Prof criticizing Obama shows own flaws

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Princeton University professor Cornel West had one of the most unintentionally funny lines in one of the worst movies of the last decade.

Playing a character called "Councilor West" in "The Matrix Reloaded," the professor/actor leaned forward to deliver a line so impenetrable in its pseudo-intellectual vagueness that it almost qualifies as profound: "Comprehension is not a requisite of cooperation."

The only thing missing was Cornel West's usual salutation: "My dear brother."

Filmmakers Andy and Laurence Wachowski are responsible for scripting that particular piece of bad dialogue. Mr. West has to take responsibility, however, for everything that has come out of his own mouth since the sequels to "The Matrix" wrapped.

Mr. West, it is fair to say, has been nursing some anger at President Barack Obama ever since he was "stiffed" on inauguration tickets. Recently, he laid out a devastating critique of the president at a news commentary website, Truthdig, that veered from a reasonable attack on administration policies to blistering ad hominem:

"I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men," Mr. West told interviewer Chris Hedges. "It's understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he's always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation.

"When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening. And that's true for a white brother. ... Obama, coming out of Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folks who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable."

While I agree with much of Mr. West's criticism of the president's economic and foreign policies, calling Mr. Obama an inauthentic black man in the fanciest way possible amounts to a schoolyard taunt, not a serious argument.

When Philly boxer Bernard Hopkins compared Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb to a "house slave" because he came from a stable home and had a decent education, it was a lowbrow version of Mr. West's argument.

Mr. Hopkins insists that authentic blackness is in direct proportion to the pathology one has experienced in life. Only the "field slaves" are in a position to pronounce who is really black and who isn't.

It doesn't surprise us when a guy who gets hit in the head for a living says something like this. It's shocking when the author of more than a dozen very erudite books on philosophy and religion sinks to that level. What are we supposed to imagine Mr. West means when he insists that the president is afraid of "free black men"?

Among black intellectuals responding to the dust-up, Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry, a former colleague of Mr. West's at Princeton, had the best response to Mr. West's charges that Mr. Obama isn't "black enough" to get the job done:

"This comment is utter hilarity coming from Cornel West, who has spent the bulk of his adulthood living in those deeply rooted, culturally rich, historically important black communities of Cambridge, MA and Princeton, NJ," she wrote in a passage dripping with sarcasm.

"And it is hard to see his claim that Obama is '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' as anything other than a classic projection of his own comfortably ensconced life at Harvard and Princeton. [These schools] are not places that are particularly noted for their liberating history for black men," Ms. Harris-Perry wrote.

In the Truthdig interview, Mr. West described the man he spent 65 days campaigning for as "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it."

Mr. West doesn't give the president a lot of wiggle room to take him seriously after those kinds of broadsides. Mr. Obama would have to be the world's biggest chump to engage in any kind of dialogue with a university professor who publicly called him a "black mascot" and a "puppet."

Whoever said familiarity breeds contempt knew what they were talking about.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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