Tavis: I think I want to start our conversation first with Dr. West, and I only do that because I was reading some clips of some of his media appearance of late; one in particular, Doc, where you were being asked about this conversation. And I thought we were friends (laughter) till I read this article. We have called this conversation “America’s Next Chapter,” and in the subhead we have talked about how America can return to its greatness.
I want to start with, with words and the theme before we get into the particulars. We’ve got three hours to drill down on this. Um, but you took exception in the piece that I read on a particular media outlet with the notion of America returning to its greatness. I’m going to let you unpack what you had to say about that, but talk to me first of all philosophically, politically, socially, culturally how you see this notion of America’s greatness and whether it ever existed and whether or not we can ever return to it if it ever existed.
Dr. Cornel West: Mm-hmm. First I want to thank you for bringing us together. We need to have this conversation at this moment in the history of this very fragile experiment in democracy called the United Nation – United States of America, USA.
Now what I meant is that for me the very notion of a great nation is a bit oxymoronic, because I come out of a Christian tradition that says the greatest among you will be the servant to the poor, and I don’t know of a nation that’s treating its poor with the level of dignity that it ought.
So that when I think of Alexander the Great, (applause) Alexander is not great to me. He just dominated and conquered a lot of people. (Laughter) Napoleon’s not great; he just dominated and conquered a lot of people. For me, the legacy of Martin King and the legacy of Dorothy Irene Height, this is the founding day of the Delta 98-year celebration. (Applause)
It focuses on the least of these. How are you doing with the prisoners? How are you doing with the orphans? How are you doing with the widows? How are you doing with the fatherless, the motherless, the working classes and so forth? So military might, America, unbelievable. Upward social mobility, America, unbelievable. Technological innovation, America, unbelievable. Rights and liberties at its best, America, unbelievable.
But greatness has to do with how are your poor and working people doing. (Applause) That’s the vantage point for me. And so the legacy of Martin King and Dorothy Height and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said, “The future of America rests on how we respond to the legacy of Martin King.”
When I look at how our poor people are doing, not very well. Downward mobility, the new poor, chronic poor, locked into a prison industrial complex, militarism. Not just Afghanistan, but the military industrial complex with the Pentagon and the military budget being 50 percent of the U.S. budget, which means there’s no wiggle room to even deal with the situation of working people and poor people oftentimes in our debate about the budget.
And then there’s the spiritual issue – the materialism, the hedonism, the narcissism, the kind of spiritual malnutrition and moral constipation (laughter, applause) that we see in the nation. I think we’re in very deep trouble.
So it’s not returning to America’s greatness, it’s trying to make America greater with great courage, great love, great commitment to public interest and common good. But for me in the end, no nation is going to be great because every nation I know is going to be shot through with greed and domination and oppression, and the best that we can do is try to gain some accountability vis-à-vis poor and working people, as our elites, our oligarchs and others, continue to dominate our government and economy.
Tavis: If Dr. West is right – yeah, sure, please. (Applause) If Dr. West is right, Arianna, about the fact that it’s about our nation trying to become greater, I’m trying to juxtapose that notion with your recent best-selling book, “Third World America,” where you argue, and I’ll let you unpack this, that if we don’t change a whole lot about the way we do business in this country we may end up a third world America one day.
Get me from West talking about we need to become greater to your notion that we are slipping toward becoming a third world America. Can you juxtapose those two things for me?
Arianna Huffington: Well, first of all, I want to say that I would like to spend the next three hours listening to Dr. West. (Laughter, applause) I was just, like, completely spellbound, and then at some point I thought, oh, at some point Tavis is going to come to me, and I would so much rather just sit here listening. (Laughter)
One of the reasons is that I think we’re all so starved of poetry in our public discourse. Everything is so prosaic, so much about data. So just listening to Cornel kind of reminds us of how malnourished we are when it comes to that. I don’t think there’s any contradiction between what Cornel is saying and what I wrote in “Third World America.”
First of all, let me just say that I don’t think we can ever return to anything. Even if there was such a thing as American absolute greatness, including towards our poor and our working people, my Greek compatriot, the philosopher Heraclitus, said, “You can never enter into the same river twice.” Everything flows, everything moves on, everything changes.
So having made that philosophical point, practically, as an immigrant to this country – this accent is for real (laughter) – I’m acutely aware of how we are losing the American dream, because I lived it. As we are looking now at the possibility of upward mobility, the possibility of working hard, playing by the rules and doing well and your children doing even better, becoming really impossible for millions of Americans, we see that since the middle class is at the heart of any first-world country, if we lose our middle class, as we’re in danger of doing right now, we do become third world America.
And the statistics, I hate to cite statistics after Dr. West, but we have 100 million people right now who are worse off than their parents were, and when it comes to upward mobility, we are tenth. We are after France, after Spain, after the Scandinavian countries.
To be behind France in upward mobility would be as if France were behind us in croissants and afternoon sex. (Laughter, applause) So that’s my concern, and we have a lot of time to discuss the fact that ultimately, I’m optimistic.
I know you want us to start with the darkness and it’s good to dwell in the darkness for a little while, but ultimately, I believe in this incredible American character, this incredible American compassion that we see expressed all around the country in our small communities. But we just need to scale it, accelerate it and make it part of our everyday lives. (Applause)
Tavis: There was, not so long ago; just days ago, in fact, Dana Milbank of “The Washington Post,” a report released called The Rasmussen Report. This report, Dana, finds that almost half of the American people think that our best days as a nation are behind us.
Now, whether you believe numbers like that or not, it’s pretty clear to me as I travel around the country, and I know we all do, that this feeling of angst and helplessness and hopelessness, and to Arianna’s point, concern about the future and whether or not their kids and grandkids are going to do as well as they have done, how do you move a country forward? How do you put a country on the right track if half of its citizenry think that it’s best days, Dana, are behind it?
Dana Milbank: Well, Tavis, it’s a grim statistic. To the extent there’s any good news here, it’s that a lot of the reason we are all feeling so bad is because of a short-term problem in the economy. We have two problems going on here. One is that we’ve just fallen off this economic cliff which have made all the statistics worse and which have just made the American public extraordinarily dour.
More than 75, 80 percent of the people feel that we are on the wrong track right now, and I think that’s what gets at this statistic you’re bringing out here, because that is overlaid with a sense that our problems are greater than the economic cycle.
We probably have reached a point where improving living standards are going to slow down, just for demographic reasons. We have reached a point where the rest of the world has caught up. America will no longer dominate the way it once did economically, militarily. That does not mean that we necessarily are going to suffer lower living standards.
But you’ve got these two things coming together here now and our problems are large, but not insurmountable. What’s happening right now is that they seem insurmountable because 15 million people are out of work, because so many people believe we just can’t come to grips with the short-term problems.
Tavis: John Chen, Dana suggests that – not suggests; said, in fact, that we have to recognize the fact that we, the United States of America, can no longer dominate. Let me just ask you a direct and point-blank question.
If – if – the 20th century belonged to the United States, does the 21st century belong to China? Do we just need to accept the fact that we won it in the 20th century, but it belongs to China in the 21st century?
I ask that because we all know that Hu Jintao, the leader of China, headed to this city in a matter of days to spend a few days with President Obama in a summit. So the question, does the 21st century belong to China?
John Chen: Well, first, I have two other comments before I answer your question.
Chen: First, I’m so glad I didn’t go to Princeton, because if I – I didn’t understand half of what Dr. West said. So I would have flunked the class. (Laughter) I would never graduate. I wouldn’t be sitting here. That’s number one.
I think we – I would first say to you, I run around the world and am fortunate enough to do a lot of business around the world. We beat ourselves up pretty bad. I think that’s one thing that we always like to do, and I think there’s a lot of countries out there love to be America.
They love Americans, and the fact of the matter that we’re all sitting here talking about this very openly, with very diverse backgrounds, it’s a good sign. There are a lot of culture, political faction, powers out there that these kind of discussions will never happen, nor would it happen, or anything would happen as a result of that. (Applause)
So that’s the first thing, we’ve got to not beat ourselves up first, okay? But I’m going to answer your question about China.
Chen: And by the way, not to say that we don’t have problems. (Laughs) That’s not the issue. Well, it’s the rate of growth. This is like companies. Mature companies grow slower. Mature markets size bigger. China has caught on to – we’ve been telling them how to do things, do it this way, do it this way.
Eventually they said, “Okay, we’ll do it this way,” but when they did it, it certainly worked and the rate of growth is a lot faster. Their attitudes are very different. They’re a lot more hungrier than us. But they also have issues that if they don’t continue to grow peacefully, and that’s a – I’m sure that in the three hours we’re going to talk about securities somehow – if they don’t continue to grow peacefully, the political and social stability will be called into question.
So as such, right now if you ask the Chinese people, the majority of those people, the 300 million middle class that came – I think it’s a total of 1.3 billion – they still have a lot of challenge. But the 300 million middle class and the other ones who aspire to be that middle class, they’d rather have the current growth structure than some of the stuff that we like to impose on them or (unintelligible).
But given that, yeah, they have big internal demand. Everybody wants to put money there, including us, to grow that market, and they are hungry. So the next decade we’re going to see a lot of development over there.
Tavis: I want to come to the other side, to you, David Brody, because you work for a network that I think most Americans tend to view as conservative in its approach to the news and in its beliefs and values, politically, that is. When I listened to what John Chen had to say I’m reminded that during this campaign (unintelligible) say back in November, during the midterm election, there was a lot of anti-China rhetoric in this campaign that we heard from a lot of folk on the right.
It’s easy to beat up on China because China can’t respond during a midterm election race in your specific district, and I’m not suggesting that there aren’t issues in China that need to be discussed and addressed. We can get to that perhaps later in this conversation.
But there was a lot of anti-China rhetoric in this last election. That’s just one issue on which there is a divide in this town. So whether the issue is China or a litany of other things I could roll out that I don’t need to because we’re all fully aware of that, what say you about what is or is not going to happen courtesy of this new divided government here in Washington?
David Brody: Well, if we’ve got nine hours or longer we can talk about it. It’s tough. It’s a complicated issue. I would say this – I think it starts with a moral factor in this country as it relates to God, because if you think about it, as I travel around the country and I talk to people like Jim Wallace on the left and Ralph Reed on the right, here’s one thing they agree with.
There is a moral crisis in this country as it relates to everything from Wall Street to the housing market to what has happened all across this nation, especially economically, and so I would suggest that there’s a lot of common ground that can be found in this area of economic catastrophe, if you will. So I think that’s a very important part of it.
I would also suggest as it relates to civility in government, I think what we need to see here, and this is pie-in-the-sky, potentially, but as it relates to the Tucson shooting and as it relates to the divided government we’re seeing, we need the elected leaders in this country and we need the influential commentators in this country, aka a Bill O’Reilly or a Keith Olbermann on the left and right, respectively, I would suggest that some of these guys need to speak up, come together, whether it means recording a PSA announcement – look, words have consequences.
Tavis: Wait, wait, wait, did you say you think that O’Reilly and Olbermann are going to do a PSA together? (Laughter) Is that your suggestion?
Brody: I believe – I don’t think I was holding my breath when I was saying that. (Laughter) But the point is that if you’re going to get through the clutter, if you’re going to really make a difference, there needs to be some shock value. And if you’re going to have shock value you need to get people that would normally be in their own entrenched warfare zones to come out and start the dialogue.
Tavis: Is that our problem, David Frum? (Applause) Is all of this really about a moral crisis?
David Frum: I wouldn’t say so. I think the people in the audience, the people at home, they know well what the problems are, and we can heap more coals on their head and remind them more.
I think the thing I think about all the time is that inside each of these problems, embedded in each of the problems is the answer. We’ve had this intense debate in 2010 over the American healthcare system and its extraordinary wastefulness and we spend more than anybody else and we don’t get good results.
But what that means, within that waste, there – if the United States spent as much as Switzerland, the next runner-up country, there’s four points of GDP of wasted money lying on the table. If we can get a Sam Walton or a Henry Ford type personality to go through those systems and squeeze the waste out, there’s four points of national wealth right there.
We have terrible unemployment, but that means we have able and skilled people ready to do the jobs that the country needs doing. We have international, global challenges, security challenges. We have a hungry rival nipping at the country’s heels. But that also forces the country to be more competitive, to remember that it competes in a world of states that are adverse, that the country has to be disciplined and focus its resources.
And it is also a reminder that more countries look to the United States as a provider of security, and most countries of the world look to other potential rivals as providers of insecurity.
We have possibilities and what our task here, and I hope we can talk about this tonight, is how do we deploy the institutions and the personalities and the resources of the country in a way that makes those solutions effective.
Tavis: You’ve said a lot and I want to come back to you, trust me, very quickly (applause) and do some follow-ups. Let me bring Maria in this conversation, because as my grandmother, God rest her soul, used to say, Maria, what David just described sounds too much like right. (Laughter) It just sounds too much like right.
Anything that he can lay out that simply, if the answer, as David Frum suggests, is to these challenges can be found in the problems themselves, how stuck on stupid are we that we can’t figure out that the answer to the problem is inside the problem?
From your perspective, at least economically, what are we missing here?
Maria Bartiromo: Well, I agree with much that has been said. What I have to push back on is my friend Dr. West here, because I think America is the greatest country in the world, and I think we were great and we are falling a bit now for sure, but we will get back to greatness again.
Let’s not underestimate the power of freedom. We talk about the challenges and the rise of the East and the decline or the bumping along the bottom of the West, but this is a free country, and the aspirational power is also amazing.
The fact that you can come from nothing and work hard and get a little luck and achieve success – that’s not to say that we are taking care of all of our people properly; we are not, obviously, and we need to better care for all income levels, all areas of the country, and we have work to do there.
I think the problem is clearly the jobs picture, the unemployment story is persisting. I suspect that it will continue to persist. We have real challenges overseas; China, 1.3 billion people, India, 1.1 billion people, 300 million people in this country.
The numbers don’t add up. Of course at some point China will be the largest economy in the world. America has to sell to those people. A billion people joining the ranks of the middle class outside of America? American companies have to sell to those companies, those people, and I think that is also part of the story.
Tavis: Let me come to Maria Teresa Kumar, because I ran into Maria yesterday here in town in advance of our conversation today, and I heard Maria make a point yesterday that I agree with. It’s hard to not agree with it when you look at the numbers.
The numbers, the negative numbers, Arianna, are hitting her community, the Hispanic community, pretty hard. I’m obviously part of the African American community, and the picture here ain’t pretty, to be sure.
But the numbers are really hitting the Hispanic community pretty hard, and Maria was laying this out. But then she closed by saying, “And yet with all that, the Hispanic community may be the most hopeful community in this country about their future.”
I added to that that I got mad love for the Hispanic community right now because no community in this country last year flexed, politically, more than the Hispanic community. (Applause) They flexed last year, and I think that if you don’t like the way things are going, you got to flex. You got to raise up, you’ve got to – as we both know, politics is not, what, a spectator sport.
You’ve got to get off the sideline, get involved in the process. So the Hispanic community did that last year and yet there weren’t a lot of victories, for all of that. What happens in 2011, for all the energy and all the activism that you generated last year, as this campaign for the White House is about to kick up literally a matter of weeks from now?
Maria Teresa Kumar: I think it started in December. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, you’re probably right about that.
Kumar: But actually, I want to address a little bit what we’ve been talking about.
Kumar: Of where we see our country going. I actually have to side with Maria – I don’t think that we are America was great, I think that what we’re seeing is a realignment, a realignment that we saw during the Great Depression, and we’re seeing it now through the Great Recession, where we have a completely new industry, a new type of immigrant, American, in this country, and also competing on a global scale, once again.
So what happened and the lessons that we learned during the Great Depression was that America learned to take care of our own – our poor, women and children. Now what we are – with the Great Recession, we’ve had a lot of legislation that’s asked us to step up to the plate through healthcare, through financial reform, and ask the question, “Are you going to take care of your poor and your children?”
I have to tell you that we’ve done okay, and part of it is because we do see increasing change within our country that a lot of folks in the middle class have forgotten how to be poor, and the rich have forgotten how to be middle class.
That’s the conversation we need to have as well. So as we move forward as a country, one of the reasons that the American Latino community is so optimistic despite the fact that we have the highest foreclosure rates, the highest joblessness, unfortunately the highest dropout rate, is because one of the reasons is that – and this is where I’ll bring it personally – I remember my mother getting up every single morning, going to clean houses, and working 15, 16-hour jobs and still telling me that America was the greatest country in the world.
So when you have that in your household, when you have immigrant parents telling their kids, I don’t care if you’re from Asia or you’re from Latin America, America is where we are going to make our dream, that is our identity as an immigrant country, and I think that is our challenge, is how do we incorporate this.
But we need to make sure that that nine-year-old, whether it’s Arianna (unintelligible) or (unintelligible) is getting the best possible education, and that’s our challenge as a country – do we care? (Applause)
Tavis: We’ll have to leave it right there for tonight, but join us again tomorrow night for part two of this terrific conversation. You can access “America’s Next Chapter” in its entirety by visiting our website at PBS.org.
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