[News] Cornel West and Melissa Harris-Perry

3 06 2011

Cornell West was in the news a bit last month because of some fairly harsh things he has said about the President. The story seems to have taken off here and, to my mind, had its most meaningful articulation here on the Ed Show. There seems to be a fair amount in between those two points, but especially Melissa Harris-Perry’s print response here.

What interests me most keenly is the pair of interviews on the Ed Show. The interview of West followed immediately with that of Harris-Perry shows off well the conceptual distance between them and their ways of thinking. I’m pleased that the show gave each interviewee a block of time rather than simply using the simultaneous split-screen method.

That space gave each of their views room to breathe and prevented the interview from becoming an occasion for debate-style one-upmanship. The show does give Harris-Perry’s view pride of place in terms of how the host responds and in closing out the segment, but a certain bias is inescapable.

West speaks from a place intimately bound up with liberation theology. This fuses traditional prophetic modes of speech with contemporary progressive appreciation for the way in which social and economic structures perpetuate social ills.

This form of discourse puts a great moral burden on politicians. As politicians, they have more direct access to the laws that can perpetuate or alter the structures perpetuating social ills. In them, the moral weight of the prophetic discourse finds a moral agent to judge and the progressive vision a lever with which to exert force upon the damaged social system.

That prophetic speech takes its cues not from the will of the people but by appealing to a higher principle to which it demands all people ought to submit. Compromise is not proper to it.

The prophetic form of speech is also figural. That requires some explanation, too. A figure in prophetic discourse becomes an intersection of everyday reality and of the judgment of the higher principle driving the prophetic. In the figures used by prophetic discourse, the speaker passes judgment on the world.

The tricky part is that the prophetic discourse doesn’t annihilate the world in passing judgment. Quite the opposite, it maintains both by demanding we raise the world closer to the higher principles it makes manifest. Like Walter Benjamin’s storyteller, this way of speaking combs through daily life in order to find the proper figures through which higher principles may be made manifest.

If we choose to meet West on this level, then we can surely ask whether or not he is living up to the demands of it. However, we can’t disregard that the President is not living up to its demands. In fact, we have to admit that West’s own failures or successes are less important than the President’s.

Which is why the interview with Harris-Perry makes such a nice counterpoint. She doesn’t try to meet West on that level. More tellingly, it is unclear whether she (a) even acknowledges it as a distinct form of political discourse and, if so, (b) she considers it a legitimate form of political discourse.

She employs a more common form of political discourse. She identifies an interest group with which she is presently concerned, African Americans, and identifies policies that the President has supported which benefited them. She also references poll numbers to indicate the satisfaction of that group with the President’s behavior.

For Harris-Perry, the President’s pursuit of certain policies and actions, combined with the support of the group to whom they are targeted, vitiates West’s claims. The will of the people (here witnessed in the approval ratings given the President by African Americans) gives lie to West’s claims. She affirms Obama as a good politician, where ‘good’ is not linked to higher principles, but to relative ones (i.e. what other politicians do).

These differences also speak to how they use and respond to the concept of ‘blackness.’ For Harris-Perry, West’s discussion about how the President is uncomfortable with free black men becomes little more than inverse birtherism. Instead of demanding that the President reveal he is truly American, West seems to demand the President show how he is truly African American.

It is easy to see that, in part because it is easy to see how West’s response is bound up with personal hurt feelings. He clearly was hurt by his exclusion from the President’s circle of friends. Others whom he feels have put comparable amounts of effort into supporting the President have gained greater access to him, while West has progressively lost access.

When we listen to West describe that loss of access, it is also easy to hear how personal rather than political and religious elements were involved. As West talks about praying with the President, as he talks about the high standards to which he holds politicians, it sounds preachy. Just like someone might start avoiding their local preacher because they don’t want the sermon (even when they basically agree with the sermon!), we can imagine the President avoiding taking West’s calls.

How easy must it be for the President to do that, right? He always has a good reason to duck that call, right? He’s the President, his plate is always full and spilling off the sides with things to do.

But here is the figural thing again. West feels hurt and betrayed, but his concerns are not just about his hurt feelings. Without speculating about West’s exact psychological state, it is clear he had a great deal of faith in the potential for Obama to make changes in how the government operates.

West let himself be carried away by that image of hope and, having it dashed, feels all the more keenly the gap between the political situation at present and the demands of higher principles. His personal pain is, in part, a spiritual pain. The pain he felt at being excluded from the inauguration is amplified and mirrored in the pain at seeing grave injustices perpetuated.

He is sermonizing a bit, taking some bit of his life, telling a story about it, and then using that to switch up to a bigger, more important topic. He is using his own frustrations with the President, as a person, to consider the frustration he has with the President, as person and political figure, to live up to moral principles.

West isn’t just talking about any old principles, but those he sees as the highest principles of a democracy, principles that the President publicly (and presumably privately) endorses.

For West, ‘black’ (and ‘red’ and so on) takes on a figural dimension. Just like the President, black manhood embodies a junction where higher principles and the world have occasion to interact.

Harris-Perry’s jab at West, comparing him to the birthers is unfair in the extreme. West does not question the President’s manhood or his citizenship. He points out something concrete that troubles him and suggests some personal dimensions of the President’s life that might have influenced that situation. In fact, West offers up to us some fairly personal and intimate aspects of his own life in order to help illuminate that.

He identifies, as best I can see correctly, the paucity of strong African American men in the President’s inner circle. That ought to be a little troubling to us, especially when his campaign promised he would cultivate an inner circle characterized by difference and dissent.

Ideally, a democratic government should reflect its constituency. It should reflect the cultural, ethnic, racial, and gendered diversity of its people. The President ought to cultivate confidantes from that diversity, right? This President, to be sure, is not politically resistant to that diversity, right?

That he does not have that diversity, then, is suggestive of something personal, perhaps even a blind spot of the President that might not be apparent to him. That is the sort of thing we ought to be raising up for the President to see, the sort of thing that we want critical voices to point out.

If it isn’t a blind spot, if it is something that the President has cultivated in a very deliberate, conscious way, then that is an ugly blemish we ought not rush to conceal. If it is something that the President has cultivated accidentally, a mixture of deliberation guided by unconscious or partially conscious preferences, then its the sort of things progressives ought to call for the President to change.

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2 responses

9 06 2011
Sharon berkman

Like most black females ms Harris-perry likes pres Obama because he has a unmistakably black wife in the whitehouse, the perception is he’s a great husband(doesnt cheat), great father of two little black girls, great provider, and all American black man with perceived power, looks and fame. Like most African Americans, they are simply happy because he’s black and have no clue or cares if he’s doing anything for them. Like ms Harris-Perry, blacks have totally looked the other way when it comes to holding pres Obama accountable to the black agenda. They have been fooled by white Obama spin miesters that pres Obama can’t have a black agenda because he has to be the president for all people and they are using the al sharptons and Tom joyners of the world to spread that message and keep blacks looking at pres obamas skin only and not his policies. For example, president Obama has no problem carrying the Jewish agenda (Israel) or the Hispanic agenda (immigration reform). He has the worse record of number of african Americans in his cabinet than modern presidents including democratic and republican presidents. Two opportunities to put an African American on the supreme court and never even interviewed an African American. He’s afraid to discuss a black agenda because he fears it would hurt his reelection, but want blacks to vote for him. blacks are being told to wait until he gets reelected, then he will help them. but even if he gets reelected that same group of northeastern white males will say don’t touch the black agenda if you want to secure your legacy. Blacks are literally afraid to say anything negative in front of other blacks with out being attacked. If a white president was in office doing what pres obama is doing, blacks would be screaming about the black agenda and how they are being left out. You wouldn’t hear anyone black saying “a white president has to be the president for all people.”. Al sharpton would have lost his mind by now.

So Cornell west and others who do not give pres Obama a pass are perceived as being upset because they are left out of obama’s circle. I just find it ironic no one black can criticize pres obama. One day dr west and others will be vindicated. Just watch!

9 06 2011
Ian

I think it is more than a little odd to describe Melissa Harris-Perry as part of a group who is “simply happy because he’s black and have no clue or cares if he’s doing anything for them.” Harris-Perry is a bit of a policy wonk and, as far as I can tell, engaged in the policies of the President’s administration and their results.

That, of course, doesn’t mean she is immune to persuasion based on image (none of us are!), but I would not be one to reduce her behavior to that.

Similarly, as the tension between Harris-Perry and West should illustrate, talking about an agenda proper to an ethnic/racial group confuses more than it reveals. Obviously, there are very powerful ties within these groups such that we can talk meaningfully about Jewish or Hispanic or Black communities, but to speak of these communities as being nearly identical with political agendas gets things backward.

Communal ties contain and provide a place in which political agendas can develop, but I don’t think communal ties determine political views.

Also, as an aside, I surely hope that a black citizen would say that a white president has to president for all people. That is what it means to be president, regardless of the president’s racial and ethnic make-up. The president is the President for all people in the US.

With all those caveats, it is worth wondering if his avoidance of African American candidates in his inner circle is politically motivated, an effort to ‘prove’ he isn’t just a black president. That sort of thing does seem endemic to politics, in which image control trumps serious policy concerns. That provides an alternative to West’s psychological interpretation and one worthy of consideration.

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