Saturday, September 12, 2015

Some Thoughts On Michael Eric Dyson's "Think Out Loud"

A few thoughts:

After an interesting start comparing a generation of black intellectuals to the New York intellectuals, including the veering of some from both groups pronouncedly rightwards, Dyson descends to a kind of elaborated baseball cards catalogue of who's prominent these days and who has been, what they've done, with nothing much else, save for some stock comments about the Internet and what modern technology delivers and makes possible. And even in that, as the piece gets increasingly rhapsodic, Dyson stops being self aware of some of the nonsense he's in effect subscribing to:

...The book is no longer exclusively dominant in the realm of black ideas. The black digital intelligentsia flourishes in an epistemic ecology in which the scholarly impulse has been sheared by the cutting edges of new technology and the desire for instant knowledge and commentary on current ideas and events...

So excited is Dyson by the sweep of his way inflated prose--"digital intelligentsia flourishes in an epistemic ecology"--that he can't pause for a moment to note how impoverished it is and what a bane for a culture it is to want "instant knowledge and commentary."

A defensive tone forecasting what's to come is evident pretty early on in this on a past generation of black thinkers:

...We proved that, as with basketball and music, the dominant American thinkers were black. Which brings us to the present...

Paradoxically, the triumphalism, which suggests a continuation of that "dominance," trumpets the defensiveness and foretells a need in Dyson to make outlandish claims, in which, among other things, he assesses mediocrity, competence and better as "brilliance":

....They include, to name only a few, Jamelle Bouie at Slate, Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York TimesMagazineJoy Reid at MSNBC, Jamilah Lemieux at Ebony, and the NewRepublic’s Jamil Smith. Brilliant, eloquent, deeply learned writers and thinkers, they contend with the issues of the day, online, on television, wherever they can....

This is like saying the white journalists in the mainstream press or white pundits who appear on television are "brilliant"--surely a  quality to be spoken of sparingly, not indiscriminately as does Dyson--rather than these these white scribblers and talkers being what they are, mediocre, competent and in some instances good and exceptionally good. Dyson's overestimation, fuelled by skin colour, is particularly so in the highlighting of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who a commentator on this thread nails for precisely Coates's  lack of intellectual brilliance. I'd add he's an ok writer, not much more than that. Quoting from what I agree with in the comment:

.....The problem with having Ta-Nehisi Coates as the standard-bearer of the "Emerging Black Intelligentsia" is that he's clearly not exceptionally intelligent...

My abiding criticism of this essay, apart from it being an outlandish catalogue written in inflated  prose, is Dyson's need to claim for black Americans exclusiveness and dominance as truth tellers, thinkers and as measurers of what's right and moral:

...IN 2013, Professor Eddie Glaude, chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton, argued  in The New York Times that black intellectuals ought to be “the moral conscience of their societies...

Tyson, instead of blanching at the precious grandiosity of "the moral conscience"--not even just "a moral conscience" will do, welcomes the idea and goes on to say that those he catalogues, who themselves range from the mediocre to the competent to the good and to the very good, are in Dyson's reckoning to a man and woman, as noted, "Brilliant, eloquent, deeply learned." The myth at the foundation of the "Ferguson rebellion"--euphemism for thugs rampaging, burning and looting--"hands up don't shoot," seeing BLM as the cutting edge of something, seeing it and its apologists as "the moral conscience of their societies," eliding BLM's radical distraction from the hard day to day work to improve the conditions of black lives, flying over its illogical conflation of disparate impact as an actuality and "structural racism," these all measure both Dyson's rhapsodic remove from actuality and his flawed skewing in only one ideological direction. For he doesn't engage, or just catalogue, conservative black intellectuals, journalists and media figures. Except for one brief passing mention, noted, he excludes them all from his grandiloquent survey.

The clear inference emerging here is that the foundation for Dyson's overpraise is skin colour. In a nutshell, for Tyson, black is beautiful, necessarily, which is to say, black of an acceptable ideological stripe, is beautiful, necessarily. In a nutshell, for that beauty, Dyson is cheerleader: "Give me a B; Give me an L; Give me an A; Give me a C; Give me a K." Whatta ya' got? Ya got: "...At The Atlantic Coates called Harris-Perry America’s 'foremost public intellectual'...," a spectacularly dumb assertion Dyson affirms.

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