Obama/West Relationship Status Update: ‘It’s Complicated’

Cornel West feels jilted. In an article on him at Truthdig, Princeton’s Professor of African-American Studies and Religion criticizes President Obama for being ungrateful for West’s service to his campaign.

Much of the article reads like post-breakup grumblings. West describes how Obama never calls him back, “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.”

Most interesting are West’s criticisms of Obama’s presidency. Like many former supporters, Professor West feels betrayed by Obama’s “same as the old boss” policies. In order to explain this, West engages in the quixotic pursuit of pathologizing President Obama. As Ilya Somin and Jonah Goldberg point out, this is oddly reminiscent of Dinesh D’Souza’s recent book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, and equally confusing. Run-of-the-mill liberal policies from a liberal president don’t need extensive and convoluted explanations.

Pathologizing political opponents is a difficult and largely self-serving task. Although there are many reasons we believe what we do, it does healthy intellectual discourse a disservice to classify opponents rather than try to refute them. Honest disagreements should not be relegated to the pages of the DSM-IV. Usually, this strategy only helps you feel better about your beliefs. While you have reason and arguments supporting your beliefs, all your opponent has is a long line of racial confusion and societal pressures.

According to West, President Obama (“my brother Barack Obama”) “has a certain fear of free black men” caused by his mixed-race background that has made him always “fear being a white man with black skin.” Obama comes from “Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive.” Thus, “he has a certain rootlessness, a deracination.”

As Gene Healy has consistently pointed out, President Obama needs no explanation. In the era of the imperial presidency we have presidents who become imperious. Big surprise. What does need an explanation, however, is why Cornel West, an unquestionably intelligent man, still finds this surprising.

Or perhaps he doesn’t. The most striking thing said by West in the article is this: “The tea party folk are right when they say the government is corrupt. It is corrupt. Big business and banks have taken over government and corrupted it in deep ways.” Now, I don’t expect to see Professor West at Glenn Beck rallies, but maybe his disappointment in Obama will lead him to stop believing that the problems with government are personal rather than institutional—that is, that government can be fixed if we just put the right people in office.

Or maybe he’ll just support the next candidate who returns his phone calls.