In this episode, co-hosts Eliacin and Mark speak with one of America’s most celebrated and controversial public intellectuals: Dr. Cornel West.
Dr. West is an African American philosopher, theologian, author, critic, actor, and civil rights activist. West currently serves as the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University, where he teaches in the Center for African American Studies and in the department of Religion. He is the author of a number of books including: Prophesy Deliverance! An Africo-American Revolutionary Christianity, Race Matters, The Future of Race, Democracy Matters, and Hope on a Tightrope.
In the interview, we talk to Dr. West about being disinvited as a keynote to the CCDA conference, his relationship with Barack Obama, the rarity of social movements, the power of love, the difference between charity and justice, and much, much more.
Special thanks to Jarrod McKenna…who stayed up all night in Perth, Australia to be a part of this interview but (due to upsetting technical difficulties with Skype) was unable to participate (listen to the end of the podcast–at around 56:45) to find out more…
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Transcription by Kristofer Smiley:
Dr. West: But I know that you all have asked also to interview me because I was coming into Chicago on September the 7th, right?
Dr. West: I’ve never been disinvited in my thirty-six years of lecturing and speaking, but I was disinvited because I had done an interview in Playboy and they said they viewed Playboy as exploitative of women and the very fact that I would have an interview in Playboy showed that I was not fit to be the speaker at the gathering, you know? And I told them, I said, “Look I’ve got a deep abhorrent of the exploitation of women but Martin King’s best interview was in Playboy in 1964. Jimmy Carter’s interview was of course quite famous. Jesse Jackson. They’ve had a long history of interviews in Playboy among a number of different persons. And I went on to say, “God bless you all, you all stay strong in your attempt to follow as a disciples of Christ.”
Mark: Thank you very much.
Dr. West: But I told them that, “It’s just a little strange that that would be their full scale justification for disinviting me.”
Mark: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean—
Dr. West: It is very strange, I don’t know what’s going on. I was there primarily because my very dear brother Dwight McGee who I have great love and respect for, he was the one who had asked me to come and to be part of a conversation with John Perkins, who I’ve never met but who I have great respect for—he’s an older brother you know I think he’s almost 80 years old now. And I was going to really just to pay tribute to him. So I just told ‘em, I saw “Look, keep your money and your plane ticket and you pray for me and I pray for you.” But it’s a very strange and very sad affair that this major Christian organization would disinvite someone like myself who has never been there and at the last minute. You know this thing has been in place for months and the Playboy interview came out a month and a half ago.
Mark: Yeah. Have you had a lot of controversy over this Playboy interview?
Dr. West: No, not at all. I mean with the Obama’s people I received a call from The White House, yeah. They were deeply upset with it and then when I had that direct confrontation with Obama he made a beeline to me at the Urban League. Right in front of my face and was really quite upset and disrespectful and so forth. Saying all kinds of things and I just said—God bless you brother.
Eliacin: So, brother West in recent interviews you’ve commented on the lack of social movement that can speak truth to power. Do you see any seed of the movement today? And if you do, where are they and what needs to happen for those movements to actually take root and to begin to bring fruition?
Dr. West: Well I appreciate the question and I do appreciate you all taking this time but first, I think we have to distinguish between motion, social motion, social momentum and social movements. Social movements are very rare and it takes a tremendous amount of grass roots organizing as opposed to just astroturf networking on the internet. It takes a lot of time to pin, to cultivate, to create the kind of horizontal relations that lead toward a social movement and usually those social movements are crushed, of course, by a repressive apparatus which are motivated often by the economic interests of those at the top. So that I’m not so much looking for social movements right now, this is the deeply conservative moment in the Transatlantic world. That’s not true for Latin America, that’s not true for parts of the world but for the United States and Europe, it is deeply conservative, even with Neo-Liberals like Obama running the Empire at the moment. So I’m looking much more for a kind of Christian witness that is part and parcel of social motion that tries to be counter-hegemonic, a countervailing force, creating counter public spheres against the kind of deeply Imperial and deeply racist and sexist and classist of sensibilities that are out there. So yes they are out there.
I have some examples for you: you have prophetic churches, prophetic mosques, you’ve got prophetic synagogues, you’ve got anti-war activists, you’ve got various leftists who are out there creating a certain kind of motion but it’s very unconnected, it’s very inchoate, it’s very dis-unified and I don’t see any change for that in the near future. I think the United States is for the most part a declining empire, it’s losing the ability to revive the best of what it was and I don’t see any evidence as of yet that would change that. That’s why, you know as a Christian what we are required to do is to just love our neighbor, which means love especially the least of these—which means give their situation priority—which means talk about our present situation as a matter of national and international emergency in the sense of urgency so that the love takes the form of both thought as well as deeds and to bear witness. And I think ours is in the trying, the rest is not our business. We are not going to be in control, we’re not going to create social movements are the kind of things—civil rights movements, feminist movements, trade union movements…[unintelligible] Brazil. These are not the kind of things that I don’t think are just designed. I think as people who are the sacrifice, to be courageous, to be visionary and loving enough to give their lives and death for. So in that regard I think what we need more than anything else is just some serious truth telling and witness bearing on behalf of Christians and non-Christians.
Mark: Speaking of truth telling, you mentioned a kind of urgency that we are kind of in, in a place of crisis. Can you kind of just, maybe briefly talk about the landscape of that crisis? What is this moment that we are living in now? How can we name this crisis that we are in?
Dr. West: Well there are a number of ways of looking at it and let’s look at it. Beginning with moment 25th chapter, Matthew. Let’s look at it through the vantage point of the “least of these” and let’s say prisoners in this regard where you’ve got a very, very strong penal state that has quadrupled in the last few decades that targets poor people, targets especially black and brown and white poor people. That’s been rendered invisible in public discourse: a criminal justice system with police keeping track of millions of young, poor people so that they live lives of fear of capture and confinement. They are essentially internal fugitives in their own nation. And what does America look like from their vantage point, what it looks more and more like is a repressive state––a punitive state—a penal state that is socially stingy because it’s already enacted legislation that eliminated any kind of protected and supportive measures with Clinton’s signing of the Welfare bill, a crime bill that mandatories sentences. And then of course you flip it over at the top and you say “Oh, this iron fist of the penal state goes hand in hand with the so-called-invisible hand of the free market.”
Well you have greed running amok at the top, billions and billions of dollars being made based off of shadowy financial systems based on speculation, generating levels of wealth that the world has never seen with no accountability whatsoever. Of course when they get in trouble they get the kind of welfare, they get the kind of support that poor people don’t get. And so, from the very beginning you look at it through the lens of the “least of these” and you begin to see greed running amok, you see the cultural decay with the attempts of pacifying every day people with forms of hedonism and narcissism and the kind of rugged, ragged rapacious individualism making it difficult for people to conceive themselves as tied to something bigger than them, tied to something called “public interest”, tied to something called “common good”—both national and international—and more and more rendering one’s conception of what it is to be human. As a just matter of being titillated and stimulated in order to consume and in feel good about yourself because all of us fear, of course, extinction of our bodies, feeling insignificant on the way.
And so, it’s very—as I say it’s a declining empire, it’s a decadent culture, it’s a broken political system with highly polarized voters inability to constitute a dialogue of crucial issues, name calling, finger-pointing, big money behind pseudo-populist projects like the Tea Party and others running a corporate agenda, running agenda financed by financial oligarchs of Wall Street and corporate elites and big business but supposedly concerned about the common person, the every day person. That’s what you had when brother Glenn Beck and sister Sarah Palin, basically stooges of the well-to-do and the rich acting as if they’re so concerned about the common person, whereas of course just from the biblical point of view the question is “How deep is your love for everybody, beginning with the poor? Beginning with those who count the least in the eyes of the large of society, those who are put last in the eyes of the larger society?” You can see the degree to which prophetic Christians, or prophetic Muslims, or prophetic Jews, or prophetic secular folk—people who are concerned, who have a deep love for poor people are pushed to the margins very much like the poor people situations, themselves are being pushed to the margins. Nobody really cares, it’s an afterthought. Economists can talk about a recovery in the economy, but they’re only talking a recovery for Wall Street. You’ve got 20% unemployment among poor folk, 9.5% among the larger population and even those statistics we know do not measure people who have given up looking for job, or people who are working part-time. The statistics are much, much higher in fact we use European style statistics it’d be much, much higher and even European statistics don’t tell the full truth about Europe suffering. So you know we’re really in a situation where our backs are against the wall but you wouldn’t know it because there is no public outcry that’s organized.
Eliacin: Dr. West what would it take then? It seems to me that we have, we use the word “postmodern” and we talk about “postmodernism”. We throw the word a lot about postcolonial, but we can not move into the postcolonial until we talk about being de-colonial or going through that process of opening our eyes and getting a bigger conscious and a larger awareness. The church still functions, at least within the United States and a larger dominant world as a church of empire and Christians are still are blinded by that in part of the Constantinian project. Can you speak what the church actually need to start practices, movements, how does church engage in order to bring back that prophetic tradition?
Dr. West: Well that’s a big question brother, it reminds me of a conservative sister who just attended brother Glenn Beck’s march this weekend. She said she drove all the way from Florida because she loves Jesus Christ and she knows Jesus Christ is against the redistribution of wealth toward the walking and poor people.
Mark: [laughs] Oh, geez.
Dr. West: Consider yourself, you know, which Jesus is this dear sister looking up to? But that’s what you call the Constantinian appropriate or misconstrued of the life and death of Jesus, you see? And that is very widespread, that’s very widespread. That she understands the redistribution of wealth downwards as communism, but the redistribution of wealth upwards—which has been going on for forty years—as somehow the will of God. That is something deeply, you know, spiritually sick and morally pathological about that interpretation. I think the only way that churches can play a fundamental role, is by means of massive example. I guess isolated example, but massive example but that’s what Martin King was about, that’s what Dorothy Day was about, that’s what Phillip Berrigan was about, that’s what William Coffin was about, that’s what Fannie Lou Hamer was about. How do you create examples? People would rather see sermons than hear sermons. Consecrated lives, committed lives and then those lives coalescing with one another in order to create a massive example. And I think we just, we just don’t have that presence, that our churches are just too spiritually anemic and too cowardly, too well-adjusted to injustice, too well-adapted to indifference towards people who are suffering and youth. And of course that’s part of the prosperity gospel, that’s part of the market spirituality, that’s part of the Chamber of Commerce religion that has been hegemonic in America for so long. And so we’re just at one of those very low moments, that’s all.
Mark: I want to read a quote that you wrote, I’m sure you don’t necessarily need quotes of things you’ve said but I think this is very poignant—
Dr. West: Forget I wrote it my brother.
Mark: Yeah, but this is great because it touches on something exactly what just said but I want to really highlight this and take this in an important direction. In 1988 you wrote, “American religious life is losing its prophetic fervor. There is an undeniable decline in the quality of vision, complexity of understanding and quality of moral action among religious Americans. The rich prophetic legacies of Sojourner Truth, Walter Rauschenbusch, Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. now lay dormant, often forgotten and in possession of a marginal few.” What happened between that time of witness and today that has brought us to decline. I’m assuming that this decline that led up to 1988, has continued past 1988. I’m wondering what happened? Where did things go off the rail? Where did we lose the mojo on this stuff?
Dr. West: Yeah, no I hear you. I think that was some prophetic fragments though, wasn’t it?
Mark: Yes, yep. Mhm.
Dr. West: Yeah, twenty-two years ago. My God. No, I think we are talking about the relative defeat, not the absolute, but the relative defeat of progressive politics and prophetic religion in the American empire. It has much to do with the ugly repression of prophetic activists and progressive activists. That was from the state, the FBI and the CIA outside. It had to do with the tramp of Reaganism, which went hand-in-hand with very vicious intellectual and ideological attacks on prophetic churches: The World Council of Churches, The National Council of Churches began in the late 70s and early 80s with the moral majority but it really began to intensify and as of course we move toward the later moments of Fox News and Murdoch and company where you have this massive, coordinated attempts to engage in vicious lies about progressive language, progressive policy, progressive vision and so on. And it has been relatively successful to the degree that it has moved so much of the public opinion to the right and so people don’t even have access to progressive vision, they don’t even have a sense of what possible prophetic practice can be in so many of our churches. This is what I mean by example, by massive example being crucial because if people see by example persons who are loving the Lord, loving Jesus, loving poor people. Black brothers and sisters loving black folk and white and red and yellow and brown. Brown folk loving brown folk, and yellow and white and red and so forth. That’s what large numbers of people just have never been exposed to this because they’ve lived in this—these various kinds of bubbles as part of the compartmentalization of the culture but they also have lived in a larger national context that has been obsessed with, you know, idols like free market fundamentalism, pre-emptive war policies and so forth and told, “This is the way things ought to be.”, “This is the only way you’ll be protected.”, “This is the only way you can sustain your way of life.” And as our churches become more and more adjusted to this kind of right-wing hegemony we end up with more Constantinian christianity and imperial judaism and imperial islam in the United States. I’m talking mainly about U.S.A. of course because Latin America is very different and Asia, of course, is just so complicated—and Africa is very different too.
Eliacin: Brother West you mentioned Latin America is very different and I would like to, as a Latin American I would like to ask a question, usually people don’t have an answer for me. As a Christian if we were to look south as Eduardo Gelaeano said, “If there’s something wrong with the North and something seems to be really going good in the South then the the South has become our new North.” What are some of the practices, elements, prophetic experiments and manifestations that we can learn from the south, in your opinion?
Dr. West: Well one is I think the south has reached the conclusion decades ago that the so-called “Washington consensus”, and the so-called “Neoliberal” approach and free marketeering of free enterprise which became primarily a cover for corporate domination, international corporate domination of national economies in the South—that that Washington consensus was radically called into question. Not just on the ground, in terms of social movements but even amongst a number of elected officials who came out of those social movements so that the Lula’s and others—even when he became President of course he had to adjust the certain Neoliberal policy. But he comes out of the WP, which was a movement that had been critical of the Washington consensus and it became more and more widely agreed upon that that was the case. Same is true in Venezuela and other parts of Latin America. Now of course, they’re still dealing with the most powerful empire in the history of the world, which is right north of them, therefore they’re vantage point is going to be a rejection on the one hand of Neoliberal economics and a profound suspicion of the Washington consensus not being poor people at the center of things. But having to still deal with the military asymmetric relation, in terms of U.S. military power—the possibility of course of CIA penetration within their own countries, the use of spies, sometimes assassinations, support of military coups and a whole host of other kinds of things that have been characteristic of progressives in Latin America for hundreds of years now. But in terms of a rejection of the idol of the free market, Latin America is light years ahead of U.S.A in that regard.
Mark: Talking about free market and the different idols of American worship, which you have brought up, I think one of the concerns that often comes up at least in the circles—the radical circles I connect with, is this sort of recognition that once there’s kind of this radical sentiment stirring up, it’s very easy for it to get derailed, co-opted, commodified and packaged. You so you have, you know, I mean you go to a bookstore and you see it all over the place. Like anything radical kind of sells. You buy a Che Guevara t-shirt, you can buy the Communist Manifesto at Barnes and Noble, it’s just, it’s pervasive and I’m just wondering if you have thoughts about what’s sort of advice or practices should we be thinking about or what examples can we follow that’ll keep us from—because I think this sort of co-option happens so subtly and people aren’t even aware of it until they realize they no longer have the capacity to speak prophetically. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Dr. West: Yeah, I mean the strategies of co-optation, incorporation, dilution, absorption are quite powerful. It goes hand in hand with various ideas becoming more popular and anytime they become more popular the market is going to seize on them in order to make money on them and in many ways it’s inescapable, there’s no way around that. THe question is, “How do you ensure that the market seizing on these popular forms are themselves not able to crush the practice and the witness?” Because you can have co-optation in terms of market appropriation and still have sustained witness and still have sustained practice. Martin Luther King movement, the civil rights movement was actually helped and aided with widespread tele-visual projection but that means at the same time there was large—people started wearing t-shirts to the civil rights movements up in upstate New York and never seen a Negro, you know. Well that’s fine, that’s part and parcel of the process but if the movement itself becomes diluted, if the movement itself becomes incorporated, that’s different than just the ideas, the artifacts, the various products associated with it. Now granted, again in the 60s we had movement. You can have all Che Guevara t-shirts you want, that can be a good thing in terms of people being exposed to at least to different way of looking at the world, that in this case came from Bolivia and Cuba in the 60s but if there’s no set of bodies in place, then it’s just the market coming in with no serious practice, collective practice, collective insurgency at work and therefore you end up with just co-optation with no serious counter-hegemonic insurgency, you see.
Eliacin: Dr. West, there’s that sentence of “hegemonic” and “empire”, I’m from Puerto Rico so I’m very close to Jamaica, I’m very influenced by the concept of Babylon and exile and getting that identity. You speak of music, you use a language and not just as entertainment but as a way of life that inserts dignity and humanity and you speak of it as a posture of celebration and resistance. So I want to ask you, in the musical language, which vibes or beats or rhythms do you think are key for Christians and Muslims and people who want to work for the common good, which are the key beats and rhythms for which we can dance and then use in the language of Rastafarian brothers and sisters so we can chant down Babylon? Which beat or rhythms?
Dr. West: Oh yes. Hm, well I appreciate the question. Well one of course I want to acknowledge my very dear Sister Lolita Lebrón, her recent death—
Eliacin: Yes, thank you very much.
Dr. West: When she was released, we had the Theology in America Conference in Detroit in 1980. I was blessed to be the one who introduced her on the stage. That was her first public appearance in the States after her release. And so, her recent death meant much to me in fact I’ve got the obituary right here in my office and same is true with the legacy of brother Campos, Albizu—
Eliacain: Yes, yes, yes.
Dr. West: Of Harvard Law, freedom fighter. Harvard Law graduate, freedom fighter.
Eliacin: Yes, there’s a long history in Puerto Rico in freedom fighting.
Dr. West: Yes, our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters are very special with their very distinctive colonial status vis-à-vis the U.S. empire on up until this present moment. But when it comes culture though, I think it’s a complicated issue when it comes to arts as you know because you have the issue of form as well as content, the issue of style as well as substance. That there are certain beats that allow people to survive, there are certain beats that preserve peoples integrity and sanity that are indispensable but they’re not always tied to liberation. People can survive and end up being thugs and gangsters. People can attempt to preserve their sanity and still be thugs and gangsters. Once they begin to preserve dignity and connect it with courage and passion, then they begin to tilt much more in a progressive and prophetic way. So that there are certain beats that can be tied to survival and sanity that I think are crucial but they’re not in anyway inherently progressive or inherently prophetic. They can prophetic in consequence, they can be progressive in consequence if they go beyond survival in persons, if they go beyond preserving sanity in persons and become tied to courage, vision, analysis of power and willing to live and die. So that somebody like a Bob Marley who is probably worth invoking here. Born in, right outside of Kingston where it’s clear that his musical genius along with The Wailers and then the whole genre of new world black music, of new world African music becomes part and parcel of connecting the quest for survival with the preservation of sanity and preservation of dignity to looking at the world from the vantage point of the “least of these”. You can get a whole world view so that you’re looking at Jamaica from the vantage point of the shanty towns, looking at the ex-British Empire from the vantage point of ex-colonial subjects in Jamaica, looking at the American Empire from the vantage point of those who are sending voluntary immigrants into New York and Philadelphia with the legacy of George Washington, Gordon and other freedom fighters—coming out of Jamaica.
Dr. West: So he knew that this would be a major source of not only idolatry but a distorting, a twisting of the heart, mind and soul and it would lead toward the most indifferent, the most callused dispositions and attitudes towards other peoples situation. And so I think that one has to try loving explode and disaggregate this attempt to argue we’re all in the same boat, on the same level because as Christians we’re all poor in some fundamental way.
Eliacin: On the same, on the other side of coin Dr. West I can see how people would, people who are in privileged positions would feel attacked by that and then they don’t know how to react with their own tension, their own prejudice and their own privilege. Then how, within empire, the oppressed is dehumanized and their dignity has been taken away. At the same time empire takes this sense of humanity out of the oppressor as well and the oppressor, through this very large spirit that we call empire is taking away the capacity of love. How do we people who’ve been historically oppressed or marginalized or [unintelligible], how can we talk truth that in a way that is also love and embracing and unveil—it helps people walk into that Kingdom of God that we speak of?
Dr. West: Yeah, I think that there is no doubt that if you are not, if you don’t have joy, you’re not in love. That joy is the fruit of love. And if people are living joyless lives they have to have the courage to love, and the freedom to love in order to have access to joy. Now, what this means for the well to do, there is a very rich history of well to do wealthy persons who choose love, who experience joy, often times resulting in not a class suicide, a profound suspicion of their class privilege. Sometimes even seeing privilege itself, is a form of theft, even if it’s only indirect—which is to say if you are born into it. If you look at the larger history and see where your wealth came from. And there’s a significant number of wealthy persons who have been willing to do that. And so I think well to do brothers and sisters, they need to read the biographies of these folk. Read the biographies of the Vanderbilts who became a communist. Read the biography of the Rockefeller who became a socialist. Read the biography of the Gore Vidal who grew up in one of the first families of the American empire, who has become one of the greatest critics of the American empire. There’s a whole host—[unintelligible] the great Harvard Professor who was a Christian socialist, who was at work with the early Reinhold Niebur but then was critical when Niebur was appropriated by the establishment, and he willing became a part of the liberal establishment after his early democratic-socialist years as a Christian. There is a very rich history of the well to do individuals becoming committed to poor people and working people, both as Christians as well as non-Christians. And the wonderful thing about the God that we serve is that we have this freedom. We can become free to love. I don’t care if you are a member of a Nazi party, just learn how to love your Jewish brothers and sisters and others. You have the freedom to do that, it’s just that it takes a lot of risk and cost and such to choose love. But of course at the same time there’s a joy that follows there from.
Mark: As we’re kind of winding down with the interview, I want to ask a question about charity and how it functions in our society. I feel like a lot of us who are concerned about injustice will try to address those injustices through acts of charity. So there’s, charity is big business—for a reason; it resonates with people who want to make a difference in the world. But it seems there are limits to charity. Charity can kind of lock things into place and maybe even diminish some of the power of maybe revolutionary ideas. How do we take advantage of these opportunities to do charity work with a recognition of like the limitations? And how do we, you know, meet people in that place and call them to something maybe a little bit more revolutionary with their actions and their money? I mean, does that make sense?
Dr. West: Oh, it makes sense. Wonderful question. All these questions have been just superb. But for me I think it’s a wonderful thing when people are charitable because it does in fact reflect some sense of getting beyond indifference. Indifference is the one trait that makes the very angels weep. The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say, “Indifference is more evil than evil itself because it becomes a contagious way of life.” And being charitable is to hold off that hound of indifference. There’s a difference though between the flame of charity and the fire of justice. When you have that flame, at least you’ve got something flickering in your soul that is part of the warming of your soul. Now, of course so much of Christianity these days is the freezing of doctrine rather than the warming of soul. Holding onto the doctrine, holding onto dogma, holding onto the whatever it is—biblical innerancy or whatever it is, rather than the trying to love your neighbor as thyself and love thy enemy. And so on the one hand those—like the Bill Gates, let’s look at brother Bill Gates. He’s magnificent when he comes to charity, isn’t he right? Oh, philanthropy—unbelievable. He and sister Melinda—beautiful. I tell them all the time, from public forums. I applaud the money they give for malaria, education, it’s magnificent and so on. That’s the flame of charity. But then you’ve got the biblical imperative to not let philanthropy roll down like waters—but justice, roll down like waters. That’s something else.
Dr. West: That’s that flame becoming a fire. And once that fire is inside of you, once that love is overflowing, you want to do more than just give philanthropic gifts. You want to transform the conditions and circumstances under which people live. That’s what justice is fundamentally about, that’s what structural analysis is important. That’s why analysis of capitalist modes of production and asymettric relation between bosses and workers. That’s why analysis of patriarchy becomes crucial in terms of the mistreatment of our sisters of all colors. That’s why a critique of homophobia becomes very important so that the humanity of gay brothers and lesbian sisters are not trashed. That’s why critiques of white supremacy becomes fundamental, because people of color are construed, constructed in such a way that they are viewed as less beautiful, less intelligent, less moral than white fellow human beings. This is where justice comes in and that requires a deepening of your love, a deepening of your courage, a willingness to bear a heavier cost and in the end, I mean what we’re really talking about is what I used to sing about in my old black baptist church thirty years ago—was “Does Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free, no there’s a cross for everyone and there’s a cross for me.” And if we serve a God whose only place in the world is in the manger and on the cross. The manger was marginal, the cross became central, but the death by the elites of the Roman Empire. And if we’re willing to really follow Jesus, to imitate Jesus the way Thomas of Aquinas talked about it, or Kierkegaard talked about it in the “Works of Love”—his masterpiece in talking about deeds, talking about Christian witness—then that justice that you talking about goes far beyond charity but it has to have that love in it. Paul is right and that litany of love is 13th chapter of Corinthians, if the love is not in it then all the rest is sounding breath and tinkling cymbal.
Eliacin: I heard you in answering one of our previous questions that you clearly called him [President Obama] a neoliberal.
Dr. West: Oh absolutely. He is the black charismatic face of American exceptionalism. He is the head of the American empire. He’s got a neo-Keynsian approach at home that doesn’t directly empower poor and working people but has to go through Wall Street, has to go through the big finance and big business in order to get to working people and so they end up being an afterthought and he has levels of unemployment that are high. And he’s got a liberal neo-conservatism abroad, which is still imperialist but it poses as if on the one hand it’s more thoughtful, intelligent and liberal than what we had under Bush. And in many ways it is in terms of not being as raw but he is as just as aggressive and militaristic when it comes to not just Afghanistan—we’ve seen the tripling of drone dropped and not just in Pakistan but in Yemen and other places. And the activity in Latin America of supporting various right wing forces is as intense as ever. Notice the situation in Honduras with the coup and the controversy around the coup and the stances—deeply conservative there. So that as much as I love my dear brother Barak Obama, we have to tell the truth about him from the vantage point of our Christian witness.
Eliacin: When he was elected my concern was that if he was not going to live up to the expectations that the world had of him, now there is going to be this crisis of hope for the next election.
Dr. West: No, I think that’s very true. That’s very true. When he was elected I published a book called “Hope on a Tightrope”.
Dr. West: That tightrope is slippery.
Mark: The day after the election I remember I was, for a time there was this protest against cluster bombs that happens in Minneapolis, against this place called ATK Systems that makes cluster bombs. And there’s these primarily elderly men and women, mostly women in their 70s who every wednesday throughout the winter in Minneapolis. So even if it’s 20 below they’ll be out there protesting faithfully every week. And I remember going there to protest with them and just to kind of sit at their feet kind of. It was the day after the election and there were tears, they were crying because they felt that the election had been the second American Revolution. They had such hope. I remember sitting there thinking, there’s no way that they’re not going to end up feeling disappointed because we know what the presidency can do to even the best of intentions. I feel like that hope, there’s still some of that hope left and I wonder sometimes what do we do if with this kind of continued hope? How do we nurture that? Because I remember when I was, after the 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan I was part of the protest—an unlicensed protest in Minneapolis where we kind of walked around in the streets and stuff. And I got criticism for not being more supportive in giving Obama time. But how do we balance this sort of recognition that people need hope and that there’s still maybe some opportunity here, but with a sense of realism. Because on the one hand we don’t want to trash the president, but on the other hand we’ve got name whatever hope is here and try to move it in a direction that isn’t just going to go down the Clinton road.
Dr. West: Oh I think you’re right to do what you do. But one, we just have to make a distinction between costly hope and cheap optimism. And costly hope is tied to trying to tell the truth and look at the world with the vantage point of the least of these. And cheap optimism is trying to look for the next possibility and opportunity as you turn away from the more painful truths and think that that level of illusion and self-deceit will sustain you in the midst of impending catastrophe. And it doesn’t. So that the optimistic aspirations of people, they are very precious. But they have to be filtered through the fire of truth-telling and costly hope. And you remember Bonhoeffer’s great distinction between costly grace and cheap grace. That it’s a similar kind of thing and of course America is so tilted towards cheap optimism. I mean what they saw Obama was just a reaffirmation of the American dream as if somehow that was the great culmination or fulfillment of what Martin Luther King Juniors. I say, “Please! Spare me. That may be a fulfillment but it’s certainly not the major fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream when his organizing poor people trying to stop a war in Vietnam when he was put to death.” So it becomes question of letting people know, “You know what, all of us want to feel better about ourselves and the nation, but we could do that by just going to a crack house and living in a world of make believe like Blanche DuBois, the American [unintelligible] in Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. If you just want to feel good about yourself there’s a lot of illusions out there, there’s a lot of forms of self-deception from crack cocaine to alcoholism to believing Obama was the culmination of the King legacy. It’s just an illusion. We’ve got be willing to be truthful about a situation which means that, as Williams Coffin used to say that, “The Bible says ‘The truth shall set you free’, but one could’ve added ‘but it first makes you feel miserable’ because it shatters all your illusions.” And this is true even for Christian conversion. When you really find out the truth about yourself and you’re set free, you feel miserable because first you realize “By God I was so bad before and I needed this kind of transformation, I can’t do it on my own. I need the grace, I need something greater than me to transform me—that’s true.” That’s exactly right. It’s like AA and Alcoholic Anonymous. When you find out the truth about yourself you feel both free but also miserable and you need to muster the courage to act on the freedom that you now have, once you have now come to terms with truth about yourself. That’s true for nations too.
Dr. West: So I’m with you in that regard and I do think we have to be as loving as delicate as we can be in terms of people who have invested so much of themselves into certain kinds and forms of cheap optimism. But in the end—I mean I was hoping, and one of the reasons why I—I mean I did sixty-five events for Barack Obama from Iowa to Ohio. I was hoping that his candidacy and his victory would generate new deep, democratic possibilities, new prophetic possibilities but instead you get a backlash with the right-wing populism and the Tea Party brothers and sisters on the right wing. But I think even that has something to do with Obama’s own policy. You see if he had not opted for Geithner and Summers and the Neoliberal economic crew that he did, he could have nipped some of this right-wing populism in the bud. He could have nipped it in the bud. But instead he opted for all this big money for the investment bankers, you got a weak stimulus, he’s tied to Wall Street. The financial reform doesn’t deal with the ugly derivates in the way that it ought. It still allows the banks to get bigger and bigger—they’re bigger now than when they collapsed. And so he couldn’t respond to the loss of jobs, loss of homes and so forth in any substantive way but Wall Street’s now doing well and so that becomes a basis of a right-wing populism, you see? If he had come through with something thoroughly progressive—just listen to bits of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stieglitz and a few other progressive economists, he could have pulled the rug from under the right-wing populism with sister Palin and brother Beck and these other right-wing, fellow citizens. So that there is a sense in which the Obama administration has to take some of the blame, even though some of it is just outright hatred—you know, they’d hate him no matter what.
Eliacin: So brother, after putting so much effort and support on Obama and then seeing the way he’s going, I’m assuming there’s this great sense of loss and death probably that you feel. Where do you personally see a sense of resurrection or hope, what gives you hope?
Dr. West: Well there’s always a cloud of witnesses somewhere though brother. As I said before, we have isolated coteries, isolated collectivities, prophetic Christians and progressive activists and prophetic Jews, prophetic Muslims and so on. People are still out there fighting patriarchy and fighting homophobia—the trade union movement is not dead. They are concerned about working people, they’re just not that powerful. So that cloud of witnesses is always a source of hope for me. Because hope for me has to do with the love remaining alive, the justice remaining alive and motion still taking place. People being in motion, it’s just that we can’t at the moment create the kind of social movement that we would like. That’s the real profound sadness and deep disappointment. We don’t have the kind of widespread outcry—moral outcry—political mobilization that I would like to see. But as I said, those are very rare in history. We may not see them, for awhile.
Mark: Thanks for speaking with us. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation.
Eliacin: Yes, thank you very much.
Dr. West: No, you all have been so kind. I appreciate you taking all the time. Anytime I can of any help to you all, you let me know. I don’t always have to be front in stage, I can be behind the scenes. But any help I can be, I really would want to be a service to you all. Because you all are apart of those holding up the blood stained banner, I tell you that.