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Cornel West on the Death of Emmett Till, 9/11, Preemptive Wars and Race in America

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We hear an excerpt from a major addressed delivered by Cornel West at the Lannan Foundation. [includes rush transcript]

Dr. Cornel West has been described as one of America’s most vital and eloquent public intellectuals. Dr. West was recently appointed Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion at Princeton University. In ground-breaking books such as Race Matters, Restoring Hope, The American Evasion of Philosophy, Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin; The War Against Parents; The Future of American Progressivism; and his latest, The Cornel West Reader, he teaches how the growing divisions in our society fosters the despair and distrust that undermine our democratic process. Having recently released the CD, Sketches of My Culture, Dr. West continues to explore new avenues for teaching and communicating. By working to create an ongoing dialogue between the myriad voices in our culture, Dr. West pursues his vigilant and virtuous efforts to restore hope to America.

  • Cornel West

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StorySep 12, 2011Attica Is All of Us: Cornel West on 40th Anniversary of Attica Prison Rebellion
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Professor Cornel West:

CORNEL WEST: We come now to our present moment, and what do we see? A bleak moment. Let’s be honest. One of the bleakest moments in the history of the civilization. America is now — it’s not only an empire, but in scope, in depth, in power, it exceeds the British and the Roman empires. Nothing like it in the history of mankind. No countervailing force at all. The repressive and regimented Soviet Empire went under 12 years ago. It was a countervailing force. It supported Mandela when he was a terrorist for 27 years. We like to remind Americans of that. But there’s no countervailing force at all, and like most empires, it’s arrogant, hubris, feels as if it can shape the world in its own image, dictate its terms in terms of what it wants to do. As my dear brother, Noam Chomsky reminds us, not only puts forth a new doctrine of preemptive strike, that’s a doctrine that says if it looks as if someone’s about to attack you, you attack them before they’re able to. That’s not what the new doctrine says. This doctrine says, if a nation has a set of elites who are contemplating possibly challenging U.S. Power, they’re subject to attack. That’s preventive war. That’s a new norm in international relations. That’s the law of the jungle. It’s in signs and signals. Troops in 100 nations, bases in 70 nations, a major carrier in every ocean.

Internally, 1% of the population owning 48% of the net wealth, financial wealth. 5% own 70% of the wealth — and that’s before the tax cuts. And the result is what? As you can imagine, the most vulnerable, beginning with who? The children. Already 22% of all America’s children live in poverty. The richest nation in the history of the world — it’s a disgrace. Disgrace. The children — It’s 7% in Canada, it’s 6% in Japan. It’s 22% in America. 42% of red children, 39% of brown children, 37% of black children. They are 100% of the future. Poverty educates. It shapes the way they look at the world. It gives them a sense of who they are. The untrustworthiness of existence. Here the greatest empire in the history of the world has this plutocratic, oligarchic, to some degree still mentocratic hierarchy in its economy, and then the most vulnerable, the children. Who are connected to those children? Poor women. Workers of both genders, handicapped, disproportionately black, brown and red, yes, but numerically mainly white brothers and sisters.

Where is the discourse? Where is the outrage? Where is the indignation? Or is it that the sleepwalking taking place has become so normative that we feel as if we can’t make a difference. What is going on? Thank God, again for our artists. When they get beyond family dysfunctionality and vanilla suburbs, they could have broader canvases, many do. There’s some dynamics going on the global scale, and we know what, no empire lasts forever. All empires come and go. They ebb and flow. Chickens do come home to roost. You are going to reap what you sow. Sooner or later, reality is going to come back on you. You can only live in a state of denial for so long. You can only hide and conceal the structures and institutions in place that don’t at the present highlight the dilapidated school systems in chocolate cities, unavailable health care for 44 million fellow citizens. Difficulty of gaining access to child care, especially given the welfare reform signed by a spineless Democrat named Bill Clinton. Playing political football with the lives of poor people to win the next election, trying to triangulate with the Republican Party. He ought to be ashamed of himself. He’s a friend of mine. I’ve told him this, so I’m not speaking behind his back. I told him this in the White House, why I didn’t vote for him the second time. But I supported him when they tried to impeach the brother, I thought that was wrong. Just plain speech, frank speech, that’s all. Just trying to tell the truth, with love. In the spirit of self-criticism.

But our moment is one in which what? Our media, about as un-Socratic as one can imagine, for the most part, mainstream media, oligopoly at the top, journalists afraid to raise questions to the powers that be. Thank God for Pacifica and the other voices. Very important. We must support them. It’s an indispensable service. Even in our universities, professors running scared. Afraid to speak out on a host of different issues. On the Middle East, you can’t even criticize the government’s policies without being cast “anti-Semitic.” You say, wait, wait, wait a minute. You got the Israeli left engaging in such powerful critique of their government. If they can do it Tel Aviv, how come we can’t do it in Chicago, New York and Santa Fe. Anti-Semitism is a vicious form of bigotry, there’s no doubt about that. It can also be used to silence critics. We see a variety of different languages deployed to try to hide and conceal certain truths that ought to be highlighted. Black folk do it. white folk do it, women do it, Jews do it, Italians do it, Russians do it, across the board. Do we have what it takes to exercise our (inaudible)? And to exercise for (inedible) the practical wisdom rooted in compassion?

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cornel West speaking in Santa Fe. We’re going to end where he began his speech, in the story of Emmit Till. Again, that story earlier this month, the Justice Department announcing it will reopen a criminal investigation into Emmit Till’s 1955 murder. It is a story that launched the modern day Civil Rights Movement. Emmit Till was 14 years old. He had gone from Chicago to Mississippi for the summer to visit family. He was brutally killed. Two white men implicated were acquitted by an all-white jury. New evidence has emerged in the production of a PBS documentary that has led to the Justice Department saying it will reopen the case. Again, this is professor Cornel West.

CORNEL WEST: For me, one of the great moments of American culture actually occurred in August of 1955. Very few people want to talk about it. 1955, of course, Emmit Till was murdered by fellow citizens, a victim of U.S. Terrorism. The body was found in the Yazoo river under the Tallahatchie bridge, but his body was brought back to Chicago, and the first major Civil Rights demonstration took place. 125,000 fellow citizens walked by to take a look at Emmit Till. His mother left the coffin open so they could see. It was at Pilgrim Baptist Church, led by the Reverend Julius Caesar Austin. He introduced Mamie Till, Mobely. She walked to the lectern. She looked over at her baby whose head was five times the size of his normal head. Then she looked in the eyes of America as well as the folk at south side Chicago, she said what — I don’t have a minute to hate, I’m going to pursue justice for the rest of my life. That’s a level of spiritual maturity and moral maturity that does not give up on the Socratic attempt to interrogate the mendacity and hypocrisy of American life, but is rooted in something deep. It’s rooted in an attempt to keep track of the humanity of the very people who have dehumanized you.

Use that as a standard of responding to terrorism in light of the last two-and-a-half years. My, gosh. How fascinating. Here is Mamie Mobely, speaking on her behalf and speaking for the best of tradition, Martin King’s in the background. Fanny Lou Hamer’s voice is there A. Phillip Randolph’s voice was there. And many nameless and anonymous black leaders who knew they had to deal with a situation in which they were unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated for who they were. That’s what it meant to be a nigger. Unsafe, unprotected, subject to unjustified violence and hated. Now, after September 11, all Americans feel unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated. You say, hmm, now that the whole nation has been 'niggerized,' let’s see what the response is going to be… interesting.

I come from a tradition that says in the face of terrorism, it’s justice, not sweet revenge. Not short term retaliation. It’s justice. Hunt them down if they have committed a crime, yes. Demonize, no. And even within the black tradition, if there are black folk who demonize, they are criticized based on that tradition in light of their not aspiring to the standards of Emmit Till’s mother. And if that’s the case, that certainly the case for George Bush and other leaders. Crucial, indispensable, bringing together the best of the legacy of Athens, and the best of the legacy of Jerusalem, but in the new world context in which legacies of slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, police brutality, lynching, discrimination, red-lining in blank loans, on and on and on, always connecting one’s vision about one’s own freedom to the plight and predicament of others. Sisters of all colors, gay brothers, lesbians sisters, physically challenged, indigenous brothers and sisters, so that they all constitute overlapping and intertwining traditions of struggle. But knowing that the courage that they critically — and the courage to love I think we need to talk publicly about the courage to love. That’s what I love about the best of the Black Freedom Movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cornel West, Professor at Princeton University, speaking in Santa Fe New Mexico, an event sponsored by the Lannan Foundation.

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Attica Is All of Us: Cornel West on 40th Anniversary of Attica Prison Rebellion

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