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.