I just finished reading Princeton academic Cornel West’s diatribe against Barack Obama, in which West complains that “my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men” and calls Obama “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”
West frames his disenchantment in terms of class struggle, and argues that Obama has chosen the wrong side, selling out less fortunate Americans in return for the favor of the powerful.
“The escalation of the class war against the poor and the working class is intense,” West writes. “More and more working people are beaten down. They are world-weary. They are into self-medication. They are turning on each other. They are scapegoating the most vulnerable rather than confronting the most powerful.”
“When you look at a society you look at it through the lens of the least of these, the weak and the vulnerable; you are committed to loving them first, not exclusively, but first, and therefore giving them priority,” West writes.
Many on the left do criticize Obama for being too mainstream and insufficiently aggressive on behalf of those less fortunate. While that debate is legitimate, I think those who make such claims are for the most part politically naive about Obama himself and about the political environment in which he operates. But again, it is a legitimate topic of discussion. The issue of whether Obama has been too gentle with Wall Street and its supporters is particularly pertinent, given their role in creating our current predicament.
But West does not discuss it legitimately.
In West’s account, Obama has sided with the rich and powerful in part because he “feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want.” But as in most rants, this one includes a tell, an unwitting revelation of its deeper motivation.
“I used to call my dear brother [Obama] every two weeks. I said a prayer on the phone for him, especially before a debate. And I never got a call back. And when I ran into him in the state Capitol in South Carolina when I was down there campaigning for him he was very kind. The first thing he told me was, ‘Brother West, I feel so bad. I haven’t called you back. You been calling me so much. You been giving me so much love, so much support and what have you.’ And I said, ‘I know you’re busy.’ But then a month and half later I would run into other people on the campaign and he’s calling them all the time. I said, wow, this is kind of strange. He doesn’t have time, even two seconds, to say thank you or I’m glad you’re pulling for me and praying for me, but he’s calling these other people. I said, this is very interesting. And then as it turns out with the inauguration I couldn’t get a ticket with my mother and my brother. I said this is very strange. We drive into the hotel and the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel has a ticket to the inauguration. My mom says, ‘That’s something that this dear brother can get a ticket and you can’t get one, honey, all the work you did for him from Iowa.’ Beginning in Iowa to Ohio. We had to watch the thing in the hotel.”
When you committed to “look at a society … through the lens of the least of these, the weak and the vulnerable,” when “you are committed to loving them first … and therefore giving them priority,” you do not whine that the lowly person picking up your bags for you in your very expensive DC hotel somehow wrangled a ticket to the inauguration, while you, the very well-paid Ivy League academic and cultural star who walks among the elite, did not. You cannot attack another for seeking the trappings of power while complaining that you yourself were not supplied the trappings to which you feel yourself entitled.
Or if you do, you give the game away.
As Adam Serwer points out in The American Prospect, West also claims the self-anointed power to confirm or withdraw Obama’s standing as an authentic black man. West withdraws it on the basis of Obama’s ability to feel “at home” “with upper middle-class white and Jewish men” while allegedly harboring “fear of free black men.”
“This remark made me wonder: Which of these men do you think is actually free, and which afraid of who he truly is?”
– Jay Bookman