MRBlog | What Was Michael Eric Dyson Doing?

Michael Eric Dyson at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. April 4, 2012. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Michael Eric Dyson at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. April 4, 2012. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

By Ryan T. Woods

I read Michael Eric Dyson’s stunning impeachment of his erstwhile friend and advisor in The New Republic with great interest. As a polemic, it was exquisite in its vehemence, length, eloquence, and intimate detail. As my former colleague Mike Altman observed, this waspish exposé represents the first major feature TNR has run since the reorganization of its editorial staff.

Did it raise the writing standards for clickbait journalism or provide a long-overdue revelation of the ills of Cornel West? Arguably, it furnished a little of both, and illuminated as much about Dyson as it did about West in the process.

Dyson scores a number of direct hits: West’s personal vanity, serial name-dropping, and slanderous tirades against former friends (many of whom are former students!) strike me as petulant, hypocritical, and antithetical to mantle of prophecy West has assumed for himself. Most egregious are West’s denunciations of black intellectuals like Dyson and Melissa Harris-Perry for fawning over Obama (demonstrably false) and compromising their integrity for media attention (demonstrably hypocritical). I can’t imagine MLK — the only incontestable prophet in Dyson’s catalogue (Adam Clayton Powell, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton are the others; I wish he had adopted a more capacious definition of prophecy, less concerned with ministerial office, and more open to including voices like Wright’s and Malcolm’s, since West’s legacy owes as much to his Socratic ancestors as to his prophetic models) — engaging in the same kind of preening self-regard and public truculence against former associates. King had the good sense to focus on the work at hand and not to broadcast his personal feuds.

But Dyson is gauziest in matters on which you would want the most clarity. He criticizes the declining intellectual production of Brother West in a lengthy fugue of allegations, but he doesn’t offer much of substantive, concrete account of what brought West to prominence in the first place. Instead, we get the kind of adulatory descriptions that a dazzled undergraduate would apply to a professor, but not the kind of penetrating appraisal of intellectual contributions you might expect from a peer. That erodes a foundation of the “declining intellectual productivity” argument, and makes Dyson’s charges more impressionistic than analytic.

As a few commentators have already observed, Dyson’s characterizations of West’s recent activities seem tendentious. Some would dispute his account of West simply recycling old material. (Frankly, Dyson has done some of that himself — many academics do, for that matter). West’s decision to spend more time preaching, speaking, and interviewing may be a calculated move on his part to maximize his public influence. The identification of West’s critique of nihilism with conservative critiques of black culture and his comparison of West with Mike Tyson likewise strike me as gratuitous swipes. It may well be that envy and personal animus tincture West’s imprecations against Obama, and it may be true that some of his criticisms of the President are callow and unrealistic, but there can be no denying that there’s still some substance to West’s commentary.

It’s hard to determine where the dirge ends and the score-settling begins. For that matter, it’s not clear what Dyson intends with his article. Here’s the thing: the vices Dyson excoriates in excruciating detail thrive on attention. The best thing to do sometimes — particularly if you are a public intellectual of Dyson’s stature — is to brush off the criticism rather than parry it in public. Your scholarly pursuits and activism will expose the specious character of these accusations and throw the petulance of your detractor into stark relief.

So why write this? I’m left suspecting that the same indignation of a “jilted lover” Dyson diagnoses in West might be reflected in the scathing portrait of a former mentor he has produced. As a friend pointed out, it’s almost Oedipal in its ferocity.