Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cornel West and The Blackness Patrol

I'm not a fan of Cornel West nor his buddy in the "Obama isn't black enough" club, Tavis Smiley. West identifies himself as a part of the black intellectual elite and as such, fully expected that he would play a pivotal role in Obama's campaign and be an often consulted advisor of the nation's first black president. His issues with Obama began when Senator Obama was running for office. The commitment that West, Smiley and others demand from Obama is to support black interests at the costs of all others.

Yesterday, columnist Chris Hedges' graced us with an article entitle The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic. In the first line of the article, Hedges dubs Cornel West a moral philosopher and a voice of moral conscience if Obama's ascent to power was a morality play. Funny, I don't recall any meeting of black folks to elect West as our moral compass. If any of y'all took part in this vote, drop me a line and tell me when and where the election was held.

A telling story on West is that he was livid that he did not receive tickets to the inauguration. I have to wonder how much of his criticism of the President is motivated by his hurt feelings that he has not been included in the President's inner circle. The point of West's diatribe against Obama that he shared with Hedges appears to center on West's belief that Obama is a sellout who is a white man in a black skin. West pontificates at length on this topic:
“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” West says. “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."
Dr. West, you're full of crap. West is a professor at Princeton, not exactly in the hood. What credentials does West posses that qualify him to define blackness and exclude those whom he feels don't do "being black" right? It's a rhetorical question; he has none. It's difficult enough being marginalized based on skin color without the further complication of having members of your own group decide that you don't measure up to some arbitrary standard of membership in the group. West also takes issue with Michelle Obama, questioning why she doesn't visit a prison or "spend some time in the hood." 

West and Rev. Al Sharpton engaged in heated debate at Smiley's recent annual State of Black America conference. Sharpton insisted (rightly I believe) that Obama is the president of all the people and that promoting policies that benefit all Americans will benefit black Americans. West insisted that Obama has become the soul of darkness itself, betraying the poor, particularly poor black people. However, I don't think that West's ire comes from any real belief that Obama is the anti-Christ; he's upset because Obama stopped calling him on the phone.
“There is the personal level,” he says. “I used to call my dear brother [Obama] every two weeks. I said a prayer on the phone for him, especially before a debate. And I never got a call back. And when I ran into him in the state Capitol in South Carolina when I was down there campaigning for him he was very kind. The first thing he told me was, ‘Brother West, I feel so bad. I haven’t called you back. You been calling me so much. You been giving me so much love, so much support and what have you.’ And I said, ‘I know you’re busy.’ But then a month and half later I would run into other people on the campaign and he’s calling them all the time. I said, wow, this is kind of strange. He doesn’t have time, even two seconds, to say thank you or I’m glad you’re pulling for me and praying for me, but he’s calling these other people."
West does deal with some substance as to his issues with Obama. He feels that Obama has betrayed his populist promises, adopting a centrist agenda instead of the progressive populist agenda that Obama promised during his campaign. I give West some credit on this point. I think that on many issues Obama has chosen to be centrist or as West puts it, an advocate of a neo-liberal centrist policy in the same mold as Bill Clinton. I don't think that's a bad thing. I'm a pragmatist and I never believed that Obama would be able to implement a purely progressive agenda in less than a single term. Change is always incremental unless it's done through revolution, which seldom works out well as the lofty goals of the revolutionaries are soon corrupted.  West never fully fleshes out the specifics of his issues with Obama's presidential policies and decisions; instead he goes off on another rant declaring that the President "...feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want...”

West does raise concerns about the have-nots in America, the people who have been marginalized and haven't fared well under any administration, including the current one. I could get behind a push to urge Obama to take more aggressive steps in addressing eroding poverty in America but I don't buy into West's vision of himself as a prophet shouting the truth in the wilderness nor his vision of Obama as Darth Vader embracing his dark side. Clearly there is a lot of work to be done but the President has given no indication that he is unaware that the journey has only just begun.

Hedges is late to the party. West's rants against the president are nothing new in black media.  He and Smiley had a hissy fit when candidate Obama declined to attend Smiley's annual State of Black America conference. Smiley has declared himself the voice of black America over the last decade and West has bestowed his blessing on Smiley. The other third of this triumvirate of blackness is Michael Eric Dyson, who joins Smiley and West in measuring the President's blackness and finding it insufficient. If you are truly interested in keeping up with what a lot of black people are talking about, add Black America Web to your bookmarks.

For another perspective on West and Hedges' article, please check out this article by Melissa Harris-Perry, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University and a colleague of West,  Cornel West v. Barack Obama.

Clearly, I don't believe that the President is immune from criticism; neither does the author of the article that I recommended above. I think that he has made missteps and errors in judgment. However, Hedges' article isn't about those errors and missteps as much as it is about Cornel West, a man with a self-inflated ego who is peeved that his "greatness" is not fully recognized by the President.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

An Iceberg in the Sea of Ethics

In civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics.--Earl Warren

I've been thinking a lot about the killing of self-proclaimed terrorist, Osama bin Laden. My issue is not with the guilt or innocence of Osama bin Laden. He has declared himself responsible for 9/11; even if he's not, just wanting the credit suggests that if not 9/11 then he is responsible for other acts of terrorism. However, even if the police catch a person strangling the body with bare hands that person is still entitled to dues process under our laws which means a trial, a judgment, and a sentence. Even if that sentence is death, we don't simply execute someone without the benefit of due process, even when guilt is certain. Indeed, in our justice system, confession is often about brokering a deal, generally to take the death penalty off the table. In other words those who declare I did it gain a reprieve from execution and generally receive a sentence of life imprisonment in exchange for saving the state the cost of a full prosecution.

Traditionally, adherence to a system of justice that strives for fairness and an even application of law is taken as a significant mark of civilization. We, as a nation, certainly criticize and strongly object to the paths of nations that imprison without trial, punish without due process, and eliminate undesirable elements by simply executing them.

Our track record in recent years has not been good. We invaded Iraq based on false information which more and more evidence supports that our leadership knew to be false. We have imprisoned people at Guantanamo without benefit of trial which violates the Constitution in which many of us purport to believe. We have consistently refused to acknowledge that these prisoners, who haven't been officially charged with anything, have a right to a speedy trial, having made up a new term to apply to them, "enemy combatants." They are neither prisoners of war nor prisoners of our legal system, expressly so that they may be denied the due process owed under military law or civil law. I think the summary execution of bin Laden is yet another misstep on the part of this country. We insist to others that it is not might that makes right but that laws ensure justice for all. Yet in this instance we behaved much the same as any of the governments whom we have criticized in the past, acting as judge, jury and executioner and bypassing even a semblance of justice. Papa Doc and Idi Amin should not be our role models.

Funny thing is, the outcome would have been the same. No doubt bin Laden would have been found guilty and sentenced to death but in the eyes of the world we would have appeared to adhere to the higher standard for which we have so strongly advocated since the founding of this country. We haven't always reached that standard, but if a man or a woman's reach does not exceed his or her grasp, then what's a heaven for? (my thanks to Robert Browning)

I take issue with assassination as justice, no matter how vile the person. When we make exceptions to our ethics, to our code of law,  we lessen ourselves, betray our own integrity. My concern isn't for bin Laden, but for this country's ability to claim moral authority (which we do quite often) after this assassination. Imagine any other country entering a nation uninvited and killing a person who by its own account was not armed because of some terrorist act that person allegedly committed against its people, how would we regard that action?

Fellow blogger, Elizabeth, shared a passage from an article by Noam Chomsky that fleshes out my rhetorical question.
We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush's compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden's, and he is not a "suspect" but uncontroversially the "decider" who gave the orders to commit the "supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole" (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.