Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cornel West v. Obama

Once again the political conflict among the Black Community has come to a head over whether President Obama has done "enough" for Blacks or the poor in America.  Anybody who has read this blog for a while knows that we have blogged on this topic time and time again.  So this isn't the first time we've had this discussion about whether President Obama is doing "enough" for the Black or Poor Communities, and we're quite certain it will not be the last.  This time the debate has been sparked by comments that the legendary Princeton professor Cornel West has leveled against President Obama.

According to Professor West, the betrayal of Obama is three-fold; (1) on a personal level and (2) on a racial level, and (3) on a politcal/ideological level.  Per

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. I said, this is very interesting. And then as it turns out with the inauguration I couldn’t get a ticket 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. My mom says, ‘That’s something that this dear brother can get a ticket and you can’t get one, honey, all the work you did for him from Iowa.’ Beginning in Iowa to Ohio. We had to watch the thing in the hotel. What it said to me on a personal level...was that brother Barack Obama had no sense of gratitude, no sense of loyalty, no sense of even courtesy, [no] sense of decency, just to say thank you. Is this the kind of manipulative, Machiavellian orientation we ought to get used to?...[at a gathering of the Urban League]...Obama cussed me out. Obama  [after his address, which promoted his administration’s championing of charter schools] makes a bee line to me right after the talk, in front of everybody...he just lets me have it. He says, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself, saying I’m not a progressive. Is that the best you can do? Who do you think you are?’ I smiled. I shook his hand. And a sister hollered in the back, ‘You can’t talk to professor West. That’s Dr. Cornel West. Who do you think you are?’ You can go to jail talking to the president like that. You got to watch yourself. I wanted to slap him on the side of his head.

So we get a clear sense from Dr. West that he feels personally slighted by the actions of President Obama.  More on this later, but for now let us turn to the second criticism from West regarding the racial identification of Obama:

I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men. 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.

And lastly, West's political/ideological issues with Obama:

This was maybe America’s last chance to fight back against the greed of the Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats, to generate some serious discussion about public interest and common good that sustains any democratic experiment.  We are squeezing out all of the democratic juices we have. The escalation of the class war against the poor and the working class is intense. More and more working people are beaten down. They are world-weary. They are into self-medication. They are turning on each other. They are scapegoating the most vulnerable rather than confronting the most powerful. It is a profoundly human response to panic and catastrophe. I thought Barack Obama could have provided some way out. But he lacks backbone....[Obama] is a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of became very clear when I looked at the neoliberal economic team. The first announcement of Summers and Geithner I went ballistic. I said, ‘Oh, my God, I have really been misled at a very deep level.’

And then to round things off, West finishes with:

Our last hope is to generate a democratic awakening among our fellow citizens. This means raising our voices, very loud and strong, bearing witness, individually and collectively. Tavis [Smiley] and I have talked about ways of civil disobedience, beginning with ways for both of us to get arrested, to galvanize attention to the plight of those in prisons, in the hoods, in poor white communities. We must never give up. We must never allow hope to be eliminated or suffocated.

I love Dr. West and I think he is a brilliant professor who has frequently dropped knowledge on the national stage, however I have to be honest and say that on these three criticisms of Obama he spans the gamut from reasonable to unreasonable to downright irrelevant.

Starting with the irrelevant first since it is the easiest to dismiss, whatever happened between Professor West and Obama on a personal level is not only irrelevant, but it serves as an unfortunate Achille's heal to West's entire argument here.  By bringing it up, West is revealing to all of us that he suffers from the same inflated ego that Tavis Smiley suffers from in terms of being recognized for their work.  True leadership doesn't do good work in order to gain recognition.  True leadership is content by simply getting the job done.  Period.  If you get recognized for that, then great, but a lack of recognition should be the last thing on the mind of a true leader.  Like Dr. West, I also campaigned heavily for the 2008 Obama campaign, but when I didn't get my cushy job on the hill I didn't become bitter about it and start taking shots.  Why?  Because I wasn't campaigning for Obama for my own personal benefit.  I was campaigning because I beleived that it was the right thing to do.  West is essentially saying the opposite here when he reveals that HE (West) is pissed off because HE (West) didn't get tickets to the innauguration after all the work that HE put in.  We're talking about tickets to the innauguration?  Really?

Regarding West's second criticism of Obama's background, he's effectively relitigating the 2008 argument about whether Obama is "black enough."  This horse was beaten 3 years ago when over 95% of the Black Community resoundingly answered this question in the affirmative and pledged their support to the "First Black President."  Three years later Dr. West is still taking shots at his Blackness?  Come on, Dr. West.  I'm really dissapointed that you of all people felt the need to go there.  If you have an issue with the man's policies towards the Black community then let's keep it on the merits.  Leave the personal attacks for the tea party crowd.

Lastly, in terms of the political/ideological criticisms, this is where Dr. West makes some valid points.  Is it fair to say that Obama has focussed on the Banks more than he has focussed on the poor?  Perhaps.  It is, of course, no secret that the TARP (first passed under Bush 43 and continued by Obama) helped to bail out the banks to stave off a national financial dissaster. So yes, Obama did focus on the banks because, quite frankly, if he had not there would not be a United States of America for us to even argue about today.  However, we can't exactly gloss over the impact that the new Health Care law will have for the poor who, prior to the law's enactment, have been relegated to using the emergency room as their primary physician.  So it is not completely fair to say that Obama has given priority to the rich over the poor as West criticises, but West raises a good point here, to be sure, that more focus can be directed towards the poor by the Obama Administration.

What do you make of Dr. West's 3 primary arguments here?
Is Obama giving priority to the rich over the poor?
Would people like Dr. West and Tavis Smiley still be making these criticisms if Obama had given them their 15 minutes?
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