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Cornel West on Bush vs. Kerry, Nader’s Bid for the Presidency and the “Niggerization” of America

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We hear a speech by professor, culture critic, and social justice advocate Cornel West speaking in Boston. [includes rush transcript]

Cornel West has been described as one of America’s most vital and eloquent public intellectuals. A professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University, West is a critic of culture, an advocate of social justice and an analyst of post-modern art and philosophy. He has written and co-authored numerous books on philosophy, race and sociology and also produced a hip-hop CD entitled Sketches of My Culture.

  • Prof. Cornel West speaking on July 26, 2004.

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

AMY GOODMAN: I went over to the Marlowe Hotel where the Tikkun community was meeting, led by Rabbi Michael Lerner. Among those who spoke was professor Cornel West, professor of Religion and African-American studies at Princeton University.

CORNEL WEST: What are the prevailing dogmas of our day? Free market fundamentalism. The market is a idol as fetish. The corporation a spry magical power. The private sector somehow having these mystical capacities to solve problems as opposed to being constructs of human beings, driven by profit. What other dogma? The dogma of escalating militarism. Might makes right. Raw force is the way you resolve conflict. If you the big bully on the playground, you determine what morality is. It’s an imperial mentality. I don’t believe Bush is the only one who has that capacity and propensity. Historically, both parties have had it, if there was not an organized citizenry and a just rule of law to constitute countervailing forces against that mentality and the behavior that flows from that mentality. This is what I said before; we’re not talking about political parties; we are talking about what principles and ideals connected to concrete human beings are we willing to speak honestly about? Because I don’t believe we even ought to use the word “democracy,” small d, in the way in which Walt Whitman talked about it in “Democratic Vistas” of 1871 or the way John Dewey talked about it in 1927, The Public and Its Problems, unless we are willing to be very clear that it sets a high standard, like trying to sing jazz and not taking Sarah Vaughan seriously. (laughter). Trying to play saxophone and not taking John Coltrane seriously. Let’s be clear about what the standards are. (applause) So when I hear a Democratic party talk about democracy, what standards do you have in place? When I hear a Republican party talk about democracy, what standards do you have in place? What would Frederick Douglass say? What would Cesar Chavez say? Socratic questioning, inseparable from the Jewish creation of the prophetic. I speak as a Christian, which puts me in solidarity on a very abstract level with 80% of American citizens. [laughter] But my kind of prophetic Christian witness makes it difficult for me to stay in many of the churches because I am suffocated by the narrow conceptions of what it is to be prophetic in a Christian church. But I am clear about the Jewish creation of the prophetic, which is the courage, the care and struggle for justice. Of Micah and Josiah and Amos and a host of others. That again cuts across party, it cuts across nations, it cuts across sex, race, gender and sexual orientation. It sets a high standard. And justice has to do with what? How do we keep track of the least of these? The most vulnerable. Those who are marginalized. Those who are demeaned. Those Malcolm X used to call are catching hell, the most hell. Decrepit schools. Inadequate health care. Unavailable child care. Not enough jobs with a living wage. We can go on and, on and on. We need not so much a policy, what we need is a democratic awakening that accents a vision. Bush-bashing is too narrow. It is too easy. (applause) A little won’t hurt [laughter] as long as it’s telling the truth. But for me, it also has to be said in a spirit of compassion for those who are suffering owing to the policy. I don’t like the Bush-bashing that is arrogant and self indulgent and makes you feel good about yourself as opposed to knowing what the consequences of those policies are on the ground in Appalachia, in east Los Angeles, in Cambridge, in New York, Chicago. But also in Iraq. Also in Afghanistan. Also in Guatemala. Also on the West Bank. (applause) On the ground. That’s where it is. Talking about justice. Last but not least, I want to sit down. These are simply just pillars that are requisite for a democratic awakening and to see whether a John Kerry and a John Edwards meets that standard. And if they don’t meet that standard, then we engage in a discourse of phrenesis, of practical wisdom, of practical judgment. Then what other options do we have? I’ll make it very clear. Where’s my dear sister—there she is. She and I traveled the country with brother Ralph Nader, didn’t we? Those were some magnificent moments. Brother Lerner was on board, too. Why? Because there’s no doubt in my mind that Ralph Nader is a truth teller, regarding the structural arrangement and institutional practices of the American empire and the plutocracy and oligarchy under which we live. (Amen) And you can’t be Socratic if you doesn’t respect your fellow citizens enough to tell them the truth! And they say: What do you think about Ralph this time? I think he’s still basically right in his analysis. America hasn’t changed that much since 2000. It’s gotten worse. Much worse. Well how come you aren’t working with Ralph this time? He’s still my brother. He’s still in an exemplary citizen. He has a right to run. I will print for him but not vote for him. I make a different practical judgment in light of the certain situation, but also ask John Kerry and John Edwards not to play this superficial game of rhetoric for one constituency and rhetoric for another constituency and not tell me what they really believe deep down in their souls in relation to the democratic awakening and the criteria that need to be specified if your honest vis-a-vis your citizenry. That’s what I require of John Kerry and John Edwards, you see. And at the moment, I’m not excited. At all. Do we need a united anti-Bush front? Absolutely. Absolutely. Is it good that Ralph Nader runs around the country and speaks certain kinds of truths, but at the same time, solicits more and more that could erode the social base of Democratic party? Tough question. Difficult question. That’s the kind of debate we need to have as democrats. Because I’ll have comrades on both sides. I have some commerades in the convention center. Fewer and fewer, but I’ll have some in there. [laughter]

ANIMATED VOICE: What do you think?

CORNEL WEST: We shall see, my dear sister. We shall see. But I’ll have some comrades with Nader. I’ll have some comrades in the Green party. By comrades, I mean political comrades. For me, everybody’s brothers and sisters; we gonna be the colorful light of the terrestrial world, one day; so that’s all of us. The last moment for me is what I call the American interpretation of the tragic-comic, which is for me the most profound disposition of a Democrat that shatters all Manichean views of us versus them, melodramatic narratives of victims who have a purity and victimizers who have an impurity, and somehow want to elevate one slice of humanity above the mess, to use Beckett’s term in which we find ourselves. And what is the great American interpretation of the tragic comic? It’s the blues. The blues. Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr and Betsy Smith and Ma Rainey. And there’s no way that America can deal with its darkest moment in the history, with the exception of the civil war, of its fragile and precious democratic experiment, without wrestling with the blues. Since 9/11, America has had the blues. First time in the history of the nation all Americans feel: unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hated. Vast numbers of white American citizens don’t know what to do because they never been hated. They never been unsafe. Never been unprotected. Never been subject to random violence. Well, you know what? To be a nigger in America for 400 years is to be unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hated. So now, America’s niggerized. Got the blues. What can a blues nation learn from a blues people who have had to be both victims of American democracy, but also sing the odes to democratic individuality and community in society, be it a Billy Holiday on the one hand, or be it a Martin King on the other. What did Emo Teal’s mother have to say in the face of American terrorism, when her baby was lying in the coffin, his head five times the size of his ordinary head? I don’t have a minute to hate, I’ll pursue justice for the rest of my life. That is a level of spiritual maturity and moral depth that has to do with how you sustain a democracy. If the dominant response of black people to American terrorism was the response of the Bush administration, hunt 'em down no matter what, there'd have been a civil war every generation in this nation. Maybe, in fact, we’ve reached the point now where America cannot make it into the future unless it becomes a wholesale imperial project completely eliminating any of its substantive democratic substance without main stream Americans trying to learn from the best of people of African dissent—not just as exotic objects, or sources of amusement, but as integral voices in a rich, multi racial tradition of voices: black, white, red, yellow, across the board. And in this way, the issue of race and empire has everything to do with whether we actually lose or preserve this fragile experiment in democracy called the United States. And this is in part what the Tikkun community is all about with our multiplicity of voices, like a jazz group. We aren’t looking for unanimity. We don’t believe in that. We believe in individuality expressed with integrity in such a way that the overlap of our voices constitute a collective performance that accents an ideal bigger than all of us. How wonderful this community is. That’s what we are about. Thank you all very much. (applause).

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cornel West in one of the many sessions taking place outside the Democratic National Convention. He was speaking to the Tikkun community in Cambridge.

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