Dr. Peniel Joseph: Peoples Historian or Establishment Courtier? Part Two of Two: Peniel Joseph vs Hubert Harrison on Democracy

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

It's not that hard to tell an honest people's intellectual from a brand name huckster. One is engaged in making and propagating brands, terms with no fixed meaning of their own crafted to evoke unanalyzed, but useful feelings in an audience. The other is about the business of helping clear the cobwebs, cutting through received wisdom and official deceptions, explaining how the lives of ordinary people affect and are affected by the lineup of social forces, and what we can do about it. A quick look at how Dr. Joseph treats the word “democracy” in his latest work illustrates which side of the divide he is on.

Dr. Peniel Joseph: Peoples Historian or Establishment Courtier? Part Two of Two:  Peniel Joseph vs. Hubert Harrison on Democracy

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

For a long while now, “democracy” has been one of those words whose meaning varies depending on whose lips it comes from. A “democracy” in the modern US political lexicon, can be any country with two-party elections, diplomatic relations with the US, and a McDonalds. US administrations of both parties have pursued a policy of spreading what they call “democracy” throughout Africa by thoroughly militarizing their Africa policy from top to bottom, merging all US civilian and military programs under AFRICOM and military commanders, and providing billions in US military aid, arms transfers and military training to 50 or more of the continent's 54 nations.

Only a fool or somebody intent on doing the fooling can ignore the gap between the purported and actual meanings of the terms “democracy” and “democratic” in the modern US political context. This isn't exactly new news. Hubert Harrison, an authentic black peoples' intellectual, a colleague and critic of Marcus Garvey, as well as W.E.B. DuBois, and an original thinker who laid the foundations for much of African American political thought in the twentieth century and beyond, spelled it out for us.

'Democracy', like 'Kultur' is more valuable as a battle cry than as a real belief to be practiced by those who profess it....” declared Harrison back in 1920.

Harrison was referring to the World War 1 propaganda that depicted the U.S, Britain and France as fighting for “democracy” against their rival imperialist powers. At the time of course, France enforced a brutal colonial regime upon tens of millions of Vietnamese and Africans, and the Brits ruled over hundreds of millions of Indians and Africans. Both their empires were deep in debt to the US, a colonial power in its own right founded and built, as we all know, with stolen labor on stolen land.

The cant of 'Democracy,'” Harrison went on to explain, “is intended as dust in the eyes of white voters, incense on the altar of their own self-love. It furnishes bait for the clever statesmen who hold the destinies of people in their hands when they go fishing for suckers in the waters of public discussion....”

We have only to stand the revealing clarity and precision of Hubert Harrison's words and insight alongside the vague and weasel-worded obfuscation of Peniel Joseph in his latest work, Dark Days, Bright Nights, From Black Power to Barack Obama, to see the difference between the service rendered by a real people's intellectual, an intellectual of the movement, and the confusion sowed by a loyal servant of the establishment pretending to be some kind of “historian of the movement.” In the ten page introduction to his book, Dr. Joseph manages to use the words “democracy” and “democratic” at least 25 times, invoking utterly opposite and contradictory meanings without bothering to tell us what the thing really is, or what it means.

On page one, he asserts that Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael had “...pivotal roles in transforming democracy...”, and that their “...defiant identification with underdogs ranging from prisoners to sharecroppers made them particularly attuned to democracy's shortcomings and ragged edges...” In the very next paragraph Dr. Joseph declares that “...black Americans have been among the most vocal, eloquent, and longstanding proponents of American democracy...” but that “...African Americans' relationship to democracy remains star crossed.” Star-crossed? Is that a historical term, or an astrological one? On page three, Dr. Joseph mentions what he calls Dr. King's “...faith in the redeeming nature of American democracy...” along with Malcolm X's questioning of “...democracy's capacity to extend justice, opportunity and equality to African Americans.” So now is “democracy” the US political, legal and economic system in Malcolm's critique which denies equal opportunity to millions? Or is “democracy” this hazy redemptive dream inside the head of Dr. King? And is Dr. Joseph through playing with our heads? Unfortunately not.

By page four of the intro, Joseph is referring to “...still raging debates over race, war, and democracy...”, to “King's vision of a color-blind democracy...”, and on page five assuring us that Obama's election “...offer(s) hope in the concept of democracy...” A little later in the introduction Dr. J tells us that “This country has a long history of considering blacks a 'problem' for American democracy rather than asking why democracy itself has such difficulty...” On page ten, he reasserts that an objective of the Black Power movement was to “transform American democracy”, talks about “...American democracy's unprecedented postwar expansion...”, and even admits that “...what democracy means, precisely, continues to be a matter of debate...” But it's a debate which Dr. Peniel Joseph is not interested in helping us understand or pursue.

The confusion does not stop with the introduction. On the first page of the first chapter, Dr. J says Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure) “”...questioned the legitimacy of democratic institutions...”, that they “...expanded the boundaries of American democracy...” and goes back to his astrology with a reference to “...the movement's at times star-crossed relationship with democratic institutions...”

For Dr. Peniel Joseph then, and for his whole idea of history, the terms “democracy” and “democratic,” at the absolute center of establishment US political disource, don't need to have exact meanings. Democracy can be a foreign policy objective, a dream distant or near, the institutions of governance themselves, or society at large. It can be something that evokes feelings warm and fuzzy, feelings mixed and diffident, just another riddle, or it can be any, all or none of the above. There's a word for this. It's not found in history, or in the toolkits of any of the social sciences. It's a marketing word.. It's branding.

Branding is the art and science of evoking unanalyzed feelings in an audience which influence their behavior. Hubert Harrison's ninety year old description of “the cant of democracy” and its uses exactly fit the model of branding, though the word had not yet been invented. Dr. Peniel Joseph is not in the business of explaining American, African American or movement history. He is in the business of strip mining that history for accessible brands, and in the spirit of a courtier, he tries to dress Barack Obama and the black political class of the moment in the branded image of the Black Power Movement which he has created.

This is not an empty world in which every discussion has no relation to any other. It's an old, established world, rich in contexts, and Dr. Joseph is no fool. His deliberate promiscuity with the word “democracy,” while he never offers his own consistent explanation of the term is a conscious capitulation to the establishment discourse, in which democracy is a brand, as Hubert Harrison put it, a battle cry of empire. An established brand.

Dark Days, Bright Nights is a 225 page book, not counting the 40 pages of notes. If BAR's article format permitted, we could go on for some time, and we did touch a bit in part one, on its selective recollection of Malcolm X and Kwame Toure, the former Stokley Carmichael. If we were to do a part 3, or an expanded version of this article, we might contrast its shallow and sycophantic biographical sketch of the president with the work of Paul Street, a real present-day peoples intellectual, most recently the author of “The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power.”

But this has to be enough for now. The immediate and crying need is for real black scholars, real peoples intellectuals to come forth with critiques of the Joseph-like pretenders whose careers rest upon transforming movement history into brands, and offering them up as protective camouflage for our Black Misleadership Class. These real peoples' intellectuals might not get tenure anyplace, if they don't have it already. They might even lose it if they have it now. They may not get on CNN very often, but it's time for real people's intellectuals to surface, to make themselves known, and get down to the work of explaining the lineup of forces in our society, and how they affect our individual and collective lives, and work on getting those messages out to people, by whatever means are available, and necessary.


My Hubert Harrison quotes are from pages 99-100, 205 and 282 of the Jeffrey B. Perry's Hubert Harrison Reader. Perry is the custodian of Harrison's papers, and the author of the first volume of his biography. Much more about this fascinating and little known African American leader of the early 20th century can be found at http://jeffreybperry.net.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and based in metro Atlanta. He can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.