Editor's Note: Zerlina Maxwell is a political analyst and staff writer for Loop21.com, where she writes about national politics, candidates, and cultural issues. She writes frequently about domestic violence, sexual assault, victim blaming and gender inequality. Her writing has appeared in JET Magazine, The Huffington Post, TheRoot.com, Salon.com, and TheGrio.com.
By Zerlina Maxwell, Special to CNN
As if it were primed right on time for Black History Month, Professor Cornel West has yet again candidly expressed his true feelings on the first black president and his supporters. His target of ire this time: MSNBC host Professor Melissa Harris-Perry who Dr. West calls a “fraud.”
Dr. West’s dislike for President Obama and by extension those who support the administration is nothing new. This time Dr. West shared his displeasure with Obama in an interview with Diverse magazine where he slammed the president yet again for what West sees as a failure to address the issue of poverty in America.
Over the past 3 years, Dr. West, once a vocal Obama supporter, has turned into one of the most vocal naysayers of not only the President’s policies but also who the president is. Apparently unwilling to restrict his criticisms to the Obama administration, Dr. West recently singled out and implied that MSNBC hosts Reverend Al Sharpton and Dr. Harris-Perry were actually pawns of the liberal media establishment.
Last May, Professor Cornel West went “ballistic” in an interview with Truthdig.com and offered a scathing critique of President Obama calling him, a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” This description by Dr. West was intended to be a critique on the president’s economic policies and team, namely Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and former economic advisor Lawrence Summers.
At the time, the interview inspired a response in The Nation from Dr. Harris-Perry which then resulted in a joint interview where the two academics appeared back to back, but not head to head, to share their distinct viewpoints and political analysis on President Obama’s tenure. Unfortunately, Dr. West’s critiques neglected to include any process analysis, where the Republican filibuster, and not President Obama’s lack of backbone or disregard for the concerns for the poor are to blame for the slow pace of change.
Dr. West appears to have held onto some angst from that dust up and in this recent interview with Diverse, called Dr. Harris-Perry a “liar” saying that, “[s]he’s become the momentary darling of liberals, but I pray for her because she's in over her head. She's a fake and a fraud. I was so surprised how treacherous the sister was.” Dr. Harris-Perry is a newly minted host on MSNBC.
In defense of Dr. Harris-Perry, her MSNBC colleague Rev. Al Sharpton told TheGrio.com, West’s comments were “arrogant” and “disingenuous,” saying that “[w]e are not arguing about issues here, we’re arguing about personality.”
With this personal attack on Dr. Harris-Perry, Dr. West has officially exited the arena of intellectual jousting that normally is focused on the merits of an argument and has entered into the realm of petty pot shots. A public intellectual of his stature should be above infantile insults.
Dr. West’s description of Dr. Harris-Perry’s work as not very “academic” and that the esteemed professor is nothing more than “just a lot of twittering” is another slight to Dr. Harris-Perry meant to belittle her publicly. To describe her most recent book, Sister Citizen as “wild and out of control” is a description that might as well read “she is emotional” and “she’s erratic” which, at its core, is little more than a common attempt to marginalize a woman based on a socially engrained perception. If Dr. West isn’t a fan of Dr. Harris-Perry’s work he should be able to express that without diminishing her accomplishments.
Furthermore, it’s not clear what evidence Dr. West has to support these accusations. At this point, the clearly personal history between the two former Princeton professors has negatively infected the public conversation. Dr. West’s critique of Dr. Harris-Perry, heavily colored by gender and paternalism, is one that seems to leverage his own male privilege assuming that the masses that respect his past work, will listen to his current views unchallenged. With so few black public intellectuals and media figures, and even fewer that are black women, it’s mystifying that Dr. West has made the choice to use his earned public platform to harm an African American woman so directly.
Dr. West’s transition from thought provoking academic into a short-tempered bomb thrower settling personal scores is a tragedy. If Dr. West cares so deeply about Americans living in poverty, then he should focus on that and leave out all of this other personal nonsense, which just makes him look like half the intellectual he once was.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Zerlina Maxwell.