Cornel West & Obama

I was a supporter of Bill Bradley in the 2000 Democratic primary, largely because of a speech I saw him give in the spring of 1999 on race relations and the broken criminal justice system. Bradley was moralistic, clear-minded, and willing to talk about racism in a way that I’d never seen a white politician talk about it before. I saw Bradley again the night before the New Hampshire presidential primary. Bradley didn’t have the same fire and energy he had almost a year before and looked thoroughly worn-out by the campaign process. But introducing Bradley that night were the two most passionate and effective progressive speakers I’ve ever seen: Paul Wellstone and Cornel West. Wellstone gave a full-throated, fist-pumping speech to rally the crowd and West eloquently talked about the reasons he saw Brother Bradley as the best choice for President. I honestly don’t remember the details of either of their speeches well, but what was clear was that both Wellstone and West held exactly the same sort of view that I held about what a person’s political views should be, what the role of government should be, and how we can work together to make America a better place for all of its citizens.

Truthdig has a long article about Cornel West and his disappointment with President Obama. West was a strong and early support of Obama’s campaign. Yet Chris Hedges reports a massive rift that between himself and Obama, driven by Obama’s choices as President. West describes his disappointment at the opportunity Obama missed by not forcefully trying to stop the transfer of wealth from working Americans to wealthy elites and educate the public on the tragic path we were on by catering to Wall Street before Main Street:

“This was maybe America’s last chance to fight back against the greed of the Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats, to generate some serious discussion about public interest and common good that sustains any democratic experiment,” West laments. “We are squeezing out all of the democratic juices we have. The escalation of the class war against the poor and the working class is intense. More and more working people are beaten down. They are world-weary. They are into self-medication. They are turning on each other. They are scapegoating the most vulnerable rather than confronting the most powerful. It is a profoundly human response to panic and catastrophe. I thought Barack Obama could have provided some way out. But he lacks backbone.

“Can you imagine if Barack Obama had taken office and deliberately educated and taught the American people about the nature of the financial catastrophe and what greed was really taking place?” West asks. “If he had told us what kind of mechanisms of accountability needed to be in place, if he had focused on homeowners rather than investment banks for bailouts and engaged in massive job creation he could have nipped in the bud the right-wing populism of the tea party folk. The tea party folk are right when they say the government is corrupt. It is corrupt. Big business and banks have taken over government and corrupted it in deep ways.

“We have got to attempt to tell the truth, and that truth is painful,” he says. “It is a truth that is against the thick lies of the mainstream. In telling that truth we become so maladjusted to the prevailing injustice that the Democratic Party, more and more, is not just milquetoast and spineless, as it was before, but thoroughly complicitous with some of the worst things in the American empire.

Obviously this is an analysis of economic forces and the disenfranchising of working Americans to further the benefits of the Top 2% that I agree with. West goes further, in terms of his electoral prescription for a solution and identifying what needs to happen in America:

I don’t think in good conscience I could tell anybody to vote for Obama. If it turns out in the end that we have a crypto-fascist movement and the only thing standing between us and fascism is Barack Obama, then we have to put our foot on the brake. But we’ve got to think seriously of third-party candidates, third formations, third parties.

“Our last hope is to generate a democratic awakening among our fellow citizens. This means raising our voices, very loud and strong, bearing witness, individually and collectively. Tavis [Smiley] and I have talked about ways of civil disobedience, beginning with ways for both of us to get arrested, to galvanize attention to the plight of those in prisons, in the hoods, in poor white communities. We must never give up. We must never allow hope to be eliminated or suffocated.”

West is being very deliberate with his thoughts. He’s confronting himself for failing to recognize what was happening sooner and relying on the hope of Barack Obama’s potential over what he was seeing when Obama tapped Summers, Geithner, and Gates to help him run the country. This is an undoubtedly hard thing to come to terms with. I don’t doubt that civil disobedience by leading figures like West and Smiley is a necessary condition towards an awakening to the economic dangers our country face. As I wrote yesterday, I don’t know what it takes to pull together the disparate anger manifesting itself in pro-worker, pro-economic justice, pro-immigrant and racial justice movements. But these are all different symptoms of the same disease that ails America. I would love to hear more from Professor West about how he thinks these different threads can be tied together into an effective force for change.

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