It is easy to dismiss the feuds of intellectuals as a sort of high-brow theater, a diversionary amusement for the literati. But often, these feuds are revelatory, uncovering deep pathologies affecting not only the participants, but also their communities.
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- 'Good Jew' or 'Bad Jew'? How U.S. Progressive Activists Police Jewish Participation
Cornel West’s recent assault on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates offers precisely such an opportunity for revelations. Chief among them is the rather bizarre manner in which certain social movements see Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
A national correspondent for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates is the single most prominent expositor about the black experience in America today. He writes with passion, lyricism and a searing immediacy that commands empathy - and often from white readers, guilt. He has won widespread plaudits from the literary community, including a MacArthur fellowship and a National Book Award.
He is not, however, a philosopher. And while some of Coates’ past work demonstrates his clear talent for intellectual history, his recent writing is far more visceral. It is also dark and hopeless.
For Coates, the American dream always rests on the bodies of black Americans. A common thread unites our America’s history of slavery, neighborhood redlining, forceful policing and the election of Donald Trump. White supremacy is not just our original sin; it’s also our destiny.
Harvard professor Cornel West is cut from different cloth. Theatrical and mercurial, the self-described prophet has danced between elite universities, and across our TV screens, for decades. His academic writing is as obscure as Coates’ prose is accessible.
Whereas Coates expresses frequent discomfort with his role as a spokesman for African Americans, West delights in a persona that is part preacher, part entertainer. And in his history of scathing attacks on prominent black American intellectuals and leaders - from Michael Dyson to Barack Obama - critics see jealousy, pettiness and vindictiveness.
Last week, West made Coates his latest target. In a short essay in The Guardian, West charged Coates with "narrow racial tribalism and myopic political neoliberalism," as well as a "preoccupation with white acceptance."
Initially, Coates sought to respond on Twitter. But as criticism swirled, he lost patience. When neo-Nazi white nationalist Richard Spencer endorsed West's criticism Coates declared that he "didn’t get in it for this," deleted his account and went silent.
Part of West’s critique is substantive: West suggests that Coates’ pessimism, and his positive reception by white liberals, is a product of his exclusive focus on race. Indeed, if white supremacy is the irreducible core underlying the predicament of black folk today, then there is nothing to be done. We can feel anger or guilt, but as racial oppression is inevitable, we are absolved of the need to actually change things.
West, by contrast, insists that racial inequality, and even racial hatred, is the product of deeper, economic, forces. But someday a coalition of the disempowered will eventually overthrow global capitalism. The prospect of such a revolution offers the hope that Coates denies. It also represents a threat of systematic change which, West posits, Coates’ white fans are desperate to avoid.
People of good faith can debate the merits of this critique. (Personally, it seems to me that Coates’ readers prefer him to West because he is the far better writer.) But wrapped within the substantive criticism is something sinister.
West does not simply charge Coates with mistaken analysis; he suggests that Coates has been bought. West denounces the "marketing of Coates," and warns against his "profiteering [in] fatalism about white supremacy." Worse, West concludes that Coates "reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people."
Conscious or not, there is a dangerous subtext here. West looks at Coates and sees a black intellectual in the pay of whites. And not just any whites.
The Atlantic is edited by Jeffrey Goldberg, who is both Jewish and literary journalism’s leading analyst of Israel. For West, it is unimaginable that Coates’ focus on the African American experience, and his lack of interest in writing about a minor conflict 7,000 miles away, might be genuine. No, it can only be explained by the prospect of Jews pulling capitalist strings in the background.
Unfortunately, the problems don’t end here. West’s essay preaches concern with the widest range of progressive causes. He condemns Coates’ indifference to "the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality" and the "realities of class, empire, and other forms of domination – be it ecological, sexual, or others."
The essay is barely 1000 words. Yet, remarkably, only one case of domination merits repeated mention: Israel and the Palestinians.
To be sure, individuals are entitled to their pet causes. I tend to turn to coverage of the Middle East with more interest than that of the Balkans. And West has long cared deeply about Palestinian suffering.
But here, West does not simply treat the Palestinians as the focus of his particular concern. Indeed, he uses the Palestinians to critique Coates' parochialism. West transforms the Palestinians into the ultimate victim of American capitalism and violence.
This is mind-boggling. If we are seeking victims of American greed and military might, the Palestinians don’t even merit making the list. West might have focused on the suffering of the Syrian, Iraqi or Libyan people, all of whom have actually experienced American war-making over the last few years. The Palestinians, of course, have not.
Moreover, it is America’s involvement in these other countries - and its ongoing support for the bloody Saudi campaign in Yemen - that are arguably attributable to some financial interest. By contrast, capitalism is just about the weakest possible explanation for ongoing American support for Israel. Saudi Arabia has oil; Israel has none. For good or ill, then, it is cultural and emotional ties that explain American support for Israel’s operations against Hamas and Hezbollah.
But most remarkable is how unremarkable West’s fetishization of Palestinian suffering has become.
Despite the volumes of commentary written about the West-Coates affair, it seems no one thought twice about West’s bizarre insistence on inserting the Palestinian issue into discussion of race in America. Coates certainly has his defenders - most of whom are primarily concerned with defending his intersectional bona fides. Today, then, it is taken in stride that, if one hopes to avoid charges of parochialism, one cannot write about the African American experience without drawing a connection to Israel-Palestine.
But in making condemnation of Israel a litmus test for one’s own universalism, West is playing with old and deadly fire. Such tests have a history. From St Paul to Bruno Bauer, anti-Semitism has drawn its power from an image of the Jewish people as the singular symbolic enemy of universalism. West’s critique falls squarely within that tradition.
Of course, the sordid history of anti-Semitism must not inoculate Israel from criticism. But it is not West’s criticism of Israel that is the problem. It is, rather, his invocation of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians as the ultimate symbol of the world’s single, great evil: capitalist empire. And it is his insistence - in the context of a totally unrelated debate - that a failure to pay proper lip service to that symbol betrays moral parochialism.
Cornel West sees Zionist puppet-masters controlling those with whom he disagrees, and Israel as the primary threat to our common humanity. It seems then that Cornel West has a Jewish problem.
Importantly, this does not mean that West hates Jews; indeed, I think that unlikely. But his essay reveals dangerous predilections. And as Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, "Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others."
West, and those that follow him, would do well to read these words closely.