SAN DIEGO -- - Who's afraid of Cornel West and what he has to say about Barack Obama? Quite a few folks, writes Ruben Navarrette, Jr. for the San Francisco Chronical.
For the last few weeks, journalists, liberal bloggers and academics have been piling on the Princeton professor and best-selling author with one vicious attack after another. The gloves are off, and it's all because one of the country's most prominent African American intellectuals did the unthinkable: He criticized the nation's first black president.
In a recent interview with an online magazine, West called Obama a "black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats." He also went so far as to suggest that Obama "has a certain fear of free black men" because he grew up in "a white context."
Those are harsh words. But anyone who has followed West knows that belligerence is how he gets his point across. Besides, the lefties like it when West's barbs are aimed at Republicans. West campaigned on behalf of Obama during the 2008 campaign, racking up 65 dates for the Democratic candidate. For which, he received - nothing. Not even a thank you, according to West, who was upset that Obama stopped returning his calls and that he didn't get tickets to the inauguration.
West's critics chalk up his tirade against Obama to sour grapes. But there is much more to this story. In an appearance on MSNBC, West battled the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was pushing back in the other direction and defending Obama.
Only a few days earlier, the supposedly post-racial president had traveled to New York to pay homage to Sharpton by speaking at the national conference of his organization, the National Action Network. So Sharpton was clearly motivated to return the favor and show Obama some love. He vouched for the president's progressiveness and attacked his "ivory tower" critics. West responded by warning Sharpton that he was being "used" by the White House to squelch dissent. Tempers flared, and talking turned to shouting.
Oddly, the liberal establishment - especially the white liberal establishment - is too busy punishing West to heed what is a liberal message about Obama not being progressive enough or doing enough to serve the poor and downtrodden.
Obama partisans don't want to hear this. They're in re-election mode, and they're going to defend their man against all critics - even ones with whom they might agree. They know that West has influence with some African Americans. Obama supporters are not worried about losing the black vote to the Republican nominee; a recent Gallup poll found that 84 percent of blacks approved of Obama's overall job performance. But they might be worried that many black voters have lost enthusiasm for Obama and will sit out the election. If West says anything to help dampen that enthusiasm, then he has to be discredited - firmly and publicly.
The same thing happened last year to Tavis Smiley, who co-hosts a show with West on Public Radio International. During the debate over the jobs bill, Smiley bristled at the suggestion from establishment black leaders - including Sharpton - that Obama didn't need a "black agenda." Appearing on Tom Joyner's radio show, Smiley asked: "Do we think we can give President Obama a pass on black issues and somehow, when he is no longer in office, resurrect the moral authority to hold future presidents accountable to our concerns?" Sharpton called into the show to confront Smiley, and things got heated in a hurry.
The significance of these episodes goes well beyond the African American community. We all need to pay attention to better understand race and power in America.
We can also learn a lot about liberalism, which pretends to be all about freedom. In the latter part of the 20th century, liberals fought and marched to give African Americans, Latinos and other minorities the freedom to attend public schools and universities, the freedom to protest and vote, and the freedom to have equal access to both public accommodations and private businesses. Somehow those liberals didn't get around to something that was equally important: giving African Americans and other minorities the freedom to think and speak for themselves.
Along with others in the black intelligentsia, Cornel West is doing that. You don't have to agree with him. But that's no excuse for trying to silence him.