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Cornel West’s Disgust with Obama Should Not Make Him a Pariah

Chris Hedges is a prolific columnist, a bold opinion editorial writer with a flare for writing and allegory that few writers on the Internet today can match. Hedges conducted an interview with philosopher and author Cornel West. (It can be read in Hedges’ latest column, “The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic.”)

Melissa Harris-Perry, a contributor to The Nation, chose to critique the words of Cornel West. Her critique was one of the top articles published yesterday.

Notably, Harris-Perry does not criticize Hedges for choosing to do an interview with West. She doesn’t explicitly address Hedges’ choice to anoint Cornel West a “moral philosopher” in a “morality play” depicting “Barack Obama’s ascent to power.” She, instead, excises an interview from Hedges’ article and addresses West’s criticisms in the context of her knowledge of the patronage model of politics that hampers black communities today.

Harris-Perry claims West has offered “thin criticism.” Rather than pick apart his many critiques of Obama, she opts to attack his right to be outraged. She chooses to assess his association with his friend Tavis Smiley, host of “The Tavis Smiley Show” on PBS. And, she decides to cast his political transformation as a result of his delicate ego being damaged.

There is little reason to take issue with Harris-Perry’s publishing of a critique of what West said. However, she doesn’t really bother to address how West’s criticism is the result of his ego and not because he is concerned for the “health of American democracy.”

In her critique, she glosses over the appointment of his “neoliberal economic team,” which included Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. She doesn’t address the appointment of neo-imperial elites like Dennis Ross. She ignores one of his most damning charges, which is that President Obama, like former President Bill Clinton, has helped to renew Americans’ faith in the American project–presumably the same project the Bush Administration was expanding–through the use and exploitative manipulation of progressive populist language.

The urgency to West’s words is disregarded entirely. That West appears to be genuinely distressed by the fact the greed of “Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats” persists and a “serious discussion about public interest and common good that sustains any democratic experiment” hasn’t happened seems to be of little concern to Harris-Perry.

There would be little reason to mention these details, which are overlooked, if it weren’t for the fact that it is articles like this, especially ones coming from respectable and well-educated individuals like Harris-Perry, that have the power to turn people like West into a pariah. And, turning outspoken critics on the left into pariahs when they become too critical of power is something the liberal class in this country has managed to do for the past decades.

As Hedges writes in his book The Death of the Liberal Class:

The liberal class’ disposal of its most independent and courageous members has long been part of its pathology. The liberal class could afford this rate of attrition as long as the power elite remained accountable to the citizenry, managed power with a degree of responsibility and justice, governed so that it could still respond to the common good, and accepted some of the piecemeal reforms proposed by the liberal class. But as the state was slowly hijacked by corporations, a process that began after World War I, accelerated after World War II and was completed with ruthless efficiency over the past thirty years, the liberal class purged itself of the only members who had the fortitude and vision to save it from irrelevance.

Hedges calls out the “liberal class” for its complicity during “the rise of a new global oligarchy and the crushing poverty visited in globalization’s wake on the poor and the working class.” He suggests that a number of people in the “liberal class” have been “seduced by careerism.” And, he goes through examples of individuals who have been turned into pariahs like Sydney Schanberg, Richard Goldstone, Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Father Daniel Berrigan, I.F. Stone, and Howard Zinn.

The liberal class is expected to mask the brutality of imperial war and corporate malfeasance by deploring the most egregious excesses whiles studiously refusing to question the legitimacy of the power elite’s actions and structures. When dissidents step outside these boundaries, they become pariahs. Specific actions can be criticized, but motives, intentions, and the moral probity of the power elite cannot be questioned.

That is not to say that Harris-Perry is a “careerist.” That is not to say that Harris-Perry wrote her criticism of West with the intention of turning him into a pariah. But, her post published on The Nation‘s website yesterday quickly became one of the most read articles and, Wednesday morning, it is the most read post on right now. And, not only that: Harris-Perry’s critique of West managed to push MSNBC host Ed Schultz to do a segment on his show on what West said in Hedges’ interview and whether West is onto something in his analysis of Obama and his presidency.

Harris-Perry condemns West for getting personal but West doesn’t get personal because he has a beef with President Obama. He becomes personal because he is genuinely distressed by the lack of access that he has to power. And, Harris-Perry should explain why citizens especially someone like West should have to accept the moneyed elites–those who can fill the campaign coffers for elections–are the first people the president dials.

Finally, the loftiness of Harris-Perry’s words in regards to West’s suggestion that America’s “last hope is to generate a democratic awakening among our fellow citizens” and, perhaps, to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested “to galvanize attention to the plight of those in prisons, in the hoods, in poor white communities” is bothersome.

What would Harris-Perry suggest citizens do instead? Better, why does Harris-Perry so loftily react to West’s suggestion that the only hope society has is rebellion?

Is it because buying into this idea means admitting the people of America no longer have the power to reform political and state structures? Is it because one would have to welcome the notion that it is grossly naïve to try and advance a progressive agenda? Is it because buying into civil disobedience as a tool for changing the direction of this country means conceding this country’s systems of power–the press, liberal religious institutions, universities, labor, culture and the Democratic Party–have failed us and going along with that could breed debilitating cynicism?

One should understand that it is people like West, who give much more conventional liberal political scientists and writers like Harris-Perry, cover from right-wing attacks. If West is “the left” and Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich is what’s “right,” somewhere in the middle Harris-Perry can make a very detailed analysis of the Obama presidency and propose a way forward that the Obama Administration could potentially consider. But, there aren’t any lefties like West who can communicate and occupy space in the mainstream, what’s “liberal” becomes “fringe left.” It becomes “extreme,” which for Harris-Perry means her ideas will definitely not be something President Obama or anyone in the political class can entertain.

Cornel West appears to be someone seeking out answers. He seems to be taking responsibility for his vote for President Obama. He is doing what a citizen should do in society.

Numerous liberals or progressives, like Harris-Perry, continue to wait for Obama to address some of the ongoing crises and developments in America that deeply disturb West. They choose to cope and rationalize their discontent. They note the limited options the citizenry has to beat back corporate power and choose pragmatism instead of boldly buying into an idealistic vision for the future.

Here’s a suggestion: instead of judging whether certain individuals have the credentials to heavily criticize a president, Americans should discuss how criticism and outrage can be channeled into a turning of the tide that might bring forth more emancipation, equality, peace and justice for all people.

Video of Cornel West and Melissa Harris-Perry’s appearance on “The Ed Show” appears below.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."