(Salon) – Independent of one’s stance on the rift between Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West — a rift years in the making and now clearly delineated in the form of Dyson’s essay on West in the New Republic, “The Ghost of Cornel West” — this has all the hallmarks of a messy divorce between two public, black intellectuals who were, perhaps, better served keeping things offline. Maybe try to squash their beef in the privacy of an on-campus office or in a cozy, warm living room with beer or tea shared. Rather, what we have is this: the proverbial tea spilt online, on social media, and I keep asking myself, “Why now? And to what end?”
The essay in question, a veritable bomb lobbed online this past Sunday amid the “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men” tweets, makes no attempts to hide its intent: The title itself, “The Ghost of Cornel West,” suggests that West, an intellectual powerhouse and elder to many young policymakers, thinkers and writers, is not only in the twilight of his career, but has already passed away, reduced to walking carrion with his relevance trapped squarely in the past. A relic to be remembered and lamented and examined with the white heat of a spotlight meant to sear whatever living, breathing pieces remain of West’s legacy. Dyson — whom West mentored for more than 30 years — wields his pen with career assassination in mind, looking to finish off the man who, once upon a time, Dyson considered to be his friend and, perhaps, much more.
As I said, the very title of the essay foretold ill intent, but before reading it, I had my doubts — or hopes, maybe. I knew in passing of the connection between Dyson and West, and I knew there was a falling out between the two, centered around the rise and eventual inauguration of President Barack Obama. Still, I had my hopes. Maybe the essay—harsh title notwithstanding—would be an open letter of love to Cornel West, last seen being hauled off to a jail cell in Ferguson, Missouri, this past fall. “It could be a plea,” I thought, “for the power and penetrating rhetoric, buoyed by a once-in-a-generation intellect, to return now, now, when we, black Americans, and the nation in whole, need it the most.”