also goes out of his way to write,

Obama believes the blessed should care for the unfortunate, a hallmark of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. West and Obama both advocate intervention for our most vulnerable citizens, but while West focuses on combating market forces that ‘edge out nonmarket values—love, care, service to others—handed down by preceding generations,’ Obama, as [Jonathan] Alter contends, is more practical, offering Pell grants; stimulus money that saved the jobs of hundreds of thousands of black state and local workers; the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity of sentences for powdered and crack cocaine; the extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which kept millions of working poor blacks from sliding into poverty; and the extension of unemployment insurance and food stamps, which helped millions of blacks.

One cannot read this as anything but an endorsement—and a very selective telling—of President Obama’s political agenda. One could also well ask how the hyper-militarization of our cities, the record number of deportations, the closing of public schools, and the “drill and kill” public-education testing regimen can be translated as the “blessed caring for the unfortunate.”

Then there is the specter of the Black Lives Matter movement, which hangs over every syllable in this piece. Aside from one dismissive mention of West’s getting arrested in Ferguson during a staged act of civil disobedience, it is not discussed explicitly. But, at least for this reader, it was impossible to divorce this major article coming out at a moment when the movement is publicly facing a series of questions: namely, whether it “should be moving in a more radical or conciliatory direction.”

It has to be noted that Dyson’s initial public critique against West came not with this article but last week at the National Action Network’s 16th annual convention, where he said,

Stop thinking that your way is the only way. It may be a great way, it may be a powerful way that works for you, but one size don’t fit all. So be honest and humble in genuine terms—not the public performance of humility masquerading a huge ego. No amount of hair can cover that.

NAN is of course the organization of Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton has also been, as Dyson mentions, a repeated target of West. Sharpton is currently in a battle against young activists—sometimes a literal battle—over the microphone of this movement. A new generation of leadership, less tied to the Obama administration, wants to be recognized as the leading organizational and political power against police brutality, but Sharpton is not going down easy. As he said to young activists in February, “It’s the disconnect that is the strategy to break the movement. And they play on your ego. ‘Oh, you young and hip, you’re full of fire. You’re the new face.’ All the stuff that they know will titillate your ears. That’s what a pimp says to a ho.”

Sharpton is cracking down on those who would challenge his authority. In other words, while Dyson has been given ample provocation to strike back at West, there is also a political battle thrumming beneath the surface that we would be naïve to ignore. Dyson says that West’s fatal flaw lies in seeing that his way is the only way. It is true that no one has all the answers but we can’t settle the questions unless we depersonalize and get at the substance of the divisions: reform vs. revolt; working inside vs. working outside the corridors of power; and so many other “old” debates that have taken on, to use a much-abused phrase, the fierce urgency of now.

Cornel West is no Mike Tyson, and it has to be said that even in the land of metaphor, comparing West to a convicted rapist is difficult to read. But in comparing him to Ali, let’s also remember that the Champ had two careers: one where he was simply too quick to touch, and one, after he returned to the ring in 1970, where he was slower but still fighting with his gloves down and possessing a new strategy: one where he chose to take punch after punch after punch to the chin, until he either fell down or his opponent tired from exhaustion. Ali paid a dear price for this strategy, but it was devastatingly effective. West has chosen over the last several years to take numerous punches from his political opponents. I don’t believe any have punched quite as hard as Dyson. But with this 10,000-word escalation that increases the personal heat while brushing over the political differences, Dyson may have done exactly what West was tempting him to do. The tragedy is that there are so many others who should be higher on everyone’s list of those who need to be prodded, need to be provoked… and need to be knocked the hell out.


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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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