Monday, April 27, 2015

In this corner...

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Not long after Michael Eric Dyson’s assassination attempt on the personal and professional lives of Cornel West, the American public learned that yet another Obama drone strike had gone awry and killed innocents—this time an American and an Italian citizen each held hostage by al-Qaeda. Obama quickly assumed full responsibility (the mantra of politicians everywhere that allows them to do nothing) for the mistake and expressed the requisite amount of anguish before a sympathetic national news corps that always already privileges the president’s sacred duty to protect American national security despite the collateral damage that accompanies it. As with previous drone attacks gone right and wrong, the consternation generated by this all too deadly assault shall pass quickly.


What links drones to Michael Eric Dyson? While it might look like Dyson and West have suffered a very public end to a private relationship, Dyson’s prolix diatribe against West is first and foremost a political act with a political ambition. Yes, Dyson tries to expose, humiliate, and demean West, even calling on Leon Wieseltier and Lawrence Summers, among others, to assist him, but his principal purpose is to silence him. Assume that West may not produce the thrilling academic and scholarly volumes that he did earlier in his career, and that he may have triggered his own fall from the mountaintop of intellectual success thanks in part to a taste for celebrity and riches. Why does Dyson devote thousands upon thousands of words to reiterate supposedly self-evident career truths?


Dyson’s interminable assault on West confirms instead the powerful presence West has created for himself as a prophetic public intellectual willing to risk his good name and devote much of his life to, among other things, calling to account the president of the United States for his political projects, especially his misdeeds, including high crimes and misdemeanors. The Republican Party routinely assails Obama for his Constitutional depredations, but their attacks reflect a concerted campaign to destroy him that followed his election in 2008 and do not depend on what the president actually does. To the GOP, Obama is by definition illegitimate. West, on the other hand, offers a substantive critique of Obama’s policies that hits home and hits hard, which is precisely why Michael Eric Dyson does his particular brand of dirty work.


Thus, Dyson’s essay needs to be taken seriously. It needs to be taken seriously because the silencing strategy he proposes relies not just on Cornel West’s destruction, a cautionary tale to all oppositional political actors, but also because Dyson articulates what he takes to be a model for responsible political criticism—in this case regarding the president of the United States. Dyson’s approach to civic political discourse mimics self-proclaimed patriots who insist that participation depends on certain conditions of eligibility, conditions that work to defuse and defang criticism before it can begin. This makes Dyson not just dangerous but insidiously dangerous. In short, you must prove yourself worthy of participation before you are allowed to speak (critically) by proclaiming a prior love and fealty, whether to country or a political figure.
Dyson shares what he calls a “three-part formula for discussing Obama before black audiences” (there is no reason to believe Dyson would recommend anything significantly different in front of Democratic or progressive audiences). You must “start” with an expression of “love for the man” and take “pride in his epic achievement.” This must be followed by a recitation of the enmity Obama has faced from Republican and right-wing opposition. You must also never forget that Obama is a politician, and a Democratic politician to boot, which means he is subject to “the demands of his profession.”  This reality informs many of his actions, which may disappoint some of his supporters but only because so much lies beyond his ability to influence or control and thus his responsibility. Finally, you can identify the mistakes he has made and the failures he has experienced.  But now it can be done safely, properly. For Dyson, this means that he understands that “Obama the president is Pharaoh, not Moses: a politician, not a liberator.” Despite “the Obama administration’s expectation of unqualified support,” Dyson can offer praise where possible, criticism where needed, which differentiates him from West who indulges “black or white views.” Dyson, it seems, takes risks.

With this model in hand, Dyson repeatedly degrades and devalues West’s political interventions, especially those directed at Obama. Deploying a heavy-handed psychological reductionism, he renders them nothing more than expressions of West’s frustrated personal ambitions and sense of betrayal at Obama’s hands. Thus West “riffs and rants”; he “inveighs, stampedes, and kvetches”; he “harangues.” West is full of “rage” and “nastiness” and resorts to “extravagant excoriations.” His views are “scurrilous.” He is waging “war on Obama.”

If so, you might expect Dyson to offer a full-throated defense of Obama and answer West’s accusations and criticisms. He does not. He does compare West and Obama and, not surprisingly, Obama prevails in the competition. While West supposedly prefers to counter a destructive market economy with talk of alternative values, Obama is “more practical” and prefers Pell grants, stimulus money, tax credits for the poor, unemployment benefits, and food stamps, all of which helps blacks (and others). Yet this seems to be the best that Dyson’s Pharaoh has to offer. While these practical measures do matter greatly and Obama, at least domestically, is superior to any potential Republican president, any Democrat in his position would have pursued them as well. More importantly, Dyson ignores many, if not most, of the critiques that West delivers.
Of course, Dyson doesn’t really want to talk politics. If he did he’d have to discuss, among other things, not just Obama’s neoliberal credentials but Obama’s national security predilections. West has repeatedly accused Obama of war crimes associated with his drone campaign in the global war on terror. Hundreds of innocents have been killed thanks to Obama’s orders. These might be considered unintended consequences by the president and his co-conspirators, but when you pursue a policy knowing that it will inevitably kill—again and again—scores of innocents, it can no longer be considered unintentional. It is, rather, the price you are willing to pay—or more precisely, the price that you are more than willing to make others pay in the name of keeping America safe. Obama has also ordered the assassination of American citizens on his own (alleged) authority, converting himself into judge, jury, and executioner. Obama has deployed America’s war-making machine across the globe, perhaps most famously in Libya and now Syria and Iraq, without Constitutional mandate, a development that no doubt pleases theorists of the unitary executive such as John Yoo and Dick Cheney. Obama has presided over a stunning expansion of the national surveillance state and allowed his officials to lie about it to Congress without repercussion. He has dismissed the notion of Edward Snowden as a patriot and driven him into exile despite Snowden’s inestimable service to American democracy and the cause of freedom. This brutal treatment of an American citizen mimics Obama’s extreme and unprecedented pursuit of whistle blowers who reveal the security state’s criminal misdeeds against democracy—unless you happen to be a well-connected former general and a buddy of the president. The list of what Dyson euphemistically calls Obama’s “missteps and failures” could go on and on.


This is where we get to the heart of the difference between West and Dyson. West, according to Dyson, insists that he does “not respect the brother [Obama] at all.” This seems to be West’s way of saying that democratic politics, critical thinking, principled opposition, and unflinching resistance, if taken seriously, may entail difficult judgments that anger, antagonize, and alienate those subject to them. Dyson, on the other hand, continues to love and respect Obama, though it’s difficult to imagine what a convincing argument for respect from a critically-minded academic and ordained minister with commitments to democracy and life would look like at this point in Obama’s presidency.
It seems fitting, then, to ask Dyson if Obama could do anything to forfeit that respect. Obama once remarked in relation to the drone program he personally oversees that he is “really good at killing people.” He is not. Either way, Obama has much blood on his hands, much gratuitous blood, and much innocent blood. This does not necessarily make him unique among American presidents, but he is making his own distinct contributions to the exercise of sovereign violence, thereby exacerbating the practice. Democracy is Obama’s other great casualty. Again, this does not necessarily make him unique among American presidents, but he is making his own distinct contributions to subverting the Constitution, thereby unduly accelerating undemocratic trajectories. Republicans would no doubt be even more extreme, but it is this dismal record that has led West to wage an unrelenting public campaign of political criticism against the president of the United States. Dyson, however, prefers to pillory West for being a “freelancing, itinerant, nonordained, self-anointed prophet [who] has only to answer to himself.” For these characteristics of West I am profoundly grateful and give thanks. The world needs more freelance intellectuals on the left, not fewer—which is why Michael Eric Dyson would like to discredit and marginalize one of the more prominent ones we have.


Nevertheless, while West excels at revealing democracy’s inherent relationship to and reliance on violence in many forms, the nonviolent resistance he offers in response may no longer suffice on its own. It may be time for democratic activists to rethink their relationship to violence in the name of the democracy being destroyed right in front of us. This, too, has been part of the democratic tradition (though here Dyson and West might prefer to jointly disavow it).


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