Marxism isn’t really my thing.
But when it comes to the recent dust-up between the two African-American intellectual giants on race, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the current best-selling darling of the left, and 64-year old Cornel West, I’m leaning more with the grumpy, old guy with Marxist roots and the great afro and bushy white-speckled beard.
It’s not just that I personally also favor kind of a bushy look over Coates’ more clean-cut one, although maybe what does bother me about Coates does have something to do with style. Both West and Coates are angry and see an awful lot that’s wrong with America. But Coates shares something particular with with many of the social critics of his generation and younger — a focus on only one place of injustice at a time, and a reluctance to sign up with a broader political platform.
This drives old radicals like West crazy. For West, capitalism — the concentration of power in the hands of the few who have control over the money, whether it’s on Wall Street or on military spending — is the umbrella under which all of America’s particular problems from racism to sexism is found. Says West in taking Coates’ racism-obsessed approach to task, “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.”
I’m no radical like West, but I’m also steeped intellectually in seeing economics and the resulting power relations as the tainted well from which oppression springs. Think about the Today Show. It sounds like Matt Lauer, with his years-long position in the top spot and his multi-million dollar salary, pretty much terrorized everyone working in Rockefeller Center for the Today Show; everyone needed his approval and feared losing his attention if they had it in that gilded cage a top TV show can become. He had the power over everybody’s career. A group of women paid a higher price for this imbalance than others when Lauer’s sexual attentions fell upon them, but they were not the only victims.
One of the things I love here in Jerusalem is that the public bus drivers play whatever music or news they want on their bus. It’s clear it’s their bus. I don’t always like what they play, but I’m proud to live in a place where the average workers feel like they have some kind of human rights while they’re on the job. We have our problems here for sure, but capitalism hasn’t yet quite run amok here to the extent it has in America. Income inequality isn’t anywhere near as great.
But we do become a little bit more like America every day. In some ways that American influence is good, and there is, for example, a growing recognition of the need to recognize the rights of LGBT people. But, in terms of the concentration of wealth and power, I don’t like what I see about America’s influence.
If we’re ever going to find our way out of this place — whether in Bibi Netanyahu’s Israel or Donald Trump’s America — I think we’re going to have to follow solutions closer to West’s than to Coates’. I’m not even sure Coates has any coherent, comprehensive political program for change at all. But West knows that all Americans, however they might be oppressed, have to be brought along.