Monday, May 23, 2011

Cornel West and the Crisis in Black Leadership

Cornel West and the Crisis in Black Leadership

May 20, 2011
By Guest Contributor 
By Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou

The recent controversy ignited by Cornel West’s critique of President Barack Obama and subsequent critiques of Dr. West reveal a fundamental crisis in Black leadership. Traditionally, African American intellectuals and activists have encountered the office of the President as outsiders with a nuanced understanding and repertoire of tactics including electoral brokerage, inside strategy and social protest (organized and rhetorical).

These tactics have been executed against “The White Man.” The oppositional politic was the normative means of encountering the office of the Presidency and the deployment of fierce rhetoric was an accepted means of public engagement. Both the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama are a disruption of that rhetorical and tactical tradition. The African American tradition of speaking truth to power has been complicated because that power is now embodied by “A Black Man.”
This is a unique moment in American democracy. The white supremacist gaze in the United States demonized black bodies, subjected their intelligence and interrogated their national allegiance. Barack Obama’s winning campaign called into question these deep seated notions that shaped U.S. public policy and perceptions.

Hence, the Obama presidency is an electoral and existential victory. The way in which African American people make meaning for themselves inside the American empire has been recast. There is a widely accepted narrative about Obama’s election. While it is true that his presence in the White House is because of his intelligence, effective fundraising apparatus and sophisticated campaign machinery, the red carpets at the inaugural balls were soaked in the blood of martyrs.

The presidency of Barack Obama is a by-product of African Americans’ 400 years of struggle for access to the democratic project called America. The President has often located himself in that tradition and trajectory. He has strategically trafficked in the prophetic rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement and employed the homiletical rhythms of the Black Church. He has conveniently used these cultural signifiers in a way that is titillating to the national consciousness—linguistically embodying Black folks’ quest for a more democratic society.

Moreover, Black folks take great pride in the presence of three generations of African Americans in the White House. The real image of a beautiful Black family beaming into the homes of all Americans has a deep impact on the psyche of the nation, and a denigrated people. There is a collective desire on the part of Black America to protect and shield their existential idol-President Barack Hussein Obama. This is a new space in U.S. history—racial and collective national memory. The right wing backlash, contemptible treatment and flat out disrespect consistently directed at the President and First Lady only serve to reinforce this protective existential and racial logic.

However, there is a counterpoint to this protectionist logic. Based on the criterion set forth by the African American freedom struggle, there is an expectation beyond physical and psychic symbolism. Behind the ad hominem attacks, personal slights and blogosphere punditry, what is at stake in West’s complaint is this prophetic expectation—there must be public policy to reflect the very tradition that the President uses and benefited from in his rise to power. Is it inappropriate to have this expectation of the President Barack Obama? Is it appropriate for Black folks to levy a critique and action against a Black man in the White House? Or must Black leadership focus on defending the President from racist attacks?

The protectionist logic combined with the ultra conservative Republican Party has circumscribed the political vision of the vast majority of African Americans. The logic goes that criticism of the President is tantamount to supporting ultra conservative politics. Regardless of his legislative record, African Americans will vote for him in record numbers. This electoral allegiance is not a negotiating tool, but, rather, an existential duty. The protectionists cheapen any critical conversation about the President’s agenda. The only legitimate engagement is an insider strategy—access to the White House and supporting the administration’s agenda at all cost. Accordingly, organized and rhetorical protests are, vehemently, dismissed. In this formulation, the aforementioned questions and West’s lamentation remain unanswered.

The improvised electoral options guarantee that the President will not have to provide any substantive policy response to underemployment, unemployment, foreclosures, affordable healthcare, quality public education, expanding prison industrial complex and affordable housing—all of which affect African Americans, disproportionately. This makes him no different than any other president. Hence, he should be treated as such.

Every president since Abraham Lincoln has had to contend with an organized and rhetorical protest—the prophetic tradition. This tradition has always focused on the nation’s treatment of the most vulnerable citizens—the least of these. Under the prophetic gaze, politicians have either been celebrated or rebuked. Fredrick Douglass and the abolitionists supported the Underground Railroad and offered stern public rebukes of Abraham Lincoln for not ending slavery. A. Phillip Randolph and the broader labor movement marched and chastised Franklin D. Roosevelt until the creation of the New Deal. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement pressured and protested the Kennedy and Johnson administration into the passage of Civil Rights and the Great Society legislation.

King once remarked that electoral politics are thermometers—measuring political climate; social protests and movements are thermostats—setting political climate. Organized and rhetorical protests have set the climate for an effective insider strategy and subsequent electoral allegiance in the voting booth. Prophetic rhetoric and organized rage have created the context for the passage of public policy that improves the quality of life for the least of these. The contemporary political climate is such that there are very limited possibilities for progressive social policies to emerge from the administration, itself. A recalcitrant Congress, a right of center Democratic Party and two decades of neo liberal policies require that the President serve a right of center agenda which has been at odds with the prophetic tradition and the needs of the most vulnerable.

Hence, African American leadership can not go it alone. The challenges facing democracy are nothing less that the retraction of the promise of the Civil Rights Movement, dismantling of the Great Society, and reversal of the New Deal—let alone an ever expanding prison and military industrial complex. Cornel West’s critique is part and parcel of a grand tradition of fiery prophetic rhetoric that must be connected to social movements. In order to shift the political discourse and create the conditions for progressive policy, a new multi racial and multi issue coalition has to emerge. Rhetorical protest must be matched with mass organizing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Task of the Prophet in the Age of Angst

The task of the prophet in the time of angst is to caution against revenge. It’s calling friend and foe alike to the numinous—or, simply saying there is another way. Our contemporary age has been shaped by anxiety-inducing events—ecological calamity, fiscal insecurity, and arbitrary terror. Ecological disaster strikes indiscriminately; the international fiscal crisis has engendered collective experience of economic demise; wars of revenge elevate the presence death and despair in the day to day living of all who occupy the planet. 

Geography, class, and pigmentation are no longer impenetrable shields. Even the citizens of most powerful nation in human history live with a sense of vulnerability.  These events, with all of their political effects and affects, mean that what it means to be human is in flux- the primary feature of the spirit of the age of angst-zeitgeist der angst 

Unfortunately, the stories written on our hearts in this age of angst are composed of terrible words—terror, war, victims, enemies. A violent punctuation there is not a period or an exclamation point, but rather a comma in a Sisyphean tale of victor and victim. Strong men roll retribution up hilly battlefields only to tumble down one upon another. Leaving the broken bodies of the weak in their wake, their gods seem hell bent on blessing bombs.

Reading from the same unrepentant script, a flag and a faith are hurried into the stage. Opposing gods demand that all choose tales, to be piled into a magnums opus written in the blood of innocents. It has two pages—on one page is the celebration of their enemy's demise, and the mourning of their heroes is on the other. To oppose their death-laden ground of being is sacrilege; the sacredness of their cause mutes the possibility that they are both wrong.

Three protagonists perform on the stage in this theatre of the absurd—partisan, priest, and prophet. The priest and partisan do not have the prophet's responsibility. The prophet is considered a relic by priest, a coward by partisan and naive by citizens.  The priest and partisan are chiefly concerned with institutional preservation, personal security and imperial sanction. The quietude of the subjected and titillated masses-pax imperium- is the partisan’s aim, the priest’s blessing, and the prophet's torment. It seems the case that spaces of sacrament and scholarship would be the prophet's natural habitat. Dominant forms of religion (cross and crescent) do not assuage angst but bless the violent responses to angst.

Yet, more than not houses of prayer and thought are the intellectual and priestly reflections of the powers. The prophet is homeless. The prophet lives in precarium-exile from the world that is while calling for a world that is not yet.  Numinous is the dwelling of the prophet.

In an era dominated by wealth and celebrity, words are the prophet's currency and presence is her ground of being.  The goal of the prophet is not to declare national allegiances but rather extending the possibility of love across man made boundaries; reconciling all to the numinous.  The numinous is thoroughly this worldly-taking up the every day and public decrees.  Not as ruler but a guide toward the ultimate concern of collective hope and the goodness of being.

Group think demands that all members support their respective partisans. The prophet is summoned to bear witness to both sides. Speaking a loving truth of justice to the powerful and powerless, citizen and foreigner, the attacked and attacker, the prophet expresses an equal concern for the victim and the executioner.  “Eyes for eyes blinds justice from itself”, weeps the prophet.   The prophet never gets drunk on the wine of nationalism or group-think. The prophet maintains a course of hope in a society heading toward and delighting in death.

The prophet thoroughly understands that bloodletting nationalism can not be delight.     Make no mistake about it the prophet is a partisan-the poor and the powerless.   If a nation, people, or a cause-whether in a capital or cave-make their ultimate meaning with the torture flesh as their sacrifice, its adherent’s souls are at stake.  Dancing in the street upon the death of the other’s kirth and kin by Bearded men and youth is unjust.  They make blood offerings.  The prophet ask: "Are not the innocents made dead by men in manicured suits as valuable as those sent to their graves by men in tribal garments?"  As the hysteria seizes the public imagination, pleads for deliberation.   Issuing a clarion call, "We shall never celebrate the death of anyone. The nature of war poisons the soul of a nation. We must pray for the turning of our cause toward peace with justice for all. For the death of our enemy at our hands maybe the death of your being."