Friday, April 24, 2015

What is at stake in arguing about Cornel West?

Cornel West, in response to some infamous criticism from Michael Eric Dyson, has insisted that we should "focus on what really matters: the issues, policies and realities that affect precious everyday people catching hell and how we can resist the lies and crimes of the status quo!"

On its face, this is just an uncontroversial call for setting priorities. And when he specifies those priorities, the New Republic's Heer Jeet declares them "worthy" - West wants us to focus on "police murders, poverty, mass incarceration, drones, TPP (unjust trade policies), vast surveillance, decrepit schools, unemployment, Wall Street power, Israeli occupation of Palestinians, Dalit resistance in India, and ecological catastrophe".

So what, exactly, is Jeet objecting to?

In a brief post this morning, Jeet argues against the ethic of "actionism", which insists that "it’s never a good time to think and argue, since the world is always full of evils that need to be protested." Fair enough - but inexplicably, Jeet seems to think this point stands as an indictment of West.

I have no idea how he gets there. West writes that "the marvelous new militancy in our Ferguson moment should compel us to focus on what really matters" - and Jeet reads this as a call to actionism. This is the only point of contact his argument makes with West's post - but if this is the foundation of his entire critique, it is not particularly sound. Cannot a focus on Ferguson entail thought and argument?

The objection here seems to have less to do with actionism, and more to do with priority. Jeet sees Dyson's piece as an "intellectual critique" that deserves our attention, even if it happens to be "bitter and personal". That is debatable - but even if we happen to agree with Dyson, we can maintain that his criticism of West is less urgent, less consequential, and less worthy of our focus than what's going on in Ferguson.

That is clearly West's position, and it strikes me as pretty defensible. It is in any case hardly an instance of actionism - unless the only issues that count are the ones that Dyson wants us to debate.