Listen: Michael Eric Dyson’s Interview on His Break With Cornel West

Dyson talks with The Root about the end of a friendship and how the brilliant West is stymied by a bitterness his peers do not understand.

Michael Eric Dyson; Cornel West
Michael Eric Dyson; Cornel West Kris Connor/Getty Images; Monica Schipper/Getty Images

It was personal.

In Michael Eric Dyson’s takedown for the New Republic of his friend and mentor Cornel West, he has a come-to-Jesus moment that is neither pretty nor kind, but painfully blunt. The realization comes to Dyson that West is a parody of the intellectual he once was, that his vicious and often personal attacks on President Barack Obama have come at a cost: the loss of his credibility.

And the loss of their 35-year friendship.

Dyson’s story, “The Ghost of Cornel West,” is a tale of transgressions, verbal and personal, of bruised egos and hurt feelings, of a father figure lashing out at the perceived ease of youth and the successes of those for whom he laid a path.

It is a work of loss that is also an unmasking.

For Georgetown professor Dyson, West—once an emperor among his peers—no longer wears his scholarly clothes, but can still evoke the phrases and popularized passages that remind you of who he once was.

Dyson writes of the Princeton scholar, “It is not only that West’s preoccupations with 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.”

Yes, Dyson affirms in his piece that West is brilliant. Yes, West is smart. Yes, West is one of the premier intellectuals on the intersection of race and philosophy of his time. But yes, West is mortal, passive-aggressive, jealous and petty.

Dyson spoke with The Root Sunday about his piece and why he wrote it.

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

West’s ever personal turn has “obscured the sometimes powerful and sometimes luminous and other times legitimate critique” he may have, according to Dyson.

“But when you weight it down under the burden of extraordinary, personal bitterness, 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,” he said.

Dyson is talking about both West’s critique of Obama and of the scholar’s attacks on Dyson and his peers, both older and younger, primarily Melissa Harris-Perry, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. West has called them all traitors of sorts, liars and opportunists who choose to toe the Obama administration line. This despite the fact that all have been critical of President Obama at one point or another but have couched their criticism with respect for both the office and the place President Obama holds in the hearts of many African Americans.

West, who has compared himself to slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., has called them “false prophets,” leading with the idea that his voice is the only one ringing with any truth.

Yet, for Dyson, there is something very unlike MLK about this assessment.

“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,” Dyson said.

Still, their “respect” was viewed as capitulation by West.