The political scientist Wallace Sayre is quoted as saying that “academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” A bitter online fight that erupted this week between scholar Cornel West and Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates offers the latest illustration.
West (with whom I studied at Harvard in the 1990s) has become one of the left’s more controversial figures. He supported Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, then became a vigorous critic of the Obama administration, arguing that it was not radical enough on race and poverty.
Coates has become one of the left’s more popular voices, providing intellectual heft to the grievance du jour. In 2014, he made a case for reparations for slavery; the year before, he attacked Dr. Ben Carson as the latest “Conservative Black Hope” to “put on the mask” for whites.
On Thursday, West posted an attack on Coates to his Facebook page, ripping him as “a mere darling of White and Black Neo-liberals, paralyzed by their Obama worship and hence a distraction from the necessary courage and vision we need in our catastrophic times.”
Coates seems to have weathered the attack with a sense of levity, though it caused a sensation in social media. Much of the commentary ran in his favor, accusing West of petty jealousy at Coates’s rise to claim the literary spotlight that West had once occupied, twenty years ago.
On one level, this is a typical Monty Python-esque factional dispute, pitting the radical radical left against the merely radical left. On another, it is a sign of the times, an attempt to seize the mantle of authentic leadership as the end of the Obama era looms on the horizon.