I was always taught at a young age that criticism for the sake of banter and attention only made you appear worse than the person you were in opposition with. No matter how many degrees and accomplishments one has, if you have to stoop below a certain level of respectability to prove a point, chances are your integrity is questionable.
As a black academic at a fine institution of higher learning, I have constantly tried to overlook the repeatedly blatant verbal shots thrown at President Barack Obama. Many Republican politicians and conservative media critics have taken to attacking almost everything about Obama from his ethnicity, scholarship and ethics to his wife and children. And while many of these remarks can cross racially insensitive boundaries, there has been a trend of spotlighting black scholars who criticize the president and this often creates buzz. But more often than not, the two black intellectuals who stand to grasp the most limelight for taking spiteful jabs at President Obama are Cornel West and Tavis Smiley.
An author, media personality and one of the self-proclaimed leading voices in the black community, Tavis Smiley has a national audience and influence. However, when taking time out time to recently describe the president's remarks about race as "weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid," you can only begin to question the motives behind such a very immature and unintelligent insult.
Smiley's good friend and radio show co-host of Smiley and West, the accomplished scholar Cornel West only added more fuel to the fire. Earlier this week, West went to the extreme by calling Obama a "global George Zimmerman"and further added that those who would want to be critical of the president, notably Rev. Al Sharpton, "can't because he's still on the Obama plantation."
Is this a scene ripped from a reality television show?
I am used to celebrities with a half-thorough knowledge of politics to make foolish pseudo-intellectual remarks to spark controversy. But never would I have imagined that two grown, educated and successful black men would fall for the cheap thrill of being media trolls. In many ways, this situation says a lot about the age-old stigmas in the black community that comes from success.
For one, there is nothing wrong with being critical of our president. Poverty, drug laws, and gun crime are some of the major issues that have yet to be tackled effectively. I have had my fair share of discussing possible outcomes and solutions along with noting the current failure to do so by our Congress. However, turning those critiques into rhetorical personal attacks only hurts one's credibility. For West and Smiley to be slanderous with their level of power and visibility only does more harm than good.
And this is not to say that both West and Smiley aren't doing more than their fair share of good in the community. With their recent poverty awareness tours and informative journalism and lectures, both men have been doing a phenomenal job of using their platforms when it comes to spreading the word. But the cattiness and ridiculous attention that comes from their unnecessary remarks about our nation's first black president only distracts from the cause.
And as scholars and black men who have been in the media for many years, haven't they realized that their off-putting jabs at President Obama have garnered more attention and spotlight recently than their more notable causes? For the past week, most headlines only talk about their insults and little to none about the work they continue to do in the community.
Being a young black adult in academia and media, it is embarrassing to see what appears to be the result of a "crabs in the barrel" scenario play out publicly. For a long time, I have admired the work of both Tavis Smiley and Cornel West but the consistent merit-less bashing is causing me to lose a level of respect for them both.
I do not have any qualms with people intellectually criticizing an individual. But let's make it intellectual. Disrespecting the President of the United States by comparing one of his more sentimental and personal speeches to Kool-Aid might as well be said by an 8-year-old. Pushing the taboo envelope by comparing our Commander-in-Chief to the controversial George Zimmerman during a time of social outcry and frustration doesn't show that you have intellect. It makes you sound like a careless bully.
I am not even going to make assumptions as to what personal riffs might be at the center as to why West and Smiley feel that they should continue to make blatant insults to our nation's president. But if it is personal, keep it that way and do not let it distract from the larger causes that both of you men have to inform the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, even in this day and age, I have yet to see a large variety of successful black intellectuals on television or in the media at large. I can nearly count on both hands the major faces that do get the proper amount of airtime to voice their concerns facing race, class and social issues in our communities.
It is both a privilege and responsibility that Tavis and West have been afforded the luxury to be among those individuals. But there comes a time when egos and personal differences should not become the petty professional distractions that so often happen to successful black men in society. For these issues impact the larger communities you impact, and set the tone for the next league of black influence that is to follow.
Tavis and West should leave the reality show drama for the television networks, and re-shift their energy to the causes and more meaningful "black intellectualism" that we see them doing well.
I'm pretty sure President Obama has enough on his plate to worry about as well.
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