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The Red Star of Bethlehem: A Review of the Cornel West and Carl Dix Dialogue

Nicholas Powers Jul 30, 2009

“A Christian and a Communist sitting in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” I sang my ditty into Aaron Davis Hall where Harvard preacher Cornel West and Communist Carl Dix would dialogue about Obama. I went to the counter, got my ticket and read the audience. We’re mostly young, mostly of color, hair twisted into dread-locks or picked into halo-like afros, we wore militant black clothes or bright red, some had Pan-African dyes some had Che staring from their chests.

I squeezed into my row, sat down and while waiting asked, why bother? The title of the event: The Ascendancy of Obama and the Continued Need for Resistance and Liberation seemed self-explanatory. More people walked in, smiled, hugged, tied glances around each other like gift wrap. We didn’t come here for new truth but the comfort of an old one; the political system is permanently corrupt and only we see a way out. We need this affirmation because Obama’s victory broke a deep unspoken rule of race that no matter how Christian, how clean-cut and well-spoken a black man could never be elected president. The architecture of white supremacy had a glass ceiling that reflected our protest signs. When Obama broke it even cynical Leftists danced in the streets, briefly carried by the flood of joy.

He tested our hopelessness but six months later, he’s testing our patience. The change we can believe in has become the change you can drop in a beggar’s cup. Too little. Too late. But a force field of public loyalty shields him. So we come to Aaron Davis Hall to hear two elder black men of the Left say, yes, it’s time to bring Obama to measure.

Waiting off-stage is Cornel West and Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party, which put this event on but really, we came to see West. He plays Leftist rhetoric like a saxophone. He blows it to a trembling point and then lets it cascade. And he unifies, which is rare on a Left that prides itself on splintering into sharper ideological points no one understands. Dix on the other hand divides. On You Tube, he introduced the event but veered into accusing the viewer of not wanting “straight talk” and warned “stay their ass home” if they can’t deal with his truth. Weird, like watching an uncle talk to himself. It’s why we came for West; he assumes our goodwill which lets us assume it to even if we haven’t earned it.

After opening remarks by RCP member Sunsara Taylor and journalist Herbert Boyd, West came in clasping Carl Dix as if shouldering shared weight. It’s a showy sign of solidarity to telegraph that it’s going to be a love-in because West doesn’t fight, he seduces.

Dix stiffly walks to the podium. He begins with the euphoria of election night, standing over it like a judge and says as an older black man he saw it as misguided passion. The audience tenses but Dix wins us back with a childhood story. On a family trip the car broke and his father, panicked at being stranded in the Upper South, called a tow truck. A white youth came, fixed it but called his father “boy”. Afraid for his family, the older man kept quiet as his young son looked on in disbelief. The anger and shame in Dix’s voice rippled through the rows.

After that he tells us not to get caught up with Obama being at the top but to ask what is he on the top of? He tells us look between the lines of Obama’s Africa speech and reads for us the unseen litany of atrocity. He tells us the same war, the same torture and the same detention is going on under Obama. He tells us in the end it’s not about any one man but a system that cannot be fixed only overthrown.

Dix tries to exorcise Obama out of us. He appeals to the ever present Leftist need, fed by stories like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to the Matrix film to believe that only we’ve untangled ourselves from illusion and see a truth no one else can. It works. I sense the audience moving to him as he maps the disillusionment waiting for the youth who believe in Obama. He warns that they will be, like the ones before, forced by poverty and drugs into jails or the army. He warns us of Obama “blaming the youth for their oppression. It was bullshit when Bill Cosby said it and its bullshit now.”

He talks of Sean Bell and I blink, seeing again the young man’s grey face in the coffin. I went to his funeral as a reporter and saw his mother sag in the church pew, wrung out by despair. I stood by the coffin knowing this is what it means to be powerless, that his family will lower his body into the ground without hope for justice. His life was not valued, just laid briefly on the scales of justice before the police badge tipped the balance. Three years later his death has sunk beneath the stone façade of the state into the silent depths of the people as more lives snuffed out by war or poverty drift down like ash around him.

I snap out of it and listen again to Dix, “Obama’s problem is that the system is deep in trouble and his mission is to save that system. Our problem is this system. We don’t need to see it saved. In fact we need to see it ended through revolution.” People clap but I don’t. He tells us we can bring “revolutionary institutions of power into being”. He tells us of the Chinese Revolution because he’s Maoist. During that time, Dix says, drugs and prostitution were ended and equality brought to the people until Mao Zedong died. It can happen again with Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the RCP who will guide us further. Again I don’t clap. No one does. It sounds too easy, too antiseptic as if millions of human lives weren’t used as cement for the new paradise.

He tells us the youth have to be transformed by “by fighting the system.” He’s right but fighting who and how? Is it with guns? If so how will that power bought with violence be different from the one before? He tells us it won’t happen through lectures from Cosby or Obama or by giving-our-lives-to-Jesus. He’s right, lectures don’t work, including his because his words feel imported from some fantastic world where we harmoniously erect the pillars of the new state. But to get to his utopia we must wage war against this world, I suspect we don’t clap because enough of us have felt violence and know that once set in motion it doesn’t end with victory but becomes the language we use to answer questions, replace doubt, end debate.

Dix finishes with a poem. We clap but the air is drained of hope. Cornel rises, hugs Dix and hobbles to the podium. Instead of taking the “give-it-up-to-Jesus” bait he thanks everyone and parsing the air with his hands says we must “create space for principled criticism of the Obama administration.” He does what Dix could not. He lets us keep the euphoria, saying it was real, it was a shattering of the glass ceiling of white supremacy but warns us not to overlook the poor as we gaze at the black man in the white house.

He swings his voice carrying us above Obama to a historical peak where we can see the lives and deaths that made him possible. West then re-enacts the scolding he gave to Obama on the phone, asking him if he was going to be true to the Civil Right legacy. “I’ll do the best I can brother West,” he pantomimes Obama. We laugh at his rebuke of the candidate-now-president. It’s one of the joys of West that we can laugh at real power.

But he says he threw the weight of his name behind Obama to end the age of Reagan because in it the poor were invisible or seen as scapegoats. It’s for the suffering masses, West growls that he stands with Dix because “he looks at the world from the vantage of poor people.” Yes they differ in strategy but it’s not about him or the RCP but the people. West then grabs the podium and brings down his full five decades of living, “We know defeat, when Martin was shot down like a dog; it killed something inside us.” He’s a performer who mimics feeling but some ageless raw ache juts through his voice. I tilt my head and study his lined face, his sagging body and oiled gestures and see a man thrashing in the nightmare of history.

He pumps his speech into hot seething rage at the first Obama betrayal of bringing in the same Neo-Liberal economists who ruined the economy to fix it. “What’s the angle of vision,” he hacks at Obama. “They send money to London and France but when poor people ask for help their told, pick yourself up by the boot-straps.” His Harvard pedigree and Civil Rights era authority allow him to reach up and down the class hierarchy and pull everyone onto the level field of humanism. Standing there he attacks the hypocrisy of the elite but I wondered; why is he not talking about ours?

In college, I listened to Malcolm X tapes on acid, saw All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren and what they had in common was an intimate critique of the hypocrisy of the poor by someone who once was poor. In the movie, Willie Stark’s yells at share-croppers that “you’re hicks and nobody ever helped a hick but a hick.” Malcolm X viciously dogged the way black folk clutched at status like life-preservers. Instead of getting him booed, people laughed and roared. Why? They felt released from the effort of erasing blackness or the shame of not being able to. Self-lacerating laughter creates solidarity. West doesn’t dig into our shadows, no, he always tries to unify us through love based on shared indignity. I always sensed it was his major fault. He tries to say we’re better than the ruling elite but we aren’t. We don’t just love, we also hate and desire and collaborate.

Closing my eyes, I listened to West swing accusations at the Man but is the Man listening? Amazingly at that moment, he lamented the government’s infiltration of the Movement and shouts, “we know the CIA and FBI are here and we welcome you.” The hall rocked with laughter. I didn’t know if we were congratulating ourselves on courage in the face of surveillance or just needed to believe we were being watched to feel important. If I was an agent, would I see this meeting as a threat? I looked around hoping.

West ended with a call for action, with a call to the youth to take his place but by this time I was listening to him more as music. We applauded. The moderators asked them questions as microphone stands were set up in the aisle. Soon the Great Howling began. It’s a ritual at Leftist events to honor democracy and open the floor but ranters always grab the mike and make long soliloquies as the we trickle out.

Outside Aaron Davis Hall I called my friend Leronn, he gave me directions to a bar. While walking I remembered the first time I met the RCP. I’d moved from Boston to New York. Ambitious, greedy for experience I started graduate school at CUNY in August 2001 but in a month, the Twin Towers fell, three thousand people were pulverized to dust and like everyone I was numb with terror. At some point, in a daze I wandered into Revolution Books. They greeted me, gave me literature and to this day I am grateful.

I read the history of U.S. Middle East policy, the regimes we propped up and armed, the money flushed into Mujahideen hands. And to their credit the RCP predicted the wars, the police state, the fear to come and they yelled in bold print not to give in. I wanted to be brave like them and studied and marched and yelled at protests, just not with them.

After a few meetings I realized the RCP was a rhetorical pyramid-scheme, one that constantly sought new recruits to seek new recruits so the base would expand under the shining eye of the all-knowing genius of Chairman Bob Avakian. Every time I hung out they offered Bob Avakian pamphlets, Bob Avakian CDs, Bob Avakian books, Bob Avakian DVDs, Bob Avakian condoms, Bob Avakian tote-bags. His memoir was stacked at the window. On the cover was Bob as a pale cherubic teen before he became the grizzly bear-like man of the RCP. Bob is always intense, staring hard, jaw clenched, eyes grinding illusions to glitter.

More irritating than the cult-like aura was the way the RCP leverage their moral claim against you, as if to keep a good self-image you must buy their newspaper, open it like a window to a hidden world of misery and shocked by it, go and proselytize to the blind, opening their eyes until Bob leads us into the halls of power to re-build the world. Humanity will be forever free and we’ll shine in history as the last saints who delivered heaven on earth.

It’s a compelling story because there is suffering in the world; real brutal suffering and none of us have the power alone to stop it. And we suffer privately from experiences we can’t name or share that warp our lives into unrecognizable shape. The Communist narrative promises an end to pain, offers redemption through revolution. Like any political philosophy, it’s based on an implicit definition of man, in this case as a being entangled in illusions but once freed can create utopia.

But I wondered, if the global crisis deepened and hundreds of thousands of people flooded progressive parties like the RCP, how would that small circle hold against such tidal force without splintering into factions? Isn’t that the very history of the RCP itself? How can we trust their promises about tomorrow when in a revolution those who first made them might be replaced by hungry ambitious newcomers?

If the global crisis deepens and the state was weak enough to attack, how would the RCP deal with violence? Once used, violence becomes addictive. It creates a climate of fear that leaders mistake for legitimacy. But these are laughable questions I thought. The RCP is not and will not be anytime soon a threat to the state. They are more of a threat to the Left because they build a dream on a shaky assumption of human nature.

They hold an image of humanity as a victim of a small parasitical class and if we wipe out that class, install new modes of production, new social relations; we will shed our alienation and be free. But we’ve had revolutions from the Hebrew exodus out of Egypt to Spartacus and the Third Servile War, the Peasant’s Revolt of medieval Europe to the American and French Revolutions, the Haitian, Bolshevik and Cuban Revolutions. Each of these freed some but not all and not forever.

What if it’s because war cannot create peace? What if the ruling elite are not aliens whose death would free us but people like us who are caught in roles they didn’t create? What if Plato’s Noble Lies, the famous girders in the architecture of oppression, are not driven into us by the state but emerge from us because we are innately divided, because we lie to bridge the split between who we are, how we see ourselves and the emotions we sense but are too faint or too fast to be named. What if the first casualty of truth is war?

I don’t know and may never know but ahead was the bar with my friend waving. We hugged. “Man what’s up.” I asked if he heard the event. Leronn grinned, “Yeah on WBAI. Cornel just outmaneuvered him in every way. He went there for street-cred and they got to bask in his light. They used each other.”
“I thought there might some sparks but..,” I shrugged.
Leronn shook his head, “You can’t rhetorically wrestle Cornel, he just slips out, kisses you and steals your girl.”
“He stole the audience.”
“Put them in his pocket.”
We chortled and ordered drinks. “What you think of Dix,” I asked.
Leronn squinted, “When he said that story of his father, I could tell he was traumatized by it, you know, deeply wounded, so he’s coming from that space and things like that mark a man, some never get beyond it.”
I sighed into my hands, “Are we trapped in those moments?”
“If we stay in them,” Leronn slid a beer to me, “But as long as we’re alive we get new moments. We have choice. We are free whether we know it or not, whether we want it or not.”

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