Cornel West is special. He rocks the best afro, has impeccable taste in music, and boasts the unique ability to communicate complex political ideas to, as Sly Stone said, "everyday people." As an activist, author, and public speaker, West has transcended academia to become the moral compass for a country teetering on political, spiritual, and economic bankruptcy. How can you knock a guy who was the first professor at Yale to be arrested on campus while protesting against apartheid in South Africa? We love him, even if we don’t always agree with him, because he doesn’t bite his tongue for anybody—not even the Commander in Chief. In an interview with Truthdig back in 2011, West infamously described 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.” With the election suddenly up for grabs since President Obama’s sluggish performance in Denver against Mitt Romney, we hit up the famed professor to uncover his thoughts on the prospect of a Romney presidency, the second debate, and whether he and Tavis Smiley will ever announce a bid for the White House.
VICE: What did you think of Tuesday's debate?
I said a prayer for brother Barack Obama the first time and the prayer did not kick in. I said a prayer the second time and it did kick in. He was much stronger. I was glad to see him defending himself.
Brother Mitt Romney has a sense of entitlement. With Candy Crowley and the others, he doesn’t listen—he just takes off. Barack really made sure to respond to the actual questions. I thought he did a much better job, but it looks as if the polls are still tight. Regardless, I was glad to see Barack being much more forthright.
Which Obama was more authentic—Obama in debate one or Obama in debate two?
I think that Barack Obama is a shy man. He does not like to be aggressive. The only moment he became angry was when he was accused of using American soldiers, precious human beings, as pawns for politics. You could see the anger in his face. He was very upset. But generally speaking, Obama is reconciliatory. That’s just who he is. When it comes time to fighting in the muck and mire, that’s just not his terrain.
After the polls swung in Romney’s favor after the first debate, did you reconsider your criticism of President Obama?
We have to prevent a Romney takeover of the White House. No doubt about that. It would be very dangerous in terms of actual lives and actual deaths of the elderly and the poor. Those people who are dependent on various programs would have to deal with the ugly damage of the further redistribution of wealth from the poor and working people to the well off.
Right. But doesn’t criticizing Obama make all that bad stuff you just said more likely to happen?
I’m strategic. We have to tell that truth about a system that’s corrupt—both parties are poisoned by big money and tied to big banks and corporations. Speaking on that is a matter of intellectual integrity. American politics are not a matter of voting your moral conscience—if I voted my moral conscience it would probably be for Jill Stein. But it's strategic in terms of the actual possibilities and real options available for poor and working people.
So voting for Obama is good strategy given the realities of the world?
A Romney administration would be a catastrophic response to an already catastrophic condition. I still get in a lot of trouble with my left-wing comrades on this—that I would still support Obama winning while continuing to tell the truth about drones dropping bombs on innocent people, which I consider war crimes, about the Wall Street government, about the refusal to close Guantanamo, about [section] 1021 of the National Authorization Act where you can detain citizens without trial or even assassinate citizens based on the decisions of the executive branch. All of those things to me are morally obscene. It’s a matter of telling that truth, strategically. I think we have to ensure that we don’t have a takeover by conservative right-wing or we’re in a world of trouble.
What do you think of Romney as a job creator?
I’m not convinced of that at all. His career is one that’s tied to profits. It’s not a matter of creating jobs at all. It’s a matter of making big cash. Big cash. On the other hand, he might say, “Well, one of the ways I’m tied to profit is through job creation.” I think the profit maximization is primary and if you create jobs as a by-product, he would accept that. But the problem with Brother Mitt Romney is that I just don’t think he has the kind of integrity to make decisions and stick to them. The talk of him being a flip-flopper, there’s deep truth in that. I get the sense that he will almost say anything to win.
Give me an example.
I was in Massachusetts when he was governor. He governed and gave speeches that are qualitatively different than what he says now. And he thinks we’ll forget—that’s just not the case. I have Mormon friends who are very critical of Romney and others who are very supportive of him. I asked them, “Does this brother have a core?” And I received a very mixed response.
Mitt sucks. Obama sucks. When are you and Tavis Smiley going to announce a run for the presidency?
That’s all we need! [Laughs] No, I’m a revolutionary Christian whose calling is to try to tell the truth the best he can and bear witness to love before I die. All of that does not include being a politician. I do think it’s possible to be a progressive politician like Bernie Sanders, probably the American politician I have the most respect for. But that’s not my calling, not my lane—we all have various gifts and so forth…
C’mon. They say hair is important to being the president and you’ve got the best.
My running for president is like John Coltrane playing in a military band. It’s just too rigid, too tight. Now, I’m no Coltrane. He was a genius. I’m an everyday brother. His calling was Love Supreme, his calling was Ascension. It wasn’t Sousa [Laughs]. I have respect for military music, don’t get me wrong. Even Beethoven wrote one, The Wellington. But that’s not my calling. Tavis… He’ll have to speak for himself.
Let’s say you got 100 days in the White House. What would you do?
If I had 100 days in the White House, my first legislation would be to decentralize the banks and empower community banks—in a democratic process though, I’m not talking about seizing property, I’m a libertarian on these issues. I'd try to convince people that the very notion of having banks that are too big too fail is a dangerous thing for any economy. That action would be connected to declaring a war on poverty, which would include a cutback on military spending and massive investments in jobs with a living wage, housing, quality education across the board, and re-doing the bridges and infrastructure and sewage systems.
Sounds like you’ve really thought this through.
If we could talk as much about justice as we do growth,we would have a different cultural atmosphere and political discourse. Everyone agrees on the very narrow political discourse of our day: We got to grow, we got to grow we grow, grow, grow, grow, grow! Well, you have impending ecological catastrophe, you have catastrophe of poverty, you have catastrophe of young people’s spiritual plight—and that’s a deep catastrophe—tied to addiction, tied to using revenge as a species of sweetness. This is the market driven soul-craft that permeates the culture.
You’re making it sound like we’re pretty screwed. A president can’t fix all of that, can he?
Well, the president can set the tone at the spiritual level. But we haven’t had it since Lincoln or FDR with his fire-side chats. Those who are in a leadership position, and this is true for the leader of a seminary, mosque, synagogue, or head of the family, that spirituality is not a plaything; it’s a real force in people’s lives. Being a president today is about lighting the tree at Christmas and receiving the bodies from the wars. You can actually set a tone that doesn’t have to be from a dogmatic point of view or a narrow religious point of view. Democracy is not just a system, but a way of life. It’s sensitivity to the various dimensions of citizens. But I think that we really are living in an empire that is in very deep decline—spiritually, culturally, politically, economically—and we need to fight back. We need some countervailing voices and visions to reinvigorate democratic possibilities of this empire in decline.
Speaking on an empire in decline, we have been moving increasingly towards drone warfare of which you have been critical. We have a nation tired of nation building abroad and supportive of what is regarded as low-cost, high impact security. What do you say to that?
It’s devastating to what’s left of the soul of the country. Drones, like anything else, can be used in a variety of ways, but when you normalize and routinize drones that drop bombs that include “unfortunately” innocent civilians, these are war crimes. And it cuts the other way too. We know that Al-Qaeda, thugs, and gangsters are killing innocent people—these are crimes against humanity. But governments commit war crimes, too. The fact that we haven’t had a discourse about drones that allows us to wrestle with who we are as a people… For instance, people might want to argue that it was alright to kill Bin Laden or to drop a bomb on Al-Qaeda. That’s a different kind of argument because I understand, I’m an Augustinian myself in terms of just-war—I’m not a pacifist. There are very, very specific conditions under which we engage in war and killing soldiers. But when you include killing innocent civilians, any group, any nation, whatever—those are crimes. They just are.
You write in The Rich and the Rest of Us about the branding of the relationship between the American Dream and hyper materialism. Do you think that’s why the campaigns refuse to talk about poverty?
We have a corporate media whose bottom line is making money. They don’t allow robust, uninhibited public conversation. Even last night you notice that when Obama talked about the 47 percent, he mentioned every group but poor people. Of course, what Romney had in mind was primarily poor people, especially poor people of color. When the public thinks of “those lazy people” who view themselves as victims, the first face that comes forward is Latisha and Jamal. Romney knows that. Who would’ve thought that it could have spilled over into the white elderly in Florida, the veterans in Colorado, and so forth. But the corporate media is just so narrow and truncated that you can’t see the humanity of poor people. Even when you’re talking about programs that help them. All of us need help at some point. The banks needed help and they received a huge response. Well, the elderly need help, the workers need help, we all do.
Given the nature of the “corporate media multiplex” as you call it, and the impact of Citizens United on our elections, how do we see ourselves out of the wilderness?
America is both a precious experiment in democracy and it’s an imperial adventure—you have to keep both in your head at the same time—from indigenous people to imperial expansion, from the vantage point of people who are coming here to remake themselves and a government that has democratic practices and procedures. It’s all very precious. We’ve been in deep decline before, but how has America gotten out? We get out with some kind of massive spiritual, moral, and political awakening. Those are the resources available in our civilization. That’s how you shift. That’s what Brother Martin understood.
So we've overcome this kind of adversity before?
How did we get rid of Jim Crow, after it was in place for 90 years? You need some kind of awakening. It’s takes a form of social motion, social momentum. You have to have social movement that shakes the people and shakes the foundation. It’s not moralistic, but it has a strong moral force behind it, a strong spiritual force too. But it’s also politically engaging with people taking risks. When I talk about hitting the streets and going to jail, I think that’s one of the last things we have available to us to serve as a catalyst for an awakening. That’s why the Stop and Frisk Movement is very important. It’s a slow, but very important manifestation of an awakening. And it’s going to take place on multiple fronts: the ecological front, anti-patriarchal front against domestic violence and the slavery of women, and so forth. But the history of America is a wave of awakenings.
What happens if and when President Obama is re-elected?
Well I hope he wins because Romney is so dangerous. But when he wins, the hard work only intensifies. We'll still need to critique US foreign policy and the worshiping of Wall Street. Let's start treating workers the way you treat bankers and have loans available to students the way they're available to banks at zero percent interest.
Do you think Obama will be different?
There might be a possibility that he starts to tilt towards main street rather than Wall Street, but we’ll see who he chooses to surround himself with. When you choose Geitner and Summers, you’re sending pretty strong signs that this is going to be a Wall Street-friendly government. But we’ll have to see and we’ll keep putting pressure on him. The important thing to recognize is that when he does win, the work begins all over again in terms of pressing for issues that will be critical of the system that he runs.
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