It’s about access to knowledge: Some thoughts on the Dyson-West feud

In so many ways, this feud is really about how we do scholarship, and also access to knowledge production. We could take some time to consider how Dyson’s evaluation of West’s scholarly style has further ramifications outside the confines of the current debate.

One thing that has become apparent fairly quickly is that Dyson consistently reaffirms his own credentials, a fact that is wearying to all of us. He said derisively to Marc Lamont Hill today: “You hitting me on some twitters. Well, I published an Op-Ed in the NY Times last week. Oh you know, that little paper, the New York Times.” It becomes evident after listening to him, for only a very short while, that Dyson’s true premise, then, is actually much more about himself and defending his own ability to do scholarship. The attack on West is all about that defense, and not as much about West himself.

Dyson fails to consider the intersectionality of African-American research with street knowledge, whereas West totally gets it. Dyson looks down on “twitters” and speaks of his NYT Op-Ed in order to subconsciously demonstrate that his way of doing the work is intrinsically better than the people on the ground, whereas West knows each and every one of Ferguson’s primary Black Lives Matter activists by name. Dyson wants West to measure up to his academic level, but West did that, and then some, decades ago. Also consider that while Dyson is trying to make this an African-American debate, West transcended the racial barrier long ago. He is popular and well-known across the social spectrum, having sustained academics and activists of many races and nationalities over the years.

Dyson is very obviously defending his own academic chops in the hit piece. He couches his concern from a scholarly standpoint, and confides in us on HuffPost Live, “I have been in an academic setting since 1999.” Oh really. In a tenure-track position the whole time? I should not be one to judge, considering I entered college teaching 13 years ago, and only finished my PhD 18 months ago, and the market out there right now feels a bloody wasteland at best. In fact, that is where the real ghosts are–the thousands of recent PhD’s looking for jobs. But Dyson wants to remind us that he is bona-fide. OK, fine. But you got hired into Georgetown in 2007, and if my research serves me correct, Cornel West has been a tenured professor pretty much since time immemorial, at least 20 years your senior.

Basically, Dyson, through his eagerness to engage on Twitter (while West rarely uses it), has revealed that he is still proving himself, to himself, to his institutions, and to the public. Perhaps it is Dyson’s own insecurity that leads him to respond to every critique from West as a personal attack. He cuts down the idea of prophecy, but Dyson completely misses the idea of poetry. West is the ultimate academic cypher, able to leap tall buildings with a single phrase, and every one of them has lodged itself permanently in Dyson’s mind like a dagger, as he repeatedly recalls the so-called “insults” one by one, word for word.

It’s as if Dyson is stalking West’s every turn of phrase, looking for some loophole that the world has missed over all these years of prophesizing. Dyson has been wounded by West’s slings and arrows many times, but this is where it gets psychological. Dyson cannot laugh this off as good rhetoric. He can’t acknowledge Brother West’s chops. He has to bleed, to take the wound in his side, even dragging Obama along for the ride. What Dyson misses completely is that Obama, like us, may understand that he is the brown-noser, and that West is out there doing the work, and keeping POTUS in check. Isn’t this obvious? The people hang on to West’s every word, while Dyson is consistently “way too much,” just a barrage of oh-please-stop-now-just-make-it-stop-Dear-Lord.

Now on to what I have heard some refer to as Dyson’s “lightness.” Dyson does a fair amount of code-switching, from what I have gathered. He is either “down with the brothers” when speaking on HuffPo Live with Marc Lamont Hill, saying thins like “Oooh mama’s gonna get you” in caricature fashion, or he is speaking English very slowly with tons of enunciation, like a white newscaster trying to pronounce Spanish in a politically correct way. In attacking such a revered figure, Dyson is faced with having to simultaneously prove himself to both the community and academia. So while Dyson accuses West of being a caricature, it is actually he who is doing the clowning. West conveys an air of authenticity that Dyson can never touch. Dyson is dancing around on the hot coals–bring up this, bring up that, all really fast–while West consistently lands punches outside the ring (climate change speech at Harvard last week, Black Lives Matter protest today). Bam. Bam. Bam. Dyson is going down emotionally, and he can’t handle the pressure. West just applies more compassion to the situation, and keeps on rolling down the street.

Luckily for West, he proved himself early on through his writing and ability to secure tenure and has the career stability to remain somewhat clean in his theoretical dealings, not having to sell out to TV shows or the corporate backers that some other figureheads have. Dyson does not want to parse this out–what is the difference between NPR and MSNBC? What is the difference between a Research 1 university and a seminary? A lot, actually. Cornel West made the decision to move to the seminary because it is in line with deeply held life ideals (like bell hooks teaching at a local community college), and the publishing requirements for such an institution are different (especially for a scholar of West’s stature) than, for instance, at a research university such as Georgetown, where Dyson is currently located. This is a difference of location, of choice, of place and heart, but Dyson does not go there, because he is fundamentally unable to see on that level.

Dyson also relies on a wild and crazy characterization of West. Oh he is just out there stirring up “all this mess,” running around like the Peanuts character Pigpen. And plenty of “folk” (oh, Dyson really does overuse this word) out there ate this up, and it was just like West often calls it–a mess of pottage. Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, so when West uses this metaphor (and this is what his “attacks” should be seen as), he is critiquing those who sell out. The quick hit of a few web hits will soon fade when Dyson realizes that he could have listened more deeply to the words that Dr. West chooses to use.

“Ooooh, that Cornel West, he is just such a mess. Oh and it has been going on for yeeears. Oooh look at how he talks about the president. Don’t be talking about my president like that. Thank you so much for writing this. This is such critical work.”


And the crazy drawing on the New Republic adds to that whole thesis. This guy with the Don King hairdo is now a madman, a crazy dude out there on the streets who is just so so bitter and such a loser that he does not make a bit of sense anymore. OK.

Have you seen Noam Chomsky’s hair lately? I would call it “subdued but borderline train wreck.”

But nobody calls him wild and crazy. In fact, I have a series of tiny, strange booklets Chomsky wrote for an obscure, non-peer-reviewed press on topics such as the media and Palestine which I got at a street fair in London. Are people coming out and attacking Noam Chomsky for not writing peer reviewed stuff anymore? They are great little booklets and I’m glad he wrote them!!! Noam Chomsky was trained as a linguist. How many of his single authored books do you think people have actually read? To be honest, I have studied a fair amount of linguistics for my undergraduate anthropology degree and the technical stuff is actually super boring. Big surprise there. I haven’t read a single one of Chomsky’s thick scholarly tomes, but if you have ever heard him speak, you may notice that his technique completely obliterates Dyson’s weak theory about the hierarchy of speaking and writing.

Like Cornel West, Chomsky is a dutiful reader. At his speeches, Chomsky hauls in conference totes and plastic bags of reading material. He has newspapers and magazines from all over the world. It is pretty darn comical to see him on stage surrounded by it all. He pulls out piece after piece and is able to literally unveil for us in a live context a complex and informed global worldview that someone with the limited vision of Dyson could never achieve. Not only that, Chomsky’s rhetorical technique relies heavily on the written word, coupled with the text of presence. West and Chomsky understand the power of linguistics so much better than Dyson, to such a great extent that their lectures are like living, breathing books. Like Oprah’s speech on “The Meaning of Life” at Stanford yesterday, they understand that knowledge lives and sings when it is shared live.

And furthermore, as an African-American studies scholar, how can we let Dyson get away for privileging the written word over the spoken? Literacy has always been a factor in the upliftment of African-Americans, but Dyson haphazardly sidesteps decades of research on the importance of the oral tradition. He is begging West to define what a prophet is, while he utterly fails to see the figure in West that has slowly evolved and emerged before us all.

Dyson simplistically tries to prove his chops and discipline in comparison to someone who has already transcended that whole paradigm. He says West is old news, when West is always on to something new. He is working on catching up, while West is actually working on the prophetic tradition in a spiritual activist sense. So he promised four books to the president of Harvard and never followed through. Are we standing at the water cooler at this point, or what? Is Dyson the nosy department chair now?

West has innumerable publications on Google Scholar with thousands of citations, while Dyson’s cites by others range in the couple hundreds and drop off after page two or three. Let’s consider this critique of West’s output in the context of how scholars are producing work today, and how that is transforming due to technology. Prominent feminist Judith Butler has basically a dozen books, but out of those books I would say about half are assigned and read in undergraduate, and more likely, graduate classes. And whenever possible, a seminar professor will generally choose a collection of essays to assign over the full-length book. As well, a lot of her newer publications are small dialogues (in fact, there is an excellent one with she and Cornel West on religion in the public sphere that Dyson should read, though Dyson puts down transcribed dialogues. Butler has an excellent one with Gayatri Spivak–”Who sings the nation-state?” It could be that this is a trend that Dyson has not caught onto). Academic book publishing is changing and it is very hard to get your book out there and assigned and very expensive to publish longer books, considering only 100-300 people tend to actually buy the typical academic book.

Who is reading Dyson? Who is buying Dyson? Who is assigning him in their classes? If you want to go for the jugular, then we need to get granular, because Dyson hides quite a lot of the realities of academia when he decides to code-shift to the public, and bring the dirty laundry out to view. The dance between the privacy of academia and the community service of a public intellectual undergirds this whole debate, and Dyson seems to sidestep any critical discussion of this tightrope that he and West are both walking.

Cornel West has been arrested nine times. As a professor, those are some pretty good numbers. He is putting it on the line often enough, right? I must ask: What is Dyson’s arrest record like? Cornel West does 100 speaking engagements a year, traveling to the locations. How many does Dyson do? It sounds like not that many, that his academic style differs, to focus on writing. Well, if you were flying out every weekend to speak to hundreds of people, you might think about speaking in different terms, too. It might actually mean something more powerful than writing for this stage of West’s career, a status which Dyson can never reach.

Deep within his own mind, Dyson can never ever fully equate himself with a mentor as esteemed as West, so he goes for the knockout in every way possible. It is Dyson, in fact, who is the out-of-control one, the one who is sucker-punching while grasping for straws, and re-tweeting any and all praise he can garner on the social media outlets which he simultaneously looks upon with disdain. Dyson may be winning today, but we are playing a different game here, a much longer game, a game called Life As A Scholar, as a man of the people, as a person worthy of praise. And that’s more of a quest.

I imagine that Dyson feels some pain when he sees Cornel West smiling in public, connecting with people, and feeling gleeful. The way Dyson comments on him grinning, ear to ear, and his teeth, shows that Dyson feels West’s happiness is put upon. Those are simply gestures. In the world of Dyson’s mind, he must be a huckster. Nobody can be that happy. It’s impossible. Nobody can have that much love. There must be something wrong deep inside, and Dyson, in playing the victim, is able to prove his hypothesis that Cornel West isn’t all that. It has to be fake, because Dyson just doesn’t feel the love. And he uses the veneer of the lack of academic production (writing) to justify the pain he feels in his heart when he sees his beautiful brother day-in and day-out connecting to other souls in a truly heartfelt way, in a simple way, in the way that brings our academic knowledge down to the roots of people, and allows everyone–whether they are celebrity or fieldworker–to participate in the creation, dissemination and production of that knowledge, be it written, spoken, visual or programmed in 1’s and 0’s. West’s work seems to be a participatory exercise, where other “folk” are granted access to engage and collaborate, and Dyson is simply out to show us that he can play fiddle, too. And there’s a big difference in those two trajectories.

On a related note, Dyson misses the point of how this discussion relates to what is honored in the academy as knowledge, period. How those who perform and program or even do experiments, must face the pressure of putting that into words, into a format which may not be anywhere near the type of knowledge production they engage in. There is a much deeper debate hiding within this discussion, about what good academic research and writing are, and where that is going in the future. Professors are routinely penalized for blogging and using social media, and/or doing real community development, as the academy itself grapples with the notion of what constitutes peer-reviewed work in the digital age. While Dyson wants us to write more, he fails to talk about the system of academic publishing which has been riddled by the bullet holes of for-profit education. It takes a lot of work and research just to determine if a journal is viable these days, as well as if you will have to pay to get the article published. Within that system, it is highly questionable whether or not that kind of work is even meaningful at all to society at large. This is a very important question. Not to mention that in some fields it is debatable whether single-author books or journal articles are the more prestigious venue for building credibility. With Dyson and West, we are talking about highly productive, competitive scholars who have each published over a dozen books. Many professors only publish a handful of books and simply coast on their laurels for twenty to thirty years. Some only two or three.

I would like to attempt to conclude with another critical question: Why didn’t Dyson do this in an academic piece? You would really need a lot of chops–like Cornel West-level philosophical skills–to write a career-slamming academic journal article on Cornel West. The TNR piece is too broad and emotional and lacks a political analysis to such an extent that it could never pass peer review. It would completely bomb on all levels, and that is why Dyson takes it to The New Republic, instead of engaging on an academic level. Had he done so, we might not even be discussing it. So while it has been amusing to see this play out on social media, it will be even more interesting to see how Dyson’s academics peers will respond.

He might get some temporary measure of support from African-Americans who are tired of West’s antics, but that is not how academia works. Academic knowledge is a very slow burn, a process of bricklaying, where one’s work and relationships are lifelong pursuits. Though a few of us may have a bone or two to pick with Cornel West, one can only imagine how the hordes of scholars may feel: that the TNR piece was basically in very poor taste and a waste of everyone’s time. Dyson could have written about publishing and mentorship, Black Lives Matter, the upcoming presidential election, and so many other topics, to possibly salvage some cultural relevance out of this, but he chose not to. I believe this was subconscious, but it was definitely a mistake.

Dyson wants to make the basic claim that West is both irreverent and irrelevant. Watching the gore unfold from the sidelines of social media today, it would appear that he has proven neither. Dyson wants to prove he is better than West, and better than the rest of us, out here struggling along, for access to media, for education, for jobs. And my hope is that the remains of this dilapidated conversation would shift to focus more on the real tensions of this lopsided relationship.


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