Sunday evening, The New Republic published its latest polemic, “The Ghost of Cornel West.” Written by Black Public Intellectual™ Michael Eric Dyson, the 10,000-word essay thoroughly castigates Cornel West, the well-known social critic and former Princeton professor who believes himself to be a prophet.
Dyson, who is also a prominent professor with a penchant for performative affectations, will be the first to tell you that he has love for West; early on he refers to him as “the most exciting black American scholar ever.” Once a disciple of West’s teachings, Dyson later writes:
West and I became dear friends. I admired his penetrating intellect and he nurtured my deepening commitment to a life of the mind. West wrote a letter of recommendation on my behalf when I applied to graduate school in 1984 and helped me to land at his alma mater Princeton, where he had been the first black student ever to earn a doctorate in philosophy, and where I became the second black student to earn a doctorate in religion.
But that was a long time ago, and despite both men becoming star intellectuals, it appears to be time for Dyson to take his once mentor and friend to task. Publicly. In The New Republic. (It’s like when a young James Baldwin, not yet the “conscience of America” and star author he would later transform into, attempted to take down Richard Wright—the man he once called “the greatest black writer in the world”—in his review of Native Son, Wright’s most famous novel.)
If you are wondering why such an essay—though, really, “essay” is too nice; this is an attempt to fully ether West’s legacy—appears in the pages of the New New Republic, it is because The 100-Year-Old Magazine of Things White People Think is doing what it has done many times throughout its storied past: treating blackness as a thing to be picked apart. Only this time, they had another black man do the bidding.
For most of its modern history, TNR has been an entirely white publication, which published stories confirming white people’s worst instincts. During the culture wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s, TNR regarded black people with an attitude ranging from removed disregard to blatant bigotry.
TNR did not come to racism out of evil. Very few people ever do. Many of the white people working for the magazine were very young and very smart. This is always a dangerous combination. It must have been that much more dangerous given that their boss was a racist. (Though I am told he had many black friends and protégés.) Peretz was not always a regular presence in the office. This allowed TNR’s saner staff to regard him as the crazy uncle who says racist shit at Thanksgiving. But Peretz was not a crazy uncle—he was the wealthy benefactor of an influential magazine that published ideas that damaged black people.
And when I think of TNR’s history, when I flip through Insurrections, when I examine the magazine’s archives, I am not so much angry as I am sad. There really was so much fine writing in its pages. But all my life I have had to take lessons from people who, in some profound way, cannot see me. TNR billed itself as the magazine for iconoclasts. But its iconoclasm ended exactly where everyone else’s does—at 110th Street. Worse, TNR encouraged incuriosity about what lay beyond the barrier. It told its readers that my world was welfare cheats, affirmative-action babies, and Jesse Jackson. And that white people—or any people—would be urged to such ignorance by their Harvard-bred intellectual leadership is deeply sad. The in-flight magazine of Air Force One should have been better. Perhaps it still can be.
Fully aware of its legacy, The New Republic attempted to have an “honest reckoning” with its blighted past before moving forward under new, more colorful leadership. “Bigotries can have complex, ongoing ramifications,” Jeet Heer wrote in a January cover story. “How do we reconcile the magazine’s liberalism, the ideology that animated the Civil Rights revolution, with the fact that many black readers have long seen—and still see—the magazine as inimical and at times outright hostile to their concerns? How could a magazine that published so much excellent on-the-ground reporting on the unforgivable sins visited upon black America by white America—lynchings, legal frame-ups, political disenfranchisement, and more—also give credence to toxic and damaging racial theorizing?”
And yet, The New Republic’s damning critique of West is a return to the kind of publishing the magazine was notorious for before Gabriel Snyder and his team took over late last year. This is not to say West is above scrutiny—after all, he is a public figure who has callously called out other public figures, including President Obama and Dyson—but there’s something about this particular essay appearing in this particular magazine that feels slimy. Also, why now? Many of the incidents Dyson recalls are years old. At one point yesterday, the hashtag #LoveAndHipHopAcademia floated across my Twitter timeline, many believing the tone of Dyson’s piece to be combative when it need not be.
Here are some things Dyson said of West:
West’s attacks on me were a bleak forfeiture of 30 years of friendship; it was the repudiation of fond collegiality and intellectual companionship, of political camaraderie and joined social struggle. I was a mentee and, according to West, who was kind enough to write a blurb for one of my books, “a rare kind of genius with organic links to our beloved street brothers and sisters.” But I had somehow undergone a transformation in West’s mind: I was an Obama stooge who had forsaken the poor. In November 2012, West, friend and mentor, one of the three men whose name is on my Princeton doctoral dissertation, let me have it in the national media.
In his callous disregard for plural visions of truth, West, like the prophet Elijah, retreats into a deluded and self-important belief in his singular and exclusive rightness. But God reminded Elijah that his prophetic exclamations were wrong. He instructed him to rest and recognize that he wasn’t the only one left who believed in God or bore witness to the truth. But these words mean nothing to West, who, after all, isn’t a prophet. He cannot retreat, and he relentlessly declares his humility to shield himself from the prophet’s duty of pitiless self-inventory.
If West was once Tyson in his glory, he is Tyson, too, in his infamy. Once great, once dominant, once feared, he is now a faint echo of himself.
This is personal for Dyson, and he’s airing his private beef with West in a national magazine, because apparently that is something men with Ph.Ds do in 2015. The whole thing feels petty and malicious, like a scripted quarrel between characters on VH1’s Love & Hip-Hop. With his sweeping critique, Dyson has done the very thing he accused West of doing: dragging a friend through the mud in public. Dyson, by his own estimation, has stooped to West’s level.
Y’all, we are losing. There’s so much to say about this essay, and way more to say about the academic folk who directly and indirectly nurtured a lot of us into parts of our work. But sometimes you gotta just call it, and this n-word is trippin. The existence of this essay, and much of the words, are words folks have pinged around for a while, but somehow this essay feels like the end of one of the most unloving public black relationships I’ve ever read. Nah, Dr. Dyson, not like this. You do this in the New Republic? This? There? Why? Im not sure what “being better” and “doing the work” mean for the young academics and artists who learned from this generation of folks, but let’s please not mimic the worst of our teachers. Let’s please commit to actually working and reckoning and expressing hurt and lingering in real regret when we can.
For a magazine that is trying so hard to transcend the “crackpot racial lore” of days past and address “readers who look like the world,” it certainly could do without the very public shaming of one of Black America’s most brilliant minds, however past his prime you think he might be.
Cornel West didn’t need Michael Eric Dyson to rip his legacy to shreds in The New Republic. West was already doing a fine job of that on his own.
UPDATE, 4/27/15: On Friday, April 24, TNR, perhaps feeling pressured by all the backlash from internet talking heads, posted an explanation as to why they published Dyson’s critique of West. Senior Editor Jamil Smith accused me of committing one of the most unforgivable journalistic sins, writing: “Articles like Parham’s, I’d argue, are incorrect because they inflict on me and my colleagues what that 1991 New Republic cover did to entire communities: Erasure. Criticism in any debate is welcomed and necessary. But it never should include decolorization.” This is interesting, mostly because days prior I exchanged emails with TNR EIC Gabe Snyder, further explaining my piece. He asked me not to publish our exchange, but in light of Smith’s response—and since we’re all about transparency at Gawker—I’ve posted our correspondence below.
On Wed, Apr 22, 2015 at 10:41 AM, Gabriel Snyder <*******@tnr.com> wrote:
I read your post about the Michael Eric Dyson essay on Cornel West in the upcoming issue of The New Republic. There has been a lot written and said about Dyson’s piece, but Gawker is still near and dear to my heart and so I wanted to pass on (off the record, not for publication please) a factual objection:
The crux of your argument for why it was bad for Dyson’s piece to appear in TNR seems to be that we — or I — was conniving to do a hit piece on West and recruited Dyson as the instrument of our institutional distatse for West. That could not be farther from the truth — and not just because I don’t hold that kind of sway over someone as accomplished as Dyson. As you know, the issues between Dyson and West have been going on for some time and Dyson brought his story to us. I was honored that he considered TNR — especially because of the history that Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeet Heer have laid out — a fitting place for such a significant work. While there is no shortage of outright racism in our archives, one of the worst sins has been a relentless myopia: there simply wasn’t much attention paid to black thinkers or the contours of intellectual history outside of the narrow (and very white) club of which TNR saw itself a chronicler. So I am proud to bring this debate into our pages.
But my biggest concern about the piece was in your headline — that because they were published by The New Republic, that Dyson’s arguments would be too easily dismissed as mere continuation of the cover story that appeared in The New Republic 20 years ago. But ultimately, I don’t think anyone who reads the Wieseltier piece side by side with Dyson can conclude that they are in agreement about, well, anything. On the most basic level, Wieseltier, writing in 1995, sought to dismiss West as a serious thinker at all. Dyson is hard on West, but he is writing about that mentor and scholar who he now feels he has lost.
Just wanted to pass these thoughts along — I appreciate you taking the time to read them.
On Wed, Apr 22, 2015 at 2:08 PM, Jason Parham <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Hey Gabriel —Thanks for the note, and for reading the piece.
I, like most readers, am not privy to the inner workings of TNR, and had no knowledge that Dyson approached you. I also don’t believe you intended to do a hit piece on West—perhaps I did not convey that as well as I should have—but the essay’s publication does raise a number of questions. Questions that have a lot to do with the magazine TNR once was versus the magazine TNR wants to be.
I do agree that, at times, the old TNR didn’t offer an honest voice around issues important to black, Latino, queer, and marginalized communities. This, obviously, wasn’t just a symptom of TNR. Other liberal magazines faced similar hurdles—and many still do. But in trying to reinvent TNR into a publication that is both daring and progressive, a publication that is inclusive to all voices, the Dyson piece had the opposite effect. For me at least.
West, as I said, is more than deserving of criticism, but publishing Dyson’s critique in a magazine that has a history of scrutinizing black thought and culture tethers him, and his words, to its blemished history—whether you intended to or not. That is not to say TNR shouldn’t publish controversial work and take creative leaps (it should!)—especially if it hopes to create a new legacy, one its staff and its readers can be even more proud of—but Dyson’s essay doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You mentioned the Leon Wieseltier piece from 20 years ago; something I made no mention of in my post. So obviously this is something you are aware of, and were aware of before you published Dyson’s critique.
All that said, I do recognize your effort to make TNR into something better, and I’m excited to see where you take the magazine in the years to come.