Blistering Cornel West on Obama’s war against the black prophetic tradition

As you may know, there’s a war going on in the black community, and Barack Obama is at the center of it. We’ve done some reporting on it ourselves. For example:

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

Eddie Glaude on Cornel West and “The Obama Deception”

Ed Schultz interviews Cornel West & Melissa Harris-Perry on the criticism of Obama from the black community

Weekend thoughts: Cornel West and Tavis Smiley on Obama 2013

From the outside the gist is this (written in mid-2011):

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.

And here’s what it looks like to someone on the inside, like Dr. Cornel West, again from 2011 (my emphasis):

“This [the aftermath of the 2008 election] 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.

Obama lying to Leno: "We don't have a domestic spying program."

Obama lying to Leno: “We don’t have a domestic spying program.”

“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 … 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.

Put all this together and you can see the storm it raises.

Dr. West is part of a tradition of black truth-tellers, a tradition that’s being silenced

Now comes Hedges again to broaden the context of this disagreement to the full “black prophetic tradition.” If you know your black history and writers, you know what this means. If you don’t, this is an excellent introduction.

Hedges via Truth-out (my emphasis as paragraphing):

Cornel West and the Fight to Save the Black Prophetic Tradition

There is an insidious and largely unseen effort by the White House to silence the handful of voices that remain true to the black prophetic tradition. This tradition, which stretches back to Sojourner Truth and  Frederick Douglass, has consistently named and damned the cruelty of imperialism and white supremacy. It has done so with a clarity and moral force that have eluded most other critics of American capitalism.

President Barack Obama first displayed his fear of this tradition when he betrayed his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, abetting the brutal character assassination of one of the church’s most prophetic voices. And he has sustained this assault, largely through black surrogates such as the Rev. Al SharptonTom Joyner and Steve Harvey, in vicious attacks on Cornel West.

Jeremiah Wright was the canary in the mine,” West said when we met a few days ago in Princeton, N.J. “The black prophetic tradition has been emptied out. Its leaders have either been murdered or incarcerated. … A lot of political prisoners who represent the black prophetic tradition [are] in jail. They have been in there for decades. Or we have leaders who have completely sold out. They have been co-opted. And these are the three major developments. With sold-out leaders you get a pacified followership or people who are scared.”

obama_gives_them_social_security_Braveheart_THUMBThe black prophetic tradition has been the leaven in the American democratic loaf,” West said. “What has kept American democracy from going fascist or authoritarian or autocratic has been the legacy of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin King, Fannie Lou Hamer. This is not because black people have a monopoly on truth, goodness or beauty. It is because the black freedom movement puts pressure on the American empire in the name of integrity, decency, honesty and virtue.”

The tradition is sustained by a handful of beleaguered writers and intellectuals, including Glen Ford and his Black Agenda Report, James ConeCarl DixBruce DixonBoyce WatkinsYvette CarnellRobin KelleyMargaret KimberleyNellie Bailey, the Rev. Michael PflegerMaulana KarengaAjamu Baraka and Wright, but none have the public profile of West, who is routinely attacked by Obama’s black supporters as a “race traitor,” the equivalent of a “self-hating Jew” to hard-line supporters of Israel.

It is understandable why this tradition frightens Obama. It exposes him as the ideological heir of Booker T. Washington, a black accommodationist whose core message to black people was, in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, “adjustment and submission.”

The wide swath of destruction Obama has overseen on behalf of the corporate state includes the eradication of most of our civil liberties and our privacy, the expansion of imperial war, the use of kill lists, abject subservience to Wall Street’s criminal class and the military-industrial complex, the relentless persecution of whistle-blowers, mass incarceration of poor people of color and the failure to ameliorate the increasing distress of the poor and the working class.

His message to the black underclass in the midst of the corporate rape of the nation is drawn verbatim from the Booker T. Washington playbook. He tells them to work harder—as if anyone works harder than the working poor in this country—and obey the law.

“Obama is the highest manifestation of the co-optation that took place,” West said. “… Forty percent of our babies are living in poverty, living without enough food, and Obama comes to us and says quit whining. He doesn’t say that to the Business Roundtable. He doesn’t say that to the corporate elites. He doesn’t say that to AIPAC, the conservative Jewish brothers and sisters who will do anything to support the Israeli occupation against Palestinians. This kind of neglect in policy is coupled with disrespect in his speeches to black folk, which the mainstream calls tough love.”

“He is a shell of a man,” West said of Obama. “There is no deep conviction. There is no connection to something bigger than him. It is a sad spectacle, sad if he were not the head of an empire that is in such decline and so dangerous. …

William Trotter and Du Bois, along with Ida B. Wells-Barnett, were going at Book T [Booker T. Washington] tooth and nail. Look at the fights between [Marcus] Garvey and Du Bois, or Garvey and A. Philip Randolph. But now if you criticize Obama the way Randolph criticized Garvey, you become a race traitor and an Uncle Tom. A lot of that comes out of the Obama machine, the Obama plantation.”

(Note the name Glen Ford in the quote above, by the way. I have an Obama archeology project under way, Barack before he left Chicago, and Ford has a piece of it. Stay tuned.)

This is amazing stuff, amazingly courageous, and in my opinion, entirely correct. Please read the whole piece. It’s strong and right-on.

For example, on Martin Luther King and Obama, West says: “We see the richest prophetic tradition in America desecrated in the name of a neoliberal worldview, a worldview King would be in direct opposition to.”

The “neoliberal worldview” (and the neoliberal project) is deeply anti-democratic and deeply unhuman. It’s also, with its almost military notion of collateral damage — think “winners and losers in the globalization game” — deeply pathological.

I’ll have much more on neoliberalism, its BFF predatory capitalism, and the economic system that can and must replace it in a few weeks. In the meantime, thanks to all who stand with us against it.

Carry on, Dr. West. And you, Mr. Hedges. Some of us, at least, have your backs.

GP

To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius


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

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