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Too Terrified to Enter an Arena of Ideas? The Debate Over Cornel West’s Critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Real ideas need confrontation, not polite discourse.

Dr. Cornel West speaks at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on April 3, 2009. (Photo: James Stewart)

When the history of resistance to oppression is written, it will be replete with the names of people who, at great personal cost, resolved to tell the truth.

It can be said without uncertainty that the Black community has produced some of the most pioneering minds for social justice and human dignity in the United States since its inception. Furnished and shaped by a need to survive the brutal transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow and any emerging terrors that awaited Black people in North America, Black politics came about both out of necessity and from a thorough imaginative process whereby hope, prayer and blood willed into existence new possibilities for Black life. This journey, however, has not come without internal feuds and public disagreements amongst its most prominent thinkers — Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Audre Lorde — and in fact, this dynamic has become a recurring theme and important feature of critical thought in the ongoing fight for Black liberation.

Today, we are in a special time in history where ideological differences are boldly held but rarely discussed. Anti-intellectualism, camouflaged with civility and politeness, has blocked the means to engage in critical debate. Contempt for the life of the mind and an obsession with comfort has made public discourse virtually impossible. And, with the avoidance of critical dialogue, we end up hiding the truth of our understanding from ourselves and each other, which may prove to be the greatest tragedy of all.

The moral growth of a country has been measured by its ability (or failure) to bring into civic consciousness the plight of the silenced, oppressed and unremembered.

The ideological battle between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West is the most recent example of how our society remains too terrified to enter the arena of ideas to sort out differences and push fellow contemporaries to think deeper about the implications of their work. Important disputes among public intellectuals, we are told by many in the movement, must be done in private. To many, it may seem that West’s target, in his article published by the Guardian, “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the Neoliberal Face of the Black Freedom Struggle,” is Coates himself, but upon closer inspection, and in context of West’s political trajectory for the last several decades, it’s evident that his real crosshairs are located squarely on the nucleus of neoliberalism.

Unfortunately, any attempt toward public discussion that involves a direct, ideological confrontation is quickly reinterpreted (mostly by liberals) as nefarious, disruptive and an attempt to self-righteously and selfishly reassert one’s self in the public sphere. And yet it is certain ideas going unchallenged that has led to this new era of neo-fascism and 21st century neoliberalism.

Ideas, however, don’t magically drop down from the sky. Instead, they are produced and reproduced by culture, systemic structures and people of great influence. Coates is a best-selling author who has on many occasions praised, with much adoration, Barack Obama, former commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military. West’s disagreements with Obama are well-known, and whatever the genealogical makeup of his antagonism, history has certainly offered evidence to suggest that West’s critique of the 44th president may have some merit.

For instance, Obama’s track record, especially in terms of his foreign policy, is clear. The Obama administration has substantially expanded drone warfare, deported more than 2.5 million immigrants, modernized the surveillance state and enriched multinational financial institutions in ways his predecessors could have only dreamed. He did all this with charismatic smiles and well-timed platitudes loaded with perfunctory, heartfelt promises of progress and diversity. Commemoration and alignment with Obama’s presidency through Coates’s recently published book, We Were Eight Years in Power, is to offer, at least implicitly, an apologia for the crimes committed on his behalf.

Neoliberals encourage the replacement of human values for market values.

Coates’s inability to mount a persistent, forceful critique of Obama is much of West’s gripe with the man who in 2015 became one of the recipients of the MacArthur “Genius Grant” award. The absence of analysis on gender, sexuality, class and the horrors of US imperialism suggests Coates’s politics travel no further than his own identity. It raises a fundamental question: Why is it suddenly permissible for the head of the US empire to bomb thousands of human beings across the globe just because, as Allan Boesak, author of Pharaohs on Both Sides of the Blood Red-Waters writes, “the pharaoh looks like us”?

The aftermath of West’s article (internet chatter and various hot takes) confirms a theory long suspected: Public intellectual life has yet to recover from the days of McCarthyism and COINTELPRO, and has atrophied to an almost non-existent reality. Historically, the moral growth of a country has been measured by its ability (or failure) to bring into civic consciousness the plight of the silenced, oppressed and unremembered. The raison d’être for the intellectual, as Edward Said puts it in his short book Representations of the Intellectual, is to “publicly … represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten and swept under the rug.”

Yet many of West’s detractors have rushed to Coates’s defense, saying that he is just a writer and never asked for the albatross of the public intellectual. While this may be true, when one is catapulted to the heights of public intellectual discourse, one must be mindful of the impact of one’s words and actions, or lack thereof. Useful here is Antonio Gramsci’s conception of the “organic intellectual,” a thought leader, a deputy of culture, an organizer of ideology who crafts and disseminates specific interests of a given sector in society — an emergent personification of class agency. That is to say, Coates cannot simply choose to speak for himself as a private individual. His words have consequences and he has, despite his attempts at abdication, been given the moral and political authority for formulating ideas that have real material impact on the dominant culture.

West also condemned Coates for a failure to categorically repudiate the financial oligarchy and the philosophy of late capitalism. This silence on capitalism may come from a refusal to acknowledge its devastating effects all around the world. Capitalism has left at its feet impoverished nations, perpetual war, mass wealth inequality and a global climate catastrophe that scientists now believe has led to an ongoing sixth mass extinction.

The latest flavor of capitalism is neoliberalism: an intense wave of economic policies, initiated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the ’80s, that is marked by deregulation of market economies; acceleration of free enterprise; weakening of trade unions; dismantling of the Keynesian state (income assistance, public housing, health care subsidies, etc.); expansion of the security state (military, prison and surveillance); and erosion of democratic processes and institutions. However, with this specific political-economic shift came a neoliberal ethos that ushered in a specific cultural formation and gave way for a new set of personal identities and behaviors.

At its core, neoliberalism is a celebration of the free market and a belief that it possesses in itself an elegant way to facilitate human progress. Neoliberals, although unknowingly, encourage the replacement of human values for market values, including individualism, wealth-accumulation and competition. For Black people, the civil rights movement and its integrationist strategies may have played a role in the embracement of such ideas from a society that not too long ago was heavily invested in the enslavement, and then later, legalized political and social exclusion of African-descended people. After all, with assimilation comes the adoption of cultural and structural values, the most noticeable of which — incessant consumerism and devout entrepreneurship — puts profits before people and individual comfort before social equity.

Neoliberalism, additionally, cultivates an obsession with commodities, productivity and disposability; consumerist logics that travel far beyond shopping centers and the workplace and find their way into personal relationships, how we craft our social circles and the way we assign value to our peers — appraisals that are often determined by income or expected earning potential. Human values of kindness, love, compassion and the need for communion with others are eventually reduced to mere afterthoughts in the wake of our market-driven culture. Could this be what West’s critique of Coates ultimately means? Is it possible that anyone who talks only of their oppression while simultaneously memorializing a centrist president — who embraced the ostensible virtues of business supremacy and worked to modernize warfare against Black and Brown bodies internationally — embodies a political individualism that cannot be separated from the neoliberal culture of the day?

No matter what speculations one can posit or ascertain as to West’s intentions for publishing the aforementioned article, it has undoubtedly unleashed a debate that needed to happen in the open. It has provided an opportunity for people to learn new vocabulary not yet firmly planted in the mainstream’s lexicon, and to challenge our politics and those of others in order to develop a shared, more far-reaching analysis. More personally, West comes from a long line of intellectuals from the African diaspora that took up the mantle of resistance, and he now hopes to secure its survival — and its integrity — in the coming generations. For the Black radical tradition is an unrestrained program that, once initiated, quickly moves past the confines of its own anatomy and seeks out international solidarity and commits itself to building a multi-identity, multi-issue social justice coalition for all those who are unjustly treated.

The path to building such a coalition is beset with numerous obstacles: fragmentation and isolation, enticement to hide in the dark shelter of pessimism and despair, or fall prey to the “nihilistic threat” as West himself describes it in his pivotal book, Race Matters. The intervention needed to overcome these obstacles, in this moral winter of rampant misogyny and growing neo-fascism, is a deliberate defiance of oppressive power structures and all their values. To these structures, unity is the most imminent threat; that if those alienated could join hands with people who do not look like them, people thousands of miles away, people with whom they will never break bread, whose names they will never know and whose families they will never meet but who share a deep, unassailable determination for a better world, they would have the power to bring about a radical transformation of society not in some dim, distant, unknowable future but in months, weeks or even in a matter of days.

Although many may consider West’s critique of Coates harsh, it is because West understands that the fight for justice is a rigorous one: It is to wholly reject the infection of violence and conformity, however contagious, and be forever committed to inserting the best of ourselves in every nook and cranny of our movement work, every book, every discussion, every thought, word and deed. Indeed, West believes that the stakes are too high and the moment too serious for such a talented writer like Coates to do any less. In this time of peril, we need all people of every race and creed, who are willing and able, to join in the fight for human freedom because, as Audre Lorde tell us, “Without community, there is no liberation.”

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