No 609 Posted by fw, November 12, 2012
“We believe that if [Obama] is not pushed, he’s going to be a transactional president and not a transformational president,” Smiley says. “And we believe that the time is now for action and no longer accommodation. … To me, the most progressive means that you’re taking some serious risk. And I just don’t see the example of that.” West says that some prominent supporters of Obama “want to turn their back to poor and working people. And it’s a sad thing to see them as apologists for the Obama administration in that way.” —Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West
This is Part 1 of a two-part interview with Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornell West. To see the original video and to access the full transcript of the show, click on the linked title below. Alternatively, watch an embedded 19:22-minute video below along with an abridged transcript which includes added subheadings to facilitate speedy browsing of this long post as well as added links and text highlighting. A link to Part 2 of the interview appears at the bottom of this post.
Amy Goodman introduces the guests —
We’re joined by two guests who have worked diligently to get poverty back on the national agenda. Dr. Cornel West is with us, professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary in New York and professor emeritus at Princeton University. He’s a New York Times bestselling author of numerous books and co-host of the radio show Smiley & Tavis — Smiley & West with Tavis Smiley. Together they’ve written the new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. Tavis Smiley is a TV, radio broadcaster, philanthropist, New York Times bestselling author. He hosts the PBS show Tavis Smiley and two radio shows, The Tavis Smiley Show on NPR and Smiley & West with Cornel West.
CORNEL WEST –
It’s morally obscene and spiritually profane to spend $6 billion on an election
Well, one, I think that it’s morally obscene and spiritually profane to spend $6 billion on an election, $2 billion on a presidential election, and not have any serious discussion—poverty, trade unions being pushed against the wall dealing with stagnating and declining wages when profits are still up and the 1 percent are doing very well, no talk about drones dropping bombs on innocent people.
Barack Obama is a Republican in blackface
So we end up with such a narrow, truncated political discourse, as the major problems—ecological catastrophe, climate change, global warming. So it’s very sad. I mean, I’m glad there was not a right-wing takeover, but we end up with a Republican, a Rockefeller Republican in blackface, with Barack Obama, so that our struggle with regard to poverty intensifies.
We pushed back Romney’s right-wing takeover but still ended up with a right-wing, cut, cut, cut mentality
Oh, that’s what we have. That’s what we have. Richard Nixon is to the left of him on healthcare. Richard Nixon is to the left of him on guaranteed income. And the same policies — in terms of imperial foreign policy — is at work. And so, I was glad to see that Romney didn’t win. We pushed back a right-wing takeover. We’ve got a right-wing mentality: cut, cut, cut, austerity, austerity, austerity. Where is the serious talk about investment in jobs, fighting the privatizing of education, and the empowerment of trade unions? And so, our battle is just beginning. We have yet to take off the gloves. You know, we’ve been fighting intensely.
Amy Goodman plays a video clip of Bill O’Reilly’s comments on election night and invites Tavis Smiley to respond
Bill O’Reilly — Because it’s a changing country. The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore. And there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it, and he ran on it—and whereby 20 years ago President Obama would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney. The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that this economic system is stacked against them, and they want stuff. You’re going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama, overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things. And which candidate between the two is going to give them things?
TAVIS SMILEY –
We’ve got to get to the hard truths that Americans don’t want to deal with
You asked a moment ago whether I was watching Fox on election night, and the answer is no. This is precisely why I wasn’t watching Fox on election night. It’s also why I don’t watch a lot of MSNBC, either. I don’t like being spun to the right, and I don’t like being spun to the left. What I prefer is to get at some truth, and that’s why I appreciate Democracy Now! and other programs that are trying to get at the hard truths that Americans don’t want to deal with.
Republicans are “stuck on stupid” and that’s why they lost.
I don’t know where to start in terms of deconstructing and dissecting what I just heard. I will tell you this: this is precisely why the Republicans lost. And if they think this is the narrative that’s going to help them win into the future, then they need to put down the crack pipe. They’re stuck on stupid if they think this strategy is a winning strategy.
This is the “most multicultural, multiracial, multi-ethnic America ever” and if the GOP can’t figure that out they’re going down
The reality is simply this—and you’ve discussed this on this program, so this is nothing new, obviously: in the most multicultural, multiracial, multi-ethnic America ever, that dog just won’t hunt. If they cannot figure out a way to expand their base, the GOP is going down. Now, I don’t like the two-party system. I surely don’t want to live in a one-party state. So I appreciate competition. I wish there were more parties, obviously. But again, if this is the narrative they think they can sell to the American people into the future and help them win elections, I don’t know what they’re thinking. So, this is a—it’s tragic to listen to. It’s really—it’s an echo chamber to our right, because this really sounds like Mitt Romney on the videotape that came out about the 47 percent.
The majority of Americans on welfare are white, not black, not Hispanic
Well, again, if that’s the kind of rhetoric that they’re going to continue to engage in, go for it. I have no problem with Fox or Bill [O’Reilly] or Rush [Limbaugh] continuing to push that kind of agenda, because, again, it is not a winning strategy in this country to attack Hispanics, to attack African Americans, to attack women, to suggest that we’re all a part of a welfare state, that we’re all dependent on government. And in nowhere—at no point in either of those diatribes did you hear the truth, which is that the majority of Americans on welfare are white Americans. They are not black. They are not Hispanic. And so, that truth just gets lost in the matrix.
We’ve got to rethink how we do presidential politics in this country
This was a campaign for the White House of extremes, a campaign of extremes. Too much money. Too much time. I think, you know, we’ve got to get to a point of rethinking how we do presidential politics in this country, from the Electoral College to the money, to the debates, but too much time is spent on the campaign. It used to be that the campaigning would stop and the governing would start. Now there’s no line between the two.
And thirdly, too many lies told. And these were examples, again, of the lies that we heard in this campaign. The fact checkers had to work overtime in this campaign to try to get the truth to the American people. So a campaign of extremes. It’s time for us to rethink how we do presidential politics. But again, if this is the storyline that they want to run, let them run it, because they’re going to run themselves into oblivion with this.
CORNEL WEST –
The white liberal establishment is not a majority, it’s a minority
The lie at the center of both of them—Brother Rush and Brother Bill—the white liberal establishment is not a majority. The elite white liberal establishment is a minority. The white poor is not part of that. The white working class is not part of that.
O’Reilly and Limbaugh have to tell the truth – It’s the white elite that’s very dependent on government – they get welfare anytime they want it
If you really want to talk about being dependent on government, $16 trillion for Wall Street, not one of them gone to jail involved in the criminal activity linked to predatory lending, market manipulation or insider trading. The government protects them. Jamal gets caught with a crack bag; he going to jail. But Mr. McGillicuddy gets caught on Wall Street; he’s protected by the government. Neither administration—Bush, Obama—have any investigations, no prosecutions at all. So the folk who are really dependent, they get interest-free loans from the Federal Reserve. Wouldn’t it be nice if students could get interest-free loans?
So, Rush and Bill, they got to tell the truth: the white elite is very dependent on government. They get welfare anytime they want it, with no strings attached. So that’s the lie at the center of both of their views. And it’s not majority. White brothers and sisters are catching hell who are not part of the 1 percent.
Amy Goodman plays a Democracy Now video clip of MSNBC analyst and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson’s put down of the American left and invites Tavis Smiley to respond —
Michael Eric Dyson — The reality is, is that the American left will never be able to participate not simply in the pageantry of American politics and the light and airy stuff that conventions engage in. Of course, the fluff and the desiderata may be absolutely true, as Mr. Ford has indicated. But the reality is, is that Obama is as progressive a figure who has the chance of being elected in America. Friedrich Engels is not going to be the secretary of labor, and Marx will not be the secretary of treasury, bottom line. […]
But if you ain’t in the game—Miami Heat is playing the—talking about sports—is playing the Oklahoma Thunder. It’s not “I’d prefer it be the Los Angeles Lakers.” This is the game we’re talking about. And if the American left can’t be involved in the actual practice of government to offer the critical and salient insights that are available—take—take 2000, when siding with Nader, then Al Gore, who should have been president, who would have prevented some of the stuff that we see now happening, didn’t occur. The left won’t take responsibility for the fact that, with the extraordinary intelligence of a Glen Ford and many other leftists notwithstanding, the reality is that he’s [Obama’s] the most progressive president…since FDR.
TAVIS SMILEY –
Dyson’s suggestion that Obama “is the best example of progressivism that we could put forth in this country is just inaccurate”
I’ve known Michael Eric Dyson for a long time, and I love him with all of my heart. It is so disappointing, though, to hear Michael, Professor Dyson, advance that kind of argument. He comes out of a black prophetic tradition that is rooted in speaking truth to power—and, I might add, to the powerless. But to somehow try to suggest in any way that this president has been progressive or is the best example of progressivism that we could put forth in this country is just inaccurate.
Obama, as with most presidents, has to be pushed into greatness
This is precisely why Dr. West and I and others—you know, we don’t have a monopoly on the truth, and we’re not the only ones—but this is why we believe that the president has to be pushed. I’ve said so many times across the nation that great presidents aren’t born, they’re made. They have to be pushed into their greatness. There is no Abraham Lincoln—I just saw the movie coming out this weekend, I think, the Lincoln project. And Lincoln isn’t Lincoln if Frederick Douglass isn’t pushing him. FDR isn’t FDR if A. Philip Randolph and Eleanor Roosevelt aren’t pushing him. LBJ isn’t LBJ if MLK isn’t pushing him.
If he’s not pushed he will be a “transactional president and not a transformational president”
And so, what I hear in Professor Dyson’s critique is that there is some excuse to be made or that we have to settle for this as the best example of progressivism that we can find. And Doc and I just don’t believe in settling. We don’t believe in making excuses. We believe that if he is not pushed, he’s going to be a transactional president and not a transformational president. And we believe that the time is now for action and no longer accommodation. But that doesn’t happen unless you’re pushed.
Dyson is making the excuse that Obama is the best we can do at this point in the game
So, the excuse making and the settling for the fact that this is the best that we can do—can you imagine what this country would be if women had settled? “This is the best that we can do”? If black folk in slavery and segregation had said, “This is the best that we can do”? That’s not—that’s not even the spirit of America, much less the spirit of those who come out of the black prophetic tradition. So that’s disappointing to hear, even though I love him with all my heart.
CORNEL WEST –
West asserts that Dyson, Al Sharpton, and Melissa Harris-Perry, “have sold their souls for a mess of Obama potage”
And Brother Tavis is being very kind, because he’s right. I love Brother Mike Dyson, too, but we’re living in a society where everybody is up for sale. Everything is up for sale. And he and Brother Sharpton and Sister Melissa and others, they have sold their souls for a mess of Obama pottage. And we invite them back to the black prophetic tradition after Obama leaves. But at the moment, they want insider access, and they want to tell those kind of lies. They want to turn their back to poor and working people.
And it’s a sad thing to see them as apologists for the Obama administration in that way, given the kind of critical background that all of them have had at some point.
When FDR says, “Bring the economic royalists on; they are my foes. I’m fighting on behalf of poor people,” has Obama not just said that, but done that? Did LBJ, who declared a war on poverty, that generated the kind of legislation against American terrorism called Jim and Jane Crow for voting and—come on, Dyson. But it’s not just what he said there; it’s what he’s been saying as a whole. And again, we’re sending out our love for Dyson, because he’s been our partner, and he can be our partner again. But these kind of lies, we can’t live with.
TAVIS SMILEY –
Progressive means you’re taking some serious risk. I don’t see Obama “taking some serious risk”
And to me, the most progressive—I want to add right quick, to me, the most progressive means that you’re taking some serious risk. And I just don’t see the example of that. Even the healthcare debate, the president compromised against himself. He watered down what he promised on the campaign trail before we got serious. The promising—the promise of an open debate on C-SPAN never really quite materialized. So, I’m not suggesting that I’m unhappy with the fact that we got something done on healthcare, but it’s nowhere near what it was supposed to be.
And again, if you’re going to label somebody “the most progressive,” you’ve got to show me where the risk was taken. Lincoln took risk. FDR took risk. LBJ took risk. We know, famously, LBJ said, “I know that advancing this legislation, voting rights and civil rights, is going to lose my party the South for two decades.” And he turned out to be right, but it was the right thing to do at that time. And so, that’s what we’re saying.
Being president ought NOT be about a legacy; it ought to be about advancing the best for the American people
In the president’s forward motion in the second term to establish a legacy—and I don’t think that being president ought to be about a legacy; it ought to be about advancing the best for the American people. But in this conversation about his legacy, I want to see what risk he’s going to take. Is he going to put himself on the line for poor people? Is he going have an honest conversation about drones? As Doc said earlier, you know, is he ever going to say the word prison—the phrase, “prison-industrial complex”? Reagan wouldn’t say “AIDS.” Bush wouldn’t say “climate change.” Will Obama say “prison-industrial complex”? I mean, I want to know where the risk is that equates to being the most progressive president ever. That’s the—I don’t get that.
CORNEL WEST –
It’s NOT progressive to sign the National Defense Authorization Act. That’s crypto-fascist.
Is it progressive to sign the National Defense Authorization Act, in which you can actually detain American citizens with no due process, no judicial process, to assassinate American citizens based on executive power? That’s not—that is authoritarian. That’s autocratic. It’s crypto-fascist. We have to call it for what it is. Drones are war crimes. We have to call it for what it is. That’s the tradition that produced us. That’s what Frederick Douglass is about. That’s what Ida B. Wells is about. That’s what Abraham Joshua Heschel at his best was. That’s what Dorothy Day was. That’s our tradition. Now, if one doesn’t want to be part of that tradition and be inside of the White House, then stay in the White House and have a good time and breakdance. But don’t lie. Don’t try to tell us that lies are the truth.
Amy Goodman asks: Do you think movements are shaping up? And what do you think the movements that brought President Obama into office the first time—what do you think they are doing now after the second time?
CORNEL WEST —
Makes an important distinction between ‘campaigns’ and ‘movements’ – Movements are very rare
[There’s a] distinction between campaigns and movements. Movements are highly sophisticated forms of bringing power and pressure to bear on the status quo. Campaigns are attempts to mobilize in order to support candidates inside of a system. And they play a role and so forth, but there was not a social movement.
Right now the left is weak, feeble. Occupy was a tremendous expression of voices, but it was not a movement
We haven’t had a social movement really since the gay brothers and lesbian sisters tried to break the back of homophobia, going—before that, the feminist movement and then the great black freedom movement called the civil rights movement. Those are very rare. Usually the leaders are repressed and diluted—or diluted, so that right now, the left, we are weak. We are feeble. The Occupy movement was a tremendous expression of voices, but it was not a movement that was crystallizing in any way.
The good news is “a democratic awakening is taking place”
But we are bouncing back. A democratic awakening is taking place, thanks to Democracy Now! and Tavis’ show and so forth. But at the moment, we’re still dispersed and scattered.
We’re bringing together the leaders in the anti-poverty movement to push Obama to call a White House conference to eradicate poverty.
With regard to poverty, specifically, where we go next is January the 17th in Washington. We are having another national symposium, just three days before the president gets inaugurated, talking about poverty. The confirmations are coming in. We’re bringing together this time the leaders in the poverty—the anti-poverty movement. We’re talking Marian Wright Edelman, confirmed. We’re talking Jeffrey Sachs, confirmed. We’re talking Cornel West, confirmed. We’re talking Jonathan Kozol, confirmed. We’re bringing together leaders in this movement, and we’re going to talk about the president calling a White House conference to eradicate poverty.
To see Part 2 with Smiley and West talking about pushing Obama to call a Conference on ending poverty, click on the following link (includes transcript).
Tavis Smiley, TV, radio broadcaster, philanthropist and New York Times bestselling author. He hosts the TV show Tavis Smiley on PBS and two radio shows: The Tavis Smiley Show and Smiley & West, which he hosts with Cornel West. Together, they have written the new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.
Dr. Cornel West, professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University. He is a New York Times bestselling author of numerous books and co-host of the radio show Smiley & West with Tavis Smiley. Together, they have written the new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.