Dyson against the Left

There is quite a lot to say on Micheal Eric Dyson’s 10,000 word article in the New Republic lambasting his old friend Cornel West. Much of the criticism he levies against West is personal and that’s unfortunate. It should be obvious that Cornel West is not beyond reproach. Nor is he above making needlessly personal charges against opponents. All that aside, what concerns me is Dyson’s pretence that he has maintained an independent, critical outlook on the Obama administration. “I expressed love for Obama and criticized him for not always loving us back,” Dyson writes, adding that “[t]hroughout his presidency I have offered what I consider principled support and sustained criticism of Obama.” In reality, he has long performed as a loyal Democratic party operative, tempering left-wing criticism of the Obama administration and defending its record regardless of the policies it pursues.

In 2010 the White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs angrily denounced the “professional left” for what he deemed its unreasonable expectations of Obama. “I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said. “I mean, it’s crazy.” Admonishing this “professional left” for having a loose grip on reality–echoing Dyson’s own comments about Obama’s left-wing critics–Gibbs remarked that they will only be “satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.” Long before Gibbs made those comments, Dyson had already established his vocation of shielding the Obama administration from left-wing criticism. That, above all else, has been Dyson’s political function since Obama announced his candidacy. Consider the following examples:

  • In a 2008 debate with Glen Ford, Dyson declared that “the ideological matrix from which Barack Obama emerges and the grid that he has attempted to deploy is radically dissimilar to any right-wing interest.” Obama’s hawkish foreign policy pronouncements, his coterie of Clinton administration leftovers including such progressive luminaries as Tim Geithner and Lawrence Summers, his basic neoliberal outlook which had long been obvious, were all nonissues for Dyson. This had all been recognized at the time by more perceptive analysts. As early as 1996, Adolp Reed Jr. had dubbed Obama “a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics.” Twelve years later, Dyson still believed Obama to be a progressive.
  • After the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Dyson appeared on MSNBC and offered a vacuous assessment of how the raid would affect Obama’s image. The president was seen as vulnerable due to a lack of military experience, Dyson offered, but now “he has done something here to organize the unity of Americans around this particular goal … and I think the people now see him in a different light. They begin to see him now as Executive Commander. They see him as a person in charge.” The blatant illegality of the raid, the violation of a country’s sovereignty, the readiness of Obama to start a war with Pakistan to conduct the raid, the administration’s establishment of extra-judicial assassinations as a bipartisan consensus, all escaped Dyson. The only thing that mattered was how the raid would affect Obama’s image.
  • In 2013, the Department of Justice secretly subpoenaed records of twenty Associated Press journalists in a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into press freedoms. “These records,” wrote AP in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, “potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.” In a panel discussion, Dyson cautioned that “we have to be very careful before we get outraged at the president” and offered this dizzying justification culled right out of the administration and corporate media playbook: “The press doesn’t get the fact that in other countries the stakes are much higher so we’re spoiled in this country in a certain way. That’s the beauty of democracy but it’s also the consequence of living in an existential chaos where we are not exposed immediately.” The “existential chaos” requires strict limits on press freedoms for security reasons.
  • After Obama’s Justice Department spied on another journalist, James Rosen, insisting that Rosen soliciting classified information–that is to say, doing his job–was illegal, Dyson boldly declared that “there is no scandal here.” As for Attorney General Eric Holder, Dyson revised his earlier opinion of having no investment in politicians as “deities or demiurges or gods” and declared him “the Moses of our time.” The Obama administration’s aggressive clampdown on journalists and whistleblowers–prosecuting more people under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined–was of no concern to Dyson.
  • In a 2014 Democracy Now! debate on Attorney General Eric Holder’s legacy, Public Citizen’s Robert Weissman and  the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Baher Azmy pointed out some of Holder’s accomplishments: granting immunity to Wall Street, being virtually “an extension of the Bush administration’s Justice Department around indefinite detention at Guantánamo” and “the warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens,” going even further than the Bush administration in targeting “journalists who seek to expose illegal federal government misconduct and the use of targeted killing practices to execute U.S. citizens without due process,” etc. Dyson’s response was telling. He readily admitted that Holder was “not perfect” and “there will always be lapses and contradictions, some of which are fundamental and some of which are extremely troubling.” Nonetheless, argued Dyson, Holder “will stand tall in the history of American jurisprudence, and certainly as one of the great attorneys general of all time.” An acknowledgement of fundamental and extremely troubling lapses and contradiction is followed by the assertion that one has to take the political terrain into account. Comments like these reveal Dyson to be fully invested in the politics of lesser evil with the exception that his lesser evil is in fact a progressive.

The above sample is only a partial record of Dyson’s partisan defence of the Obama administration, shielding the President from his left-wing critics while arguing that Obama is the progressive’s best hope rather than the “more effective evil” as Glen Ford described him. Being a Democrat, Obama has found it easier than Republicans to pursue neoliberal policies at home and empire abroad, having secured the services of intellectuals like Michael Eric Dyson. In this current “feud” between Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West, it is worth remembering that one of these men has been a principled critic of the administration, marching outside the White House while the other is rewarded with access to it.


Dyson’s obsequiousness toward the Obama administration is not unique. Adolph Reed Jr. captured liberal willingness to overlook just about every aspect of a Democratic President in his article “Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals.” Dyson’s illustrious pedigree as well as his methods are apparent in this excerpt:

For liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running. This modus operandi has tethered what remains of the left to a Democratic Party that has long since renounced its commitment to any sort of redistributive vision and imposes a willed amnesia on political debate. True, the last Democrat was really unsatisfying, but this one is better; true, the last Republican didn’t bring destruction on the universe, but this one certainly will. And, of course, each of the ‘pivotal’ Supreme Court justices is four years older than he or she was the last time.

Why does this tailing behind an increasingly right-of-center Democratic Party persist in the absence of any apparent payoff? There has nearly always been a qualifying excuse: Republicans control the White House; they control Congress; they’re strong enough to block progressive initiatives even if they don’t control either the executive or the legislative branch. Thus have the faithful been able to take comfort in the circular self-evidence of their conviction. Each undesirable act by a Republican administration is evidence that if the Democratic candidate had won, things would have been much better. When Democrats have been in office, the imagined omnipresent threat from the Republican bugbear remains a fatal constraint on action and a pretext for suppressing criticism from the left.