Michael Dyson and Cornel West are involved in a very public and ugly feud.
Dyson attempted to "ether" West in an almost 10,000 word essay written for The New Republic called "The Ghost of Cornel West".
Dave Zirin, sports writer, intellectual, and all around smart guy at The Nation offered up the following observation about Dyson versus West in his essay "Cornel West Is Not Mike Tyson":
As a sportswriter I am very sensitive to the use and misuse of boxing metaphors. Few analogies are either more powerful or more universally understood than comparing a public figure to an iconic fighter. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, in a panoramic, painfully personal, deeply researched 10,000-word excoriation of Dr. Cornel West, published in The New Republic, has compared the 61-year-old professor to Mike Tyson. He describes West as someone who once “tore through opponents with startling menace and ferocity,” but who has since devolved into a “faint echo of himself,” an ear-biting sideshow, more interested in celebrity than serious academic and political work.
With all respect to Dyson, who wrote the intro to my book Game Over and has been a friend to me on numerous occasions, this is in my view the wrong choice of championship pugilists. West is not Mike Tyson: he’s Muhammad Ali.
Not the Muhammad Ali of ESPN hagiographies or Hollywood films starring Will Smith. But the real Muhammad Ali: effortlessly provocative, undeniably narcissistic, and unquestionably brilliant.
The deeply hurtful quotes that West has aimed at Dyson (he has “prostituted himself intellectually”) and Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry (“she is a liar and a fraud”) are 21st-century iterations of Ali’s regrettable, and for many unforgivable, questioning of the blackness of the great Joe Frazier, comparing the proud fighter to an ugly gorilla, all in the name of hyping up fights and throwing Frazier off of his game.[And if a person really wants to understand the meta game between West and Dyson they need to read Political Scientist Dr. Adolph Reed Jr.'s classic article "What are the Drums Saying Booker?"]
I largely agree with Zirin's take on the fracas. However, he is too generous in his analysis of the organic nature of the dispute. Nevertheless, Dave Zirin also has a large piece of the puzzle mostly figured out.
Michael Dyson versus Cornel West is more like professional wrestling than it is boxing.
I offer some additional connective tissue for Zirin's great essay.
Muhammad Ali was a huge fan of professional wrestling and credits Gorgeous George as a having had a great influence on his style, demeanor, and ability to work an audience:
Gorgeous George would shout, bulge his eyes and threaten to annihilate his ''enemy." Some of his opponents feared George's tough talk outside the ring far more than his technique inside it. In short order, the anger aimed at him made him one of wrestling's - and television's - biggest attractions. And he cried all the way to the bank.
His act lasted so long that a little-known boxer named Cassius Marcellus Clay, who won the 1960 light heavyweight championship in the Rome Olympics, took careful note of George's success.
"Soon after I turned pro," Cassius mused, "I discovered that even though I won the Olympic title, I wasn't making any money. I was the only champion that didn't have no jack jangling in his jeans. So I studied Gorgeous George and began doing his act better than he did it.
"Before I became champ, I used to go in the ring and fight and when I went to the dressing room, people didn't pay much attention to me," Ali recalled years later. "One night, I was watching Gorgeous George on TV. He was jumping around making a lot of noise and threatening his opponents and I said to myself, 'this guy's on to something.' I think I'll put some of that in my act."
Boxing fans plunked down their hard-earned cash to see Ali get knocked out. But alas, he had become as fine a boxer as he was a showman, and routinely whipped his opponents - "as if I was their daddy," he enjoyed saying.
He also told reporters he probably owed Gorgeous George a lot of money: "Wasn't for him, nobody would have heard of me," Ali insisted."I didn't use no perfume or high heels, but I became real boisterous and the fans began paying attention to me. They hated my poetry and came to see if I would knock out my opponents in the round I'd predict. Fans would spend their money and rush to my fights, hoping to see me get my head whupped."I have no doubt that the animus between West and Dyson is real. But, there is more money to be made in the build up, climax, and then blow off match, than there is in Dyson and West being compadres and brothers in arms forever.
As in other areas of life, we and they make up to break up.
For example, West, Dyson, and Smiley made a ton of money on their various tours during the Age of Obama and the twilight years of Bush II.
What better way is there to make money and get attention, i.e. return to relevance in popular culture and among the more literate audiences for the chattering classes, than to have a feud between former "brothers?"
Emotional issues between talented competitors plus good creative equals cash in professional wrestling.
It is no different in the world of public intellectuals.
West and Dyson will feud today. This will put a butt every 18 inches in a seat. West and Dyson will reconcile and sell it as a story about two lions and titans in the Black Prophetic Tradition who love justice and "The People" so much that they had to duel in order to place their ideas in a fiery crucible as a way of reducing their brilliance down to its essence.
Public jawing is West's and Dyson's way of applying black intellectual power to Plato's Theory of the Forms.
If Dick Gregory is not available to referee the series of matches between Michael Dyson and Cornel West, I am more than willing to do it for a very agreeable rate of payment.