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Great Minds Not Thinking Alike: The Disappointing War of Words Between Michael Eric Dyson and Former Mentor Cornel West

Once allies, Dr. Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson are at odds.

Once allies, Dr. Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson are at odds.

In 10,000 words, Michael Eric Dyson imploded his 35-year friendship with Cornel West—if it was not already there. Two of the country’s great minds and voices for just cause, supreme thinkers and revered intellectuals, were not smart enough to salvage their connection.

Dyson went in, as they say, in a story for the New Republic with the headline, “The Ghost of Cornel West.” That was bad enough for such a proud man who has been an advocate for change and equal rights for as long as West.

But the piece got more intense and revealing from there, with Dyson, the Georgetown professor who initiated his relationship with West through a phone call, seemingly holding back little in his assessment of what the Princeton professor and author has declined into in recent years.

Dyson called West a caricature and called his recent books irrelevant. But in one piercing paragraph, he cut into the core of West’s existence as a relevant intellectual whose mind can impact the world. Dyson wrote: “It is not only that West’s preoccupations with (President) Obama’s perceived failures distracted him, though that is true; more accurate would be to say that the last several years revealed West’s paucity of serious and fresh intellectual work, a trend far longer in the making. West is still a Man of Ideas, but those ideas today are a vain and unimaginative repackaging of his earlier hits.”


“Something irrational is going on,” Dyson said in an interview with The Root. “It was the nastiness of the tone. The unprincipled assault. There’s a difference between that and ad hominem.”

He was speaking of West’s nonstop assault of President Barack Obama and other attacks on Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Melissa Harris-Perry and others. This mean streak seemed to show itself after the bespectacled, bushy-headed and always black-suit-white-shirt-and-black-tie attired West felt Obama snubbed him at the 2008 inauguration. West has been in attack mode ever since, carrying talk show host Tavis Smiley with him.

West had his mother with him in Washington, D.C., in 2008 but was embarrassed when a hotel bellman had tickets to the historic event and he did not. Dyson wrote in the piece that Obama told him that West left several voice messages, including prayer, but never a return number to reach him. Dyson, in the story, vouched for the president, saying he was familiar with West calling and leaving no way of contacting him.

West, according to Dyson’s piece, looked at Obama with trepidation initially and then became supportive of him as he sought to become the nation’s first Black president. But it all turned sour in 2008.

He has branded Obama as a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface”; a “brown-faced Clinton”; and a “neoliberal opportunist.”

Michael Eric Dyson

Michael Eric Dyson

“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” West has said. “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.”

Meanwhile, Dyson thought that assessment far-reaching and unfair. “It’s worth noting that the president’s actions were in keeping with the demands of his profession,” he writes in The New Republic essay. “Like most recent Democratic politicians, Obama nodded in a progressive direction while campaigning but toed a more centrist line when it came time to govern.”

Dyson also points out an encounter where Obama angrily confronts West and uses profanity to get his point across. West said of the moment: “He cussed me out.”

West’s disdain for Jackson, Sharpton, Harris-Perry and Dyson is because, he has said, they are “false prophets.” All have been critical of Obama in one way or another, but West has referred to them, in essence, as Obama sympathizers.

“But when you weigh it down under the burden of extraordinary, personal bitterness,” Dyson said, “it just wipes away all the good stuff that you might say and makes us question what it is about the motivation for your criticism in the long run.”

West has compared himself to Martin Luther King, to which Dyson replied: “Martin Luther King never talked about people he disagreed with in the way West has talked about me or Melissa or Jackson or Obama. Martin Luther King didn’t even call the white racists he disagreed with those kind of names.”

To this point, West has not fired back … but you know it’s coming—which means unfortunately the world will have to continue to watch these two great minds engage in petty back-and-forth that would be disappointing in elementary school children.


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