If you’ve been watching the recent controversy over Cornel West’s statements that Obama is “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats,” among other things, you have been witnessing an interesting phenomenon. What you are seeing – perhaps most prominently from West’s Princeton colleague Melissa Harris-Perry, although certainly extending to other sycophantic academics and corporate commentators craving to be seen as the most centrist – is the use of a familiar tool of those who hold the power in our country.
Cornel West is being marginalized. I obviously can’t say whether this is because there is some nefarious plot to do so or whether he offended too many narrow-minded, vindictive people’s delicate sensibilities or if there is some other explanation, but the same is occurring to him that has happened to so many American political, intellectual, and even entertainment figures. Once you venture outside the realm of comfortable, acceptable, Democrat vs. Republican politics, you’ve gone too far!
The best example I’ve seen so far during this most recent controversy, is Joan Walsh’s piece on Salon.com. Walsh characterizes West’s “meltdown” as “tragic.”Â Apparently, if you don’t agree with Joan Walsh – even if you have a long history as a talented speaker and activist and Ivy League professor – you have gone insane. Walsh then goes on to temper her insulting and pedantic critique of West with the most milquetoast critique of Obama that could possibly be written by a human. “I’m on record saying that despite my disappointments on the economic and civil liberties front, I support Obama’s reelection,” she writes. And that’s all you need to know. Either Walsh cannot credibly be called a progressive since she supports corporatist Obama or progressives as a group have lost any credibility they once had. In addition, her critical judgment has clearly been suspended in favor of worship at the altar of elections, Democrats, and the presidency. And if anything other than those topics, if any idea relating to politics that shows some honesty and complexity, is brought up, the person bringing it up is crazy in the eyes of small-minded pundits like Joan Walsh.
Now I’m going on a bit of a tangent, but if I weren’t borrowing a family member’s computer, I would be vomiting on the screen after reading what Joan Walsh wrote. She seems to be the archetypal “progressive” Democratic pundit. Avoid uncomfortable tensions (like real racial issues), always remain loyal to the Democratic Party (especially while it betrays you), focus on trivialities rather than the meaningful message of what you’re criticizing, and never EVER rock the boat (“This is the discussion we’re supposed to be having,” Walsh wrote in a typically Democratic authoritarian fashion about a more mild criticism of Obama). The truth is that, given his harsh criticism of Obama, there’s little to nothing Cornel West could have done to soften the blow of it for people like Joan Walsh and Melissa Harris-Perry. West is being criticized not for the racial aspects of what he said – which are in fact much more complex than he is being given credit for, while avoiding these issues as Joan Walsh does only serves to exacerbate them – but because he dared to show some backbone in standing up for his principles.
This is but one tile in a grand mural of political demonization directed at anyone with slightly original ideas in politics. If you are a prominent American and you voice an opinion beyond what is deemed acceptable (or, and this is very much the same thing, you challenge the two party system or the way it shapes our collective political consciousness), you’re marginalized and shut out of the mainstream debate. Noam Chomsky has not only explained this countless times, he has been an example of it countless times. Ward Churchill lost his job as a professor for saying something unpopular. If you haven’t heard of Roseanne Barr’s new book “Roseannarchy,” ask yourself whether that would still be true if it had been a noncontroversial book about her television career. Ralph Nader has become the pariah of the American left – even though his positive accomplishments probably surpass any modern president – because he directly challenged the ideology of the two party system. Even the one hero of the left whom no one can say anything against today, Martin Luther King, was marginalized in a similar fashion when he started focusing on poor people and Vietnam.
This marginalization plays very much into the hands of those in power. It keeps new, exciting ideas that challenge their systems of power out of the national political debate, thereby limiting peoples’ political thinking, philosophy, and subsequent actions. We are trained to think that the answer is either a Democrat or Republican. If someone challenges that with support for a third party or the radical idea that elections aren’t everything, they are shut out of the mainstream media’s dialogue so that its initial flawed assumptions – which, needless to say, always help the corporate power elite – are never criticized in a meaningful way on a large enough stage to really matter.
This has happened so many times before. Now, perhaps we can only stand up as individuals for Cornel West and hope that these stupid charades will be seen for what they are.
Great piece, Ross. West has been ratcheting up the rhetoric since at least late last year, when he started openly talking positively about third party and independence activism, in a number of interviews, one with Democracy Now.
The Koslings are quite grumpy about Ross’s post (he cross-posted it there.)