Wednesday, May 18, 2011

West of the moon, east of common sense

By Zandar

(Ed. note: I'd like to welcome a new contributor to The Reaction, Zandar of Zandar Versus The Stupid. I came across his blog a while back, during one of my stints doing the round-up at Crooks and Liars, and instantly became a huge fan. He's a fantastic writer who provides incisive analysis, and he'll now be bringing his formidable blogging talent to our team -- and it's an honour to have him here with us. So I hope you keep checking back for his posts, along with all of our posts (of course), but, if you aren't already familiar with him, so check out his blog and become a regular reader. You'll love it. And now read on and enjoy his first post here, on Hedges, West, and Obama. -- MJWS)

Via Jon Pitts-Wiley at Jack and Jill Politics, a not-so-gentle reminder than not everybody who suffers from Obama Derangement Syndrome is A) a Republican or B) white. 

No one grasps this tragic descent better than West, who did 65 campaign events for Obama, believed in the potential for change and was encouraged by the populist rhetoric of the Obama campaign. He now nurses, like many others who placed their faith in Obama, the anguish of the deceived, manipulated and betrayed. He bitterly describes Obama as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.”

That's Truthdig's Chris Hedges -- not President Obama's biggest fan by a long shot -- covering Princeton professor Cornel West there, in one of the nastiest pieces of firebagging I've read in some time. The piece is mainly about Cornel West's phone calls not being returned and his hurt feelings, but with Chris Hedges driving the narrative it becomes a massive airing of the grievances at Festivus.

Take this passage:

"I was thinking maybe he has at least some progressive populist instincts that could become more manifest after the cautious policies of being a senator and working with [Sen. Joe] Lieberman as his mentor," he says. "But it became very clear when I looked at the neoliberal economic team. The first announcement of Summers and Geithner I went ballistic. I said, 'Oh, my God, I have really been misled at a very deep level.' And the same is true for Dennis Ross and the other neo-imperial elites. I said, 'I have been thoroughly misled, all this populist language is just a facade.' I was under the impression that he might bring in the voices of brother Joseph Stiglitz and brother Paul Krugman. I figured, OK, given the structure of constraints of the capitalist democratic procedure that’s probably the best he could do. But at least he would have some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running amuck. I was completely wrong."

Now I've made the exact same point about Geithner. I do not, however, find it to be a deeply personal betrayal. I also pointed out that the kind of folks that Republicans put forth to replace Geithner were a lot worse.  It is in fact possible to criticize the President. I did so on many of his economic, civil liberties, and military policies. I still have a number of issues with the President.

But what West and Hedges are doing is making it personal, and that's just not objective. Melissa Harris-Perry has even less tolerance for this nonsense than I do.

I have many criticisms of the Obama administration. I wrote angrily about his choice of Rick Warren to deliver a prayer at the inauguration. I have spoken on television about my disagreement with drone attacks in Pakistan and been critical of the administration's initial choice to prosecute DADT cases. I worked for more progressive health care reform legislation and supported organizations that resisted the reproductive rights "compromises" in the bill. I've been scathing in public remarks and writings about the President’s education policy. My husband leads a non-profit that is suing HUD for its implementation of a discriminatory formula in the post-Katrina Road Home program. The president has never called me. I got my ticket to the inauguration from Canada! (Because Canadian Broadcast Television who gave me a chance to narrate the day's events.) But I can tell the difference between a substantive criticism and a personal attack. It is clear to me that West's ego, not the health of American democracy, is the wounded creature in this story.

And I have to agree with that wholeheartedly. The real issue is how the "principled opposition" to Obama from the left always seems to devolve from pointed criticism of the President to hysterical pyramids of straw men set on fire to glorify and justify the people attacking him from the left. It becomes the raison d'être rather than the objective viewpoint, and much of that comes from the fact the Village exists to feed on things like this. Best way to get attention as a liberal? Attack Obama from the left. A whole number of folks have staked out this territory in the last two years or so. Cornel West is just the latest but by no means is he the sole offender here.

When the "valid criticism" of the President becomes a vehicle for your own self-advancement, it ceases being valid and starts being dangerous and detrimental. If you're going to come at Obama because of policy differences, that's one thing. If you're doing it to get shiny views and TV time in order to remain relevant, then it's your problem, not Obama's.

Some folks need to do some serious soul searching, and do it quickly. The alternative to Obama is far, far worse. But I'd be remiss if I let this passage go without a fight:

"I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men," West says. "It's understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he's always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening."

As a mixed-race person here, West's accusation involving Obama being afraid of being viewed as a "white man in black skin" is so far beneath both rational discourse as a tenured Ivy League professor and beneath contempt in pretty much any other context that I'm actually somewhat horrified that anyone would actually say that outside of David Duke. Trying to make your bones off of painting Obama as "not black enough" is just as repugnant as having a problem with him being black, and in many ways it's worse. How is that in any way germane to the discussions of his policy or the realpolitik of Washington in 2011?

This is the kind of truly damaging idiocy that will end up doing more to deliver votes into the hands of the Republicans and depress turnout among blacks than anything Newt Gingrich or Tom Coburn or Ron Paul could utter, and it's this line-obliterating nonsense that goes well beyond the realm of valid criticism of Obama and straight into Obama Derangement Syndrome territory.

And that brings us to the most maddening, frustrating, and depressing part: West does have some valid points. Obama has made some bad decisions on his economic team and economic policy that favored the wealthy over the rest of us, on continuing many of the more heinous Bush-era legal and civil liberties policies, and by not prosecuting the Wall Street offenders who decimated out economy.  But those points are hopelessly lost in the storm of his own desire to go after Obama for sleights both real and imagined, and the further rush to justify his position as morally correct.

There is a categorical difference between what West set out to do here (and what Hedges tries to assist him with) and what they actually end up doing, and it's an empirical example of how you can go way too far in the quest for ideological perfection at the expense of common friggin' sense.

(Cross-posted at Zandar Versus The Stupid.)

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