In publicly attacking Barack Obama
are Tavis Smiley and Cornel West
upholding the prophetic tradition of Martin Luther King
or acting out of personal pique—or both?
This from the American Prospect:
A heartless Republican Congress is cutting programs for the needy, assaulting unions, and kowtowing to the rich. A nation that can always find money for war is convinced it must cut Medicare and Social Security.
This sounds like the standard tale of liberal woe. What makes it different, though, is the villain at the heart of the narrative: President Barack Obama. What makes it noteworthy is that his critics are recognizable black progressives, not the usual conservative hired guns. Three years of unceasing economic distress has whittled away at the hope that drew a million revelers to the inauguration of America’s first black president, so it’s a narrative that the black community might be ready to hear. Maybe.
At the podium, Smiley has traded his soothing NPR baritone for the chanting voice of a preacher: “He’s got to stop being afraid of saying the word ‘poor.’ Say it, Mr. President. Say the word ‘poor.’ Say it, Mr. President. Say the word ‘poor.’ Say it, Mr. President.” The [packed house at St. Sabina’s Church on the South Side of Chicago] cheers.
One-on-one, West speaks in a gravelly whisper, as if conferring a secret. Standing in front of the pews, though, in his characteristic three-piece suit, which he calls his “cemetery clothes” (“If you love poor people you better be coffin-ready”), he is electric. His words for Obama are both harsh and personal: “We’ve had so many leaders who have sold out. … Their version of the crack pipe: Just call it success. They want to be a successful leader. You see, Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t into success. He was into greatness. If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, we don’t want successful leaders.” The audience erupts.
For all their tough talk, West and Smiley are walking a tightrope, and they know it. “For those that think this is an anti-Obama tour, let me, in love, check you right quick,” Smiley says to murmurs of approval from the audience. “It’s not personal—it’s principle.”...
Smiley and West’s harsh assessment of Obama has exposed them to considerable criticism from within the black community. They have been tarred as hypocrites and haters, self-aggrandizing public figures with a personal beef against the president, eager to point fingers at Obama for being a corporatist sellout while they maintain their own questionable connections to the moneyed elite. Smiley is seen as the aspiring gatekeeper to power in black America and West as a publicity-seeking academic whose role as a civil-rights leader is as much science fiction as his cameos in The Matrix films.
Smiley and West, however, see their role as one rooted in a tradition of black protest, best exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr. “The black prophetic tradition has been the tradition that has renewed American democracy even given its imperial practice,” West says. “And the sadness of the age of Obama is that there’s an attempt to silence the black prophetic tradition.”...
For decades, the leadership of the black community represented the conscience of the United States, the voice articulating the contradictions between the nation’s stated ideals and the present inequality—speaking “truth to power” as King once did. Now, the “power” to whom truth must be spoken is a black man named Barack Obama, and the black-rights movement finds itself facing a complex contradiction in the presidency, in which a black man has ascended to the summit of American power even as the community as a whole remains without the power or influence to demand that its interests be addressed. To be true to that historical legacy, West and Smiley believe that opposition is the only moral course—and that uncritical support for the president is indefensible moral compromise...
“They want Obama to be more defiant, yell, stand up, have courage, but I don’t think anyone thinks that if the president somehow ‘stood up’ against the GOP, they’d do things differently,” [Tulane professor Melissa] Harris-Perry says. “It’s an immaturity of black politics when you’re focused more on the defiance than on the actual policies.”
Smiley and West are right, however, that Obama’s failures have paved the way for a possible defeat in 2012. Absent a substantial economic turnaround, many political scientists see Obama as barely an even bet for a second term...