Friday, January 3, 2014

Adolph Reed on bell hooks, Cornell West, and other public black intellectuals

In "What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?: The Curious Role of the Black Public Intellectual" (pdf), Adolph Reed Jr. offers a critique of Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Gloria Watkins (bell hooks), Michael Dyson, and Robin Kelley, but much of what he says naturally applies to their heirs. The title refers to old jungle movies in which white adventurers would turn to their trusted native guides and ask, "What are the drums saying?" The "Booker" refers to Booker T. Washington.

A few snippets:

“Where Baldwin and Ellison bristled at the Black Voice designation, today’s public intellectuals accept it gladly. And they have to, because maintaining credibility with their real, white audience requires that they be authentically black, that their reports on the heart of darkness ring with verisimilitude (“Drums say nihilism, moral breakdown. Need politics of conversion, love ethic.”) This underscores the extent to which—beneath all the over-heated academic trendiness—the black public intellectual stance merely updates Booker T. Washington’s role…”

“West, Dyson, et al., use the public intellectual pose to claim authority both as certified, world-class elite academics and as links to an extra-academic blackness, thus splitting the differences between being insiders and outsiders. In the process, they are able to skirt the practical requirements of either role—to avoid both rigorous, careful intellectual work and protracted, committed political action.”

“Dyson and Watkins/hooks are little more than hustlers, blending bombast, clichĂ©s, psychobabble, and lame guilt tripping in service to the “pay me” principle.”

“In rejecting all considerations of standards of evidence and argument as expressions of naive positivism, the cultural politicians get to make the story up as they go along.”

“Political conservatism is fundamental to the Black Voice business now no less than in 1895.”

That last statement may seem odd to Obama's apologists who think Democratic neoliberalism is greatly different than the Republican model, but Reed, a socialist, takes the broader view of capitalism. (For those who still think Obama represents a progressive vision, a little googling will bring you to articles like Reality Check: Obama Cuts Social Security and Medicare by Much More Than the GOP.)

Scott Sherman's article provides both context and follow-up: "Fighting Words: Adolph Reed's Crusade Against the New Black Intellectuals" (pdf)