Cornel West Interview

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Cornel West I came across on Alternet.  I was most interested to read about West’s criticism of Obama and his comments about Michael Moore’s faith in Obama:

McNally: My fiancee said the saddest moment for her was watching how excited people were the night Barack Obama was elected. Share a little bit about your feelings that night and your feelings today.

West: I was ready because I draw a radical distinction between the symbolic and the substantial. As a critical supporter of Barack Obama, engaged in over 50 events for him from Iowa to Ohio, I knew that at a symbolic level something could happen that was unprecedented. And it did happen. At that symbolic level, I can understand the tears, I can understand the jubilation, I can understand the euphoria. But I always knew there was a sense in which he, now heading the American empire, was tied to the shadow government, tied to CIA, FBI, tied to the establishment waiting to embrace him. It was clear when he chose his economic team, when he chose his foreign policy team, he was choosing, of course, the recycled neo-liberals and recycled neo-Clintonites that substantially you’re going to end up with these technocratic policies that consider poor people and working people as afterthoughts. Beginning with bankers, beginning with elites.

Symbolically, black man breaks through makes you want to break dance. So, yes, we have to be able to relate to both of these. So I resonate with your dear fiancee, because the hopes that were generated and the call for change, and then we end up with this recycled neo-liberalism. There’s no fundamental change at all.

West continues:

That’s very real, but I think we do have to understand we had to bring the age of Reagan to a close. We had to bring the era of conservatism to a close. And then you try to unleash new possibilities. Of course, the question now is, how do we keep our fellow citizens awakened so it goes beyond the campaign for a candidate and really begin engaging in grassroots organizing and mobilizing.

McNally: I’m more disheartened these days than I was during the eight years of Bush. During those eight years I expected nothing. I was surprised by almost nothing. We fought, we did what we could But I feel a little sadness in my soul as I watch this one. You’ve said that Obama’s looking at the wrong Lincoln and I think of Roosevelt who shows so well in Michael Moore’s movie when he declares the New Bill of Rights.

West: The Four Freedoms, yes.

McNally: Roosevelt came to power as a moderate. Lincoln came to power as someone who had worked very comfortably with slavery. And it was the movements, it was the people that challenged and inspired them. How are we doing, and how are we going to do?

West: We are not doing well at all. If you look at the abolitionist movement and its impact on Abraham Lincoln. The Frederick Douglas’s, the Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Wendell Philips, Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman. The powerful abolitionist movement put pressure on Lincoln. Trade union movement put pressure on FDR. What kind of movement do we have? Hardly anything at all.

That’s where the analogy breaks down. Barack Obama leans toward Wall Street, mesmerized by the elites, wants to be embraced by the establishment, wants to preserve his legacy as a president, more in the language of the neo-liberal and neo-conservative columnists than in the hearts and minds of everyday people.

McNally: So we both agree, this election does say the age of Reagan is over but it doesn’t say what’s starting, does it?

West: I think even my dear brother Michael Moore tends to put too much confidence in Barack Obama. In his film you get the sense that here comes Barack Obama speaking the language of deep democracy. No, no, no, he’s been a liberal all his life. He uses that language to mobilize, but in the end he’s going to capitulate and defer to the neo-liberal establishment, which is what he has done so far. Now granted, there’s still some possibilities there, even when you talk about just extending unemployment benefits. This is nothing revolutionary at all, but it does alleviate some of the suffering. But if we don’t get some restructuring going on, if we don’t get some Marshall Plan activity of massive investments in infrastructure here, in this country….You’ve got four billion dollars every month in Afghanistan. You can come up with that all the time.

5 thoughts on “Cornel West Interview

  1. It’s interesting to me that he thinks a President can be elected who hasn’t learned a thing about how stuff works, like the part where you can’t just start bitch-slapping elites and expect it to go well. I wonder if anything would change if Brother West actually took Barack seriously as a student and practitioner of the politics of the possible, rather than finding him wanting the first time he doesn’t go down in flames over a matter of principle. Oh wait, BW does the same ideal-or-nothing number on his wives; never mind.

  2. Tee hee. Clearly, Brother West is just guilty of caring a little too much…

    Thanks for the link. I haven’t yet read the schlockography, but I’m pretty sure I too miss the West of the 80’s/90’s…

  3. There there, Mikhail, we know you’re a hemorrhoid in your own way.

    Interesting discussion of this stuff going on at Edge of the West; the linked post and commentary discuss how Roosevelt was saved from coming to grief over attempting to ideologically purify the Democratic party only by the impending war. Agreement with West otherwise that push from movements is needed to keep reform going.

  4. So Carl, are you saying that Obama is doing a good job in a realist sort of way, that his incremental steps are taking the US slowly in the right direction? The increments I’m seeing are these:

    (1) Economic bailout. Obama continued implementing the Bush policy of freeing up the supply of lending capacity available to financial institutions. He did this even though overly aggressive lending is what brought on the mess in the first place. Interest rates had already been plummeting in 2008 before the bailout, which suggests that the supply of loan money already exceeded demand.

    (2) Energy. Is it wishful thinking or accurate recall, but didn’t Obama say he was committed to the Kyoto Protocol? Instead he cuts a Bush-like coalition of the willing with the other holdouts and declares a break in the impasse. And didn’t Obama once say that, instead of bailing out the failing fossil-fuel-gorging American auto industry, he would shift the displaced auto workers into building a sustainable energy infrastructure?

    (3) War. Obama has incrementally shifted more troops to Afghanistan, although this is pretty much what he said he would do during the campaign.

    (4) Healthcare. Again, he’s following his campaign program, namely requiring incrementally more people to buy into the private system. This move increases demand for doctors, hospitals, drugs, technology, etc., almost surely accelerating price increases in an industry that’s already been price-jumping at more than twice the rate of inflation over the last twenty years. The only possible restraint on price increases, namely the government option, lies on the cutting-room floor. So instead of a reform that incrementally reduces costs, he’s getting a program that’s going to cost an additional $1 trillion.

    From where I sit, each of these increments is moving in the regressive direction. What’s Obama saving his progressive cred for, if not these issues?

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