Always Controversial Cornel West Disses Obama, Survives Cancer and Almost Spent His Life in Prison

Cornel West dishes on his new memoirs and Obama’s clique of ‘recycled neo-liberals and recycled neo-Clintonites.’

December 18, 2009  |  [Editor’s Note: The following is a transcript of a recent interview with Cornel West by radio host Terrence McNally on KPFK’s Free Forum program.]

“The capacity to produce social chaos is the last resort of desperate people. You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people, if you don’t serve the people.

There’s music in those words as well as pain, wisdom and honesty. Those are the words of Cornel West, who has just written a memoir, “Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.” In it, he writes, “Until now, I’ve never taken the time to focus on the inner dynamics of my soul.”

Educator and philosopher Dr. Cornel West is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. West has won numerous awards, including the American Book Award, and has received more than 20 honorary degrees. He’s produced three CDs of music and spoken word, offers weekly commentary on The Tavis Smiley Show, and is the author of several books, including Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and Hope on a Tightrope.

Terrence McNally: How did the newest book, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, happen?

Cornel West: Tavis Smiley said, “Brother West, I would love to see you put on paper who you really are.” I said, “As Augustine wrote, ‘I am a mystery to myself.’ I haven’t examined the dark precincts of my own personality.”

I wanted to make sure that this was a conversational voice, and I worked with my dear brother David Rich, who’s such a towering artist when it comes to story and narrative, capturing voice. Because I aspire to be a blues man in the life of the mind and a jazz man in the world of ideas, I wanted somebody who had a sensibility to capture the voice of a blues man. It’s a talking book in that sense.

Beginning with mom and dad, to Sacramento Shiloh Baptist Church, the neighborhood, sports, girlfriends and things, I wanted to really lay bare the making of this particular instance of a tradition. I am a person with my own individuality, and I try to forge my own voice and style, but I’m very much a part of a tradition. I’m not a self-made man, that American myth that goes back to Ben Franklin. There are even elements of it in Frederick Douglas. I am the opposite of that, I am in no way self-made, I come out of a tradition, a community of struggle, a heritage that exemplifies struggle for justice and freedom. I’m very blessed to be a part of that family and that traditional community.

McNally: What role did your cancer diagnosis play in it?

West: That’s a good question, brother. I think that in some way my struggling with cancer was an intensifying of my dance with mortality. And death has a way of arresting the mind, as Samuel Johnson put it. So there’s no doubt, you’re absolutely right, the near death experience of cancer made me think about the life that I had lived. And I should say that telling one’s life story is itself a life-transforming experience.

McNally: How so?

West: You begin to really slow down. I’m on the move all the time, you know, over 200 events every year for 25, 30 years. You have to just stop, engage in serious retrospection. In terms not just of events passing, but the deeper meaning and significance as it affected your heart, mind, soul and loved ones.

McNally: You’ve written many books, you write a lot. You’re telling me this one was qualitatively different.

West: If I write History of American Pragmatism, from Emerson and Richard Rorty with Kline and Peirce and James and Dewey and others, I can write that in the library engaging with the text. Whereas this book is just me and the realities and the page. That’s it.

McNally: And the choices then become, ‘What do I mention, how deep do I go?’

West: How far do I pursue certain kinds of issues? When it gets painful, it really hurts. When it’s joyful you want to stay there for a long time, but you’ve got to shift. So you’re absolutely right, it’s a very different kind of process.

I’d always vowed that I would hold off on doing something like this. Maybe just due to my Christian formation that a preoccupation with self for too long leads toward a kind of narcissism and an egocentrism that I abhor. So I had to walk this balance between telling a story about myself that revealed the degree to which I am tied, intertwined, entangled with mom, dad, sisters, brothers, friends, comrades and so on. But on the other hand I did have to focus just on me.

McNally: Luckily your original cancer diagnosis was much more threatening than it turned out.

West: Absolutely. When I found out about the prostate cancer, they said I had the most aggressive form, I was in the last stage, and I’d have a few months to live. I said to myself, Oh wow, I’d better slow down. I’ve been invited to the bank of life for 48 years, I’ve had an abundance of blessings, and I can’t get greedy about this. If it’s time to go, it’s time to go. I accept my fate. If that’s God’s will, that’s cool. I’ve already lived such an unbelievable life that death cannot in any way rob me of the joys I’ve already experienced and the love I’ve already had.

On the other hand, I said I’ve got to gear up and fight, ’cause I do love life now. I love to live, I’m blessed to live.

Thank God, brother Peter Scardino, one of the finest of doctors in the country dealing with prostate cancer, went in, radical surgery. Six hours later I’m bouncing back and here I am still going. We’ve all got a death sentence in time and space, sooner or later you’ve got to go, but not at the moment.

McNally: “Born astride the grave,” right?

West: Yes, that’s Samuel Beckett, that’s my dear Beckett.

McNally: You say this book really began in a church in Sacramento. Tell us a little about that.

West: First I give people a sense of my travels, ’cause I’m on the move all the time. I don’t think I’ve spent one weekend in Princeton ever in my life.

But the story does start in Shiloh. My brother is being ordained as a deacon. My mother’s tears are flowing. And it hits me that in the end I am still a Shiloh Baptist kind of brother. I may be a philosopher with a groove, I may be a person who has an attitude of gratitude in terms of being thankful for what I have, and a freedom fighter, I may have tremendous joy and delight in music of various kinds, but fundamentally I’m a Shiloh Baptist kind of brother, that’s what has shaped me.

The music, the styles, the love, the preoccupation of a first-century Palestinian Jew named Jesus who was put to death by a vicious Roman empire. Innocent blood flowing on the one hand, but compassion still responding to that imperial blow and assault. That’s what shaped me, and that’s kind of the substratum of who I am.

McNally: Let me jump forward a bit. I got to Harvard in 1965, and though I’m white I know I was an affirmative action kind of a kid. We were poor, I was Catholic, I was from the South. And I remember being so intimidated by the folks who’d come from the prep schools and what I had walked into. How about yourself?

West: Intimidated might be too strong a word. I just knew that they came from another planet. There’s no doubt about that. They were human, but there was an alienness about them, their style, and sometimes a confidence that verged on arrogance. And I’m from Sacramento, California, I’m very comfortable in my skin. I knew it was going to be a challenge because my public high school was in no way commensurate with Exeter or Andover, but on the other hand I always felt I had something to bring.

I guess part of it had to do with the fact that I had Curtis Mayfield and the white brothers had the Beach Boys, and I just thought Curtis was deeper than Brian Wilson and company, as much as I appreciate Wilson and the boys. I always knew I had something to bring, even as I had to be open to learn and listen. That’s what Harvard was for me, as it was for you. Marx and Weber and Durkheim, Kant and Hegel and Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Hume. I was like “Oh my goodness, a whole new world!”

McNally: The challenge, the creative tension….

West: One of the things I noticed at Harvard, I always felt as if, at least at that time, many of we young black folk, we had a certain spiritual depth, a certain kind of moral sensitivity that was a source of strength. Even folk who’d been exposed intellectually you got the feeling they might be socially underdeveloped, and spiritually, if not impoverished, on the verge of it. So there was an interesting kind of give-and-take. I use music as one indicator, but there are others. It’s how you relate to people, how you negotiate in context, how you respond to new circumstances, and so forth.

McNally: The truth is that folks like us were new to them.

West: Exactly. They had been in that same bubble from seventh grade. If you go all the way through Exeter to Harvard, that’s the same bubble. You and I, we’re in a different situation. You’re from the the South, a white brother, Catholic, you’re going into Waspdom. I’m black, Sacramento, I’m going into Waspdom, but the Wasp’s elite. And we knew that we had much to learn from them but they had something to learn from us too.

McNally: I had Skip Gates in here a few years ago, we talked about the same things. I’m reminded of his recent experience with the Cambridge police, and did I read in an interview that you actually were questioned about a crime while at Harvard?

West: I almost went to jail. They had charges of rape against me and two of my roommates. A white sister had been raped, and we were put on the line, and police actually put pressure on the sister, saying, “You know one of these three did it.” She said, “No, a negro did it, but not these negroes.” And I salute that white sister, she was courageous in her bearing witness to truth and justice, because I would have been in a jail cell right now probably.

So in that regard, the issue of arbitrary police power has always been a crucial issue in poor communities and in poor black communities, poor brown and so forth. You can’t just end it with a beer summit and think it’s over. This is very real. You want to find out the facts, make sure everybody’s treated fairly. But arbitrary police power is no plaything at all.

McNally: When Barack Obama responded to the question in the press conference at that point he was….

West: That was a gut response. And then he became the politician and he’s such a master these days at calculating, strategizing.

McNally: Let’s talk a bit about Barack Obama. In Michael Moore’s movie Capitalism: A Love Story….

West: Powerful movie.

McNally: My fiancee said the saddest moment for her was watching how excited people were the night Barack Obama was elected. Share a little bit about your feelings that night and your feelings today.

West: I was ready because I draw a radical distinction between the symbolic and the substantial. As a critical supporter of Barack Obama, engaged in over 50 events for him from Iowa to Ohio, I knew that at a symbolic level something could happen that was unprecedented. And it did happen. At that symbolic level, I can understand the tears, I can understand the jubilation, I can understand the euphoria. But I always knew there was a sense in which he, now heading the American empire, was tied to the shadow government, tied to CIA, FBI, tied to the establishment waiting to embrace him. It was clear when he chose his economic team, when he chose his foreign policy team, he was choosing, of course, the recycled neo-liberals and recycled neo-Clintonites that substantially you’re going to end up with these technocratic policies that consider poor people and working people as afterthoughts. Beginning with bankers, beginning with elites.

Symbolically, black man breaks through makes you want to break dance. So, yes, we have to be able to relate to both of these. So I resonate with your dear fiancee, because the hopes that were generated and the call for change, and then we end up with this recycled neo-liberalism. There’s no fundamental change at all.

That’s very real, but I think we do have to understand we had to bring the age of Reagan to a close. We had to bring the era of conservatism to a close. And then you try to unleash new possibilities. Of course, the question now is, how do we keep our fellow citizens awakened so it goes beyond the campaign for a candidate and really begin engaging in grassroots organizing and mobilizing.

McNally: I’m more disheartened these days than I was during the eight years of Bush. During those eight years I expected nothing. I was surprised by almost nothing. We fought, we did what we could But I feel a little sadness in my soul as I watch this one. You’ve said that Obama’s looking at the wrong Lincoln and I think of Roosevelt who shows so well in Michael Moore’s movie when he declares the New Bill of Rights.

West: The Four Freedoms, yes.

McNally: Roosevelt came to power as a moderate. Lincoln came to power as someone who had worked very comfortably with slavery. And it was the movements, it was the people that challenged and inspired them. How are we doing, and how are we going to do?

West: We are not doing well at all. If you look at the abolitionist movement and its impact on Abraham Lincoln. The Frederick Douglas’s, the Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Wendell Philips, Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman. The powerful abolitionist movement put pressure on Lincoln. Trade union movement put pressure on FDR. What kind of movement do we have? Hardly anything at all.

That’s where the analogy breaks down. Barack Obama leans toward Wall Street, mesmerized by the elites, wants to be embraced by the establishment, wants to preserve his legacy as a president, more in the language of the neo-liberal and neo-conservative columnists than in the hearts and minds of everyday people.

McNally: So we both agree, this election does say the age of Reagan is over but it doesn’t say what’s starting, does it?

West: I think even my dear brother Michael Moore tends to put too much confidence in Barack Obama. In his film you get the sense that here comes Barack Obama speaking the language of deep democracy. No, no, no, he’s been a liberal all his life. He uses that language to mobilize, but in the end he’s going to capitulate and defer to the neo-liberal establishment, which is what he has done so far. Now granted, there’s still some possibilities there, even when you talk about just extending unemployment benefits. This is nothing revolutionary at all, but it does alleviate some of the suffering. But if we don’t get some restructuring going on, if we don’t get some Marshall Plan activity of massive investments in infrastructure here, in this country….You’ve got four billion dollars every month in Afghanistan. You can come up with that all the time.

McNally: The meter just runs when we’re at war.

West: Unlimited. It’s very pathetic, to tell you the truth.

McNally: You had your own personal experiences with Larry Summers at Harvard, but he really means a lot to you symbolically in terms of Obama, doesn’t he?

West: In terms of disrespecting and dishonoring me, I forgive Larry Summers. I draw my own lines in the sand, but I won’t demonize the brother. I pray for the brother, I want him to live a life of joy. I don’t think there’s too much joy in disrespecting people, so I wouldn’t choose that way of life myself.

But he has a braininess that lacks wisdom and vision. He has a smartness that lacks a sensitivity to the poor and the marginal. You and I encountered a lot of that kind of braininess and smartness at Harvard. I don’t find that attractive or appealing at all. I think that it’s empty in a certain sense. I was surprised that Barack Obama could be seduced by that kind of braininess and smartness that leads to policies that don’t put jobs and homes at the center, but as an afterthought.

McNally: They ask the question, “How do we save the banks?” I don’t hear them asking the question, “How do we save the people?”

West: Absolutely. You would think it would fall from some of the populist language that brother Obama used during the campaign, but who is around the table when he shapes his policy? You don’t have any people representing the labor movement other than our Secretary of Labor.

McNally: On health reform, the doctor who represents single payer has to crash the party.

West: It’s a reflection of just how broken the system is. You’ve got a majority of fellow citizens who want truly universal health care, and he can’t even view public option as indispensable and untouchable. What’s going on? Pharmaceutical companies, powerful, $300 million spent for lobbyists. That’s a broken system.

McNally: I have often said that unless we get public financing, with every other issue we will look at the distant goal and we’ll always end up on the 10-yard line.

West: That’s exactly right.

McNally: And as you know, the Supreme Court is likely to remove the limits on the funds corporations can give political campaigns — this “conservative” court changing a hundred years of precedent. I don’t know what happens that day, which may come soon, because I’m not sure that the public will understand what it means.

West: It means we’re locked in an iron cage of a neo-liberal or neo-conservative mediocrity, which means the needs of the people will never be fundamentally met if they’re poor and working class. That either leads toward a thickening of the cynicism or it leads toward new expressions of social chaos.

McNally: As you have said, “The articulation of desperate people.” Final question: You talk about music a lot. You see yourself as a blues man in a blues-soaked America. What’s Cornel West’s blues these days?

West: The power of love, the power of education. Love itself of other people, wisdom of justice, but also being open enough to be vulnerable enough to muster the courage to think critically, to reexamine and re-scrutinize and re-interrogate who we are, where we’re going, similarly so for society and for the world.

When you bring together the power of love on the one hand — a fundamental commitment to the welfare of others, especially beginning with the least of these I go back again to prophetic Judaism, which is of course the very source of my own Christianity — the first chapter of Isaiah, the orphan, the widow, the fatherless, the oppressed and then mediated through this love in which justice is what love looks like in public, so you’re fighting for justice motivated by compassion, raising Socratic questions.

Blues for me is the lyrical expression of that power of love and that power of awakening that’s associated with deep education. So I am a blues man in the life of the mind and a jazz man in the world of ideas. And I am blessed to be a part of a great tradition — and that can go from Louis Armstrong to Stephen Sondheim or Harold Arlen, BB King, Tennessee Williams in literary blues, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin. Or it could be an everyday person on the block who can’t sing in pitch but whose life is shaped by the power of love and the power of democratic reawakening through their own forms of education.

McNally: What is it that unites these people you say fall in this pantheon of blues? It has something to do with soul.

West: Yes!

McNally: And it has a little something to do with pain.

West: Ralph Ellison says blues is an autobiographical chronicle of a personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. In Sondheim you get the catastrophic, Into the Woods, flip over the fairytale. In Kafka you begin with the transformation into a huge foul vermin. That’s catastrophic for Gregor. “Strange fruit Southern trees bear,” Billie Holiday. Jewish brother wrote the lyric. Jim Crow American terrorism, that’s catastrophic. BB King says “Nobody loves me but my momma, and she might be jivin’ too.” That is catastrophic. What you going to do? Compassion still flows. Sing your song. Keep moving.

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