Cornel West on Obama — “Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic”

This is a kind of Weekend Thoughts post on Obama and the sense of betrayal. Not my sense, but that of others, like Professor Cornel West, a prominent black professor at Princeton and a huge Obama supporter in 2008.

Chris Hedges at Truthdig did an interview with Prof. West — “The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic” — that has lit a firestorm in the black community. I’ll present it in a second, and in a second post, an interview with another prominent black scholar, Dr. Eddie Glaude, in response. But first, consider this.

A number of communities have felt betrayed lately by Obama and the Democrats in general — it’s foolish not to admit that. Gays, Latinos, immigrants, progressives, advocates for the poor, and blacks; all have a sense of checks cashed and promises unkept.

Of these, only one is in a kind of criticism-trap: blacks. Obama is not gay and he’s not an immigrant. Immigrants and gays can pressure him from the outside, and he can respond accordingly. They can say, “You betrayed your promises” and he can say, “No I didn’t.” A simple conversation.

But Obama is black, both in reality and in white perception. When blacks say to him, “You betrayed your promises,” he or his supporters can say, “And you are betraying a brother by saying this.” Not a simple conversation. In addition, blacks are the only group being accused by whites of playing “identity politics” in criticizing Obama. It’s a powerful killer of opposition from that quarter.

Criticizing Obama from the black square is an interesting chess problem, different from criticizing him from the Latino square. Something for you fans of eight-dimensional politics to consider.

So here’s Professor West, speaking to and through Chris Hedges (who is himself not nobody). Note in it both senses of West’s betrayal — the personal, characterized by that horrible, perhaps telling story of the inauguration tickets (read the interview for that); and also the political, that a major (perhaps one-and-only) opportunity was thrown carelessly away by the last person in position to stop America’s self-manacled frog-march into the pit.

The interview starts:

The moral philosopher Cornel West, if Barack Obama’s ascent to power was a morality play, would be the voice of conscience. Rahm Emanuel, a cynical product of the Chicago political machine, would be Satan.

Strong stuff, and well penned. Here is West’s conclusion as quoted by Hedges (my emphasis):

This was maybe America’s last chance to fight back against the greed of the Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats, to generate some serious discussion about public interest and common good that sustains any democratic experiment,” West laments. “We are squeezing out all of the democratic juices we have. The escalation of the class war against the poor and the working class is intense. More and more working people are beaten down. They are world-weary. They are into self-medication. They are turning on each other. They are scapegoating the most vulnerable rather than confronting the most powerful. It is a profoundly human response to panic and catastrophe. I thought Barack Obama could have provided some way out. But he lacks backbone.

“Can you imagine if Barack Obama had taken office and deliberately educated and taught the American people about the nature of the financial catastrophe and what greed was really taking place?” West asks. “If he had told us what kind of mechanisms of accountability needed to be in place, if he had focused on homeowners rather than investment banks for bailouts and engaged in massive job creation he could have nipped in the bud the right-wing populism of the tea party folk. The tea party folk are right when they say the government is corrupt. It is corrupt. Big business and banks have taken over government and corrupted it in deep ways.

“We have got to attempt to tell the truth, and that truth is painful,” he says. “It is a truth that is against the thick lies of the mainstream. In telling that truth we become so maladjusted to the prevailing injustice that the Democratic Party, more and more, is not just milquetoast and spineless, as it was before, but thoroughly complicitous with some of the worst things in the American empire. I don’t think in good conscience I could tell anybody to vote for Obama. If it turns out in the end that we have a crypto-fascist movement and the only thing standing between us and fascism is Barack Obama, then we have to put our foot on the brake. But we’ve got to think seriously of third-party candidates, third formations, third parties.

The news isn’t that the above may be true. The news is that this discussion is starting among the black community, much of which has an understandable interest in protecting a brother, the first in fact to make the really big leap.

In a later post, I’ll offer another perspective on this issue, again from the black community. But I want to close with this from Prof. West; it’s a note that makes me optimistic:

“Our last hope is to generate a democratic awakening among our fellow citizens. This means raising our voices, very loud and strong, bearing witness, individually and collectively. Tavis [Smiley] and I have talked about ways of civil disobedience, beginning with ways for both of us to get arrested, to galvanize attention to the plight of those in prisons, in the hoods, in poor white communities.

It’s about time that people like this, with both prominence and purpose, have talked about uniting in action. A real coalition of real progressives, uncompromised and with names (West, Smiley, Feingold, Grayson; maybe Warren if Conservatives succeed against her) could be powerful if they were willing to be effective.

In my most humble opinion, of course. Weekend thoughts on what do to next.


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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