The Betrayal By The Black Elite With Chris Hedges & Cornel West
Chris Hedges, whose column is published Mondays on Truthdig, spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years. He has written nine books, including “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” (2009), “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” (2008) and the best-selling “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America” (2008). His book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (2003) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.
Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton. He has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris. He has written 19 books and edited 13 books. He is best known for his classic Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and his new memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. He appears frequently on the Bill Maher Show, Colbert Report, CNN and C-Span as well as on his dear Brother, Tavis Smiley’s PBS TV Show. He can be heard weekly with Tavis Smiley on “Smiley & West”, the national public radio program distributed by Public Radio International (PRI).
CHRIS HEDGES, HOST, DAYS OF REVOLT: Welcome to Days of Revolt. I’m Chris Hedges. This is part two of our interview with Dr. Cornel West, where we are examining the black prophetic tradition, which he has laid out in his great book Black Prophetic Fire, its importance within America, and what has happened to it with the rise of neoliberalism in the wake of the civil rights movement. Welcome, Dr. West.
CORNEL WEST: Blessing to be here again.
HEDGES: So let’s take–if I’m correct, let’s take the civil rights movement as the starting point. I think you’ve pointed out that it was a legal victory but not an economic victory, and that with institutionalized racism, particularly in terms of economic discrimination, the creation of what Malcolm X and I think finally Martin Luther King referred to as our internal colonies, invisible walls, the very physical walls of mass incarceration, you promoted a certain segment of the black elite into what you refer to as the lumpen bourgeoisie. And yet you could argue that for the bottom three-quarters of African Americans in this country, life is maybe worse than when King marched in Selma. There was an assault against the black prophetic tradition, the most important intellectual tradition in America because of its critique of empire, its critique of poverty, its critique of systems, of capitalism sustained by white supremacy. What happened to that tradition, which was given voice in the ’60s through radical mass movements and our martyrs Malcolm and Martin? How is it dismantled?
WEST: It was dismantled, one, by trying to instill a fear within black people, within poor people, within working people, so that we no longer would want to straighten our backs up and engage in collective fightback. What took the place of collective fightback was individual outward upward mobility, so that what was once in place, much more stronger moral conviction, we saw ruthless ambition. So you look at the formation of the black professional class–the doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, professors, politicians across the board–they have much less fire. Why? Because they’re much more tied to ruthless ambition than they are to moral conviction. They’re much less tied to a we consciousness as opposed to just an I consciousness concerned about upward mobility. There’s always going to be some prophetic professionals, but it’s a small slice, and it is not connected to the energies of black poor people. It’s completely severed, as it were.
HEDGES: But to an extent, don’t they even demonize the black poor?
WEST: Well, elements of them do, and of course they not only keep a distance, but they can contribute to the callousness and the indifference toward the plight and predicament of the black poor and poor people across the board. So what happens? Well, your warriors end up incarcerated or killed. You get your professionals who surface at the top. They tend to be nerdy, smart, self-promoting, not taking any risks, very little courage, highly conformist, and usually, when it comes to battle, complacent. On the other hand, you say, oh, we’ve got memories of the social movements. And, of course, when we talk about the civil rights movement, there is no civil rights victories without the rebellions of Watts, without the–Newark, Detroit. We can go on and on and on. Plainfield had the rebellion right after Newark and so forth. But, of course, oftentimes these these precious poor people, they were not the beneficiaries of it. Their bodies, their sacrifice did generate the conditions under which this new black middle class could move into place. But what did it do? For the most part, that black middle class, driven by ruthless ambition, became well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference. And so they may point to a Martin Luther King Jr. every January, but Martin Luther King Jr. of 1965 or 1966 or 1968 has no place in how they go about living their lives, engaging in their politics. And, of course, black folk for the most part became just extensions of a milquetoast neoliberal Democratic Party. But Adolph Reed and a host of others told this story many, many years ago. It’s becoming much more crystallized. And we have to be willing to tell the truth no matter how unpopular it is.
HEDGES: Well, King becomes frozen in 1963 “I have a dream” speech. And you published a book of King’s–it’s Radical King.
WEST: The Radical King, anti-imperialist, anti-empire.
HEDGES: And a socialist. And I’m going to read just a little passage from that book that I loved, and it’s what your definition of an intellectual–and I said before we begin, I’d like to know which tenure committee in the American educational system is going to embrace this.
WEST: I’ve never given a damn about tenure, other than getting into a position to take care of my family. But if I’ve got to get tenure and can’t tell the truth, tenure can kiss by black behind. But go right ahead.
HEDGES: Well, it’s the vocation of the intellectual–this is Dr. West–is to let suffering speak, let victims be visible, and let social misery be put on the agenda of those in power, and second, that moral action is based on a broad, robust propheticism that highlights systemic social analysis of the circumstances under which tragic persons struggle. So talk about that, because we have seen such a corruption not just of the black intellectual class, but the white intellectual class. They have sold themselves to a neoliberal agenda which is promoted widely within academia. Many of these elite colleges and universities are virtually corporations themselves. Talk about that concept of the organic intellectual and what’s taking place.
WEST: Well, one is you have to keep track of what the prophetic intellectuals are up against: massive commodification, big money, big banks, big corporations trying to incorporate black voices, white voices, brown voices, intellectuals, academics to in many ways keep them distant from a prophetic tradition that will bring critique to bear not just in a narrow talk about discrimination, not just in a narrow talk about liberal reform, but of a highly financialized monopoly capitalist system which is global, in which, as we see in Greece, the big banks dictate and the poor people suffer.
WEST: Same is true with Latin America. Same is true in the United States with Wall Street. Probably the biggest challenge when it comes to the black freedom struggle is in 2008 when you actually have a black president who can say in March 2009, with the biggest CEOs of the biggest banks, I stand between you and the pitchforks, I’m on your side, I will protect you, but when he speaks to black people, it’s paternalistic or a symbolic gesture. Now finally he’s made it to the prisons, highly deodorized prisons–you don’t see prisoners; selected prison, nonviolent persons, as opposed to the larger population. You and I, of course, have been blessed to teach at Rahway with our precious brothers there in philosophy and history and so forth. Very different dynamic. What happens? Well, the black political class and the black professional class follows this Pied Piper neoliberal, pro-drone, pro-massive surveillance, pro-Israeli occupation, pro-ecological devastation with drilling. Thank God for brother [Bill] McKibben and the others. And we have to say, what? Well, even if we’re at the moment lone voices or relatively lone voices, this great tradition will not be suffocated in the name of some empty victory of a black professional or political class that cannot speak to the suffering that these structures produce.
HEDGES: Has the election of a black president in Barack Obama been, maybe since the assaults of the 1960s, the most devastating thing for the black prophetic tradition?
WEST: No, no. I think it’s the big banks. It’s Wall Street. It’s Pentagon. It’s State Department. It’s military budget that’s been much more devastating. It’s the privatizing of education that’s been more devastating. But at the political level, it’s gone–it’s contributed to that devastation, because–.
HEDGES: But I meant in the sense that it has essentially, with all of those forces that you just named, it has seduced a segment of the black–to essentially back what under the black prophetic tradition they had understood as the evil, the evils within the American system.
WEST: Oh. Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. That’s why I wouldn’t say that it’s the major force. It’s the force that is hidden and conceal the devastation of Wall Street, Pentagon, State Department, so forth and so on, with the window dressing, with the window dressing, you see. And brother Barack Obama, he is a master at smoke and mirrors. He’s a master at window dressing.
HEDGES: Well, that’s why he is where he is.
WEST: Absolutely. So when I spend the time with the young folk in St. Louis, in Ferguson, in Oakland–we just had a wonderful gathering at brother Pastor Michael McBride’s church, the way there on University Avenue in Berkeley. Unbelievably prophetic. The awakening is taking place. Why? Police murder is something one cannot avoid. You have to come to terms with it. Sandra Bland. We can go on and on and on. And it’s wonderfully led more and more by not just black sisters but black queer sisters. So you hit the issues of homophobia while you hit the issues of male supremacy, while you hit the issues of white supremacy. But in the end, if you’re not hitting monopoly capitalism, if you’re not hitting the imperial policies that flow therefrom, you’re still not going to be at the root of what we need to come to terms with.
HEDGES: Isn’t the election of Obama really a kind of window into internal colonialism, in the sense that colonial powers would find an indigenous, largely aristocratic elite who would profit personally from the oppression? Isn’t it a species of internal colonialism?
WEST: [incompr.] but even among the black masses, there is such deep desperation, there is a hunger for even symbolic victory, because the class war against working and poor people has been so intense. And we were relatively defeated, in the sense that the massive transfer of wealth from poor and working people to the well-to-do, the 1 percent who have been getting off scot-free–what is it now? Almost 40 percent of the wealth. One percent of the population under Obama got 95 percent of the wealth under his administration. You see, that kind of unbelievable wealth inequality has–you have to come to terms with that if we don’t just go off a cliff. I mean, it may be the case that the white supremacy and male supremacy and the xenophobia and the capitalist ethos cut so deep, America would rather just blow up the world and go off a cliff than talk about justice. But, I mean, that’s why we are a blues people. You see, we know it’s catastrophic. That ain’t no news at all. The question is what you’re going to do with the catastrophe. Are you going to go down fighting and swinging? Or are you going to be scared and intimidated and afraid? Are you going to tell the truth, or say what needs to be said for your career?
HEDGES: Well, they’ve done a pretty good job of shutting down truth tellers in this society, and they’ve mounted a pretty vicious campaign against you on black radio.
WEST: No, but the reality is that I’m stronger than ever. I’m stronger now than I was six years ago, not just intellectually, but spiritually and politically, you see. The only way they’re going to completely snuff me out is to put a bullet in my heart. And death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory? So in that sense it’s not just me. It’s being willing to sustain memory–that’s what this book is about–subversive memory of the great ones who came before, integrity, not cupidity, and then tenacity, spiritual, political tenacity. The only way you snuff us out is to do away with us. And here’s more to take one’s place. That’s also what Ferguson is about. We’ve got more Michael Browns, we’ve got more Tanishas, we’ve got more Tamirs and so forth coming.
HEDGES: And as we had said earlier, the use of lethal force by police against black people, there are just as many–were just as many black people being shot dead a few decades ago as there are today, but there is a consciousness now.
WEST: Absolutely. Absolutely. And with a black president, black attorney general, black homeland security in the cabinet, all the young folk, elderly folk, men, women, still getting shot. How many police going to jail? Hardly any at all. That says something about the system and how decrepit and rotten it is rather than just somehow being Obama worshipers or worshipers of the newest black politician to come along and say that somehow he or she is going to provide some kind of delivery system of justice.
HEDGES: And does the black prophetic tradition, when you are with activists from Ferguson, is there, after this kind of long hiatus, where the black prophetic tradition was successfully pushed to the margins of American intellectual life and American society, do you see a rekindling of it among–?
WEST: Oh, oh, absolutely. Oh, the rekindling is deep. You don’t see it on corporate media. Not at all. You see it on your show, you see it on Real News, you see it on Amy Goodman, a few other sites. But it’s spilling over. And, actually, it won’t really spill over to corporate media until it constitutes a threat to the status quo.
HEDGES: But then won’t they demonize it?
WEST: Well, they will demonize. But even when you’re demonizing folk who constitute a threat, even that is insufficient and inadequate. But at that point, you either have to make serious concessions, you have to kill us off and some new ones take our place, or what we really want, which is fundamental transformation. I’m a revolutionary Christian. I think in the end we need fundamental transformation of capitalism,–
HEDGES: Oh, exactly.
WEST: –fundamental transformation of patriarchy, fundamental transformation of white supremacy, male supremacy, homophobia, right across the board.
HEDGES: And you name King as a revolutionary. But–and I think that this is something that we have to grapple with, and it was you who had me read Hofstadter’s great essay on vigilante violence,–
WEST: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. That’s the last book the great historian wrote.
HEDGES: –which I used in my book The Wages of Rebellion. But King, you write in Black Prophetic Fire, in many ways understood that we needed a revolution, but feared deeply that we were only capable of a counterrevolution. WEST: Of a counterrevolution. And that’s–.
HEDGES: And that is a reality of American life.
WEST: That’s very real. That’s very real. Yeah, that’s always a skeleton hanging in one’s closet as a progressive or revolutionary. But you just don’t know. History is so unpredictable. No one has control over that. It looks that way, the evidence tilts in that direction, but you just don’t know. It could be the case, for example, that when it comes to the greedy, the greediness of the big banks, that lo and behold, people who view themselves as conservatives but are deeply victimized, who have an empathy and moral sensitivity, may even come to your side in ways that you hadn’t predicted. You just don’t know. You fight anyway. But most importantly is the issue of integrity, honesty, and decency. Everybody’s going to die fairly soon anyway. So the question is: do you want to live a life of integrity, honesty, and decency, tell the truth, and fight for justice, and wherever the consequences flow, let it flow? Martin was like that. I mean, one of the differences between brother Martin and myself was that he’s a pacifist. See, I’m not a pacifist. You see. I believe nonviolence ought to be pursued given all of the options, but sometimes you have no alternative but self-defense, no alternative but self-defense.
HEDGES: Well, that’s what Malcolm–I mean, I can’t remember whether it was James Cone or it may have been you or somebody wrote that Malcolm didn’t have the luxury to be nonviolent.
WEST: That’s brother Jim Cone’s profound insight. Absolutely. And there’s a sense in which even Martin, if you pushed him, and that’s with precious kids and Coretta, he’s still [incompr.]
HEDGES: Yeah. Well, in the beginning, he kept a pistol in the house, when they bombed his house.
WEST: And he had a gun in the house. Yes, he did. It was Coretta who pushed him in the name of Gandhi. Absolutely. But the reason why you say that is because you want to make sure that the world knows that even as one attempts to be a love warrior like Martin or like Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells, that you are a fighter, you’re a warrior. Of course you believe in reaching out and keeping track of the humanity of others. I even believe in forgiveness as a Christian, but I don’t believe in premature forgiveness.
HEDGES: I want to ask you a question about forgiveness.
WEST: Yes. Yes.
HEDGES: And it comes from an essay by James Baldwin.
WEST: The great James Baldwin.
HEDGES: You cannot understand America if you do not read James Baldwin.
WEST: That’s the truth. That’s the truth.
HEDGES: And for me as a writer–.
WEST: That’s why we’ve got to defend James Baldwin these days. There’s some reductionism going on. But we won’t get into that right now.
HEDGES: Right. Well, yes, this was, I think, the great writer Toni Morrison linking Mr. Coates to [crosstalk]
WEST: And Toni Morrison is one of the greatest of the greats. But I just disagree with my dear sister. Coates has a very important voice, but at the same time he’s got to be connected to fightback, hope, he’s got to be connected to the social movements, he’s got to be connected to the insurgency that’s taking place among the young folk. It can’t just be spectatorial, even given certain truths that he puts forward. Baldwin was always tied to fightback.
HEDGES: And Baldwin has a moment where he visits his father, when his father is dying in a Long Island hospital. And like Richard Wright, Baldwin had a very contentious relationship with his father, left home–
WEST: To put it lightly.
HEDGES: –to put it lightly. It was actually his stepfather, rather.
WEST: Stepfather. That’s right.
HEDGES: He leaves home as his older half-brother walked out, would never speak to his father again. Richard Wright has the same thing. And there’s two moments in Black Boy and in Baldwin where they go back, Wright goes back, and his father’s a broken sharecropper, and Baldwin goes back, and his father is curled up in a fetal position, dying on a bed.
WEST: Yeah. Yeah.
HEDGES: And they–both Wright and Baldwin write about forgiveness, which I–in a kind of brilliant way. So these were oppressive forces. And I don’t think that we can be asked to forgive our oppressors. But once power is taken from them, both Wright and Baldwin say they didn’t recognize that figure. I mean, you in the book talk about Pharaoh when you talk about Obama. Is it not hypocritical to raise one’s voice when Pharaoh is white but have no critical word to say when the pharaoh is black? If the boot is on our neck, does it make any difference what color the foot is in the boot? And I’m going to ask you to close to reflect on forgiveness in relationship to oppression and how it works.
WEST: Yeah. I think for me forgiveness is the highest form of love. And you begin with loving yourself, or love your mama and your daddy and your sisters and brothers and allow that love to spill over to all of humanity. The problem is is that we have too many black people who love everybody but black people. And therefore that’s pathological. There’s something sick about that. It’s called white supremacy at the psychic level, at the spiritual level. And therefore, if you’re not loving the people who have been treated like cockroaches but forgiving the folk who would treat them like cockroaches, that’s not Christianity, that’s not psychically healthy. That is pathological. I do believe–and here I am deeply a Christian–I do believe that one should not hate when one is hated. I think you should hate injustice. And the reason why you don’t hate the person who perpetuates injustice is because they can change. You don’t want to trump their sense of possibility. White supremacists can change. Capitalists can change. Patriarchal folk can change. You don’t make a political program on that. The political program has to be an analysis of structure, mobilizing against structure, and unbelievable resistance–street, jail, clash, and work within the electoral political system when there’s possibility. So in that sense I think that a lot of talk about forgiveness is just a special kind of talk about black people remaining calm, serene, halcyon, deferential, and not willing to straighten their backs up and fight.
HEDGES: Can we forgive the oppressor while the oppressor is engaged in oppression?
WEST: Not if it takes the form of a love of oppression that downplays the effects of the oppression and therefore dehumanizes those who are oppressed. You begin loving–25th chapter, Matthew–the least of these, the poor, the prisoner, the homeless, the orphan, the widow, the fatherless, the motherless, not just the people of your tribe who look like you. Palestinian lives, lives in Yemen, lives in Pakistan, lives in Europe, lives in–have the same status as lives in the United States.
HEDGES: Well, that’s what Father Daniel Berrigan once said to me was faith, the faith that the good draws to it the good. And there empirically may be no evidence to prove that. But the Buddhists call it karma. It is that belief that I think exemplifies your life and [crosstalk]
WEST: But unless the powerful know that no matter how powerful they are, they can never snuff out the love, snuff out the struggle for justice, snuff out the resistance and the resiliency–we keep coming. Shoot us down. We keep coming. Lie on us. We keep coming. Subordinate us. We keep coming. That’s the fightback.
HEDGES: Thank you very much.
WEST: It’s a joy to be part of the fightback. You know better–as much as I do my brother. Love you [incompr.]
HEDGES: Thank you [incompr.]Thank you very much. This has been Days of Revolt. Thank you for watching.