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2011-08-09

"A Declaration of War on the Poor": Cornel West and Tavis Smiley on the Debt Ceiling Agreement

Guests

Tavis Smiley, the host of Tavis Smiley on PBS and The Tavis Smiley Show from PRI. He is also co-host with of Smiley & West from PRI with Dr. Cornel West.

Cornel West, professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University and the author of numerous books on race. His memoir is Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.

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The veteran broadcaster Tavis Smiley and the author and Princeton University Professor Cornel West are in the midst of a 15-city, cross-country trek they have dubbed "The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience." The tour comes on the heels of last week’s deficit agreement, which has been widely criticized for excluding a tax hike on the wealthy, as well as any measures to tackle high unemployment. "Any legislation that doesn’t extend unemployment benefits, doesn’t close a single corporate loophole, doesn’t raise one cent in terms of new revenue in terms of taxes on the rich or the lucky, allows corporate America to get away scot-free again—the banks, Wall Street getting away again—and all these cuts ostensibly on the backs of everyday people," says Smiley. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On the heels of last week’s deficit agreement, which widely criticized—was widely criticized for excluding a tax hike on the wealthy, as well as any measures to tackle high unemployment, the Congressional Black Caucus has launched a month-long campaign to address staggering unemployment rates among African Americans. In Detroit, Cleveland and Los Angeles, two cities that are stops on the tour, the unemployment rates are in the 40 percent range. The caucus chair last week slammed the deficit deal as a "Satan sandwich" that unfairly harms African Americans. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports Obama will embark on his own jobs tour that will take place in the middle of the caucus’s campaign.

Well, we are now going to turn to two leading African-American voices. They have hit the road to challenge President Obama’s record on poverty. The veteran broadcaster, Tavis Smiley, the author, Princeton University professor, Cornel West, are in the midst of a 15-city, cross-country trek they’ve called "The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience." The tour comes on the heels of last week’s deficit agreement.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Tell us, Tavis, why you’re at Kent State right now.

TAVIS SMILEY: We’re at Kent State now as one of many stops on this tour, as you mentioned, Amy, because we’re trying to raise awareness about this issue, trying to raise the level of debate and conversation about the plight of the poor in this country. I believe, and Dr. West believes, that it is, in fact, the telling of truth that allows suffering to speak. And if we don’t speak truth to power—and put another way, truth to the powerless—then they end up being rendered invisible in this country.

You mentioned a moment ago, and you’re absolutely right about this, this deficit-reduction plan, this debt-ceiling plan, that Congress came together on and the President signed, unfortunately, I think is a declaration of war on the poor. Any legislation that doesn’t extend unemployment benefits, doesn’t close a single corporate loophole, doesn’t raise one cent of new revenue in terms of taxes on the rich or the lucky, allows corporate America to get away scot-free again—the banks, Wall Street getting away again—and all these cuts ostensibly on the backs of everyday people.

This conversation now about the poor in this country needs to happen, and so we’re out here trying to dramatize that and trying to ensure that this time around, in this presidential debate, Mr. Obama and whoever his Republican opponent will be are going to be forced to address the issue, the ever-expanding issue, of the poor in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, before I turn to Cornel West, I was speaking yesterday to Harry Belafonte, the famous singer, actor, activist. I interviewed him earlier this year about his meeting with Cornel. It was before President Obama was president. And this is what he had to say about his conversation with, at the time, Senator Obama.

HARRY BELAFONTE: Every opportunity I’ve had to put that before him, he has heard. I have not had a chance to put it to him as forcefully as I would like to, because he has not yet given us the accessibility to those places where this could be said in a more articulate way and not always on the fly.

But he once said something to me during his campaign for the presidency, and he says—he said, you know—I said, "I’ve heard you" —he was talking before businessmen on Wall Street here in—there in New York. And he said to me—I said, "Well, you know, I hope you bring the challenge more forcefully to the table." And he said, "Well, when are you and Cornel West going to cut me some slack?" And I got caught with that remark. And I said to him, in rebuttal, I said, "What makes you think we haven’t?"

AMY GOODMAN: That was Harry Belafonte. Cornel West, your response, and why you’re on this tour, professor at Princeton University?

CORNEL WEST: Well, yeah, we know Harry Belafonte’s idea of brotherhood. No, Brother Tavis came up with the idea of this Poverty Tour. We’re on the tour because there has been a top-down, one-sided class war against poor and working people, that’s led by greedy Wall Street oligarchs and avaricious corporate plutocrats in the name of deregulated markets, which is a morally bankrupt policy, especially when it comes to keeping track of the humanity and dignity of poor and working people. We started with our indigenous brothers and sisters in—

TAVIS SMILEY: Hayward, Wisconsin.

CORNEL WEST: Hayward, Wisconsin.

TAVIS SMILEY: Lac Courte Oreilles.

CORNEL WEST: Lac Courte Oreilles, that’s it. I wanted to get that right. We spent time with the Hmong workers there in Eau Claire. We were with warehouse workers there in Joliet. We were in Chicago, Detroit. We met with homeless veterans yesterday in—

TAVIS SMILEY: Akron, Ohio.

CORNEL WEST: —in Akron, Ohio. I mean, we went everywhere. We’re going to spend time with poor whites, poor blacks, poor brown, poor yellow. We’re trying to reconstitute what Brother Martin Luther King, Jr., died for, which is bringing poor and working people together in the face of these class attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your analysis, Tavis Smiley, of the debt deal?

TAVIS SMILEY: As I tried to emanate a moment ago, I think it’s a declaration of war. We all know—and this is why The War and Peace Report, Amy, is so important, and we celebrate you and revel in your humanity and the work that you do every day to raise these issues. Dr. King once said, as you well know, Amy, that "war is the enemy of the poor." "War is the enemy of the poor." Congress has the power obviously to declare war. They’ve done that far too many times. We’re engaged in some excursions right now that we need to find a way to get out of immediately, if not sooner. As my granddad might say, "sooner than at once and quicker than right now," we need to get out of these wars that we’re engaged in, because war is the enemy of the poor. So Congress has the power to declare war, and I think they’ve done that once again. This time, though, they’ve declared war on the poor. That’s what this legislation, for me, is all about. I think Congressman Cleaver is right: it’s a Satan sandwich. And I don’t want to take—I don’t want to partake and bite into that.

The bottom line is that our body politic—I want to be clear about this—both Republicans and Democrats, both Congress and the White House, and for that matter, all of the American people, have got to take the issue of the poor more seriously. Why? Because the new poor, the new poor, are the former middle class. Obviously, the polls tell these elected officials, these politicians, that you ought to talk about the middle class, that resonates. Well, if the new poor are the former middle class, then this conversation has got to be expanded. We’ve got to have a broader conversation about what’s happening to the poor. And the bottom line for me is this, Amy, with regard to this legislation and all others that are now demonizing, casting aspersion on the poor. There’s always been a connection between the poor and crime, but now—between poverty and crime, but now it’s become a crime, it would seem, to be poor in this country. And I believe this country, one day, is going to get crushed under the weight of its own poverty, if we think we can continue to live in a country where one percent of the people own and control more wealth than 90 percent. That math, long term, Amy, is unsustainable. We’ve got to talk about poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: A new report from the Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank Heritage Foundation finds Americans living in poverty are doing better than they have ever been and the definition of poverty needs to be redefined. So Stephen Colbert featured the report last month, right, on Comedy Central on The Colbert Report. I just wanted to play an excerpt from his show.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Jesus said the poor would always be with us. Well, it turns out Jesus does not know everything. For more, Fox News’ Stu Varney makes words come out of his mouth.

STUART VARNEY: When you think of poverty, you picture this. But what if I told you it really looks like this? A new report showing poor families in the United States are not what they used to be. I’m just going to give our viewers a quick run-through of what items poor families in America have. Ninety-nine percent of them have a refrigerator. Eighty-one percent have a microwave.

STEPHEN COLBERT: A refrigerator and a microwave? They can preserve and heat food? Ooh la la. I guess the poor are too good for mold and trichinosis. It’s all here, folks, in the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation’s new report, "Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?" And if you watched closely in Stu Varney’s report just then, you saw that evidently poverty is the plasma flat-screen aisle at Best Buy. And you will not believe some of the stuff poor people have in their homes: luxuries like ceiling fans, DVD players.

AMY GOODMAN: There you have Stephen Colbert, an excerpt of his response to the Heritage Foundation report, "Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?" That’s the title of the Heritage Foundation report. Cornel West, your response?

CORNEL WEST: No, thank God for Brother Colbert. The Heritage Foundation has been spreading lies to justify indifference toward poor people for three decades as part of the right-wing intellectual assault on working and poor people. Tavis and I were at Camp Forest tent city outside of Ann Arbor. They’ve been there a number of years. And in fact, they just got heat, what was it, two years ago. They’ve been there for many years. They just got heat. So, the Heritage Foundation, they ought to be ashamed of themselves, but this is part of the fightback. The Heritage Foundation supports the counter-revolution in the name of oligarchs and plutocrats. We want to be part of the fightback, and there’s millions out there who want to be part of the fightback, as the oligarchs and plutocrats attempt to squeeze all of the democratic juices out of the American social experiment.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a listening tour, Tavis Smiley, as you’ve described it. Talk about what you’ve heard, as you go from Chicago to Akron, Ohio. Talk about what people are telling you. Thousands of people are turning out. You were on the South Side of Chicago; this is where President Obama spent so many years.

TAVIS SMILEY: We’re hearing a number of things. Let me try to give you three right quick, in no particular order. Number one, these unemployment numbers are real. And it’s very clear to me and other economists who are willing to be honest about this that whatever numbers the government is giving us about unemployment, the numbers are far worse, because so many Americans have stopped looking for work. We talked to a group last night of unemployed, homeless, military veterans—Army, Navy, Marines—a room full of them, just outside of Kent State last night in Akron, Ohio, and to hear these persons, who have put their lives on the line for this country, who cannot find work. A woman named Hillary last night has been out of work for three years, and she broke down last night crying, weeping uncontrollably about the fact that she keeps applying and reapplying. She cannot find work. Unemployment here in Akron, Ohio, a bellwether state in these presidential elections every four years—unemployment is off the charts here. And these, last night, just happen to be primarily, overwhelmingly white Americans. So, when we talk about unemployment, we’re not just talking about black folk and brown folk. Across the board, too many Americans are unemployed, and the numbers that we are given every month are not really as accurate as they ought to be, number one.

CORNEL WEST: That’s right.

TAVIS SMILEY: Number two, we’re hearing from people that the process is broken, our political process is broken, and there’s a hopelessness in this country right now. I just returned from China, Amy, some weeks ago, and in China—and I could debate all day long, and I’ve got issues with the way they do a lot of stuff in China, but there is a sense of hopefulness about their future. And you hear, across this country, so many Americans who sense a hopelessness about the future of this country. So many Americans now think that our best days as a nation are behind us, and we’re hearing that too often on this tour.

But we’re also hearing—we’re also hearing that there’s got to be a commitment to everyday people, a commitment to the poor. If we can find a way to get the debt ceiling raised, if we can find a trillion dollars for these military excursions, etc., etc., etc., why can’t we get serious and come together in Washington, perhaps at a White House conference on poverty—hint, hint—to talk about a way to eradicate poverty in 10, 15, 20 years. It can be done if we commit ourselves to it. And the poor are feeling more and more invisible. The worst thing you can do to a human being is to make him or her feel invisible, as if they don’t matter, as if they’re throwaway, as if they’re disposable. And too many Americans are feeling that right about now.

AMY GOODMAN: A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found 86 percent of African Americans expressed approval of the job President Obama is doing, even as support for him has slipped among other groups. This is from the Washington Post. The view is nuanced, though: "Among blacks, approval of the president’s economic policies has weakened, with only 54 percent saying the policies have made the economy better compared with 77 percent in October." Cornel West, you have been both a supporter of Senator Obama in becoming president and a fierce critic. These polls are shifting, even among his hugest support group. What about what has happened, and where you think President Obama is trying to take the country, and where you think it needs to go?

CORNEL WEST: Well, I think, on the one hand, large numbers of black people rightly want to protect President Obama against the vicious right-wing attacks, the Fox News-like attacks, the lies about him being socialist, Muslim and so forth. On the other hand, the suffering intensifies. It’s very clear that President Obama caves in over and over and over again. He punts on first down. If you’re in a foxhole with him, you’re in trouble, because he wants to compromise, you want to fight. He doesn’t have the kind of backbone he ought to have. So black folk find themselves in a dilemma: how do we protect him against the right-wing attacks and at the same time keep him accountable, especially when it comes to poor and working people?

Unfortunately, Tim Geithner and his economic team have nothing to do with the legacy of Martin King, have indifference toward poor and working people. He listens to them, hence he’s rightly associated much more with the oligarchs than with poor people. We hope he changes his mind. We hope he gets a progressive economic team, even though, as you know, many of us are exploring other kinds of possibilities in the coming election, given his lukewarmness.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you exploring exactly? Are you talking about another candidate running for president?

CORNEL WEST: It would be a Bernie Sanders-like figure who is fundamentally committed to the legacy of Martin King and Fannie Lou Hamer and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dorothy Day, putting poor and working people at the center.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say Bernie Sanders-type, is Bernie Sanders considering running for president?

CORNEL WEST: Unfortunately, I don’t think so.

TAVIS SMILEY: He said he’s not.

CORNEL WEST: I wish he was, because he’s my kind of brother. But someone like that who’s got backbone and courage.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis Smiley, would you like to see someone else run, and are you considering it yourself?

TAVIS SMILEY: That right there is the joke of the day. Actually, Dr. West has a great line about that, Amy. You should have asked him that question; he has a great line. He says, you would much sooner find him in a crack house than in the White House. That’s his response to that.

As you well know, my role on public television and public radio doesn’t put me in the realm of endorsing candidates. I have not done that. My role is to talk about accountability, to challenge folk to reexamine the assumptions they hold about the poor, to help them expand their inventory of ideas, to introduce Americans to the poor with these platforms that I have. So I’m not in the endorsing business, I’m in the accountability business. And that’s why we’re on this Poverty Tour.

But to your question, I don’t think the President would be hurt, necessarily—the country certainly would not be hurt—by a primary challenge that would refocus him on what really matters. It would refocus him on what’s happening to too many people in this country. It would refocus him on a more progressive agenda. But having said that, I think if the race were held today, the President still wins. You can’t beat somebody with nobody, and I don’t see who the somebody is that can beat the President. So, Doc and I have had many debates, and I’m sure we’re going to get right back at this debate once we get on the bus again and take off to the next city in just a few minutes on the Poverty Tour.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there.

TAVIS SMILEY: But I think that a challenge would refocus him—

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis, we’re going to have to leave it there. Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, thanks so much for joining us.

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