Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West

Princeton professor and “intellectual provocateur” weighs in on the recent controversy sparked by his critique of President Obama.

A renowned scholar, Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West has written/edited more than 20 books, including Race Matters, the NYT best seller Democracy Matters and, his memoir, Brother West. Outside of academia, he's been described as an "intellectual provocateur," with lectures, TV and film appearances and his spoken-word CDs. He provided philosophical commentary on all three Matrix films, and his disc, "Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations," combined hip-hop and intellectual dialogue. West has also taught at Harvard, Yale and Union Theological Seminary.


Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Dr. Cornel West to this program. The Princeton professor and best-selling author is also, I am proud to say, in terms of full disclosure, co-host of “Smiley & West” on public radio, distributed by Public Radio International. Doc, as always, good to see you on the West Coast.

Dr. Cornel West: Always a blessing, my brother. Sunshine, I like.

Tavis: Yeah, good to see you, good to see you. I have some blue cards in my hand. I’m not a blue card sort of guy, as you know watching this program every night, but I wanted to have these cards in my hand because I really want to go through the particulars of this interview you gave with Chris Hedges on Truthdig some days ago that has caused such a furor in the Internet space, the blogosphere, amongst progressives, amongst the Black academy, specifically; in the academy more broadly, given what “The Boston Globe” had to say about you the other day.

West: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: So you’ve kicked up quite a controversy, as you know, with your comments about President Barack Obama, specifically your critique of him not being progressive enough – those are my words, not yours. So to jump right into the conversation and make the most of the time I have, let me pull out some of these quotes that you offered in this interview that you’ve been taken to task for and give you a chance to respond so that I and the viewer understand better what it is you were saying.

In no particular order, number one, you referred to the president as “A Black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a Black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.” Talk to me.

West: Yeah, well, one, I had in mind the fact that as a progressive you begin with the plight and predicament of poor people and working people, and you see their situation with a sense of urgency. It’s a state of emergency, so that mass unemployment, mass under-employment, mass incarceration, massive lack of quality education and housing itself becomes part and parcel of a national security issue.

Those issues are as essential to the future of this nation as $150 billion in Afghanistan, Iraq, dropping drones in Pakistan and so forth. So then when I look and I say, “Well, let’s see what policies in place,” well, you see some symbolic gestures here or there, but not really dealing with mass unemployment, mass incarceration, no jobs program, no jobs training program, priorities to Wall Street.

They’re doing magnificent. They are all break-dancing to the bank this very moment, yet social misery is escalating among working people.

So the greed at the top is still running amok, the indifference to poor people is still in place, and one was hoping in 2008 that even using the bully pulpit he would be confronting Wall Street. Now say, “Well, they got a reform bill.” It’s toothless.

Major derivatives still unregulated, and in fact who’s going to implement the rules? Who’s writing the rules? Those are the kinds of questions that people are concerned about. Guantanamo, still open. Torture in various forms still going on.

Most importantly, though, Tavis, in terms of the plight of poor children, poor children, the kind of thing that Sister Marian Wright Edelman has been concerned about. I don’t see that kind of sense of urgency and emergency coming out of the White House.

Tavis: Did he have to be called a Black mascot and a Black puppet? There are those who suggested that you were petty, for a man who talks as much about love as you do, that you were petty for using terminology like “mascot” and “puppet.”

West: Well, one, I am the kind of Christian, I love mascots. I love puppets, too. He’s still a human being. He’s still brilliant. He’s still charismatic. He’s got a magnificent wife, he’s got precious children. He’s still a brother in that sense. So when you call somebody a mascot, that is a putdown in terms of the role that they choose to perform.

That’s not an attack on his humanity. The same is true, all these lies about the I attacked his mother. His mother’s not mentioned in the text. I got a call from my other mother – “How come these people spreading lies about you? Who’s that woman on television lying about you?”

I said, “Mom, she’s a liar. She’s not telling the truth.” She said, “Oh, I thought so.” Why? Because the woman’s not mentioned. You know and I know I ain’t got nothing against anybody of any color falling in love and being together and so forth and so on.

Well, you say his formation was culturally White. Yes. There is such a thing as being formed culturally White. Hall and Oates is blacker than Pat Boone. Average White Band is blacker than the Beach Boys. They all White, but one’s more Black than the other. Curtis Mayfield blacker than all of them in terms of style, in terms of form, in terms of soulfulness.

So it’s not a putdown. They’re all human beings. I actually appreciate Pat Boone, but I know he’s not Curtis Mayfield. I know he’s not Hall and Oates. So it’s not a matter of excluding folk from humanity, but we’ve got to tell the truth though, brother, and I’m committed to telling the truth in relation to poor and working people, whether I’m trashed or not.

Tavis: The second quote I want to get to, “I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free Black men. It’s understandable; as a young brother who grows up in a White context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a White man with black skin. All he has known culturally is White. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. You just spoke on that. Anything you want to add to it?

West: There’s a line above it – he is as human and I am, and it can be overcome. We know brother Father Pfleger, our dear brother just got his church back, St. Sabina –

Tavis: In Chicago.

West: – one of the great prophetic churches of our country. He grew up on the vanilla side of town. He had a White formation. But he is fundamentally committed to poor people. Fundamentally committed to working people. John Brown, even a better example on the White side of town, loving Black folk more than many Black folk loved themselves. He died for Black folk.

So by saying “white formation,” that’s not a – that’s a description. That’s not a racist characterization, as it were. And let’s be very honest about it – to grow up on the vanilla side of town does mean that you have a certain fear of free Black men. In fact, in his own autobiography he says his grandparents had a fear of Black men.

Tavis: And his grandmama used the “N” word.

West: Used the “N” word. I still love the White grandparents. They loved him, and that’s a beautiful thing. But we have to be honest in terms of historical formation. But you know what? What’s fascinating to me, though, Tavis, and this is where you see the pathology of the pundit class, if people could spend as much energy trashing me and demonizing me as focusing on mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, tell the truth about the military industrial complex, half of the federal budget, tell the truth about Wall Street oligarchy and the greed still running amok this very minute tied to the glitz and the gluttony that goes with it.

Tell the truth about the corporate media that is market-driven, that doesn’t want to allow progressive voices to tell the truth about the corporate state and the imperial wars connected between the two. That’s the sad thing.

Tavis: To your point about the corporate media, I was personally disturbed – if you and I weren’t the friends that we are, because I have great respect for “The Boston Globe” as an institution, as a paper –

West: Right, right.

Tavis: – I’m sure you saw this editorial – not an op-ed, an editorial, written by the editorial board, that was a personal attack on you. Did not wrestle with any of the issues that you raised in the article about poor people, about oligarchs, about plutocrats – nothing addressed in the editorial about the issues that you raised, but the entire editorial an attack on you and a celebration of Larry Summers.

What did you make of “The Boston Globe” piece that didn’t, to your point now, in the media deal with the issues you raised?

West: I think my dear brother Hilary Putnam, who is one of the last great philosophic geniuses in our culture who’s left – Stanley Cavell and a few others left – he wrote a letter to the “Globe” where he talks about the difference between a paper that deserves respect and yellow tabloids that attack persons.

No sense of what academic liberty’s all about, no attacks on my professional qualities, 19 books, 13 co-edited books, no attacks on my teaching, extra teaching all the time, office hours for five or six hours in one day rather than two hours everybody else.

The only grounds were, “I’m glad Summers ran him out,” which is a lie, because I resigned. I could be there right now if I wanted to. I decided to go to Princeton. I’m a Jesus-loving free Black man, I go where I want to go in this regard. But it shows you the degree to which the liberal class and the liberal media has a certain moral vacuousness when it comes to these kinds of issues.

Now granted, I did criticize my dear brother Larry Summers for being part of the economic team that Brother Barack Obama, President Obama chose coming right out of the shadow of the Wall Street oligarchy too, and therefore making it a priority for Wall Street to bounce back strong and Main Street to still suffer. Yes, that’s my critique. That’s not a personal critique. That’s a critique of policy.

Tavis: The last part I want to get to in the time I have left here, the third part of this article that you’ve been most taken to task for, your quote, “He feels most comfortable,” speaking of President Obama, “He feels most comfortable with upper middle class White and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want.”

There are those who suggested that that comment is borderline, if not anti-Semitic.

West: Oh, no, not at all, good God. Given my love for Jewish brothers and sisters, absolutely not. What I’m saying, if you look at his advisers, if you look at his appointees, it’s more National Hockey League than it is National Basketball Association.

Tavis: Football league. (Laughter)

West: Or National Football League, right? Now, if we had a National Football League-like appointee, you had all these brilliant Black brothers and sisters, there’d be a whole different kind of dialogue. It’d almost be a civil strife in the country, you see.

And I say hey, get the most brilliant White brothers you can get. Get some progressive ones. Get the most brilliant Jewish brothers and sisters you can get, but get progressive ones. Get Black brothers and sisters, get progressive ones concerned about the poor, concerned about working people, jobs, jobs with a living wage.

Healthcare available to all. Medicare for all. These are the kinds of issues that need to be talked about. Believe me, we could be living in a moment in which we have the last chance to somehow push back the institutionalized greed that is just completely devouring the democratic possibilities of the country, and that’s the kind of backbone that we need and that’s the kind of backbone I haven’t seen.

If he had backbone for poor and working people the way he had backbone killing Bin Laden, I’d be break-dancing. I’m not. I’m upset.

Tavis: I’ve just got one minute to go here. Overall, the critique I’ve read most of you by those who don’t like you or what you had to say has to do with Cornel West being petty and petulant and ultimately pejorative because he couldn’t get inauguration tickets, mentioned in this article, that your phone calls didn’t get returned.

You did 65 dates for him, you show up at a hotel for inauguration week, the bellhop at the hotel has tickets; you do not, given all that you’ve done for him. Now, I read that as a statement about character, but there are others who’ve read that as your being petty and petulant. Your thoughts?

West: It’s part of the weapons of mass distraction that go hand-in-hand with the pathology of the pundit class. It’s not about me. The truth about my relationship with Barack Obama, which was a question Brother Chris Hedges asked me, was one in which over time I felt disrespected, because after 65 events and no thank you, that, to me, is disrespectful.

Not being able to get a ticket, that’s disrespectful. Now, the fact that the brother working at the hotel got a ticket, that was a wonderful thing. But if he could get one and I tried to get one and couldn’t after 65 events, that’s disrespectful.

All I was saying is I don’t like to be disrespected. But that’s not the main issue. It’s not about me. It’s the kind of failure to fundamentally follow through on caring for poor and working people and putting them at the center of your policy. That’s what I see to be a failure at the moment, and I’ll continue to speak out.

I don’t really mind getting trashed in that way, because if that’s the only thing I have to take in order to focus the attention on poor and working people, that’s fine with me, though, brother.

Tavis: Honored to have you here, as always.

West: Always a blessing.

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Last modified: June 13, 2011 at 5:19 pm