The News: It is a rare moment when Michael Eric Dyson isn’t talking, but for more than a year he kept mum while being ridiculed by onetime comrade Cornel West. At a recent forum in New York, Dyson unleashed a counterattack that could ignite a war of words between two of the country’s leading black intellectuals.
The magazine Rolling Out reports that Dyson, a best-selling author and professor of sociology at Georgetown University, said that West has succumbed to hubris and “a huge ego” through his scathing criticism of President Barack Obama and prominent African Americans who have defended the president's policies.
Speaking at the National Action Network’s 16th annual convention Thursday in New York, Dyson said, “So stop thinking that your way is the only way. … Be honest and humble in genuine terms, not the public performance of humility masquerading a huge ego. No amount of hair can cover that.”
Last year West, himself a celebrated author and professor at Princeton University, said of Obama’s inauguration for a second term: “And we saw of course the coronation of the bona fide house Negro of the Obama plantation, our dear brother Al Sharpton supported by the Michael Dysons and others who’ve really prostituted themselves intellectually in a very ugly and vicious way” in exchange for access to the White House.
Dyson said a mutual friend, Columbia University professor Farah Jasmine Griffin, intervened to “negotiate a cease of hostilities” that apparently failed:
“I’ve probably known him longer than anybody on this panel. Hung out with him,” Dyson said. “I’ve been a victim of his vicious assaults in public. I’ve held my powder. That ain’t my usual nature. … I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t hurt for you to call me a sellout because I disagree with you. You can be ‘ride-or-die,’ but while you’re riding—see who your vehicle is rolling over.”
The Take: It’s been a while since we had a good battle rap, so this may shape up to be the ivory tower’s equivalent of Jay Z vs. Nas.
For once, Dyson’s fondness for speaking as if delivering bars in a rap song may fit the occasion.
He relishes attacking black commentators and leaders who try to hold Obama accountable without providing fodder for his enemies. He crowed when most of them agreed to pipe down in 2012 so as not to harm Obama's re-election prospects.
It should surprise no one that West and Dyson have taken each other on. Each courts confrontation. Both are equally gregarious, if not at times absurdly theatrical, at promoting their personal brands.
Whenever I’ve crossed paths with West, he has gushed about any and all topics. Yet when I asked him to explain his beef with Sharpton and others for a profile of Sharpton last year, he bailed.
I could only conclude that West blew me off because he is too deeply invested in his performance as the singular radical speaking truth to power, even more so now that power resides with a black president. He seems to have abandoned his brilliant scholarship for an activism that has yet to produce mass action. He’d rather sermonize than exchange.
The Jay Z-vs.-Nas rivalry brought out the best in both stars and reinvigorated hip-hop. No such promise lay in West vs. Dyson, whose response falls well short of Nas’ retaliatory song “Ether,” which eviscerated Hova and ended that battle. This spat diverts two of our brightest lights from their shared mission.
West’s ad hominem attacks have eroded his credibility, and Dyson needed only to have reminded Brother West that Obama is still the president and that he still is not invited.
The News: CBS’ announcement that Stephen Colbert will succeed David Letterman as host of Late Night has triggered a range of reactions, from questions about diversity to hostility from conservatives.
Jimmy Fallon, host of the current late-night ratings leader Tonight Show, tweeted: “I'd like to welcome the great @StephenAtHome to network late night and also congratulate him on his new name: Jimmy Colbert.”
Amid criticism that CBS should have considered a woman or person of color, Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole tweeted: “In spite of being white, male, straight, popular, competent, and rich, Stephen Colbert has overcome the odds and succeeded.”
Colbert will take over when Letterman retires in 2015. Colbert will host the show as himself, not as the conservative doppelgänger he plays on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report.
Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America: “No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatism. … What this hire means is a redefinition of what is funny.”
The Take: I can't believe I'm about to say this, but the real blowhard makes a worthy point about the significance of CBS’ tapping the fake blowhard.
Television comedy has gradually undergone an overhaul, completed by the departures of Jay Leno and eventually Letterman. From Saturday Night Live and In Living Color to the game-changing talents of cable show hosts Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and now Colbert, today’s funny is dominated by a direct, biting satire.
The numbers tell the tale. Since Leno left, Tonight hosted by Jimmy Fallon has increased the show’s dominance of late night. Fallon draws twice as many viewers on average as does Letterman, who has lost half his nightly audience since moving to CBS in 1994.
Limbaugh exaggerates the anti-conservative motive only to stoke his listeners’ paranoia. Sure, the most common targets of Maher or Colbert have been political conservatives, but that group has earned the ridicule.
Humor subverts traditions of all kinds. Satire at its best exposes hypocrisy, corruption, stupidity or general hot mess wherever it exists by ridiculing the culprits. The satirist, in effect, declares I see you—and we applaud because we wouldn’t dare express such candor publicly.
Rock, Chappelle and Maher are as gifted at lampooning liberals and blacks as they are conservatives and whites.
Which brings us to the question surrounding Colbert’s selection: “Another white dude?”
Americans are conditioned to take our nightcaps of humor from white men, and networks cling to a belief that women or people of color as hosts would risk alienating viewers.
Joan Rivers, the regular substitute for Johnny Carson on Tonight and star of Fox’s The Late Show in the 1980s, says NBC stood behind audience data that found “women would rather watch a man at night, which is what they're always throwing up in your face.”
Patriarchy cuts across the races. In black churches, many female congregants prefer male preachers. And hip-hop fans always have bought millions more albums by male rappers than female rappers not named Nicki Minaj.
Black people haven’t exactly thrown all their might behind late night’s lone black host. It may be because the satire on The Arsenio Hall Show, like Arsenio himself, appears to have been dusted off from the 1990s. To its credit, the show has been renewed for a second season, and a recent episode featuring Prince netted a ratings boost that tied Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Black people generally want Arsenio’s show to succeed, but not to the extent that more of them will actually tune in. Perhaps some will flip over during commercial breaks for one of the Jimmys or Colbert.
The News: President Barack Obama delivered an unusually forceful speech Friday denouncing voting restrictions passed in multiple states—a signal that Democrats have found an issue they hope will turn out their base for the November elections.
“The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” Obama said. “Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote.”
The president was speaking at the National Action Network’s annual convention in New York. The audience consisted mostly of African Americans, who, along with seniors, young people and the poor, could be disproportionately harmed by the voting changes.
Obama confronted the issue head-on after refraining in past remarks from blaming Republicans. He had only generally expressed concern about the laws beyond his appointment last year of a commission to recommend improvements in voting procedures.
More than 30 states have enacted Republican-backed measures that make it harder for people to vote. The changes include photo-identification requirements, reduction of early-voting days and the end of same-day voter registration.
The Democratic National Committee recently launched a program aimed at pushing pack on the restrictions and boosting registration. Rival Democratic and Republican groups have formed to raise money for secretary of state races across the country. Secretaries of state set voting rules and manage elections.
The Take: The thing about photo identification and other voter-suppression measures is that they could be the worst or best thing for minority turnout.
In 2012 Democrats, civil and voting-rights groups banged the drum to warn voters that these new restrictions threatened their franchise. Outraged blacks led the response, voting at a higher rate than whites for the first time. They were the only group to increase its turnout.
Nothing else motivates voters to march to the polls like anger. Republicans are usually more effective than Democrats at ratcheting up dissatisfaction within their base. High voter enthusiasm (anger) fueled the Tea Party wave in the 2010 midterm.
The stakes for both parties are high this November. Republicans have the momentum in the polls and a very realistic chance to win at least five seats in the Senate. That would give them control of both chambers and the power to shut down Obama’s agenda for good.
Given polls that show core Republican voters to be comparatively more engaged and the historically low midterm turnout of minorities, Obama and the Democrats had better beat that drum something fierce.
Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., writes The Take and is a contributing editor at The Root. He appears on MSNBC and CNN and contributes to NPR. He is a former NPR correspondent and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal. Give him your “take” on Twitter.
Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.