Interview With Dr. Cornel West: Prognosis For America

Dr. Cornel West is a prominent and provocative public intellectual dedicated to democracy. Currently the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion at Princeton University, he graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton.

Since then, he has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris. He has written 19 books and edited 13 others. He is best known for his classics Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and his recent memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.

He appears frequently on the Bill Maher Show, Colbert Report, CNN and C-Span as well as on Tavis Smiley’s PBS-TV Show. And since last Fall, he can be heard regularly on The Smiley And West radio program.

He has also appeared in over 25 documentaries and recorded three spoken word albums. In short, Cornel West has a passion to communicate, in order to keep alive the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a legacy of telling the truth and bearing witness to love and justice.

Here, he discusses his participation in America’s Next Chapter, a forum hosted by Tavis Smiley where a panel of luminaries wrestled with the question, “How do we make America as good as its promise?” This interview took place before the event, which took place on Jan. 13 at George Washington University. It will and will air again on PBS’s Tavis Smiley Show on Wednesday and Thursday Jan. 19 and 20.

America’s Next Chapter is a multi-ethnic forum. Why aren’t there more forums of this type?

I think it has to do with the vision of my dear brother, Tavis Smiley. There ought to be more forums like this, which are concerned with informing folks about some of the painful realities of our country. It would be wonderful for them to be multi-cultural and multi-racial but, most importantly, they have to be willing to speak to those truths.

Given our cultural history, is there more of an onus on African-Americans to be more inclusive with social and national discourse?

I think that’s certainly the case, because there’s no doubt that many of the mainstream white institutions tend to be cosmetic and symbolic when it comes to including African-Americans, whereas we black folk tend to be much more sensitive about embracing others, and we have a long history of that.

After the State of the Black Union, some people said it was just a bunch of talk. Then The Covenant With Black America was published. What do you hope this conversation will produce

I don’t think talk is just talk. I firmly believe that talk can change people’s lives. Each life is precious. Talk can’t change a whole society, but it is not to be degraded or devalued. Talk is very important and not to be trashed. As for The Covenant, we had volume two, The Covenant In Action, which built on volume one in conjunction with local activists all across the country. And volume three, Accountability, was a call to keep track of all the promises that President Obama made.

So, I think that what was originated by The Covenant is still ongoing. But unfortunately, when you look at the Obama administration, it hasn’t done that good a job at all in terms of poor and working people. It has been much more beholden to Wall Street oligarchs, and to pharmaceutical and private insurance companies.

What can President Obama do to improve his chances for reelection? And would focusing more on the African-American community’s problems help or hinder his reelection?

Re-election ought not to be the primary preoccupation of any politician. It ought to be standing up for truth and justice. If he is to be a statesman, he would act like Lincoln, and stand up for something that might be unpopular but not allow the right wing to dictate the agenda, meaning Fox News, the Tea Party and others.

What does “America’s return to greatness mean? Has America been great to and for all groups in this country?

So much hangs on your definition of “greatness.” I’m a Christian. I believe that greatness has to do with the quality of love shown to the least of thy brethren and the quality of service to those who are catching hell. When you look at it in that sense, I’d say America has had great moments, but I wouldn’t call it a great nation. I don’t think there have been any great nations in the history of the world, because in every nation you find poor people being subjugated. So, I see the term “great nation” as a contradiction—as an oxymoron.

Do you think that an increase in grassroots activism by the political left will counter the activities of those on the right? It seems that the Tea Party and their ilk have had an impact, based on the last election.

That’s a very good question. The most important assets we have are our bodies and our energy, which can be put to good use as resources in political activism for poor and working people.

What do you think of the movement to pay teachers based on merit. Children, urban children specifically, come to school with a lot of issues that prevent them from learning or even being in the frame of mind to learn. Do you think merit pay might simply push troubled kids further behind?

For one, I feel that the recent demonizing of teachers and the teachers’ union is nothing but scapegoating. Therefore, all the talk of merit pay is part of that kind of mentality that wants to view the teachers as somehow the culprit, especially in our urban centers and rural pockets of poverty.

Finland is the number one country in the world in terms of education, and 98 percent of their teachers are unionized, and their students don’t take standardized tests at all. What they do have is an average class size of just 14 students, with two teachers in each classroom. That’s what exclusive prep schools like Andover, Exeter, Lawrenceville and the school that Barack Obama’s kids go to do. Until we reach the point that we treat our precious poor children the same as we treat our rich children, all this scapegoating of teachers is just an excuse to not confront the real issue.

How can we re-define ourselves as a nation if as the 20th Century belonged to the United States, the 21st Century might belong to China? How can we learn to still take pride in ourselves knowing that, in the 21st Century, America must be an eminent nation among other eminent nations and not the dominant, pre-eminent nation?

I think that every empire suffers from hubris, arrogance and condescension, and therefore a moral blindness. That’s true of the American Empire, it was true of the British Empire in the 19th Century, and it will certainly be true of the Chinese Empire in the 21st Century. When we talk about America mattering, I take very seriously what the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had to say in 1965 when he said that the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. will serve as the major means by which the best of America can be preserved. If that legacy wanes, America wanes. And that’s what we’ve seen since the death of Martin.

How can the panel discuss ‘The Next Chapter’ on the Smiley show if we continue to be stuck in this chapter—economically, socially, politically and internationally?

That’s a wonderful question. For one, when Brother Tavis and others talk about “The Next Chapter,” they’re really talking about dealing with the present chapter, because there will be no next chapter unless you deal with the present chapter. And if you don’t deal with the present chapter in the way that one ought, the next chapter might very well be the last chapter.

Do you think that Affirmative Action is effective enough? What can be done to correct this situation?

I think we need much more Affirmative Action across the board. There’s no doubt about that. But Affirmative Action is not the primary issue in and of itself. The primary issue is that we need for more young black people to fall in love with the life of the mind and to become voracious readers and writers. And we also need institutions of higher learning to be more receptive to black, brown, red and yellow talent.

With nearly 7 million Muslims living in the U.S. now, how do you see Islam fitting into America’s next chapter?

Islam has always been a crucial part of America, and it is becoming even more crucial to America as a whole as more Islamic brothers and sisters come here and as more citizens convert. Islam has a rich, prophetic tradition. We need more prophetic Islam figures like Malcolm X. If we could understand and try to grasp Malcolm after Mecca, we’d have the greatest example of what it means to be a prophetic Muslim who loves the people, especially the poor and working people across color and across culture, and who has the courage to stand up.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I don’t think about my legacy too much, Kam, because I’m still very much alive. Every day has to do with how much love, how much decency, how much compassion, how much kindness, and how much tenderness one is able to enact vis-a-vis others. So any legacy, for me, has to do with: How deep was your love? What were you willing to sacrifice? What were you willing to give up? What price were you willing to pay for others?

Dr. Cornel West’s new book Brother West: Living And Loving Out Loud is available now. The America’s Next Chapter forum will air on PBS’ Tavis Smiley Show on Wednesday and Thursday Jan. 19 and 20. Check local listings.