The Cornel West-Ta-Nehisi Coates feud and the role of intellectuals

Cornel West published an article in the Guardian where he criticized Ta-Nehisi Coates for as representing the neoliberal wing of the black freedom struggle and failing to take a sufficiently strong stand against the predations of US capitalism and imperialism and Barack Obama’s complicity in them.

This wing reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people.

The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.

Coates rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy – past and present. He sees it everywhere and ever reminds us of its plundering effects. Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fightback, and never connects this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.

This raised the hackles of Coates’s defenders and as a result of the resulting acrimony, Coates has closed his Twitter account.

Naomi Klein and Opal Temeti write an important piece at The Intercept where they say that this should not be seen as an issue dealing with just the black community or one where people reflexively choose sides with one person against the other, but raises questions that should be addressed by the intellectual community at large, that transcend the specifics of the West-Coates disagreement.

We see this debate as a political opportunity, one that has far less to do with either of these brilliant men and everything to do with how, at a time of unfathomably high stakes, we are going to build a multiracial human rights movement capable of beating back surging white supremacy and rapidly concentrating corporate power. As women, both Black and white, both American and Canadian, we see the question like this: What are the duties of radicals and progressives inside relatively wealthy countries to the world beyond our national borders? A warming world wracked by expanding and unending wars that our governments wage, finance, and arm — a world scarred by unbearable poverty and forced migration?

Though West directed his criticisms at Coates, these are by no means questions for Coates alone. They are urgent challenges for all of us who see ourselves as part of social movements and intellectual traditions that yearn for a world where justice and dignity abound.

To be clear, we are not saying that every writer has a duty to write about everything. No one does. Nor do we think that the subject matter for which Coates is known — Black life in the United States — is somehow insufficient. It isn’t. And yet hard questions remain that cannot be dismissed simply become some dislike the messenger or the form of the message.

Such as: Is it even possible to be a voice for transformational change without a clear position on the brutal wars and occupations waged with U.S. weapons? Is it possible to have a credible critique of Wall Street’s impact on Black and other vulnerable communities in the U.S. without reckoning with the predatory and neocolonial impacts of the global financial system (including Washington-based institutions like the International Monetary Fund) on the debt-laden economies of African countries?

But it is also true that the atmosphere of intense political crisis in the United States is breeding a near myopic insularity among progressives and even some self-described radicals, one that is not just morally dangerous but strategically shortsighted. By defining our work exclusively as what goes on inside our borders, and losing touch with the rich anti-imperialist tradition, we risk depriving our movements of the revolutionary power that flows from cross-border exchanges of both wisdom and tactics.

Some argue for staying in our lane, and undoubtedly there is a place for deep expertise. The political reality, however, is that the U.S. government doesn’t stay in its lane and never has — it spends public dollars using its military and economic might to turn the world into a battlefield, and it does so in the name of all of U.S. citizens.

At a time of rampant of rampant anti-intellectualism (not to mention anti-science and anti-rationalism) in the US, the role of the intellectual becomes more important than ever and the Klein-Temeti piece is a thoughtful contribution to the discussion of what that proper role should be.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    I think that one of the primary failures of the Intellectual Left is its tendency to spend a majority of its energy blasting other members of the Intellectual Left. I’m reminded of Garrison Keillor’s line about how the church he grew up in had split so many times it was down to just his dad and his uncle, and the last time he saw them they were out on the porch arguing about predestination.

    And before anyone points out that Garrison Keillor is currently problematic, yes, I know. But doesn’t that also kind of prove my point?

  2. says

    I haven’t completed the article yet (hopefully I can do so over the weekend), but I do agree it’s important. I’ve noted in the past in comments on this blog that I can understand how and why liberals get so tied up in domestic issues (because they’re what impacts them most directly) that they often take a “Meh” attitude toward international issues.
    As an engineer, I get the idea of root cause analysis and the associated idea that treating a symptom of a problem rather than the root itself is an effort in futility. If international politics is the root of domestic issues, then we do indeed need to tackle problems at that international scale…or, if nothing else, perhaps we can figure out what we can do locally that can help build the tools we need to take on things at the international (global) level. It would seem one step could be to point out to my liberal peers the importance of international politics (which I do somewhat…so I’ll do it more)

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