“This discussion is in no way about me, it has to do with poor and working people having low priority in US governmental policy including the Obama Administration. My personal words had to do with being disrespected by the President. People are disrespected every day, and they can raise their voices in response to it.” A tweet from Dr. Cornell West aka “Professor Longhair”
Reflections on the Rejected Lover Syndrome
The brouhaha in the black community sparked by Princeton religion Professor Cornell West’s increasingly tasteless and personal attacks on President Obama has all the elements of what my grandmother used to call “A big nigger mess!” The distinguished novelist and Syracuse University Professor Arthur Flowers offers an observation that is perplexing many thoughtful African Americans all over the country – the present writer included. ‘It boggles the mind that Cornell West does not understand the destructive role he is playing,” says Professor Flowers” Nathan Hare, a San Francisco Psychologist who holds PhD’s in psychology and sociology had this to say:
“Cornel appeared to have some ambition to play a role in the 2008 election, probably with Hillary Clinton, or a run on his own. He’s never forgiven Obama since day one. Many years ago a brother, taking the words out of my mouth, wrote that Cornel is ‘one thousand miles wide and one inch deep.’ When you can bounce up and down the Ivy League because your university president called you in and suggested you do some scholarship for a change, you are not a big bad Marxist revolutionary so much as a bonafide member of what they used to call “the niggerati;” a term invented by the iconoclastic Florida writer Zora Neale Hurston to describe certain literary poseurs during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s .
Michel Wallace, a best-selling author and professor in the City University of New York, recently remarked after the Hip Hop philosopher held forth on her campus: “He seems to be living in a different world from the rest of us.” Well…if you compare Princeton to Harlem – one of the whitest and the blackest towns in America – plus the praises and riches showered on Fess Longhair by the white cultural establishment, he is indeed living in a different world from the rest of us!
There is a special irony about this because his relevance as an intellectual is his role as interpreter of the souls of black folks and proctor of our spiritual strivings for white folks. But the fact that he is so alienated from the feelings of the black majority means that his white sponsors are getting a flawed message from their chosen messenger.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the recent panegyric to Fess Longhair written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and celebrated tribune of the white left Chris Hedges. So heroic is West’s stature in the estimation of Hedges – whom I regard as one of hysterics of the left – that he feels compelled to cast him in a Shakespearean Dramatis Personae. Hence the praise song begins with the following hyperbole:
“The moral philosopher Cornell West, if Barack Obama’s ascent to power was a morality play, would be the voice of conscience. Rahm Emanuel, a cynical product of the Chicago political machine, would be Satan. Emanuel in the first scene of the play would dangle power, privilege, fame and money before Obama. West would warn Obama that the quality of a life is defined by its moral commitment, that his legacy will be determined by his willingness to defy the cruel assault by the corporate state and the financial elite against the poor and working men and women, and that justice must never be sacrificed on the altar of power.
Perhaps there was never much of a struggle in Obama’s heart. Perhaps West only provided a moral veneer. Perhaps the dark heart of Emanuel was always the dark heart of Obama. Only Obama knows. But we know how the play ends. West is banished like honest Kent in “King Lear.”
Methinks, however, that our Shakespeare aficionado is not as clever as he fancies himself. He has chosen the wrong play. For as The Bard pointed out: “The play is the thing!” In this case “Othello” is a more fitting vehicle for exploring the character and motivations of the actors in this modern political drama, and telling lines from Macbeth offers the best assessment of both the object of his veneration and the scribe’s pious prattle. I would cast Barack and Cornell in the roles of Othello, the Nobel Moor, and Iago: the scheming, deceitful, treacherous, charlatan.
For quite a while it was conventional wisdom among white male drama critics, who didn’t want to deal with the questions of sex and race that supply the dramatic force of the play, that Iago is driven by “A motiveless malignancy,” as one 19th century British critic elegantly put it. However we are left with no explanation of Iago’s devious behavior toward Othello as he engineers his destruction.
But upon a close reading of the text for a weighty essay interrogating the meaning of the complex color symbolism in the Bard’s work – “Did Shakespeare Intend Othello to be Black? A Meditation on Blacks and the Bard” – I found ample evidence that Iago’s treachery was motivated by thwarted professional ambitions and personal envy of Othello’s position, covetousness of Othello’s beautiful wife and disdain for his racial background. In rereading the play I find that these lines by Iago in the opening scene of Othello could have been uttered by Cornell in regard to Barack.
“In personal suit to make me his lieutenant/ Off-capp’d to him: and, by the faith of man, I know my price, I am worth no worse a place: But he, as loving his own pride and purposes…Nonsuits my mediators; for, ‘Certs’ says he, ‘I have already chose my officer.’ And what was he? Forsooth, a great arithmetician, One Michael Cassio, a Florentine” Offended by what he considers the great injustice of having been overlooked by Othello in favor of a man he considers inferior in qualifications and character to himself Iago asks Rodrigo: “Now, sir, am I affined to love the Moor?”
Then Iago plots his revenge upon Othello for what he regards as an egregious slight. “I follow him to serve my turn upon him: We cannot all be masters, nor all masters cannot be truly followed…Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago; In following him I follow but myself; Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty, but seeming so, for my peculiar end…I am not what I am.”
Based on his actions, it looks like our poot-butt philosopher Fess Longhair had the same plan. He certainly has expressed the same grievances. In fact he sounds like nothing so much as a rejected lover as he tells Chris Hedges:
“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.”
The hurt and disappointment in West’s voice is palpable, he sounds as if he thinks Barack has been two timing him!
Yet this is not the end of Fess Longhairs complaints against the President. He prattles on, shamelessly spilling his guts and airing dirty laundry.
“And then as it turns out with the inauguration,” he continues, “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.”
If this story is true, it raises more questions about Cornell West than President Obama. The most important question is why did West show up at the inaugural Ball without an invitation in the first place? What does that say about his sense of entitlement? After all, I know several people who attended the inauguration, and they all had their invitations well in hand before they ever set out for the capitol. For instance, my boyhood friend Erroll Jones, the only black elected official in my home town, who is forced to run as a Republican, openly worked for Barack and was rewarded with an invite. I crashed at his crib while he was cavorting about Washington.
Commissioner Erroll Jones and President Obama
Homeboy got his invite…whassup wit Fess?
One is forced to wonder if Fess’ mother really talks the way he quotes her, referring to a chauffeur as “that dear brother.” That’s the way Fess talks, but its part of his act; I have a hard time believing that his mother actually talks that way. This may seem like a picayune point, but I make it in order to suggest that there is artifice in his telling of this tale of woe. And if so, it begs the question as to how much more of his story is contrived?
Since there is no way to tell, it cast suspicion over the veracity of the entire episode, and the cautious observer must view all else he has to say about the President in matters of politics and policy with a jaundiced eye. Personally, as one who has studied and analyzed all the President’s major moves in 200 essays I feel as competent to assess what he is about as anybody…including Fess Longhair.
My assessment of Barack Obama’s accomplishments during his tenure in the Oval are succinctly stated in the essay “Civilization or Savagery” on this blog. Suffice it to say that when I weigh the President’s accomplishments against the racism and resistance of the Republican opposition – who have come very close treason – I give Barack an “A.”
Hence when I read Fess Longhair’s vulgar and superficial diatribes posing as serious intellectual analysis, it is hard not to conclude that they were authored by an ignoramus, a charlatan, or a hopelessly misguided ideologue! Consider this recent public temper tantrum.
“And even at this moment, when the empire is in deep decline, the culture is in deep decay, the political system is broken, where nearly everyone is up for sale, you say all I have is the subversive memory of those who came before, personal integrity, trying to live a decent life, and a willingness to live and die for the love of folk who are catching hell. This means civil disobedience, going to jail, supporting progressive forums of social unrest if they in fact awaken the conscience, whatever conscience is left, of the nation. And that’s where I find myself now.”
Not content with this dramatic baring of his soul, Fess prattles on: “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… 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.”
It is instructive to note here, that the United Auto Workers, the most powerful independent organization in the world representing working people, recently gave the President high marks at their national convention! Which casts Fess Longhair in the role of “the stranger who comes to the funeral and cries louder than the bereaved family;” a joker our wise Ibo ancestors warned us to beware of. Yet is is characteristic of Fess Longhair to think him self as more royal than the King.
Since Dr. West poses as a philosopher from time to time, when he is not making a rap album or playing at politics, I assume that he is familiar with the work of Professor Harry G. Franks, who is in the philosophy department right there at Princeton. If so he will recognize the title of Dr. Frank’s book, although I doubt that he would have read it because he is afraid that he may bump into himself in the pages.
For the book’s title and subject matter identifies Fess Longhair’s critique of the President perfectly: “Bullshit” Shakespeare also has more to teach us about the poot-butt Professor’s complaint about being ignored by the President even as he sought the advice of the the great “aritmatician” Laurence Summers, the renowned economist and the former Harvard President who had called Fess on the carpet for academic malingering!
However this time the words of Iago describe Fess himself, especially in his role as leader of a radical movement posing an alternative to the politics and policies of Barack Obama – a role for which he has demonstrated himself to be unsuited. What Iyago says of Cassio is also true of Cornel, a great pretender: “That never set a squadron in the field, Nor the division of a battle knows/ More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric…mere prattle without practice.”
These lines from Macbeth brilliantly sums up the place of the Poot-butt Professor in the sweep of history, notwithstanding his ability to bogart his way into the national conversation through bombast and base pretense, compared to the monumental achievements of Barack Obama he is, “but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage / and then is heard no more.” As for the panegyrics of Chris Hedges, and other white leftist intellectuals, ‘it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
*** My analytical essay on Shakespeare can be found in the anthology “Othello: New Essays by Black Writers,” edited by Dr. Mathili Kaul, former President of the Shakespeare Society of Cambridge England. Professor and Chair, Department of English, University of New Deli, India. Published by Howard University Press.
Harlem, New York
May 22, 2011